Obtaining widely recognized accounting certifications can get you the job, help you to retain that job during layoffs, increase the marketability of your skill set, and provide professional credibility for you and your firm in a highly competitive marketplace. Human resource managers and prospective clients see the time, money and effort employed to acquire certifications as a testament to an individual's commitment to succeed in a particular profession. That demonstration of commitment and a universally recognized certification often can serve as the tie-breaker between two qualified candidates for a job.

Investing the time and effort to acquire an accounting certification can also increase your salary, bonus, and standing within your company. Moreover, these credentials can provide more opportunities for a promotion. For the accounting-designation shopper, there are a few choices widely recognized by the business, finance, and accounting communities; there are also numerous others that are distinct to a specific industry or job.

Top-Tier Accounting Certifications

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

If you are committed to advancing your accounting career, then you should earn your CPA certification. CPAs work in a variety of specializations within accounting including audit, compliance, tax, forensic accounting, fraud examination, IT systems, risk management, and appraisals, among others. This designation has such a high level of credibility that hiring managers and prospective clients tend to question a candidate's background and level of accounting competency if they are not a Certified Public Accountant. CPAs help companies comply with bylaws and regulations, reduce the risk for the organization, support valuation and appraisal initiatives, improve processes, and create and maintain reporting mechanisms with which management makes significant and critical decisions based on the supplied data.

States have different academic and experience requirements, but typically your educational requirement will extend beyond your bachelor's degree to encompass 150 semester hours, with varying amounts of accounting classes. You will need to pass the CPA exam, which is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Since the requirements to earn your CPA vary widely it is best to contact your state board for details.

There are four parts to the CPA exam:

  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) 
  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  • Regulation (REG)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

Each of these parts is graded on a scale of 1 to 100 and you must score at least 75 points to pass. While earning a 75 may not sound that difficult, that the overall pass rate is less than 50%, according to AICPA. 

According to CPAexam.com, there are several schools of thought on what the best order is, but "most people recommend starting with the most difficult section, which is typically FAR. Others recommend starting with the easiest section, which is usually BEC, in order to establish momentum and build confidence".

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

A Certified Management Accountant is another great certification. There is overlap between the competencies of a CPA and CMA, but CPAs may be better equipped for compliance, accounting for transactions, tax, and controls. Certified Management Accountants, as the moniker implies, lean toward financial analysis, organizational performance measurement, budgeting, strategic assessment and ongoing stewardship of the company. The exam is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).

There are four major components:

  • Business Analysis: Global economics, global business, internal controls, quantitative methods, and financial statement analysis
  • Management Accounting and Reporting: Budget preparation, cost management, information management, performance measurement, external financial reporting
  • Strategic Management: Strategic planning, strategic marketing, corporate finance, decision analysis, investment decisions
  • Business Application: Organization management, organization communication, behavioral issues, ethical considerations

To earn your CMA, you will need to:

  • Become a registered member of IMA
  • Hold a bachelor's degree
  • Pass parts one and two of the CMA exam
  • Have two continuous years of professional experience in management accounting or financial management
  • Follow the IMA's Statement of Ethical Professional Practice

Finding The Right Accounting Certification

Helpful Job/Industry-Specific Accounting Certifications

There are plenty of accounting designations out there—just know that not all of them are perceived or treated equally. Managers, executives, and prospective clients still attach most of the value and prestige to a traditional CPA. There are, however, niche certifications that are suited for job and industry-specific roles.

These include:

There are varying requirements to earn each of the above certifications. These requirements, however, will probably not be as intensive, time-consuming, and involved as earning a CPA or CMA.

If you want to elevate your standing within the accounting and business community, you should first invest time and effort in getting your CPA. Depending on your job and/or industry focus within the field of accounting, you can augment that designation with one of the above certifications. For instance, those who wish to earn a CISA are heavily involved with accounting and IT information systems. In practice, this can mean transitioning old legacy accounting systems into more efficient (and less costly) databases such as SAP, Hyperion, or Oracle. If you are an FBI agent assigned to uncover fraudulent transactions, for instance, a CFE can help you elevate your understanding of this particular area within the field of accounting. As mentioned, there is no substitute for a CPA.

Other Accounting Certifications

There are a number of additional certifications to choose from, some include:

  • Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) and Fundamental Payroll Certificate (FPC)
  • Accredited Business Accountant
  • Accredited Financial Examiner (AFE)
  • Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA)
  • Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP)
  • Certified Bookkeeper (CB)
  • Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
  • Certified Forensic Accountant (Cr.FA)
  • Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA)
  • Certified Quality Auditor (CQA)
  • Forensic Certified Public Accountant (FCPA)

The Bottom Line 

Corporate finance and accounting is a competitive field. Most accountants who work for one of the Big Four accounting firms will hit a career plateau early on if they do not obtain a CPA. When an accounting firm bids on a consulting or client project (and demand more than $200 per hour for a relatively inexperienced associate's time), why would a prospective client fork this kind of cash out to this specific firm if the project is staffed with outsourced professionals that are not CPAs? A competing accounting firm can come in and win the contract by promising to staff the project with several CPAs. The fact is, numbers-crunching is typically a commoditized service. Unless you possess unusual insights and relationships in a specific job or industry, you are better served to earn accounting certifications to improve your station.