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Is It Ever a Smart Idea to Tackle the CPA Exam AND a Master’s At the Same Time?

Hey I just met you and this is crazy but here's my email so write me maybe.

Hey Adrienne,
   I have a career question that you may have heard before, but I really need some advice. Just a quick background, I am a 27 year-old student graduating with my bachelor's in accounting in just a few weeks. I had to take a few years off of school for financial reasons and have been working my butt off to "get back in the game" since 2005. I was able to finally pay my way back into school in 2010 and have since gotten killer grades (3.96 GPA) taking classes full-time whilst working full-time at Capital One as a retail banker. Basically I have confidence in being able to handle a lot of work at the same time, and I am looking to finish my CPA ASAP and start with a big-4 (if possible) as soon as I can since I believe I am older than most of their entry-level guys. I have a couple of contacts in big-4 firms that were interested in me but want to see those 150 credits (I'm in Maryland) before starting me. I am about 1.5-2.5 years away from being able to finish a masters depending on which program I take, so I really want to jump on that as soon as possible. At the same time I know the value in getting the CPA exam out of the way  and I am eligible to take it in MD now because recently they changed it to allow you to be able to take it with only 120 credits. Basically I want to finish both CPA exam and masters ASAP but I don't know what I should do first, or if I should just go for both simultaneously. I am only working part-time now and have some flexibility but also was considering picking up some lower-entry-level accounting stuff to get some experience and make some money in the meantime.
   As you can surely tell, I need some help prioritizing. Do you recommend taking masters classes and studying for the CPA exam at the same time? Should I go get a decent job and heap on the stress or stay out of the workforce and bang CPA/masters out? I know everyone needs to make their own decisions but I could use some advice and a different perspective. Do you think you could shed some light on my situation?

Holy block of unformatted text, dude. Next time, break it up eh?

Anyway, to be entirely honest after reading all of that, I still have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your life and that is the important detail that you left out. OK, I get that you want to take and pass the CPA exam. I get that you are motivated. I get that you're probably a pretty smart guy who isn't a total douche (although you're a little douchey with those killer grades but hey, go ahead and gloat, you earned it and might as well do it now while you can before you hit the real world where no one gives a rat's ass what GPA you had). What I don't get, however, is why you're even getting a Master's. Because these contacts of yours said you need 150 units before they'll even talk to you about a job? That doesn't seem right.

Here's the thing: the 150 rule is a barrier to entry and we all know that. But you don't actually need a Master's so why are you getting one? If it's some lifelong goal you conveniently left out of your email, cool, but I didn't gather that from your comments. Unless you won the lottery or your rich parents died from the time you backburnered your education a few years ago and jumped back into it recently, I have some concerns about you biting off a big chunk of debt to get a Master's, those puppies aren't cheap.

But hey, you seem serious about this so go for it. Whatever you do, do not – and I mean DO NOT – pursue a Master's and the CPA exam at the same time for any reason. There is no reason any person should ever subject themselves to this, unless of course you've got terminal cancer, have been given a year and a half to live and have decided your one goal before you die is to be a CPA. Otherwise, slow it down, kiddo.

If you have the luxury of doing it this way, I'd get that Master's first and then hit the exam once you're working if you are a masochist looking to make yourself as miserable as possible without killing yourself. Or do the Master's, knock out the CPA exam in a short period of time (6 months is doable if you're motivated and highly disciplined, which it sounds like you are) and then start work. If you're dead set on this Master's you don't actually need, doing that first might better prepare you for some of the subjects you see on the CPA exam though not likely since the CPA exam tests entry level knowledge and a Master's is advanced level brain exercise. See where I'm going with this?

27 isn't ancient, even in public accounting terms. You probably won't even be the oldest starting guy around, even if you do take your time rounding out those 150 units and tackling the CPA exam. Surely you won't be the freshest face on the playground either but you'll have two major accomplishments under your belt that will make up for the fact your old ass needs a nap at 2pm just to keep up with your young ankle-biting colleagues.

One thing at a time, whichever thing it is you want to do first, is my suggestion and always will be. I trust the Peanut Gallery will have some additional input for you based on their own experiences.