Professional accounting certifications to know

Accountants play an integral role in business. Whether working in the private sector or for public-sector organizations and nonprofits, accountants guide the leaders of organizations to use their funds productively and in a way that will help them achieve their goals. They “read” the numbers and translate them into tangible, actionable insights that inform business decisions.

How can accountants maintain their expertise? Through education, certifications and experience. Accountants should have a solid foundation in the technical and soft skills necessary for success in not just their field but also in general business knowledge and practices. This expertise is supported by professional certifications in accounting, which qualify accountants to work in various fields as well as demonstrate proficiency in the industry.

These certifications are most often obtained by studying for and passing certain exams. The online accounting bachelor’s degree program from the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham helps prepare students for several of these exams.

Every individual interested in becoming an accountant should be aware of the various certifications available to them that may help them advance their careers in the areas of work they are most interested in. Some of the most popular and common of these certifications are explored below:

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

The Certified Public Accountant, also known as CPA, is the most popular and well-known of all accounting certifications.

“A CPA license is the accounting profession’s highest standard of competence, a symbol of achievement and assurance of quality,” explained the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy.

Being a CPA shows that that individual has been licensed by the state to work as an accountant. Some CPAs may work for public-sector organizations and nonprofits, though they may also work for corporations, and may hold leadership roles such as Chief Financial Officer.

Two accountants work with a calculator and a notepad.

The beauty of the CPA certification is that it can help prepare working or aspiring accountants for rewarding careers in a diverse range of fields and industries. Every sector needs CPAs, from entertainment to tourism to criminal justice. They may work in tax preparation or even auditing. There are also more specific specializations within each field.

“A CPA who specializes in IT might focus on implementing new finance technologies and accounting systems, while auditors examine financial records for errors and fraud,” explained an article on the American Institute of CPAs’ “This Way to CPA” website. “Other CPAs determine the appropriate price of products or services – or even the monetary value of an entire company. And that’s just the tip of the accounting specializations iceberg.”

There is also growing demand for CPAs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of accountant and auditor jobs will have faster than average growth and increase by 11 percent between 2014 and 2024. The median annual pay for these professionals was $68,150 in May 2016, and Robert Half predicts that salaries will increase by 3.7 percent this year alone. CPAs can take on executive and leadership roles that command even higher salaries, such as Business Manager, which can net $98,250 a year, and Compliance Manager, which can garner an annual salary of $94,500.

In order to receive CPA licensure, individuals must pass the Uniform CPA Examination. Some states also require that individuals also pass certain education or experience requirements to receive certification – many states require CPAs to have their bachelor’s degree. In the state of Alabama, the online bachelor degree program in accounting at UAB’s Collat School of Business can be part of the path toward the CPA exam, as a certain number of credit hours are required to sit for the test, spanning the entire bachelor’s degree and part of the master of accounting degree.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

The Certified Management Accountant certification – or CMA – is an important and well-known accounting certification that combines financial expertise with sound business strategy.

CPA and CMA certifications are often compared and contrasted. The CMA is a global certification, while the CPA is a certification given out on a state-by-state basis. Generally speaking, CPAs deal largely with auditing, financial reporting and compliance issues, while CMAs analyze finances at corporations to discover insights that will then help guide business decisions, and make recommendations based on these findings, as Robert Half explained.

“CMAs bring strategic thinking, applied work experience and the ability to convert data into dialogue,” noted the Institute of Management Accountants.

In an increasingly data-driven world, converting numbers into real business advantages is a very valuable skill. With their strong business sense, CMAs can become senior accountants, take on influential leadership roles or work as consultants.

The CMA certification can also help advance accountants’ careers and boost salary prospects. According to the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) U.S. Salary Survey conducted in March 2017, median total compensation is 28 percent higher for CMAs compared to non-certified professionals. Salaries were found to be higher for CMAs of all ages, however, the survey revealed that individuals age 30-39 received a median salary that was 45 percent higher than that of non-certified professionals. Working as a CMA can also lead to executive roles and higher salaries. In its survey of its members, the IMA also found that the median base salary in 2016 was $102,000.

To receive CMA certification, individuals must pass the CMA Exam as well as hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, according to the IMA website. They must also have two back-to-back years of work experience in financial management or management accounting. The IMA has recognized the online bachelor’s in accounting program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as a leader in preparation for the CMA Exam, and as such students will learn the skills, frameworks and study techniques necessary to prepare for the exam.

Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)

Technology has been a revolutionary force in business. Its impact has been felt in the accounting industry. The way accountants manage finances and audit financial activities has changed as a result of advancing technology. With these changes in technology and these expanding systems comes new auditing processes and new compliance regulation, as well as advanced security measures for protecting this information from cyber threats.

This is where the Certified Information Systems Auditor, or CISA, certification comes in. Administered by ISACA, the CISA certification marks advanced knowledge in auditing, monitoring and security practices for information systems.

As the ISACA website explained, “Being CISA-certified showcases your audit experience, skills and knowledge, and demonstrates you are capable to assess vulnerabilities, report on compliance and institute controls within the enterprise.”

This certification is valuable for accountants because it supplements their knowledge and skills to help establish them as experts in a technology-driven world. CISA can also help prepare accountants for managerial business roles, Chinweike Okwuduche noted in a blog post for ISACA. The certification demonstrates to clients that accountants have the skills necessary to effectively monitor and evaluate business processes conducted via technology and that they have the expertise to consult on security and compliance matters as well as conduct audits that acknowledge and respond to modern business threats.

For Okwuduche, CISA certification helped him advance his career.

“Clients’ perception of my abilities and the value I can bring to their enterprises changed overnight,” he wrote in the blog post. “The first thing I did after certification was to re-contact those who had previously turned down my proposal, informing them that I am a CISA. Within five days of resending 70 proposals, I received 28 positive feedbacks. Compare this to the three responses I received the first time I sent out same number of proposals.”

To become CISA certified, individuals must first successfully complete the CISA Examination. Then, they must submit an application for certification. They must also have a minimum of five years of experience in related fields, however, university semester credit hours can be substituted for some of the years. The online accounting program at UAB’s Collat School of Business helps prepare students for the CISA certification exam as well as its related auditing skills.

Expand your knowledge

Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant and Certified Information Systems Auditor – three certifications that all individuals interested in pursuing or advancing their careers in accounting should be familiar with. Each can help accountants grow their skills and expertise and market themselves as valued partners that can fluently speak the language of business. With the breadth and depth of accounting roles available in a diverse range of industries, accountants can shape dynamic careers that closely match their personal interests and professional passions.

When exploring accounting certifications, also consider the importance of earning your bachelor’s degree in the field at an accredited institution prepared to help students reach their goals. The online accounting program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business, helps students prepare for the CPA, CMA and CISA exams, as well as several other relevant industry certifications.

To learn more, speak to an advisor today.


Recommended Readings:

Accounting Information Systems: Four 2017 Predictions

Why Choose Accounting? Exploring Private Company Work



NASBA, Top 5 Reasons to be a CPA

NASBA, Becoming a CPA

NASBA, What is the Uniform CPA Examination? 

This Way to CPA, Our Knowledgebase

Robert Half, Accounting Salaries, Job Opportunities Projected to Keep Growing 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accountants and Auditors 

AICPA, CPA Licensure

ISACA, In a World Full of Auditors, be a CISA

Chron, CPA vs. CISA

Institute of Management Accountants, CMA Certification

Institute of Management Accountants, Getting Started

Rasmussen University, CMA vs. CPA vs. CFA: 3 Popular Accounting Certifications and Credentials to Consider

Hybrid Accountant, Six reasons why every Accountant should be CISA Certified

Chron, CPA vs. CISA

Institute of Management Accountants, Salary Information