CPA versus MBA: Should you have both?

Steven Spielberg

Illustration by Martin Laksman

If you have your eye on a career in finance, earning an accounting degree is almost always in the picture. Your undergrad degree plus CPA licensure is essentially a surefire way to get you to one of those starting accounting or finance gigs, whether it be on Wall Street or at a public accounting firm. But could an MBA take you even further than CPA certification alone? Perhaps, some experts say.

In many states, students are required to complete 150 credit hours as well as complete testing to become a CPA, short for certified public accountant. But the average undergraduate degree requires about 120 credit hours for graduation, which often demands that aspiring CPAs take additional classes during their undergraduate years or complete some coursework postgrad while studying for the CPA certification exam. According to the American Institute of CPAs, certification now requires 150 credit hours in order for students to keep up with new tax laws, complex business methods, and more sophisticated auditing procedures. 

“The world of accounting has really evolved in the last decade or two relative to what accountants are seeing and doing and where those careers are taking them,” Lara Abrash, chair and CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP, tells Fortune. 

Once completing the necessary requirements to become a CPA, professionals can pursue audit, insurance, tax accounting, and tax advisory, among other career paths, Abrash explains. Plus—these newly minted CPAs could eventually touch the top of the food chain, serving as a head of reporting, a controller, a chief financial officer, or even a CEO, she adds. 

As is with most career advice, professionals who have a CPA and MBA have mixed opinions on the value of having both. Read on for some considerations on the topic.

An MBA can help define your career path

It may sound counterintuitive, but an MBA could ultimately help you to hyper-define your career path if you’re an accountant. That’s because earning a CPA actually opens more doors than many business school students realize. 

David Neel was a top undergraduate finance and accounting student at the University of Richmond who aspired to make an impact in the world of business, he says. During his senior year of college, Neel’s accounting professor, Joe Ben Hoyle, encouraged Neel to take the CPA exam. 

Neel passed the CPA exam in one sitting before graduating in 1987. He then went on to work in investment banking, including at for J.P. Morgan for three years. Hoyle’s students have some of the highest CPA exam pass rates in the country, and he has been recognized as one of the most influential people in the accounting profession. Hoyle pushed Neel to get his CPA license, explaining to Neel that he would have it for the rest of his life. Neel says the CPA “expanded my set of possibilities.”

After his time at J.P. Morgan, Neel went back to school to pursue an MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, which Fortune ranks as having one of the best full-time MBA programs in the U.S. His experience there helped him narrow his business focus to strategy, eventually landing in private equity.

“Even going through the MBA school with a rich understanding of accounting systems was invaluable,” Neel tells Fortune. “The strength that I had—my convergence—took place around the world of strategy.”

Post-MBA, Neel went on to work in strategy with Roger Nelson, who ramped up Ernst & Young’s consulting practice. During Neel’s first six years with EY, the consulting business grew fivefold in revenues and was sold to Capgemini in the early 2000s. Neel stayed with the new firm, CGE&Y, until 2006. Since then, Neel has served in a myriad of roles in private equity and investing—and also teaches strategic management courses at Marquette University, which Fortune ranks as having one of the best executive MBA programs.

Abrash conditionally agrees that earning an MBA can also be helpful to CPAs. If a professional is looking to get into a discipline outside his or her accounting experience, then an MBA could be beneficial, she says. For example, this might apply if an accountant is looking to explore a role focused on ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) or in new or emerging industries. 

“If you’re trying to get a really specific role, I think [earning an MBA is] a great thing if it’s something you didn’t get through your undergraduate degree,” she says. “But after a period of time, [an MBA] becomes less of a differentiator. It’s more about what you’re capable of doing in the role you’re in.”

A CPA alone could get you where you want to go

Early-career CPAs tend to take on entry-level or middle-management roles in finance or accounting. And Abrash argues that learning on the job can lead to higher-level and higher-paying positions. Accounting can be a technical role at first, but today’s jobs demand more from these professionals as industries grow and change, she notes.

“You can’t be an effective accountant without understanding what the business is doing and the industry that it operates in,” Abrash says. “That’s often been the reason that CPAs are seeing their careers really get to bigger and better places.”

Some accounting professionals will have the opportunity to move into different departments within their organization, such as operations, financial planning, and treasury, Abrash says. “All of those things benefit from what you know as a CPA,” she adds. Plus, accounting isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Every emerging thing that comes in an organization—the accountant is front and center to the importance,” Abrash says. Accounting skills will serve these professionals well whether they’re an auditor, tax accountant, tax director, or the controller. It also “serves them incredibly well at the jumping-off point to a lot of other roles,” she adds.

The CPA sticks with you—no matter what

Since his time at EY, Neel has served as CEO of several companies during his private equity career, and currently heads up BlackSleeve Media, a mobile entertainment platform. His CPA status has earned him a place on advisory boards, as he has the credentials to serve on compensation committees. 

CPA certification has “given me a chance to earn some of those roles,” Neel says. “The CPA is a valued—understandably so—credential. It does demonstrate a level of commitment, understanding.”

Abrash adds that the CPA degree allows for more career paths than people may anticipate. “It gives you a foundation to do other things,” she says. Similarly, Neel notes that rather than using his CPA status as a gateway to the industry, he used it as a “springboard” to expand the possibilities early on in his career. 

Neel’s stance on the value of CPA certification?

“The unforeseen benefit was that it’s a lifelong benefit,” he says.

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.

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