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Career Conundrum: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

Acting Ed. note: do you have a career conundrum for Amber? Or Colin? Or my cats? Get in touch and all of us will rally together to help you help yourself because we are just awesome like that.

This week we take on a conundrum that comes up for many aspiring CPAs on their quest to earn 150 semester hours: Do the benefits of a graduate degree outweigh the costs?

I wanted to reach out and get your input on the value of a Master of Science in Accountancy degree. I earned a Bachelors in Accounting and I accepted a full-time offer within the Audit practice for a Big 4 firm in Houston, TX.  Before I’m able to start full-time, I must be CPA eligible. I also plan to sit for the CIA exam.

Right now I’m trying to determine the long-term career effects of taking extra courses at a community college versus getting a Masters in Accounting to meet state CPA requirements. Obviously the community college option is more affordable and would allow me to sit for CPA exam sooner. The Masters is 20K and I would have to take some of the courses while working in Big 4 to finish the degree. I don’t see many job ads requiring a masters in accounting but everyone that I know is getting one.

At this point, I’m thinking I will start looking for Financial Analyst or Internal Audit roles around year 3 of my career in Big 4 auditing. Will not having a Masters degree potentially limit me when I’m searching and applying for industry jobs? Furthermore, If I land a job in industry, will career progression and or salary be limited due to the lack of a masters degree?

You pose excellent questions about the value of a Masters of Science in Accountancy (MSA). First and foremost, for all those tax accountants out there, if you had asked about a Masters in Taxation (MST) my answer would have been a resounding “Hell yes. An MST is the way to go!” There is a direct correlation between most MST coursework and what a tax accountant does on the job.

I don’t, however, feel as confident about an MSA. While I am sure there are a couple of classes that could add value to your professional development, I don’t know that the value of an MSA program would outweigh the $20,000 cost. The trouble is that many of the courses to enable you to become a better auditor don’t necessarily come in the form of classes with university credit attached to them. I believe the best learning for audit comes from continuing education programs and technical conferences. This is why I don’t envision the lack of a masters degree inhibiting future career progression. If our readers have seen it go down differently, please chime in via the comments section.

To your inquiry about salary, the firms might pay you a measly few thousand more dollars more when you first start and that would compound over time. But since everyone now needs 150 hours, I would presume it has become a less common practice to pay more for a graduate degree.

On a final note, I want to share a little story about my personal experience with graduate programs. Back when I was an undergraduate, I was given advice that I didn’t really like: Hold off on a graduate degree until I had a couple years of work experience. I didn’t like that advice because I was a classic overachiever set on the idea of earning a masters in taxation. Thank goodness I listened because, after two busy seasons, it turned out I didn’t really like accounting work. I ended up earning a masters in a totally different discipline – a masters of arts in leadership- that was super helpful in my transition to a new line of work and, unlike accounting, I enjoyed the coursework.

I share my experience because I feel like that money was well spent. I never cringe when I pay on my student loans. It was worth every cent and my program cost almost two times as much of what you are considering. Given you likely won’t reap any extra economic rewards, $20,000 for a program that adds little value to your current aspirations and may not support what you truly want to be when you grow up sounds like a high-risk investment. My vote is for the community college classes.