When you hire an accountant, you want to know what type of expertise you’re getting. You want to hire the right person for your needs. But all the letters representing different credentials for accountants confuse many people. These certifications tell us a professional’s focus and education. Here are a few common credentials and roles that you might want to consider when choosing an accountant or accounting firm.



Most of the credentials behind an accounting title represent certifications. Various professional organizations hold certain standards and requirements to achieve their certifications.


CPA (Certified Public Accountant)

Certified Public Accountants are some the most tested accountants… literally. A state board of accountancy awards the CPA designation. CPAs have demonstrated their advanced knowledge and competence in Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting and Regulation, as pointed out by AICPA. CPA can handle virtually any accounting task, including auditing.


CVA (Certified Valuation Analyst)

A CVA determines a company’s worth in assets, especially those that produce cash flow. Consider them the accounting world’s version of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow appraisers. NACVA says that CVA licenses are distributed to those who “perform business valuations as a service to both the consulting community and the users of their services.”


MAFF (Master Analyst in Financial Forensics)

In the field of financial litigation, MAFF-certified accountants possess “a level of experience and knowledge deemed acceptable by NACVA to provide competent and professional financial litigation support services,” as stated by NACVA.


ABAR (Accredited in Business Appraisal Review)

In the valuation profession, the ABAR credential is the only one to certify competence in the review of business appraisal reports. “As such, the ABAR credential is specially designed for business valuators whose work involves the review of valuation reports and analysis performed by others,” NACVA explains. These include managers, expert witnesses, attorneys, coaches, mentors, trainers, and government appraisers.


CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)

The CFA Institute provides credentials for financial analysts. This professional holds a bachelor’s degree and four years of investment and financial career experience. In addition, Investopedia explains that “candidates are required to pass three levels of exams covering areas such as accounting, economics, ethics, money management and security analysis.” CFA designations are sought by Wall Street for their expertise in portfolio management, investment banking, and financial research.


CFP (Certified Financial Planner)

Accredited by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., CFP focuses on investments. THE CFP, as Investopedia notes, trains “financial advisors to create and implement financial plans for investors.”


CMA (Certified Management Accountant)

The Institute of Management Accountants accredits CMAs in financial planning, analysis, and control. CMAs can elevate a business to the next level. CMAs delve into the reasons behind financial outcomes. A CMA can obtain an additional credential, Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis (CSCA). This addition expands on strategic planning and analytical skills.


FRM (Financial Risk Manager)

The highly specialized Financial Risk Managers, designated by GARP, focus on risk management in investments and finances.


CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst)

The CAIA Association offers the CAIA certificates for those who focus on alternative investments and assets and evaluating the risk-return on those investments and assets.


CPM (Certified Public Manager)

In someone’s title, CPM is a Certified Public Manager designation, certified by The National Certified Public Manager Consortium. The CPM is for middle managers in the public sector at federal, state and local government levels. It focuses on strategies for solving practical problems in the public sector.


Note: This is not to be confused with the area of business intelligence called Corporate Performance Management, though that may be of relevance. For more on Corporate Performance Management and its applications to finance operations, see Susan Parcells’ blog from Blackline Magazine.



Sometimes you’ll find advanced degrees in someone’s title. These terms are familiar from other professions, but they can enhance an accountant’s expertise.


MBA (Masters of Business Administration)

An MBA is the most common advanced degree in the finance field. It provides a deeper understanding of business and finance management.

JD (Juris Doctor)

Occasionally, you’ll find a CPA with a law background, like Quan Vuong, JD, LLM, CPA. Vuong wrote a blog over at Roger CPA Review on his invaluable experience combining the two.


MSF (Masters of Science of Finance)

An MSF degree is not as comprehensive in business as an MBA and is not typically designed for management. However, the MSF degree focuses more on finance and can even have a narrower focus within it.


Other Titles

Elsewhere in an accounting firm, you may encounter people without letters after their names. These professionals play an important role in the operations of the firm.


Staff Accountant

Staff accountants aren’t CPAs, but it doesn’t make them any less valuable to a team. A manager, director or CPA oversees the work of staff accountants. They perform more general bookkeeping tasks, such as preparing and analyzing budgets and maintaining financial reports, records, and ledgers.


Auditor (Internal and External)

Auditors analyze and evaluate business finances and operations. They help design organizational structure and efficiencies within a company. As such, they look for red flags that could signal miscalculations or even fraud. Internal auditors work within a company and objectively report their findings to directors. They usually audit based on company guidelines and government regulatory guidelines. External auditors work independently of the company and report to shareholders, owners, or government. They tend to examine a company’s operations with a wider scope. They may suggest gaps that internal auditors should spend more time on.


While all of these letter credentials require a bachelor’s degree or higher, ethical practice, professional experience and comprehensive exams, the CPA is the most recognized certification in the financial industry for CPAs’ breadth of knowledge and capabilities. The rest of the certifications refine expertise, which can greatly benefit their clients.


PHOTO: Nick YoungsonCC BY-SA 3.0