Accountants are hired by companies large and small to manage bookkeeping, oversee tax payments and assess financial operations. These finance professionals may be employed directly by one company, work for an accounting firm that serves multiple clients or be self-employed. Regardless of whether they work at home or have an office, an accountant's typical day may include the following:
- Recording and organizing financial data.
- Examining financial records to ensure accuracy and compliance with state and federal laws.
- Preparing tax forms and filing paperwork on behalf of clients.
- Assessing a firm's financial health and flagging areas of concern.
- Recommending methods to reduce costs, improve revenues or otherwise increase profitability.
Accounting programs can prepare you to work in several specializations. Here's a look at three major categories of accountants:
- Government Accountants: Oversee the financial records of government agencies as well as audit private businesses and individuals in order to ensure compliance with government regulations.
- Management Accountants: Analyze the financial transactions of organizations to provide data used by company managers to make business decisions.
- Public Accountants Provide a wide range of financial services to individuals, businesses, and corporations including consulting, accounting and assistance with tax compliance.
How to Become an Accountant
If you want to work as an accountant, you should prepare to spend some time in college. Consider the following steps to becoming an accountant:
- Earn a high school diploma or equivalent.
- Complete postsecondary training, whether it be an undergraduate certificate, associate degree, or beyond -- more of which you can learn about below.
- Gain experience in the field. Consider working in a firm or office as an assistant to a certified accountant to learn the ropes.
While not every professional in the field needs a four-year degree, you will need to become familiar with the following subjects while in school:
- Business finance
- Business law
Accounting Degree Programs
If you're wondering how long it takes to become an accountant, the answer depends on the level of education you choose to pursue:
- Certificate: An undergraduate certificate in accounting provides the basic skills needed to work in the field. You may be able to complete a certificate in as little as one semester and then be ready to work as a bookkeeper or accounting clerk.
- Associate Degree: An associate degree is a step up from a certificate. It can usually be earned in two years and may include courses in marketing, business math and managerial accounting. Graduates may go on to work in entry-level positions in accounting, payroll and auditing.
- Bachelor's Degree: A four-year degree in accounting takes students into greater depth on subjects such as the tax code and accounting principles. It may also include a senior or capstone project in which students can demonstrate their knowledge in real-world applications.
- Graduate Certificate or Degree: A graduate education is really only necessary if you want to become a Certified Public Accountant. Most states require CPAs have 150 hours of instruction which means additional classes beyond a bachelor's degree are needed. We'll talk more about CPAs shortly.
Schools for Accounting
If you're not sure how you'll fit classes into your busy schedule, the good news is there are many accounting schools online. These institutions offer a full range of online accounting programs, from undergraduate certificates to graduate degrees.
Regardless of whether you're interested in traditional or online accounting schools, look for an institution that is accredited. Regional accrediting bodies are the standard level of accreditation earned by colleges and universities. However, if you want to become a CPA, look for one accredited by The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Accounting Licensure and Certification
You don't have to be licensed by the government to work as an accountant. That is, unless you want to be able to file client reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In that case, you'll need to become a CPA.
To become a CPA, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree and usually 150 total hours of instruction. Plus, CPAs must pass a four-part exam administered by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). It's a rigorous process, but one that can be lucrative. When it comes to how much do accountants make, CPAs can charge up to 15 percent more than their non-certified counterparts, according to the AICPA.
However, a CPA isn't the only certification option within the accounting industry. You could also pursue one of the following designations:
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA): This certification is offered through the CFA Institute and requires a bachelor's degree and four years of experience.
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA): Offered by the Institute of Internal Auditors, this certification requires a four-year degree and experience on the job.
- Certified Management Account (CMA): The Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business offers this certification, which requires a bachelor's education and two consecutive years of experience in the field.
As you can see, a four-year degree is important but don't think you can't also advance a career that starts with a certificate or associate degree.
Career Advancement for Accountants
Depending on your specialization, it may be possible to move up in rank from an entry-level position to an executive role simply by gaining work experience. For instance, a management accountant may start as a cost accountant, move to the position of budget director and eventually become a financial vice president.
However, some companies may want CPAs to fill their top positions, such as that of chief financial officers. So while work experience is crucial, gaining additional education and certifications can be equally important for some career goals.
Financial Aid for Accounting Programs
Skills and Qualities for Accountants
Accounting programs can help you gain some of the skills needed for a successful career, but others are natural attributes you may have to work to develop on your own.
- Mathematics: Not surprisingly, accountants must understand math to do their job well. It's a skill they use on a daily basis to balance books, create budgets and calculate taxes.
- Monitoring: Accountants are responsible for overseeing how money is spent, and being able to monitor data accurately and efficiently is an important skill in this profession.
- Time Management: Whether they are working for one company or multiple clients, accountants must be able to manage their time well to ensure all their tasks are completed properly and on schedule.
- Deductive Reasoning: Accountants must make sense of many numbers. They need to be able to categorize and calculate them correctly. Deductive reasoning is the skill that helps make that possible.
- Problem Sensitivity: Corporations rely on accountants to alert them to potential problems in their finances. Problem sensitivity refers to the ability of workers to recognize when an issue may arise.
Career Outlook and Salary Information for Accountants
Undoubtedly, you're wondering what is an accountant salary like. While national data is listed below, keep in mind that actual incomes depend on many factors. For example, an entry-level accountant working from home won't command the same salary as a CPA employed by a top financial firm. What's more, accountants have a career that will probably always be needed by businesses, but career outlook can vary depending on your skills and education. Here's a look at estimated job growth and accountant salaries in the field for the coming years:
Projected Job Growth
|Accountants and Auditors||1,259,930||$78,820||6.4%|
|Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks||1,530,430||$42,110||-3.9%|
Professional Resources for Accountants
If you want more information on the accounting profession, check out these three resources:
- American Institute of Certified Public Accountants: AICPA is considered one of the premier accounting industry organizations. The group's website has a wealth of information for anyone interested in becoming a CPA.
- American Accounting Association: Founded in 1916, AAA is the largest organization of accountants working in academia.
- National Society of Accountants: The NSA works to promote professional ethics as well as the accounting industry as a whole. Its scholarship fund provides support to accounting students.
Expert Q&A on Accounting Schools
To get more information about the importance of education and the path to becoming an accountant, we wanted to speak with an expert. Bryan Eaves, CPA, CPSM, C.P.M., is a partner at the consulting firm Sourcing Business Solutions. He answers some of our frequently asked questions about how to prepare for a career in this field.
What types of candidates do employers seek?
Employers seek job candidates that have well developed analytical skills. Accounting is loaded full of problems that require using math and applying analytical thinking to solve business problems. Accounting usually also requires excellent communication skills. Both written and verbal communication are important when assessing issues and communicating tax, auditing, or accounting recommendations to management or your clients.
Why would you encourage someone to pursue this career? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Accounting majors can migrate easily into a variety of jobs and positions. This fact is as true today as it was 30 years ago. While I rely less on my accounting background today, my education in accounting provided fundamental business understandings that allow me to perform consulting services in the supply chain and procurement area at a high level.
Do you have any advice for new workers just starting out in this career?
If you are just starting off in your accounting career and are in a job that you think is not your dream job, stick it out for at least two years. Staying employed at the same company for at least two years early in your career will create a good experience for you and open up future opportunities as well. Also, completing your 40 hours of CPE is valuable to you personally and professionally. Continually improving your knowledge and learning through CPE courses will be critical to your long-term career growth.