Preparing for a Data Science Career in Accounting with a Master's Degrees in Accounting with an Analytics Focus

Since both accounting and analytics deal primarily with logic and numbers, it’s only natural that higher education eventually developed a graduate level focus that combines the two fields. A master’s degree in accounting with an analytics focus offers the best combination when it comes to understanding the principles of accountancy, and learning how to attack accounting problems with the tools and capabilities found in data science.

Data analytics in accounting is a specialized subset of the work involved in business analytics. At the end of the day, accounting data analysts work with financial information found in corporate data stores to produce reports, charts, and other visual interpretations of data designed to inform and support business decisions.

Accountants with analytics expertise are also changing the field when it comes to fraud detection and auditing. Big data stores have resulted in big headaches for auditors, who have been challenged with the task of conducting audits of organizations with complex, computer-driven financials. But machine learning and data mining techniques combined with professional accounting knowledge is helping to automate those processes and balance the books.

None of it would be possible without data scientists with some expertise in accounting… which is where accounting master’s degree with an analytics focus come into the picture.

Accountants With Analytics Skills Make the Numbers Add Up

The fact that big data is becoming more and more critical to accounting operations was reflected in the 2014 Pathways Commission report commissioned by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the American Accounting Association. Designed to evaluate and make recommendations for higher education for future accounting professionals, the commission helped usher in the development of new accounting degree programs to provide an emphasis on technologies used to gather, transform, and analyze accounting data.

The commission was originally focused on general education for accounting professionals, but as data science has emerged as having an important role to play in almost all areas of accounting, new specialized degree programs in accounting analytics were developed as an inevitable progression of both fields.

Data Science Skills Build On Accounting Expertise

The difference between conventional accountants and those with advanced data science skills is the degree with which they can dive into or collect data to base their analysis on. Every accountant can wield Excel like a switchblade in a street fight, but data scientists have bigger guns they can bring to bear on financial questions:

  • Programming languages like R and Python
  • Advanced visualization tools such as Tableau and Chart.js
  • Deep data mining techniques using machine learning
  • Advanced financial modeling skills

Compliance is a large part of working in the accounting world, and as financial data structures become more and more deep and complex, that compliance work gets more and more complicated. Accountants with analytics skills are the ones businesses count on to ensure they are compliant with federal, state, and local accounting, auditing and reporting standards:

  • Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)
  • Sales and income tax reporting
  • Sarbanes-Oxley and other Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations
  • Federal Accounting Regulation (FAR) compliance for federal contractors

If you find yourself in this enviable and lucrative position, you will likely serve as a general resource for other analysts in the accounting department who will be tapping you on the shoulder for help creating manageable data sets from scattered and unorganized data for the projects they’re working on. You might find yourself designing new data stores, creating new data models for company financial records, or creating unique OLAP cubes for further analysis.

What to Look For in a Master’s Degree in Accounting with an Analytics Focus

Just like every other area where data science skills are now in demand, the accounting field has struggled to find qualified professionals with advanced degrees to fill positions in the industry.

Recently, one of the so-called Big Four auditing firms has taken matters into its own hands by partnering with a number of schools to sponsor master’s programs focused on data and analytics in accounting.

Netherlands-based international accounting firm KPMG began collaborating with Villanova and The Ohio State University in 2016 to build a data and analytics focus for their existing accounting master’s programs. As of January, 2018 the program has expanded to all of these universities:

In addition to offering scholarships at these schools, the company offers internship opportunities to provide students with real-world experience at one of the busiest accounting services firms in the world. The scholarships are generous, covering full tuition and living costs, but you don’t have to be a scholarship recipient to take advantage of the curriculum changes, which reflect real-world challenges that KPMG has decided to address by taking an active role in putting a big data spin on traditional accounting programs.

Not all these schools explicitly label their programs as having a data and analytics focus, and not all of them approach teaching the technical aspects of data analysis with similar rigor, so you’ll want to look into the individual curriculums for comparison. Nonetheless, the partnership ensures that you will find coursework that melds accounting with big data analytics:

  • Auditing through Information Systems
  • Data Analysis and Visualization
  • Probability, Uncertainty, and Statistical Decision Making
  • Data Mining for Business Intelligence

Key Technologies and Platforms For Accounting Data Science Degrees

Most of the work in analytic accounting will concentrate on recovering and analyzing data from large corporate enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. SAP, Netsuite, and SAGE are all major platform players in the ERP segment, so finding master’s programs that provide at least some familiarity with these database systems is important.

The degree to which these systems expose and ease access to data flowing within them varies, although all are subject to intense data mining efforts today. A deep understanding of the databases that support them, and how to use ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) connectors and structured query languages (SQL) to interrogate them is critical.

KPMG isn’t the only accounting firm out there and you can find other master’s programs with equally prestigious partnerships. The University of California, Davis Master’s of Professional Accountancy, for example, has an audit data analytics specialization and boasts of relationships with more than 20 accounting firms.

Evaluating faculty is slightly different than with other data science programs. It’s always a good idea to look for programs that use instructors with actual big data experience and up-to-date technical credentials, keep in mind that the accounting profession is still fundamentally rooted in generally accepted standards, business practices and legal compliance. This means that when exploring your degree options, you don’t want to turn your nose up at programs at prestigious schools in the business and accounting field, like the Wharton School, Stanford, or the University of Chicago.