Planning a Career: The CMA vs CPA Credential

By Megan Bierwirth

Despite the pop-culture portrayal of accountants, the available career paths for number crunchers are surprisingly diverse. Two of the biggest credentials in the industry are the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential and the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) credential. To give you a better idea of deciding between CMA vs CPA, let’s consider the differences between them and which one is more suited to your career.

CMA vs CPA: The Main Difference

The main difference between the CMA vs CPA credential is the CPA is more suited for public accounting and the CMA is more suited toward industry.

The CPA is the most recognized credential in the industry, and it will always look good on an accounting resume. It’s a requirement to advance in a public accounting firm, but CPAs can be seen across the board in the accounting field, from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies.

The CMA is not as well known in the accounting world, but it does hold merit in industry and private companies. The credential is geared towards managing and making strategic decisions, making it an excellent choice for those wanting to work their way up in a specific company.

Head-to-Head Stats

Salary Poential:

  • CPA: According to a survey by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, CPA salaries over the course of a career average about $119,000, excluding bonuses.
  • CMA: A 2016 survey by the Institute of Management Accountants found the average salary over the course of a career for CMAs was $99,700.

Exam Difficulty:

  • CPA: The CPA exam is a four-part exam that has to be taken and passed within an 18-month window. The pass rate hovers around 49% for each exam.
  • CMA: The CMA is a two-part exam that has to be passed within 3 years. The pass rate is around 35% for part one and 50% for part two.

Experience Requirements:

  • CPA: Depending on state-specific requirements, CPA candidates need to have one or two years of experience before they can become licensed.
  • CMA: 2 years of work experience are required.

Stats Are Great But Ask Yourself: Which Credential Fits Your Skills?

Taking some time to explore your strengths and weaknesses will give you a better understanding of which career path you want to take, and therefore which credential would be best for you. Consider your past experiences, what you enjoy in a job, and where you see yourself in five or ten years.

CPAs have a wide range of options when it comes to career paths, so if you aren’t decided on what you want to do but know you want to advance your accounting career, the CPA credential would be a better fit. If you want to work in public accounting, or feel your personality better fits a varied environment where you work with different companies, the CPA might be what you’re looking for.

However, if you have a strategic mindset, enjoy making decisions and see yourself in a management role at some point in the future, the CMA credential would be a great stepping stone in your career. Even if you’re undecided on a specific career path, but know you want to work for one company and are great at analyzing and interpreting information, you can bet the CMA credential is going to get you on a path where you consistently use those skills.

When you’re looking at the CMA vs CPA, use all of your available resources to see what each credential is about and which will be best for you and your career. Either way, earning an advanced credential will help you grow your career and build the life you want.


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Megan Bierwirth graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2013 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Accounting and passed the CPA exam within 6 months of graduation. She worked in both public accounting and industry while becoming a CPA and now runs a virtual bookkeeping company focused on preventive, integrative and complementary medicine professionals.