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CPA or CMA?

CPA or CMA?

When you're searching for accounting jobs, a credential next to your name can help your resume stand out. But which one is right for you: certified public accountant (CPA) or certified management accountant (CMA)? It depends on your career goals, but here are some points to consider.

What Do You Want to Do?

Because core areas of expertise for CPAs and CMAs differ, knowing the type of accounting you want to do is key, says Kathleen Downs, recruiting manager for Robert Half International in Orlando, Florida.

CPAs perform and sign audits and do tax work, which includes representing companies during IRS audits. CMAs focus on cost accounting, management reporting, financial planning and analysis, says Joe Taylor, vice president of Hudson Financial Solutions in Chicago.

CMAs have the edge in manufacturing and in certain positions, such as plant control and management accounting. But at the corporate level and in financial-reporting positions, the CPA is king, says Mitch Blasko, CPA and president of MBI Financial Staffing in Greenville, South Carolina.

Do travel and variety appeal to you? "If you want exposure to many industries and public auditing skills, CPA is the way to go," Downs says. "If you want to hang your hat in the same office every day and make a difference with one company, the CPA is good, but the CMA is extremely relevant."

Are You Qualified?

Before sitting for the CPA exam, you must meet state licensing rules. Most states require 150 hours of post-undergraduate coursework. Some states also require public accounting experience before you take the CPA exam.

If your job is demanding or requires a lot of travel, you may not have time for more accounting education. And if you've worked only in private accounting, you may have to take a pay cut to get the needed public experience, Taylor explains. If that's the case, it might be easier to pursue the CMA, which does not require this experience, he says.

Instead, the CMA credential requires a bachelor's degree in any area and two years' full-time or four years' part-time experience in management accounting or financial management. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) waives the education requirement for holders of some foreign accounting designations and those who score in the top 50 percent on the GMAT or GRE. Candidates then must pass a four-part exam.

What's the Pay Differential?

A designation can also boost your salary. An IMA salary survey conducted in 2008 and released in June 2009 found the average salary for accountants with some kind of certification was $112,068 versus $86,225 for those without. Average salary was $105,667 for CMAs and $110,095 for CPAs. Hudson Financial data shows CPAs command a 5 percent premium in the accounting job market, Taylor says.

Will You Be Competitive?

A license or designation is a plus when competing for accounting jobs. "Of the placements I do in accounting, 25 percent of people have their CPAs [and] about 10 percent have their CMAs," Downs says. "Many industry clients are asking for CPAs or CMAs. In public accounting, they always want the CPA."

What Are Less-Obvious Advantages?

Either designation brings with it additional benefits. The continuing-education requirements needed to maintain either certification keep your accounting knowledge up-to-date, Downs says. "Another advantage is that you can network with other professionals at your level and [learn of] job opportunities," she says.

Students can join the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) or the IMA and start networking before graduation. You don't need to be a CMA to join the IMA, but unless you're a student, you need to be a CPA to join the AICPA.

Ultimately, the right accounting designation for you is the one that takes you where you want to go in your career. Once you've determined that, you'll know which designation is the best route to that destination.

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