One of the best ways for accounting and finance professionals to boost their knowledge and get an increase in pay is to complete a certification.  There are many out there, depending on the area of accounting or finance that you specialize in.  In my opinion, there are three that stand out as both broadly recognized and highly relevant to a variety of industries and job functions, the CPA, CMA, and CFA.

Each of these certifications involves three main things:

  1. Passing a series of exams
  2. Completing some type of educational requirement
  3. Completing some type of experience requirement

CPA – Certified Public Accountant

The CPA is by far the most broadly recognized both inside and outside the accounting and finance world.  Tell a random stranger you’re an accountant and they might ask you if you have your CPA.  I think the term gained popularity throughout our culture simply because the CPA, is the person that the Joe Taxpayer would get to help them do their taxes.  The CPA firm was the accounting firm John Business owner knew audited his company’s books, or advised him on certain irregular business transactions.  Essentially, the CPA is the customer-facing side of the accounting world. Even though many jobs in corporate accounting ask for a CPA, the CPA is a state license to practice public accounting.  It allows you to charge for accounting services to the public.

There are four parts to the CPA Exam.  The CPA Exam is uniform throughout the US in that the content and structure is the same in every state.  You can schedule to take the exam in what are called exam windows. Each window is two months and there are four of them throughout the year (Jan/Feb, Apr/May, Jul/Aug, Oct/Nov). As of 2012, the parts and their content is as follows:

  1. Business Environment and Concepts
  2. Financial Accounting and Reporting
  3. Audit and Attestation
  4. Regulation

Pass rates for the exams are typically 50% or just slightly lower and the exam is only offered in English.

Work experience for the CPA varies from state to state, but most states require between one and two years of experience working directly for a CPA.  Education also varies by state.  The typical requirement is 150 college hours of total coursework with a certain minimum in accounting (excluding the two fundamental courses Financial and Managerial).  A common minimum is 30-36 accounting hours.  Some states have much easier education hours, but note that you might have to qualify for your state’s educational requirements if you wish to transfer your license in from another state.  See your local state board for detailed requirements.

As far as popularity goes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 there were little less than 1.5 million accountants and auditors in the United States.  Expand this to everyone in corporate accounting and finance, and you might get 1.8 to 2.0 million. The accounting field in general is projected to grow at a rate far above the average for all occupations.  Visit BLS Accounting and Auditor info for more information. As of September 2012, there were approximately 575,000 CPAs registered in NASBAs Mobility and Accountancy Licensee Database (ALD).  National candidate database increased 4.3% year over year in 2010.  See NASBAs 2011 Annual Report for more details.

CMA – Certified Management Accountant

The CMA, in my opinion, is the least understood, but possibly most relevant credentials available to accounting and finance professionals today.  In full disclosure, I am a volunteer board member for a local chapter of the organization that issues the CMA, the Institute of Management Accountants.

The CMA is not a state license, but instead a global credential. It is mainly geared towards individuals in corporate accounting for finance (industry as they say), making it more relevant to the vast majority of the accounting profession. Areas such as GL Accounting, even though heavily relies upon GAAP, includes more material from the CMA program than the CPA.  See the CMA brochure for more information.

The education requirement for the CMA Exam is significantly less strenuous than the CPA in that you only need a bachelor’s degree to qualify. This makes the credential available to many professionals with backgrounds in Finance, Marketing and Economics that don’t have the accounting hours to sit for the CPA exam.

In 2010 the IMA announced the transition from a four-part exam to the current two-part exam. Previously, the four parts were Business Analysis, Management Accounting and Reporting, Strategic Management, and Business Applications. In the new exam, the content was modified to concentrate more specifically on financial planning, analysis, control, and decision support and focused less on economics, information technology, marketing, and behavioral organization.

Part 1 – Financial Planning, Performance and Control

  • Planning, Budgeting and Forecasting (30%)
  • Performance Management (25%)
  • Cost Management (25%)
  • Internal Controls (15%)
  • Professional Ethics (5%)

Part 2 – Financial Decision Making

  • Financial Statement Analysis (25%)
  • Corporate Finance (25%)
  • Decision Analysis and Risk Management (25%)
  • Investment Decisions (20%)
  • Professional Ethics (5%)

Just as with the CPA exam, the CMA exam has testing windows throughout the year in which you can take the exam. When the exam was four parts the windows wer the same as the CPA. Now that the exam is only two parts, it is only offered three windows per year: Jan/Feb, May/Jun, and Sep/Oct.

Pass rates for the CMA exam typically hovered around 50%, but with the new format (and limited data on it), the pass rates are lower. In 2011, Part 1 pass rate was 31% worldwide (48% in US) while Part 2 was 47% worldwide (56% in US). Again, with limited date its hard to know why the worldwide pass rates are so much lower, but at least for Part 1 it seems like poor passing rates in the Middle East is driving this at only 17% on Part 1 and 32% on Part 2. This may be due to the fact the exam is offered only in English and Chinese.

Work experience for the CMA is very similar to the CPA, at two years, except that you do not need to work for another CMA for your experience to qualify. Just as with the CPA, the list of jobs earning qualifying experience is relatively broad.

See the IMA’s CMA certification page for more details.

IMA currently has around 65,000 members of which 20,000 hold a CMA. This is about one-fifth the number of CPAs and a little less than one-third the number of CFAs. Although this certification is less known throughout the accounting and finance world, it is growing at a much faster pace, especially outside the US. This recent surge in CMA growth has brought with it new attention to a management accounting credential. As more and more professionals seek out the most relevant certification, or seek to earn additional certifications, the CMA has benefited.

As a side note, in early 2012, the AICPA and the CIMA (from the UK) announced a new credential in the management accounting space. Teaming up to offer a competing certification, the CGMA is currently available to only AICPA voting members as an add-on credential. This means if you are a CPA, you can become a member of the AICPA, pay a fee, and in 5 minutes get more letters after your name. There will ultimately be an examination process developed for granting CGMAs, so I recommend everyone pay the fee now and get it while it’s easy. This doesn’t say much for what the credential means today, but if the program is a success in 5 or 10 years, you’ll have the same letters regardless.

CFA – Chartered Financial Analyst

The CFA is, in my opinion, the hardest of these three credentials to earn. The CFA is focused on those with an active role in the investment decision-making process. This includes those in the corporate world as Treasurers and Financial Analysts, and then those in the investment world as Financial Advisers, Investment Banking Analysts, Portfolio Managers, Private Bankers, Research Analysts, and Traders.

The CFA is a charter issued by the CFA Institute. The institute recommends that you prepare for at least 300 hours for each of the three parts, or 15-20 hours a week for four to six months. The CFA exam is offered only on certain dates and is not an exam you can schedule at your convenience. Candidates take the exam on the same day. Part 1 is offered twice a year, in June and December; and Parts 2 and 3 are offered only once a year, in June. The exam is also, as of now, not computer based, but pencil and paper.

The three parts of the CFA Exam do not test subject matter separately, as the CPA and CMA generally do. The CFA builds each exam on the last covering many of the same subjects just at broader and deeper levels. The following shows subject matter for each of the three parts of the CFA exam as an approximate percent of that exam total.

Subject Matter (Lv1%/Lv2%/Lv3%) 

  1. Ethical and Professional Standards (15/10/10)
  2. Quantitative Methods (12/5+/0)
  3. Economics (10/5+/0)
  4. Financial Reporting and Analysis (20/5+/0)
  5. Corporate Finance (8/5+/0)
  6. Equity Investments (10/20/5+)
  7. Fixed Income  (12/5+/10+)
  8. Derivatives (5/5+/5+)
  9. Alternative Investments (3/5+/5+)
  10. 10. Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning (5/5+/45+)

Because of the test structure, offering (the exam is only offered in English), and the difficulty of the subject matter and the exam itself, passing rates for the CFA are the lowest of any of the major professional certifications. CFAs who’ve completed the process often boast as to how low pass rates were in their specific class. Level 1 routinely has the lowest pass rate at 34-42% (June 2012 was 38%) as many candidates get weeded out at this point. From there, pass rates improve. June 2012 pass rates were 42% for Level 2 and 52% for Level 3.

Education requirements for the CFA Exam are similar to that of the CMA in that they require only a bachelor’s degree. In face, you can actually satisfy this education requirement even if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree with four years of professional (investment related or not) experience. This might be helpful for those students who have a college degree but not from an accredited university.

Just as with other credentials, there is also an experience requirement to get your CFA. However, instead of two years like the CPA and CMA, the CFA requires four years. On top of that the experience must “add value to the investment decision making process.” Which excludes a lot of typical accounting and finance roles.

In 2011 there were 5,742 charters awarded globally with about half of those coming from the US and Canada. Just as with the CMA, the CFA charter is currently experiencing significant growth in Asia and the Middle East. As of March 2012 there were about 107,000 members of the CFA Institute from 138 countries around the world, including 98,000 CFA charter holders.

Here is a cool visual that shows all the candidates who passed and lets you visualize some of the geographic and career demographics.  See the official Course of Study for the CFA Program for more details on the subject matter covered in the exam. 


I did not cover the specifics of the cost of each exam above because generally the costs fluctuate more than the process and exam content and the costs between all three exam processes are relatively similar. I tell any candidate who is worried about spending $2,000 on a certification (provided their employer is not paying) that spending the money is the least of their expenditures. The major expenditure is their time. If they value their time at just $10 per hour, conservatively speaking, then an examination process is likely to cost them upwards of $10,000 just for their time.

All in all, each of these exams covers relatively unique content and serves a specific purpose. Each one is geared toward a different type of professional, although many who earn them span across these different areas. Each credential provides value for the amount of time and money it takes to earn them. In my opinion, the CMA is the easiest to earn and the CFA is the most difficult.

Although many will argue that the CFA provides the most value to a candidate and the CMA, due to its relative lack of market penetration, provides the least; I feel that each has a place and that earning any of these is a very good investment in your career. Your time and money will rarely find such good opportunities to realize these kind of large returns in life. Working on getting one, two, or all three of these credentials is something I recommend to all young professionals. You just need to have the drive and large amount of discipline to study and put in the effort and you will come out successful.