Master of Science in Accounting (MSA) Degree: What You Should Know 

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Earning your Master of Science in Accounting (MSA) degree may be a lucrative step forward in your accounting career.

[Feature Image] Two people stand in front of a conference table and review accounting numbers in a library.

Accounting is more than crunching numbers and looking for a clear bottom line. As business grows more complex—and global—providing accounting services for individuals and companies often requires an ability to analyze data and communicate insightful conclusions. 

Earning your Master of Science in Accounting (MSA) degree may be a lucrative step forward in your accounting career. While many entry-level accounting roles require a bachelor’s degree, you may qualify for more advanced roles and higher salaries with a master’s degree. 

In this article, we’ll go over the key facts you should know about the MSA degree, jobs you may be able to get with one, and other finance-related graduate degree options you may want to consider.  

MSA degree: Key facts 

Even though an MSA program is typically offered by a college or university’s business school, the degree tends to cost less and take less time than the more popular Master of Business Administration (MBA). Most MBAs require students to concentrate in an area of business, and there are relevant options, such as accounting, finance, and economics. 

There are significant differences between the MSA and MBA. In terms of education: 

  • MSA program: You will likely only take accounting and finance-related courses. 

  • MBA program: You will first learn about business more broadly before taking specific courses in your concentration.

Learn more: Why Get an MBA? 6 Reasons to Get an Advanced Business Degree

Coursework 

A master’s degree in accounting is meant to deepen your knowledge of the major financial areas involved in corporate and individual accounting, including taxation, financial planning, reporting, and ethics. 

The classes you may encounter during your MSA degree program include: 

  • Accounting ethics 

  • Information systems 

  • Advanced managerial accounting

  • Auditing 

  • Financial accounting and research methodologies 

  • Financial institutions 

  • Accounting theory 

  • Financial reporting

  • Forensic accounting

  • Individual taxation

  • Business tax planning 

Some programs offer you the option of concentrating in an area of accounting, such as data analytics or financial services reporting. Depending on your career goals and interests, you may want to spend time researching relevant programs to get the most out of your time in graduate school.  

MSA degree: Time and price 

An MSA degree often takes fewer credits to complete than an MBA and can be done in a year when you’re able to attend full-time. If you need to attend part-time while working on your degree, you may find that it takes two or more years to finish, depending on how many courses you can complete each semester. An MBA, on the other hand, typically takes two years when you’re able to attend full-time, though there are accelerated and part-time options for students who want to speed up or pace their learning. 

A master’s degree costs between $30,000 and $120,000 on average, but the total amount typically depends on where you go to school and the length of your program [1]. As a one-year master’s degree, the MSA may be a more affordable option than attending an MBA program. While the cost of attending business school to earn your MBA varies by institution, the average total cost among the top 25 business schools in the United States is $199,544, according to Poets&Quants [2].

Admissions criteria

Applying to an MSA program often requires first having earned your bachelor’s degree and completing some financial coursework as part of your course of study. However, some master’s programs will let you complete core financial and accounting curriculum to get the foundation you need to embark on more advanced coursework. 

If you’re weighing the differences between an MSA and MBA, applying to an MBA program often requires having your bachelor’s degree and some professional experience, typically between four to five years in the workforce. 

What can you do with an MSA degree? 

The field of accounting remains important to businesses across numerous industries. Accounting jobs are poised to grow by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [3] That translates to 135,000 projected job openings each year.

While many accountant roles do not require a master’s degree, you may find that you qualify for more senior roles and higher salaries with your MSA degree. If you are interested in managerial positions or even executive roles, like chief financial officer (CFO), you may be able to achieve your goal with a master’s in accounting. 

Let’s review some of the jobs you can explore with an MSA degree:  

Job titleAverage US salary*
Business analyst$74,470
Certified personal accountant (CPA)$74,970
Financial analyst$65,045
Senior auditor$52,407
Controller$104,522
Financial manager$97,056
Tax manager$101,486

*All salary data from Glassdoor (May 2022) 

Alternatives to the MSA degree

When you are interested in studying accounting or finance at the graduate level, you may want to consider two other degrees. Let’s go over each one briefly: 

Master of Science in Finance: This degree focuses on finance, with classes in accounting and economics. It emphasizes coursework in investing, financial modeling, analysis, portfolio theory, and capital markets. Students may go into corporate finance or investment banking after graduation.

Master of Business Administration (MBA): This degree focuses broadly on business, with an emphasis on leadership and management. Students will also likely have the option of concentrating on a financial subset of business, such as finance, accounting, or economics.

While an MBA can be more expensive and time-consuming than an MS degree, the outlook remains promising. Recruiters expect a 37 percent increase in the demand for business school graduates in 2021, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) [ 4]. Moreover, the median MBA salary is estimated to be $115,000, compared to $65,000 for bachelor’s degree holders. Master’s degree holders, on the other hand, make a median yearly salary of $81,848, according to BLS [5]. 

Learn more: MBA vs. MS: Choosing Which is Better for You

Is an MSA degree right for you? 

When you’re interested in studying accounting, you typically have a choice between earning your MSA degree or your MBA degree with a concentration in accounting. If you’re torn between the two options, think about your reasons for embarking on a graduate education in the first place. Why do you want to earn your master’s? What would you like to do with the degree? Answering those two questions can help narrow your options. 

We’ve also broken down the two degrees by focus, entry requirements, and resources. Use the questions below to think about which degree path might make more sense in light of your resources, needs, and larger goals. 

MSA degree: 

  • Would you like to focus exclusively on accounting and related financial subjects? 

  • Have you taken some accounting or finance-related courses as an undergrad? 

  • Do you have at least one year to dedicate to your graduate education?

  • What kinds of financial resources do you have to pay for your degree?

MBA degree:

  • Would you benefit from a broader business education beyond focusing on accounting?

  • Have you spent several years gaining professional experience? 

  • Do you have at least two years to dedicate to your graduate education?

  • What kinds of financial resources do you have to pay for your degree?

Many graduate programs have advisors available to speak with prospective students. As you research your options, you may want to take advantage of those resources to decide which is the best course of action for you. 

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

Explore further

If you’re ready to explore an advanced accounting education, consider the iMSA from the University of Illinois Gies College of Business. It’s a competitively ranked program offered entirely online, so you can enjoy greater flexibility when it comes to finishing your degree. You can even “try before you buy” by enrolling in one of two graduate certificates, Accounting Data Analytics or Strategic Leadership and Management, which stack into the degree if you’re accepted. 

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Article sources

1. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master’s Degree,   https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

2. Poets & Quants. “ What It Now Costs To Get An MBA At A Top Business School,   https://poetsandquants.com/business-school-news/what-it-now-costs-to-get-an-mba-at-a-top-business-school/.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “ Occupational Outlook Handbook: Accounts and Auditors,https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

4. Graduate Management Admission Council. Demand of Graduate Management Talent: 2021 Hiring Projections and Salary Trends,  https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/2021_crs-demand-of-gm-talent.pdf.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “ Education Pays, “https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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