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Finance Career Paths: CIA or CPA

July 18, 2018

Top-down view of accountant working on a laptop at his desk.

Choosing a career path is a significant decision. While your ultimate choice may not be impossible to change at some point, the investment in time and energy is substantial. When you factor in potential student loan debt, it is clear this is a decision you want to get right the first time.

Even within a field of study, you still need to make choices. For example, pursuing a career in finance or accounting leads to several forks in the road that need to be reconciled relatively early in your professional life.

CPA or CIA: Which Is Right For You?

One of the fundamental choices you will face is whether to become a certified public accountant (CPA) or a certified internal auditor (CIA). Each has pros and cons, which are essential for you to make an informed decision.

Educational Requirements

To become a CPA, you need a bachelor’s degree, typically in accounting, finance or business, as well as 150 credit hours under your belt. The credit threshold often leads many CPAs to earn a master’s degree in business administration or take an accelerated five-year accounting program. In addition to formal education, most states require all CPA candidates to work under the supervision of a licensed CPA for 1,800 hours. This externship can be completed before, during or after you sit for the CPA exam.

By comparison, the educational requirements are significantly lower for a CIA. All you need is a bachelor’s degree, which can be exempted with proof of a certain number of hours of working experience in internal audit. CIA candidates also must obtain work experience in the field of internal auditing, with requirements ranging from 12 to 60 months depending on a student’s education level. The final primary requirement is a character reference signed by a member of CIA, CGAP, CCSA, CFSA, CRMA, or the candidate’s supervisor.

Exam and Licensing

Both the CPA and the CIA require you to pass a licensing examination to be certified by the state. The CPA exam includes four parts:

  • Audit and attestation;
  • Financial accounting and reporting;
  • Regulation; and
  • Business environment and concepts

The CIA exam only has three parts, all focusing primarily on internal audit. At six and a half hours, the CIA exam is shorter than its CPA counterpart, which lasts 16 hours.

Both exams cost $1,000 to $1,500 and fees do not include study guides or test prep courses.

Career Opportunities

A licensed CPA has a variety of career opportunities among various specializations. Popular positions include financial analyst, internal auditing, information technology auditing, tax accounting, and managerial accounting, to name a few.

Someone with a CIA certification will likely pursue jobs such as audit specialist, junior auditor, senior auditor, audit manager, supervisory auditor or accountant, operational risk consultant, staff internal auditor, compliance auditor, compliance oversight specialist, and internal audit consultant. You may have noticed that a CPA can do internal audit work in addition to many other options, but CIAs are restricted to internal audit work and not much else.

CIA vs CPA Salary Expectations

According to, the median annual salary for an accountant nationwide is $50,609, with a range of $45,010-$54,443. The median annual salary in Indianapolis is $49,445, and in Chicago, the median is slightly higher at $53,646 annually. None of these amounts include bonus and benefit information and other factors that impact base pay.

Surprisingly, the median annual salary for an internal auditor is $56,525, with a range between $51,271-$62,127; however, this can vary. The median in Indianapolis is $55,525, and the median in Chicago is $59,916. Again, none of these amounts include bonus and benefit information and other factors that impact base pay.


A certified internal auditor has a slightly higher entry-level salary than a certified public accountant. Because of a range of factors, including opportunity for advancement, salary amounts should not be the only basis for a career choice.

CPAs still have a variety of specializations at their disposal (including internal auditing) while CIAs are limited to internal audit positions with no real possibility of lateral movement unless they pursue additional education or training. If you’re trying to choose between accounting and auditing, remember that both career paths demand education, experience, and a strong work ethic; the rest comes down to personal preference.

Grace College’s fully online MBA provides students with a strong foundation in finance, marketing, accounting and human resources as well as coursework in entrepreneurship. This program can help graduates pursue roles such as finance manager. It can also lead to various leadership opportunities in business. This faith-based program applies biblical values to coursework.

Grace also offers a fully online bachelor’s degree in business administration that focuses on the skills and tools graduates need to adapt and excel in the business world.