Becoming an accountant requires advanced education, formal certification and a firm commitment to learning the trade. Along the way, prospective accountants need to answer a number of questions: Do I possess the qualities needed to become an accountant or CPA? Can I start a successful career after four years of college or do I need to earn a master’s degree? Should I work for a large corporation or firm, or would I be better off on my own?
This comprehensive guide is designed to be a resource for individuals interested in a career as an accountant or CPA. Included are an explanation of what accountants do, a description accounting degrees, and a list of suggested steps one might take to get started.
Although not required, most accountants attend college and earn a bachelor’s degree. However, a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field is considered the minimum education requirement for those who plan to become a CPA. Some states even require advanced coursework beyond the normal bachelor’s degree in subjects such as financial reporting, taxes, auditing and other non- accounting business areas. A total of 150 credit hours in accounting and related areas are commonly needed. Students interested in becoming a CPA should check the specific education requirements in their jurisdictions. Many CPAs also continue their post-secondary education and earn a master’s degree.
Accounting degree programs are very popular and commonly available at colleges and universities throughout the United States, as well as through distance learning. Prospective students should always confirm that a program is fully accredited before beginning a course of study.
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Virtually all accountants and CPAs specialize in one or more areas of practice. The two general areas of specialization are public accounting and corporate or business accounting. A number of sub-specializations also exist, such as environmental accounting, internal auditing, managerial accounting and taxes. Often, the specialty you select coincides with the accounting degree you earned.
There is a difference between an accountant and a Certified Public Accountant. Accountants (also referred to as “public accountants”) are typically individuals hired to work in the accounting departments of businesses, but lack several of the qualifications of a CPA. Accountants, for example, may not possess state certification or licensure. Accountants can perform certain limited tasks, such as the preparation of financial statements. They may also prepare tax returns if they have passed the required IRS test or received a Preparer Tax Identification Number. They may not, however, conduct audits or review financial statements.
Certified Public Accountants must meet a number of specific requirements, including earning a college degree, passing all parts of the CPA exam, and working for a set number of hours (usually 1800) under the supervision of an actively licensed CPA. CPA’s can perform all of the same tasks as a public accountant, but additionally may conduct audits, review statements, and represent clients before the IRS.
In deciding which type of accountant career to pursue, an individual must honestly assess his or her personal goals and willingness to put in the considerable time and effort needed to become a CPA.
All states require CPA candidates to pass all four parts of the CPA exam. Those four parts are: Audit and Attestation; Financial Accounting and Reporting; Regulation; and Business Environment and Concepts. The CPA exam is offered during the first two months of every quarter, and typically over the course of several days. Candidates may take the test parts in any order they choose, but once they have passed one part, they must successfully complete the other three parts within 18 months. Given its degree of difficulty and breath of subject matter, most CPA test candidates enroll in private test preparation courses.
Before you graduate, try to get an accounting internship or find another way to get some experience to pump up your resume. Take the necessary steps to create a resume and sign up for a career-focused social media platform such as LinkedIn. When it’s time to apply for entry-level accounting positions, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running. Sites like LinkedIn have job postings and let you apply for these jobs directly from the site. Check your school’s job listings, watch out for networking opportunities, and visit both local and national job search sites. Also search out sites created especially for new grads, such as collegerecruiter.com.
Once you land your first job, it’s tempting to sit back and enjoy the ride after all the hard work of college. Now is the time, however, when you should be thinking about the next moves you’ll need to move up the career ladder. Earning a certification in an accounting specialization or a master’s degree in accounting could help boost career climbing, and if you haven’t earned your CPA, it’s something you may want to look at down the road.
On the most basic level, accountants and CPAs keep and inspect financial accounts for companies, government groups and individual clients. However, there is a huge range in what jobs accountants and CPAs actually take on. Some are self-employed while others work for large firms with offices across the nation. While many accountants and CPAs work full-time, some work fewer hours throughout most of the year with long hours during tax season or the end of the budget year
While associate degrees in accounting are available, most professionals in the field have at least a bachelor’s degree. Accountants with a four-year degree are able to complete most accounting duties. These include examining records, reconciling accounts, preparing financial reports and completing tax returns. In addition, these accountants may be called upon to evaluate business finances and make recommendations to improve efficiencies or reduce costs.
With more education and experience, accountants can become certified. Some financial documents, such as those submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission, must be signed by a Certified Public Accountant. Individuals with certification may also find they have greater opportunities to advance their career to management positions or specialize in an area of interest, such as forensic accounting or taxation.
Many people enter accounting because it is seen as a financially stable career. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics information from 2010, the average wage of accountants and auditors was $61,690. However, the top 10 percent of accountants earned more than $106,880. There are great opportunities for accountants who have graduated at the top of their program, and for those who have high-levels of certification, such as those who are CPAs.
The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners for each state.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that employment of accountants and auditors will grow about 16 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average career field. However, in the wake of a number of corporate scandals and the recent financial crisis, there has been an increased focus on accounting that responds to those kinds of issues. While those areas have a limited number of employment openings, there still may be more opportunities soon.
Select a state to see more on employment and job growth for accountants and CPAs.
Accounting is the third most popular degree option at the undergraduate level, and with good reason. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the industry is set to grow by 11 percent from 2012-2022.
Accounting is an attractive educational option for many. Students interested in pursuing this field have varied choices available to them, including scores of accredited online programs, which are well known for providing excellent, flexible accounting education. Additionally, many programs offer the opportunity to specialize in a particular area, such as auditing, taxation, or forensic accounting. Students unsure which type of degree to pursue can review the table below to get a better sense of the prospects available at each level.
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master's||Online|
|I know I want to study accounting, but with existing personal and professional responsibilities, I don’t have time to attend classes on campus. I also don’t want to relocate in order to earn my degree. Finding a well-ranked and accredited program is also really important to me.|
|I want to work in an accounting-related field but am not looking to become a certified public accountant (CPA). I’m interested in auditing or possibly government accounting.|
|After working in the field of accounting for a little while, I am ready to further my career either at my current job, at a larger firm, or by opening my own accounting business. I am very certain of wanting to become a certified public accountant (CPA).|
|I’m interested in accounting, but am not certain. I’m looking for program that will introduce me to the field and cover fundamental accounting principles and skills. Ideally, the program should allow me to take my education to the next level should I decide this is the right path for me.|
Want to work as an accountant but
Perhaps a career with the FBI would be of interest: the governmental agency currently employs over 2,000 special agents focused on accounting.
Degrees in accounting are available at associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels via traditional campus-based learning or online options. Each level of degree can lead to specific opportunities for graduates, ranging from entry-level clerk and assistant roles to academic professorships. Students should identify their goals and understand how the completion of each degree will aid them in meeting those aspirations. A review of each type is given below.
An associate degree in accounting prepares graduates for a variety of positions within the industry and can be completed in 1-2 years depending on the student’s preference of part or full-time education. Though taking half the time required to complete a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree in accounting still covers a wide spectrum of topics relevant to the field, including basic accounting principles, fundamentals of taxation, payroll accounting, and personal finance. Other topics relevant to accounting are also included, such as micro/macroeconomics, business law, and accounting technology. As the world of accounting evolves to incorporate more technology and data analysis, this knowledge will become particularly valuable to employers; students with competency in accounting software will be highly desirable.
Below is a breakdown of some courses students can expect to take at the associate degree level, along with an explanation of industry skills gained:
Provides an overview of common accounting principles and terminology; basic topics including how to record financial transactions and preparing an income statement will be covered.
Examines the tools commonly used in managing accounts within businesses and introduces students to the budgetary process, activity based costing, and performance evaluation tools.
Teaches students how to manage financial accounts, be it for themselves or for clients seeking personal tax preparation.
Provides foundational knowledge of the concepts and terminology relating to taxation; usually offered as a survey course to familiarize students with the many different forms of taxation.
Typically offered as a Bachelor of Science, a four-year degree in accounting is a highly specialized program that prepares graduates to work in varied capacities within the accounting industry. This level of education may be ideal for students who are not looking to become certified public accountants (CPA), as the certification requires additional coursework at the graduate level. Graduates of an accounting degree program will have an in-depth and holistic knowledge of the business cycle and the accounting principles governing responsible practices. Specific skills include preparing financial statements and tax documents, internal auditing, financial advisement, and more broad-based skills in organizational management and evaluation of a company’s overall effectiveness.
Below students can find a more in-depth look at some of the courses they may expect to take at the bachelor’s level, along with skills they will be able to apply to professional settings.
Offers a survey of the application of procedures commonly used when auditing for-profit organizations; typically includes a strong emphasis on the professional standards and liabilities that come along with being an auditor.
Introduces students to the structure of the IRS for both personal and business tax filing.
Equips students with the skills necessary to create and analyze various financial statements and commonly draws on real-world case studies.
Focuses learning on the importance of internal reporting and how cost accounting influences decision-making within organizations. Numerous costing systems commonly used will be studied.
A Master of Accounting (MAcc) is an ideal program for students looking to become CPAs or aspiring to high-level accounting positions within competitive firms. For students with an existing background in accounting, this degree can typically be completed in one year. Some programs will offer students the option to complete an intensive internship program, providing hands-on experience and opportunities to make valuable contacts within the industry. Students without prior educational experience in accounting will likely need to complete a number of prerequisite courses before beginning the program. Examples of these include introductory classes in financial accounting, micro/macroeconomics, and statistical theory alongside other baseline accounting classes. Once enrolled, students will progress into advanced study of focused topics, including accounting theory, specialized accounting for specific business types (e.g. nonprofits, government agencies, multinational organizations) and technological theory.
Alternatively, students can pursue an MBA in accounting for their master's studies. Students in MBA accounting programs take more business management and leadership courses, but curriculum is often similar to that of an MAcc. They can begin a college search by looking at some of the best online MBA programs in the nation..
Throughout either degree program, students will undertake specialized courses to help them deepen their knowledge and develop pertinent skills. Below is a list of some of the classes graduate students could expect to take.
Provides a concentrated study on how to use cost information in managerial roles to plan and control business activities. Strong emphasis on data analysis.
Ensures students understand the legal framework of businesses and any laws that could run parallel to activities conducted within accounting.
Building on existing knowledge of manual and computerized accounting, the course delves into the bigger picture to equip students with nuanced data analysis techniques and security measures.
Gives students practical knowledge for recognizing opportunities arising in tax planning and equips them to make calculated and ethical business decisions when developing tax strategies.
Students seeking to move into academia or research within accounting will need to pursue a PhD, which typically take 4-5 years of full-time study. Most doctoral programs have three components: coursework, research and dissertation, and comprehensive examinations. Eschewing fundamental accounting classes, students move directly into specialized topics dependent on the area of accounting they are seeking to concentrate on in their dissertation. Undertaking a PhD in accounting is an excellent option for those interested in teaching, as there is a countrywide shortage of accounting professors. According to an Accounting Faculty report, approximately 140 students gain PhDs in accounting each year, while nearly 500 accounting professors retire annually.Skills Gained at PhD Level
In addition to understanding the practical application of accounting principles, PhD students will dig into the theoretical framework of these topics as well, providing them with a deep and holistic understanding of the material.
Students will learn how to complete independent research on accounting topics and undertake courses on research techniques, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and research methodology development.
Accounting will be studied from a psychological perspective, giving students an understanding of cognitive behavior and mental processes. Students will have a greater understanding of how the human brain problem solves and approaches accounting principles.
Students typically undertake one of two paths in their studies: archival or behavioral. Students electing to follow the archival path will focus on economics and finance while those on the behavioral track will concentrate on psychological theories.
Financial and managerial accounting are the two main areas of research within PhD programs and students will elect to investigate one of these areas in-depth. The result is a deep knowledge of how to apply methods culled from economics and econometrics to investigate techniques within the industry.
With so many different careers available to graduates of accounting programs, students often choose to concentrate their knowledge on a specific area, such as auditing, taxation or even forensic accounting. The list below will give potential students a starting point for thinking about areas of particular interest within the field of accounting. Each concentration also includes examples of potential careers post graduation.
The world of auditing is a fascinating and diverse branch of accounting that allows those who specialize in it to work on many different types of projects. Operating as a monitor of business integrity and ethics, auditing is concerned with ensuring companies are held to financial standards. Specific topics students can expect to focus on include business law, accounting research methodologies, and forensic accounting.
Auditors typically sift through existing financial records to help individuals, companies, or governmental organizations rest assured that they have successfully followed any tax laws or regulatory statutes that their company type may fall under.
Rather than working in day-to-day auditing activities, managers in this field oversee other auditors and typically spend more time focused on bigger picture issues; also provides leadership to auditing team and may take on some of the more advanced projects from time to time.
Professionals in this career have an interesting and varied set of opportunities. For those looking to work within governmental agencies, much of the work exists in the realm of external investigation. Professionals seeking a corporate environment are often brought on to complete internal investigations.
By concentrating learning on taxation theory and application, students will gain a multifaceted knowledge of practices and procedures associated with preparing taxes for individuals and many types of organizations. In addition to accountancy courses covering fundamental skills, students will develop a sound understanding of advanced taxation topics, such as federal taxation of corporations and partnerships, estate and gift taxation, tax research methods, and other special topics in taxation.
Works with both small and large organizations, preparing tax documents aligned to federal regulations. Typically holds a CPA license; develops strategies to manage financial records astutely, and ensure best practices are employed when preparing tax records.
Serves individuals by preparing annual tax documents; can work at an accounting firm or as a self-employed accountant. Provides financial advice and reporting assistance and is required to have a CPA license.
Typically an expert in a specific field of taxation, tax consultants provide relevant and up-to-date advisement on tax issues to a variety of clients, ultimately ensuring tax optimization and compliance for individuals and organizations alike.
For students interested in ethics and fraud investigation as it relates to accounting practices, undertaking a concentration in forensic accounting will put them in the center of the action. In addition to core accounting classes, students specializing in this area will learn about legal aspects of fraud, how to detect and prevent fraudulence in financial statements, how to use technology in investigating questionable business practices, and proper reporting techniques. Graduates are able to undertake the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential.
Undertakes forensic research to track funds and identify any misuse or negligence. Analyzes financial data and creates reports on financial findings.
Working with a variety of organizations, fraud consultants have wide-ranging knowledge on fraudulent behavior. Projects could include locating hidden assets, intelligence gathering, researching embezzlement, or identifying GAAP violations.
Often works with governmental agencies; tracks illegal funds, investigates white-collar crime, seeks out misappropriation of assets and provides evidence integrity analysis.
To obtain the status of Certified Public Accountant (CPA), students need to complete 150 hours of coursework. While most bachelor’s degrees fall short by 30 hours, candidates are not required to complete a master’s degree to undertake certification, but they will need to complete the extra hours before applying. Undergraduate students should note that these additional hours should be at graduate level. Requirements vary state-by-state, so it’s best to check the rules and requirements of individual state boards first.
Students should also ensure they have a thorough understanding of the program’s accreditation status. Some states will require that students have attended an AACSB accredited school for their hours to count towards CPA certification. Again, it is best to check the individual state’s requirements before committing to a program.
For students undertaking their accounting degrees online, they should ensure that the college they elect to study under has enough relevant courses to fulfill the 30 hour requirement, and that these courses meet the requirements of the state they will seek to be certified in.
Studying accounting via online education is a popular option for many students as the flexible nature allows them to build an academic schedule that fits with other personal and professional responsibilities. Many students studying online may already be working in an accounting position and will complete the online degree while still employed.
Before enrolling, however, it is important to carefully evaluate each school and program of interest to ensure that the online education you receive is high quality. Below are a few things that prospective distance learners should keep an eye out for:
All accounting degree programs--online, campus, or hybrid--should be accredited by an agency or organization that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). In the accounting field, the primary accrediting body is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). Some schools also pursue accreditation specifically for their online accounting programs through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). If the college and degree program you are interested in has earned accreditation from one or both of these organizations, you can rest assured that curricula, professors, resources, and other program aspects meet or exceed quality standards, and that the degree you earn will be accepted by employers and other institutions.
A quality education starts with excellent faculty and professors who have extensive and current experience, both in the virtual classroom and professional world. Most accounting departments post faculty bios. Carefully review these to see if professors have worked as CPAs, controllers, audit managers, CFOs, and more for a range of companies, from small firms to large corporations to governmental agencies. This type of real world experience can give online students more practical knowledge and these professors may also become valuable mentors or network contacts post graduation.
Whether online or in person, classroom learning is only half the battle. In addition to relevant curricula and highly qualified professors, does the school also offer advanced accounting resources to help students throughout their program and after graduation? For example, does the school provide access to the latest accounting software such as QuickBooks Pro, Intacct, and Sage 50? Are career counselors well-versed in the field of accounting and do they have access to a range of accounting firms and corporations to help students land internships or jobs after graduation?
However, accountants need more than simply financial knowledge to do their jobs well. They must also have strong organizational skills and be extremely detail-oriented. Accounting records must be impeccable since businesses rely on them to make sound decisions. Sloppy records cannot only put a company’s financial stability in question; they may also have legal repercussions under corporate responsibility laws.
An accounting degree can help get you started, but to really hit a positive career trajectory, consider other credentials such as the following:
|Accounting||ATX Total Accounting Office, Intuit Quickbooks, CPAClient Checkbook|
|Compliance||ACCUCert, Intrax ProcedureNet, Paisley Cardmap|
|Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)||AcornSystems Corporate Performance Management, Oracle PeopleSoft, Microsoft Great Plains Solomon|
|Financial Analysis||Cartesis Magnitude iAnalysis, MethodWare ProAudit Advisor, Brentmark Estate Planning Quickview|
|Tax Preparation||CCH ProSystem fx TAX, ORRtax, IntelliTax|
Besides accounting, there are several other careers and educational paths you can take if you want to get into the numbers game.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale
Graduates of accounting programs and former accountants or CPAs go on to careers in financial or corporate management, government, management of accounting firms, or business.
Many schools offer degrees in accounting at associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels. It can be a challenge, however, to find and review all available options. Below is a search tool to help with the process. Use the filters to help find the exact match and then take time to research each to determine which accounting school is best for your academic and career goals.