Top 8 Certifications for Accountants To Consider
As the saying goes, the only certainties in life are death and taxes – and that means accountants will always be in demand. In fact, positions for accountants and auditors are projected to increase by 10.6% by 2032, according to Lightcast, a leading labor analytics firm.
But accounting isn’t just about taxes. There are a number of specialties available within this complex and ever-changing field, many of which require additional training and certifications beyond a bachelor’s degree. Since certification programs often require a significant investment of time and money, understanding which certification aligns with your career goals is an important part of your professional development plan. That’s why we’ve rounded up information about eight certifications that can help you advance your career, as well as the key factors you should consider as you explore your options.
What Are Accounting Certifications?
Accounting certifications are credentials that demonstrate expertise in a certain specialty area within accounting or that recognize specific skills. Certain accounting roles require specific certifications — for example, only professionals who have earned the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential can sign audit reports. Other certifications can be used to grow new skill sets, move into specialized roles and stand out in the hiring process. Some certifications are awarded by industry regulatory bodies, while others are overseen by the IRS or by specific schools.
Who Are Accounting Certifications For?
Accounting certification programs are available for all different types of accountants, as well as for students enrolled in an accounting degree program. While you can start the qualification process for some certifications while a student, most require a certain number of hours of practice before the credential is awarded.
Certifications are particularly beneficial for professionals who wish to perform regulated functions (like preparing federal tax returns), advance into a new role or pivot into a different area within the field of accounting.
What Accounting Certifications Are Available?
A wide range of accounting certifications is available. Some of these credentials are earned through specific educational programs, while others are obtained by taking a test or by meeting certain standards of education and experience. Many of these certificates can significantly increase earning potential compared to the median advertised accounting salary, which was $74,600 in the first quarter of 2023 according to Lightcast Analytics, a leading labor market data provider.
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
- Median advertised salary: $86,400
“A CPA is the gold standard for accountants, and many jobs will require CPA certification,” says Dr. Tracie Miller, chair of Franklin University’s accounting programs. This professional license demonstrates knowledge of a wide range of accounting functions, including tax preparation, financial statements, financial planning, forensic accounting and internal auditing. By law, only CPAs can perform certain functions, such as auditing publicly traded companies. Licensure is particularly valuable in public accounting, the financial sector, government and compliance.
How to Earn CPA Licensure
States award CPA certification, and the specific process varies by jurisdiction. However, accountants in every state must pass the four-part Uniform CPA Examination administered by the American Institute of CPAs to qualify for certification. Each state sets its own requirements around education and experience. Most expect a bachelor’s degree or a certain number of college credits as well as experience in a public accounting or government role.
Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
- Median advertised salary: $100,200
The CIA qualification is a globally-recognized credential for internal auditors who work within companies and government agencies to ensure that financial records are correct and compliant and to uncover mistakes and fraud. While CIA certification covers some of the same functions as CPA certification, it is more narrowly focused on audit processes and is geared toward roles inside organizations rather than external audit positions.
How to Earn CIA Certification
The Institute of Internal Auditors awards the CIA. Candidates must pass three examinations and demonstrate a combination of education and related experience. In addition, they must agree to follow a code of ethics and provide a character reference.
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
- Median advertised salary: $74,600
The CMA designation demonstrates accounting proficiency and knowledge of strategic financial management topics, including reporting, budgeting, risk management and more. This certification is a good choice for accountants who wish to move into management or leadership positions.
How to Earn CMA Certification
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) offers the CMA credential. To earn a CMA, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field and two years of relevant professional experience. You must also join the IMA and pass the two-part CMA exam.
Ready to make your move in accounting? Gain insights for every career stage in our free Accounting Career Guide.
Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
- Median advertised salary: $86,400
The CFE certification prepares professionals for careers detecting and investigating financial crimes and fraudulent activity. Fraud examiners conduct forensic audits, analyze financial records, and even work on criminal investigations. They may work in the private sector or government positions, including in law enforcement agencies like the FBI.
How to Earn CFE Certification
The CFE credential is awarded by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). To earn a CFE, you must become an ACFE member, pass an exam and demonstrate two years of fraud-related work. You’ll also need to show a combination of relevant education and professional experience.
Enrolled Agent (EA)
- Median advertised salary: $89,000
The Enrolled Agent certification qualifies accountants to prepare tax returns and represent taxpayers before the IRS to resolve disputes and other tax-related matters. Enrolled Agents may work with individuals, businesses or any group that files taxes.
How to Earn EA Certification
Unlike other accounting certifications, the Enrolled Agent credential is offered directly by the IRS. EA certification does not have any educational requirements. However, you must pass a three-part exam or demonstrate sufficient experience as a former IRS employee.
Certified Information System Auditor (CISA)
- Median advertised salary: $116,100
The CISA certification qualifies professionals to audit, control and assess IT and business systems. It is well suited for professionals who wish to work in a more technical context.
How to Earn CISA Certification
The CISA credential is offered by ISACA, a professional organization for information governance and security professionals. To earn CISA certification, you must demonstrate five years of relevant technical experience and pass an examination.
Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM)
- Median advertised salary: $70,400
The CGFM certificate demonstrates expertise in government-specific accounting, auditing, financial reporting, internal controls and budgeting practices. This certification prepares professionals for local, state and federal government agency positions.
How to Earn CGFM Certification
AGA, an association for government finance professionals, awards CGFM certification. The qualification requires a bachelor’s degree and two years of professional experience in government financial management. You’ll also need to pass three exams and agree to a code of ethics.
Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA)
- Median salary: $69,900
The CGMA credential is available to accountants worldwide and demonstrates the management accounting skills needed for high-level positions in business or government. In addition to financial accounting, this qualification requires knowledge of operations, strategy and management best practices.
How to Earn CGMA Certification
The American Institute of CPAs administers the CGMA designation in the United States. To earn the CGMA, you must complete an online certification program and pass an exam. You’ll also need three years of relevant work experience.
Are Accounting Certifications Worth It?
Accounting certifications can be costly and require significant time and preparation – plus, many credentials require regular recertification and fee payment. That means it’s crucial to understand how certification will advance your career prospects and earnings before you embark on the qualification process. For some accounting positions, certifications like the CPA are essential. In other areas, credentials can help you stand out from other job candidates but may not be an absolute requirement.
As the figures above demonstrate, certifications may come with higher earning potential. However, it’s important to remember that individual salaries within each area of accounting can vary significantly based on the organization and the relative responsibilities of each role.
As you consider whether certification is right for you, explore postings for jobs that interest you and reach out to accountants in similar positions to better understand whether certifications will help you reach your goals. For many accountants, the biggest payoff from earning a certificate comes from access to specialized functions that align with their personal and professional interests.
Advance Your Accounting Career
Ready to find your unique pathway in the accounting profession? Franklin University can help.
Franklin’s M.S. in Accounting - Financial Operations Focus and M.S. in Accounting - Taxation Focus programs are taught by experienced practitioners and delivered 100% online to help you balance your studies with personal and professional responsibilities. In as few as 17 months, you can earn your degree and gain the required hours and foundational knowledge to sit for professional accounting certification exams, such as the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation.
If you’re interested in boosting your accounting career with data analysis and presentation capabilities, Franklin’s Accounting Data Analytics certificate program may be right for you. This online program can be completed in 12 months and offers credit hours toward CPA licensure.