Masters in Accounting: Courses Structure, Specializations & Career | Top Universities

Accountancy is often referred to as the universal language of business: along with finance, this field is uniquely positioned to touch many aspects of business. Companies and organizations are increasingly relying on qualified accountants to drive their profit margins and help them understand the nuanced dynamics of financial success, while governments and policy makers are looking to accountants to help combat issues like climate change through solutions such as ‘cap and trade’ and carbon taxes.

Whether you want to hone your fluency in the language of accounting or you’re looking to undertake a career change, a Masters in Accounting could be for you.

 

What to expect from a Masters in Accounting

You will usually hear ‘Masters in Accounting’ referred to in one of three ways: Master of Accounting (MAcc or MAc), Master of Professional Accounting (MPAcy, MPA, MPAc or MPAcc) or Master of Science in Accounting (MSA). You may also be able to complete a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on accounting. Some countries and institutions may use the term ‘Accountancy’ instead of ‘Accounting’.

Masters in Accounting programs usually last one or two years. In either case, students are expected to complete 30 to 36 credit or semester hours in order to qualify for their degree. This, coupled with the 120 hours studied at the undergraduate level means students will be able to take professional-level accountancy examinations such as the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination in the US, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants qualification in the UK, or the Certified Practicing Accountants program in Australia.

As a Masters in Accounting student, you can expect to be taught through a combination of lectures, seminar classes, case studies and project work, including a significant amount of independent research, ending in a dissertation. Some students may also be offered the opportunity to undertake a project for an external organization.

Entry requirements for a Masters in Accounting

Institutions base their entry requirements on the bachelor’s degree subject held by the candidate, grades and professional experience, with additional requirements (such as language proficiency tests) for international candidates.

Generally, students are expected to have a 2:1 bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related quantitative subject such as commerce, computing, business studies, economics, engineering and finance. While some institutions may not insist on an accounting- or finance-related undergraduate degree, the candidate must be able to prove s/he is suitably numerate. Some institutions only accept professionally qualified accountants onto the Masters in Accounting program, and will specify the accreditations they accept.

Depending on your previous education, you may need to take extra courses to strengthen your background knowledge of accounting, mathematics or finance before you start your master’s degree. This could be through a summer school program, or a distance-learning or online learning scheme. This applies to students whose bachelor’s degrees did not include a substantial amount of accounting-based courses, students who wish to switch disciplines entirely, and students who have been out of academia for too long.

Candidates may be required to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examinations test (GRE) and international candidates may need to prove their proficiency in the language of teaching.

Accounting specializations

When choosing your Masters in Accounting topics, you may be able to emphasize an accounting, finance or business focus or opt for a more balanced program. As a graduate-level course, the Masters in Accounting allows you to formulate a highly specialized and personalized degree with a narrow focus. If you wish, you can also select a more general degree covering a wider range of interests, but you will eventually have to choose a specific topic on which to focus for your research project.

Specializations you can choose from include:

Forensic accounting

A specialization in forensic accounting involves applying professional specialized tools, models, techniques, skills and knowledge to real-life case studies to a standard admissible to a court of law. You’ll learn how to investigate litigation cases and provide litigation support to an investigation, how to give expert witness statements and how to perform fraud examination. You’ll also gain an insight into the legal system through subjects such as criminal law as it pertains to accounting. You’ll learn about the fundamentals of forensic accounting with core modules such as electronic crime, insurance claims, fraud, corporate governance and ethics, and bankruptcy.

Auditing

This specialization focuses on the science and theory of auditing, based on an understanding of the principles of accounting. Auditing in accounting is the evaluation of a person, organization or project’s financial performances, operations, data, statements and records. You’ll gain an in-depth understanding of generally accepted auditing standards, evaluate alternative audit models for their practical relevance and theoretical justification, learn how to use computer-assisted auditing techniques (CAAT) and consider risks associated with evaluating finances. You’ll cover subjects such as internal and external audits, global auditing, electronic commerce and changes in derivative securities and financial instruments.

Tax accounting

Basically accounting that focuses on tax issues, tax accounting covers tasks such as filing tax returns, preparing financial statements, helping with quarterly and annual tax provision calculations, validating tax balance sheets, and planning for future tax responsibilities. You’ll need to learn the fundamentals of tax accounting principles, while exploring global differences in tax principles caused by the immense variation of tax laws from country to country. You’ll learn about tax law, the tax process and controls, federal taxation, business taxation, tax strategy, international tax minimization strategies and how to identify key tax risks.

International accounting

The field of international accounting involves taking a global look at accounting. Courses in this specialization will address the theory and practice of accounting in the context of different social, political and cultural environments, reflecting on the broader settings and implications of accounting. Subjects you may cover include advanced international corporate reporting, comparative international accounting, international financial accounting for multinational companies, international corporate finance, international management accounting, issues in accounting research and communication, social accounting and business ethics and global issues in management accounting. You will gain an understanding of contemporary financial and management accounting along with a thorough knowledge of the International Accounting Standards by which international accountants must abide.

Financial accounting & management accounting

These two related fields are often compared. Financial accounting involves summarizing financial data and accounting information for people outside an organization (such as stockholders, suppliers, creditors, banks, government agencies), while management accounting involves providing such information to the people within the organization. You’ll learn about financial accounting law, local and international accounting standards, the standard format of financial accounts (for comparison with different organizations) and how to use scientific and statistical methods to arrive at monetary values. You’ll also learn how to create financial reports and reports on profitability, liquidity, solvency and stability using the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

Many of these accounting topics are available as a dedicated master’s degree in their own right, while others are offered as options within a broader course. Other accounting topics and related fields of study include: accounting and financial management, budget analysis, business management, commerce, economics, financial reporting, leadership and quantitative methods.

Masters in Accounting careers

Your Masters in Accounting degree should put you in good stead to commence either PhD research or a lucrative career. Almost all businesses, organizations and government agencies require some form of accounting assistance, and they look to both freelance consultants and dedicated staff accountants for this service. These companies source accountants from a variety of places, including public accounting firms – the best-known and most sought-after are the so-called ‘Big Four’: Ernst & Young (EY), Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and KPMG.

Some potential Masters in Accounting careers include:

Accounting consultant

An accounting consultant provides clients with advice and analysis of financial data, in order to help them resolve operational and administrative problems. To take on this role, you’ll need to be able to oversee the preparation of complex financial information and have sufficient knowledge and tact to reconcile, analyze, interpret and communicate the implications of various financial statements to your client.

As an accounting consultant, you’ll need to work closely with your client in order to help develop, implement and maintain financial control procedures and give specialist advice to create new and enhanced financial systems. Working on behalf of your client, you may need to compile this financial information for external and internal auditors, state examiners, and other relevant regulatory agencies.

Accounting consultants take many forms, including forensic auditing consultants who advise on the legal implications of various accounting situations, and accountants dealing in specialist fields such as architecture, horticulture, transport and tourism. If you’re a freelance accounting consultant you may find you’re interacting more personally with a range of smaller clients than if you were working for a large firm.

Forensic accountant

Forensic accountants are, in essence, financial detectives – they use their accounting, finance and legal knowledge to investigate fraud, litigation cases and other financial misinterpretation. As a forensic accountant you’ll be helping lawyers, insurance companies and other clients to solve disputes by investigating, analyzing and interpreting financial information and conveying this information in summary to a client or even as an expert witness at a trial.

For this role you’ll need to be clear and concise, with the ability to explain complex financial issues to people from a non-finance background. You’ll probably also assist in a range of areas including business valuation, assessment of economic damages, proceeds of crime, fraud and money laundering. Sub-specializations within forensic accounting include insurance claim specialist, fraud specialist, construction specialist and royalty auditing. You’ll find demand for forensic accountants in larger accounting firms and police and government agencies that have specialist forensic accounting departments.

Certified public accountant

Having completed the relevant examination and fulfilled all the requirements, a certified public accountant may pursue accounting careers in either assurance services or public accounting. In assurance services or financial audit services, you’ll analyze financial information in order to attest to the reasonableness of disclosures, freedom from material misstatement and adherence to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) in financial statements.

If you’re a certified public accountant employed within the private sector, you will not be providing services directly to the public. Instead, working on behalf of your corporation, you may be known as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or finance manager and will be responsible for managing and maintaining the financial and accounting practices of your organization.

Auditor

You can work either as an external or internal auditor. Auditing involves looking at the financial practices of a business or organization in order to ensure the validity and legality of financial records. Having completed an audit, you may then advise the company, recommending possible risk aversion measures and cost savings.

An internal auditor works for professional auditing or accounting firms outsourced by client companies, or in-house as part of an accounting team; an external auditor works within a firm of chartered and certified accountants. As an internal auditor you will examine the key areas of a business or organization along with financial statements, and report your findings to management. Your job is to improve the business’s efficiency and identify where financial processes are not working as they should. You may also advise management if you find areas that are being run in a financially risky or fraudulent way.

An external auditor, meanwhile, carries out obligatory audits of public sector and government bodies or private businesses, examining their finances and ensuring that money raised by taxes is used effectively and efficiently for tax payers.

Budget analyst

budget analyst is in charge of analyzing an organization’s monthly budgeting and accounting reports in order to maintain expenditure controls. You’ll also examine budget estimates for completeness, accuracy and conformance with procedures and regulations. Working for businesses and organizations as part of an accounting team, you’ll direct the preparation of regular and special budget reports, consult with managers to regulate budget adjustments and funds requests, ensure there is an allowance for emergency funds, provide advice and technical assistance with cost analysis, fiscal allocation, and budget preparation, seek new ways to improve efficiency and increase profits and analyze trends that may affect budget needs.

Financial examiner

financial examiner is responsible for analyzing the financial records of an organization, business or corporation to confirm compliance with federal, state or local laws. You’ll also need to verify and inspect cash reserves, check internal control procedures, review and analyze new, proposed, or revised laws, regulations, policies, and procedures in order to interpret their meaning and determine their impact on your client. You’ll then need to prepare reports that detail your client’s safety, soundness and compliance with laws and regulations. You may also need to plan, supervise, and review work of those employed under you, and, as a senior financial examiner, train other examiners in the financial examination process.

Employment prospects for accounting careers are strong, with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasting that an additional 190,700 accountancy and auditing jobs will be generated between 2010 and 2020, largely due to an increased emphasis of financial regulations and growing demand for business accountability.

Other possible options within accounting careers include commercial finance, corporate finance, corporate recovery, database management accounting, financial forecasting, management consultancy, investment, mergers and acquisitions, risk assessment, treasury, banking and working for local and national government and not-for-profit organizations.

Key Skills

Common skills gained with a Masters in Accounting include:

  • Understanding of standard accounting practices, principles, regulations and industry
  • Enhanced numerical and quantitative skills and techniques
  • Knowledge of qualitative research methodology
  • Knowledge of business
  • High level accounting skills
  • Understanding of ethical, legal and social responsibility in business, including accountability
  • Advanced analytical and problem-solving ability
  • Ability to analyze complex data sets
  • Ability to make financial decisions
  • Ability to work in a team, both in leadership and collaborative roles
  • Ability to approach issues from multiple perspectives
  • Ability to tactfully deal with sensitive information
  • Project management skills
  • Logical decision-making and strategic and creative thinking abilities
  • Time management and self-reliance
  • Clear and concise oral and written communication skills, aimed towards financial and non-financial audiences