MBA vs CPA: Which is better for CFO, leadership positions?

Melanie Kreis, CFO of German logistics group Deutsche Post DHL, speaks during the company's annual news conference at the DHL Innovation Center in Troisdorf, western Germany, on March 10, 2020.

By Aisyah Liliana 

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If you’re looking to improve your job prospects and earning potential, upskilling is the way to go. Be it via a postgraduate degree or a professional certification, which one you chose depends on your career goals. Those with financial careers who have their eye set on becoming a CFO or a leadership position will know that you’ll need to arm yourself with a wide range of skills, in addition to advancing your education, to bolster your efforts in making this a reality.

A common question for professionals in the field might include whether they should choose between an MBA and a CPA. Both may be highly recognised and valued by employers, but they are vastly different credentials. One culminates with a degree, and the other with a professional license.

So, which should you choose if you’re an aspiring CFO or company leader?


What’s a CPA?

CPA – or Certified Public Accountant – gears you for an accounting career. This license is issued by state boards of accountancy, which means you meet the licensing requirements in the state you wish to practice in the US.

“There is no centralised body and each state has slightly different CPA exam and licensing requirements. International candidates are often confused and frustrated by the complicated application process,” notes author Stephanie Ng, who is familiar in the matter.

On Monster, Neal Ushman, PhD, MBA, associate professor of accounting at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, said the CPA designation empowers professionals to sign and audit reports.

“If you want to go into auditing and review financial statements, you’re going to need a CPA,” he said. “If you want to go into banking, I don’t think it gives you a comparative advantage.”

As such, a CPA demonstrates your experience and expertise in accounting. You’ll be able to find employment in small or large firms and work in accounting and financial roles such as financial accounting and reporting, management accounting, financial analysis, forensic accounting, among others. Your accounting expertise can also mean that you’re poised to hold a leadership position like a CFO.


What’s an MBA?

Embarking on an MBA entails learning a wide range of business disciplines in addition to helping you develop a broad overview of management skills. Most MBA programmes don’t require a business background; many business schools recommend candidates to have several years of professional work experience, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in business. 

As such, those with a financial background can improve their business understanding with an MBA.

Some of the subjects candidates can expect to learn about may include marketing, human resources, management, and entrepreneurship, to name a few. Students can expect to develop a variety of skills while embarking on an MBA, including networking, leadership, strategic analysis, and more.

Some MBA programmes may entail an internship and field trips abroad to facilitate their learning. Many CFOs have an MBA degree. MBA graduates are also poised to hold a variety of positions, including senior consultants, business owner, and even CFO.


Which should you choose?

Choosing between an MBA and CPA boils down to your professional goals, aptitude and personal interests. 

An MBA may be ideal if you plan to move into a leadership position and develop management skills while a CPA license is also highly respected and demonstrates your expertise in accounting or finance.

It is possible to move up to a leadership position, such as CFO, with either credential. Professionals can also consider pursuing both if they have the resources to do so. Either credential can help you bolster your earnings, which may make them attractive upskilling options for professionals.