CPA vs CMA - Which certification is better?

There are a number of certifications available to the accountant, of which the best-known are the CPA (certified public accountant) and CMA (certified management accountant). The CPA certification is generally better, given the higher level of awareness of the certification, though either one confers on its holder an aura of professional knowledge.

But first, why have any certification at all? That’s simple enough if you’re going to be an auditor, because you have to be certified as a CPA at some point, which is usually defined as when you’re promoted to audit manager. That requirement is pretty clear, and that why the AICPA, which sponsors the certification, claims to have 386,000 CPAs as members.

The situation is quite a bit different if you’re not an auditor, and instead are working in industry as an accountant. In this case, the question really is, at what point does some sort of certification requirement show up on a job description? So for example, if you go online and look up the job descriptions for a bookkeeper, or a cost accountant, or a general ledger accountant – basically any staff job – you won’t find too many that say the person should have any kind of certification.

The situation changes when you look at job descriptions for controllers. Pretty much all of the job descriptions out there state that a person applying for this type of job should have either a CPA or CMA certification. This is not a minor point, because the same job descriptions are used by everyone who hires a controller. When a controller job is posted and you send in your resume, they’ll mark you down if you don’t have one of these certifications. It doesn’t mean you’re automatically written off, but it does mean that you won’t rank as high as someone who does have a certification.

So having a certification is essentially a case of checking the boxes to make sure that you fulfill all the requirements for a management position. This does not mean that having a certification is a top priority. Relevant job experience is always going to come first. After that is your education, and then maybe a certification is third in importance.

In addition, once you get some seniority as a manager, having a certification on a resume becomes a bit of an afterthought. When someone is looking to hire a senior controller or CFO, they’re looking for other things, like a deep knowledge of public company reporting, or being able to raise funds. So the use of a certification is more relevant for someone who’s just trying to break into the management ranks.

So let’s say you want to become a controller, and maybe eventually a CFO, and you’ve decided to fulfill that basic requirement and pick up a certification. Which one should you get? If you used to be an auditor, just keep up you CPA certification, and that’s all you need. If you never had the chance to take the CPA exam or fulfill the two-year experience requirement as an auditor, then by default your choice is to take the CMA examination.

That covers the basics. But there’s more to this topic. First, which of the certifications is perceived to be better? That would be the CPA certification, and for a couple of reasons. First, the marketing budgets of the organizations that sponsor these certifications are quite different in size. The AICPA sponsors the CPA exam, and they have a massive marketing budget. That’s why so many people have heard of the CPA certification. The Institute of Management Accountants, which sponsors the CMA, is much smaller, so they just can’t get the word out as effectively about the CMA certification. The second reason is that you have to be a CPA to be an auditor, so more people go to the trouble of getting certified, and then maintaining the certification.

So by comparison, there are 386,000 CPAs, and only 30,000 CMAs.

Another issue in regard to certifications is whether it makes sense to pick up both certifications.

If you do, the usual path is to sit for both exams as close together as possible, since some of the subject matter – not all of it – is the same. You certainly can, if you want to spend the extra money for the two examinations. In addition, keep in mind that each of these organizations charges a large annual fee to maintain your certification, and each one has continuing professional education requirements.

So it’s not just about trying to pass two examinations in a row. You also have the ongoing expense – and time – associated with maintaining the certifications. Also, having both certifications on your resume may not help all that much. In short, you don’t receive much incremental benefit from having both certifications.

What about taking both examinations but not fulfilling all of the other requirements to actually be certified? Maybe you don’t have the experience requirement, or don’t want to pay the annual fee, or don’t want to spend time with all of that ongoing training. What you could do is state on your resume that you’ve passed one or both exams. That at least proves you have a lot of very specific accounting knowledge. This is a good idea, and it’s certainly better than saying nothing at all about a certification.

So, in short. I suggest that you go after just one certification, with the CPA having priority over the CMA. If you’re just finishing up college it doesn’t hurt to sit for both exams, since your knowledge will be fresh, and you’ll have a better chance of passing both. If you’re a really senior manager already, obtaining a certification may not make much sense. But if you’re trying to get into a management role for the first time, having a CPA or CMA certification is a good idea.