I have been asked this question a lot recently, and I would like to offer some thoughts about these two qualifications and provide some insight to think about when choosing between these two credentials.
First, both CMA and CPA are internationally recognized qualifications supported by international professional organizations. While CPA is still more recognized internationally than CMA, the gap between the two is rapidly closing within organizations that hire management accounting and finance professionals.
Second, you need to match your certifications with what it is that you would like to do with your career in the future. If you would like to have a career as an external auditor or a tax professional, you should probably choose CPA because that is the more recognized qualification in those areas. On the other hand, if you want to work in the accounting or finance department of an organization, then CMA will give you much more practical and relevant knowledge. If you want to start your own business, you definitely should study CMA.
Finally, neither qualification is easy to pass, and you will have to work hard to earn either certification. I have recently spoken to a handful of individuals who have done both CMA and CPA and they all said that overall CMA was more difficult. While on the surface you may see this as a reason not to do CMA, the perceived difficulty of the exam is critical to the value that the certificate. If an exam is viewed as being too easy, then passing that exam does not demonstrate any special level of knowledge on your part. However, when an exam is perceived as difficult, then there is more benefit to you that comes from passing that exam.
On a related note, if you would like to be an internal auditor you should study CIA, and if you want to go into investment banking, then you should study CFA.
Regardless of which certification you choose, make your decision looking at your future and which one will help you the most in your desired career.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA