Whether you’re just finishing up school, or have long ago said goodbye to academic hallways, the idea of going back to “school” may turn your stomach. But, when it comes to landing a dream job or pulling in a higher salary, accounting and finance certifications can seal the deal. While certifications aren’t technically additional schooling, they are avenues to gain more education, specialization and credentials. Let’s put it this way: if you’re up for a job or a promotion and it comes down to you and another candidate, a certification can be a tie-breaker in your favor.

Before you invest the time and effort to acquire one, it’s important to understand the alphabet soup of accounting and finance certifications (e.g., CPA, CMA, CFA, CGMA — you get the point). Depending on your specific career goals, some certifications will fit the bill better than others. To help you determine the best fit(s) for you, Randstad Professionals has compiled the 411 on today’s most sought-after finance and accounting certifications.

1. Certified Public Accountant (CPA):

The CPA credential is the oldest and most respected accounting license in the accounting and finance industry, which means it is also the most popular and advantageous. Think of it as an umbrella designation that validates your expertise in a wide range of skills, from tax, compliance and risk management to forensic accounting. It is the mother of all certifications.

Is a CPA license right for me?

If you aspire to a manager-level position, this is a license you should consider without question. Or, if you’d like to have a broader range of options when it comes to your accounting specialty, the CPA license will allow you the versatility to move across specialties. CPAs can also do all the same tasks and jobs that other certifications offer, so essentially you can do it all. Although the cost to pursue your CPA ranges from $2,000 to $3,000, it pays big dividends in furthering your career and garnering a higher salary.

Where and how can I earn one?

The CPA designation is granted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). To earn your CPA, you will need to pass four parts of the AICPA uniform CPA exam, and complete the education and work experience requirements of your state. Most states require at least one year of accounting experience before you can acquire your license.

When can I earn one?

Before you can take the CPA exam, you will have to complete five years of higher education, as well as a minimum number of continuing education credits. Once you are ready to take the CPA exam, be aware it takes about a year on average to pass.

Where can I learn more?

Visit these sites to learn more details about pursuing a CPA certification: AICPACPAexam.com or National Association of State Boards of Accountancy.

2. Certified Management Accountant (CMA):

The CMA certification is similar to the CPA in that it is widely-recognized and does overlap with some of the CPA competencies. However, most professionals who pursue a CMA are drawn to more of the business management aspects of accounting, such as budgeting, financial analysis, corporate performance and strategic finance initiatives for the company.

Is a CMA license right for me?

If you have completed or are considering a CPA, you may want to consider attaining a CMA certification as well. The reason is that many of the exam topics for the CPA and CMA overlap, so it can be easier to secure a CMA if you’ve already passed the CPA. Also, anyone who is interested in working in the corporate sector or for a large, global company would greatly benefit from a CMA certification, particularly given the cost for the exam ranges from $1,000 to $2,000.

Where and how can I earn one?

The CMA certification is offered through the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). The exam generally takes eight hours to complete and includes four key components: business analysis, management accounting and reporting, strategic management and business application.

When can I earn one?

First, you will need to attain a bachelor’s degree and register as a member of IMA. You will also need to complete two continuous years in a financial management or management accounting position.

Where can I learn more?

Visit these sites to learn more details about pursuing a CMA certification – Institute of Management AccountantsWikipedia.com or Investopedia.

3. Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA):

If your career aspirations include being a controller or a CFO someday, the CFA certification should be on your radar. It helps you build competencies in investing and business operations, and think strategically and analytically about finance. On the other hand, if tax prep or auditing is your dream career, you can skip the CFA certification and head straight for the CPA exam.

Is a CFA license right for me?

Considering a career as a security analyst or asset manager? If so, the CFA certification is a must-have. Similarly, for professionals interested in equity analysis, fund or hedge fund management, a CFA will help drive your career and will be well worth the estimated $2,500 cost of attaining the designation.

Where and how can I earn one?

Attaining a CFA certification will require you to go through the CFA Institute, a non-profit organization based in the United States. The process of completing a CFA takes longer than the CPA exam because the test is administered infrequently – only one or two times a year depending on the level you are striving to achieve. This exam itself is also lengthier (a total time of 18 hours) given that you have to pass one level before you move on to the next, and there are a total of three levels to complete. As a result, the fastest you can complete the certification is 18 months, but many finance professionals take more than two years.

When can I earn one?

Professionals who are interested in a CFA certification will need to have a bachelor’s degree and four years of relevant experience.

Where can I learn more?

Visit these sites to learn more details about pursuing a CFA certification – Chartered Financial Analyst Institute and Investopedia.

If you’re looking to land a job in bookkeeping or accounts payable, there are specific certifications that you may want to pursue. Most do not require a degree and they provide a great introduction to the accounting field. While not mandatory for these positions, some employers may desire candidates who have sought additional education and certification, such as the payroll, tax and spreadsheet expertise you can attain through the National Association of Certified Public Bookkeepers.

And don't forget to update your resume with all of your awesome new certifications! Partner up Monster's Resume Writing Service to get your resume professionally written and rein in your resume writing stress.