The alphabet soup of finance credentials and degrees causes plenty of folks to agonize over pursuing a CPA or MBA. Both the Certified Public Accountant designation and the master of business administration degree may appeal to those who have not yet found their finance niche.

What's the difference, and which is better to pursue? The answer depends upon your likes and dislikes, your career direction and, of course, whom you ask.

Not surprisingly, Peter Calladine, accreditation services manager at the Association of MBAs, says the MBA is the way to go. Today's commercial world demands more than an accounting qualification, he argues. "With business accelerating in the global marketplace, accountants need to be more commercially aware than ever," he says. "And increasingly, they are looking to the MBA qualification to give them this edge."

Some business schools promote their MBA programs to accountants who wish to widen their understanding of business and specific industries, Calladine adds.

Not everyone agrees. "I think the CPA is a better credential for someone going into finance than almost any credential, including an MBA, because you get to look at so many different businesses," says Michael Kinsman, PhD, MBA, CPA, a professor at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. "You really get to see what's happening in the business and to see the structure. You're looked at as someone who has a credential when you get a CPA."

Controller or Manager

Essentially, the CPA designation empowers you to sign and audit reports, says Neal Ushman, PhD, MBA, associate professor of accounting at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. "If you want to go into auditing and review financial statements, you're going to need a CPA," he says. "If you want to go into banking, I don't think it gives you a comparative advantage."

If you want to go into consulting or management for a financial services firm, go with the MBA. "It should give you a broad overview of the business environment and equip you for a wide variety of jobs," Ushman says. "Because our program is for working professionals, most of our students are in their mid- or late 30s, and very few are going to make a career change from finance into accounting. They're getting an MBA to enhance their promotability."

Or Do Both

To sit for the CPA examination, you'll need 150 hours of education. You may not realize that many states count an MBA and your undergraduate degree toward that total, Kinsman says.

If you'd like to get both an MBA and a CPA, start with an undergraduate degree in finance, economics or accounting, and go to work for a public accounting firm.

In three years, you can apply to a local MBA program and sit for the CPA exam. Your CPA firm will have the resources you need to study. Plus, you don't want to wait too long before taking the exam. "Someone who's just left undergraduate school will still remember intermediate accounting, unlike someone who is five years out and finished graduate school," Kinsman says.

Next, head back to school for that MBA. Go part-time, and stay at your CPA firm either full- or part-time. At a minimum, make yourself available for seasonal work, Kinsman recommends.

Where You'll End Up

Kinsman sees students who started as securities analysts promoted to associates after gaining MBAs. His MBA students who also earn CPAs often move from assistant controller to controller. "They're seen as highly competent financial professionals," he says. "They've got the ticket."

And it's never really too late to go after that CPA or MBA. "I had a student who told me he admired what I did, but he said, 'I'm 35, and I'm too old to get a CPA. I can't afford the time.'"

Kinsman convinced him it wasn't too late. The man quit his job to take a position at an accounting firm. He passed the exam and today is one cheerful CPA. The man told Kinsman, "I went through a couple of years of lower pay, but I'm now making $20,000 more than I was, and I have a side job doing work for other clients." Most of all, the former student reported, "I'm happy."

Learn more about accounting careers.