For students considering accounting as a career, it can be difficult to identify which college degree will best help you to meet your goals. No matter what career path you choose in the field of accounting, you’re likely to need college level classes before you can qualify for your ideal position. Here’s what you need to know.

Certificate in Accounting


If you’re brand new to the field, a certificate in accounting might be a good starting point.

You don’t need any prior certification to start working toward a college degree. However, for those who are in school part-time and looking for relevant work experience to keep them financially afloat along the way, a certificate in accounting can be a valuable asset. It can also be helpful for business owners who lack a background in accounting but want the knowledge to manage their own finances legally and properly.

Accounting certification typically consists of a series of lower level classes designed to get your feet wet in the industry. You’ll learn about basic bookkeeping and receive an introduction to the fundamentals of accounting. It won’t be enough for a full-fledged career, but it can be helpful to have under your belt.

Associate's Degree in Accounting


An associate’s degree is a two-year degree that can get you started on the road to an accounting career.

Associate’s degrees are generally offered at traditional four-year universities, community colleges, technical colleges, and online schools. If you can get a bachelor’s degree at an institution, you can likely get an associate’s degree there as well.

When you sign up for an associate’s degree, you’ll have some flexibility in how you want to go about achieving it. Most schools give students the option of completing their degree in an accelerated one-year program, a traditional two-year program, or a longer, more flexible part-time arrangement.

Associate’s programs generally require about 60 semester hours of class work. Required courses can vary based on the school and program but may include any combination of core classes and lower level accounting classes.

While less comprehensive than more advanced degrees, an associate’s degree can provide a solid foundation of basic accounting knowledge. It’s also a great stepping point for those who may wish to continue their education in the future.

An associate’s degree isn’t enough to qualify students to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam, but it can be enough education to get a job as a bookkeeper, administrator, or assistant in an accounting firm. The average salary for jobs that an associate’s degree would cover hovers at around $40,000 per year.

Students who graduate with an associate’s degree in accounting should have an understanding of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). They should leave the program with a clear grasp on the ethics and expectations surrounding the integrity of the accounting profession. They should be able to keep precise financial records with accuracy and attention to detail.

Bachelor's Degree in Accounting


For those who are seeking a more traditional degree in accounting, a bachelor’s degree is a good place to begin.

A bachelor’s in accounting requires students to take at least 120 semester hours of class work. This generally consists of a core group of rounded topics, including English, history, social sciences, and electives. Students are also required to take a group of business core classes along with their general education requirement, which includes classes like lower level accounting and business courses.

Along with their general education and business requirements, students who are earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting must take the course load that comes with the major. These classes include advanced accounting courses, as well as courses where students get a more in-depth look at taxation, auditing, information systems, and ethics.

Bachelor’s degree programs generally take students four to five years to complete, with a full-time credit load. This degree opens the door for students to move forward with their education and pursue a graduate school program in accounting.

Though many accounting firms require their employees to hold a graduate degree, a bachelor’s degree can be enough to secure a position in many industries.

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, you may be able to find work as one of the following:

  • Accountant
  • Analyst (budget and finance)
  • Bookkeeper
  • Credit examiner
  • Financial consultant
  • Payroll administrator
  • Risk assessment advisor
  • Tax advisor

Accounting employees with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn an average of about $45,000 to $60,000 per year upon graduation, depending on the position. This salary tends to increase over the first five to ten years due to the increased experience you’ll have under your belt; however, salary growth usually tops out at that point unless additional credentials are earned.

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, you should come away with a solid knowledge of the GAAP, along with the ethical practices and considerations that go hand in hand with accounting as a profession. You should also be able to create financial reports for a wide variety of client and industries, addressing the pain points and unique needs of each organization.

Master’s Degree in Accounting


If you’re looking at accounting as a lucrative career path, you’ll probably end up with a master’s degree at the end of your journey.

Students who want to pursue a master’s degree in accounting generally must have already completed a bachelor’s degree, which doesn’t necessarily have to be in accounting. However, to make sure you possess at least a fundamental understanding of the subject, your school may require you to take supplemental accounting courses prior to master’s enrollment.

Before enrollment, you may have to take a GMAT or GRE exam. These are standardized tests that most business students are required to take before they’re admitted into a graduate degree program. Master’s degree candidates may also be required to submit letters of reference, and undergraduate university transcripts.

Master’s degrees in accounting usually take one to two years to complete with a full-time workload. You may be able to choose between a variety of accounting degrees, including Master of Accountancy (MAcc), Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA), Master of Professional Accountancy (MPA), and Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus in accounting.

A master’s degree in accounting may open the door to many of the following positions:

  • Actuary
  • Appraisal specialist
  • Auditor
  • Budget analyst
  • Compliance manager
  • Forensic accountant
  • Internal auditor
  • Risk assessor
  • Tax examiner
  • Treasurer

Master’s degree graduates can expect to earn a minimum of $50,000 per year, with income potential reaching up to $130,000 depending on your chosen concentration. Upon graduating with a master’s in accounting, you’ll be ready to sit for your CPA exam, if you choose to do so. This certification, though challenging to obtain, can earn accountants an average of five to ten percent more income annually.

Upon graduating with a master’s in accounting, you’ll have a thorough understanding of accounting theory, as well as the everyday skills required to use it in practice. You should be able to take the information you’ve learned and apply it directly to business decision-making, both ethically and logistically. You’ll be able to extrapolate valuable information from data, and use it to lead your client or organization to financial success.

Doctoral Degree in Accounting


A doctorate in accounting is the highest level of education one can achieve.

This degree usually takes four to seven years of full-time coursework to complete. Students will take courses in advanced accounting theory and research subjects, which leads up to a final dissertation project that meaningfully contributes to the global field of accounting.

Accounting students who earn a PhD typically go on to hold an academic or research position in the industry. This can include careers such as postsecondary professor, industry researcher, or government consultant.

PhD candidates must show a strong understanding of research methods and be proficient enough in their field to conduct thorough, valuable research. In their dissertations, students must probe otherwise unanswered questions or needs in the field of accounting. They should have the mastery to know which questions to ask, and how to obtain the information that can unlock progress in the industry.

Post-Graduate Certification in Accounting

The four major degrees discussed above are the most common tiers in any postsecondary concentration. However, depending on your career goals as an accountant, you may choose to obtain a post-graduate certification in lieu of an advanced degree.

To qualify for eligibility to take the Uniform CPA Exam, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree and 150 semester hours of college credit. As the bachelor’s degree only covers 120 semester hours, you’ll need to obtain additional credits after graduating.

While some students choose to make up these hours in a master’s program, many schools offer a one-year accounting certification. This allows students to take a faster track to CPA licensure than they would have access to with a traditional master’s degree.

The courses required for a post-graduate certification can vary from school to school, but typically provide a more comprehensive focus on topics needed for a career in accounting than a bachelor’s degree can offer. These can include subjects like advanced financial reporting, auditing, cost accounting, and taxation.