Accounting Career and Training Information
All organizations—from community groups to publicly traded corporations to small businesses—require the services of accountants. Accounting is essential to maintaining accurate financial records, recording and organizing financial information, and analyzing relevant data to make important business decisions.
Armed with strong critical-thinking, communication, problem-solving, leadership, and decision-making skills, accountants are integral to the success of any business. They are skilled professionals who work with both numbers and technology in order to solve complex business problems, develop practical business strategies and goals, and help organizations become more efficient and effective.
Accounting is often called the language of business and is described as the process (or art) of recording, classifying, analyzing, and reporting the financial data of organizations for a variety of end users.
There are many specialized areas of accounting practice, which include:
This is the area of accounting that focuses on generating the information needed by a variety of users within an organization, which can include business owners, managers, employees, auditors, and other decision-makers. This type of accounting is performed for the purpose of helping internal information users to make vital management and operational decisions.
This area is concerned with providing information to external users, such as shareholders, government agencies, investors, and creditors. These users are not involved in the day-to-day operation of an organization but have access to various financial records such as annual reports and other sources of accounting information. Additionally, financial accounting is generally completed to industry-standard rules and regulations, such as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) or the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). These are followed in order to produce consistent and objective data.
This is another area of accounting that is performed to produce valuable information for managers and other decision-makers who are concerned with the productivity and efficiency of an organization. Training generally involves learning to record, organize, and evaluate data related to actual operating costs, as well as developing alternative options. Generally, accountants in this discipline will produce cost projections and advise management on potential strategies for increased efficiency and effective use of financial resources.
This is the specialized area that entails the combination of accounting and investigation to detect and document financial fraud, such as embezzlement or misreporting of revenues. Typically, forensic accounting is used in criminal investigations, civil litigation, insurance negotiations, and a variety of similar areas.
This is the area of accounting that involves the financial reporting of non-business organizations such as non-profit groups and government agencies. This type of accounting covers portfolios, commodities, and other types of funds. In this discipline, the focus is on accountability (rather than profitability) and is carried out to make sure that resources are allocated properly and practices are in line with the stipulations set out for the specific fund.
This is the area of accounting that involves performing tax planning, calculations, and payments, and is carried out in accordance with specific tax principles (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code). This can include preparing and filing tax returns, planning for future tax obligations, and ensuring tax compliance.
The tasks associated with this career can include:
- Recording financial transactions, such as revenues and expenses
- Handling transactions related to accounts payable and receivable, such as paying bills, creating invoices, and performing payroll
- Calculating depreciation, amortization, and similar items
- Developing, implementing, and adjusting accounting and recordkeeping processes
- Evaluating and utilizing computerized accounting software and related technologies
- Establishing tables of accounts as well as posting and adjusting entries accordingly
- Creating financial statements (including balance sheets, statements of retained earnings, statements of cash flows, and income statements)
- Analyzing and verifying financial statements and other financial documents
- Handling personal and business tax calculations and preparation to ensure that taxes are paid properly, on time, and in compliance with tax regulations
- Representing businesses and individuals before various tax agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and state-level bodies
- Examining business operations and costs in order to provide suggestions for increased profits and efficient use of resources
- Exploring industry trends and other factors to create future projections for revenues, expenses, profit, etc.
- Developing, adjusting, and assessing organizational budgets
- Providing financial and investment planning services
- Presenting and explaining financial data and findings to clients, managers, executives, boards of directors, and owners
- Offering advice and guidance related to employee compensation and benefits
- Auditing the financial statements and records from an internal or external position
- Overseeing other accounting and bookkeeping employees
Additionally, some professionals gain specialized education and credentials, which can prepare them to:
- Investigate white-collar (financial) crime
- Testify before courts regarding criminal charges, insurance claims, and other issues
- Perform research and analysis on public policy and/or legislation
- Explore the financial viability of existing infrastructures (e.g., schools, hospitals, etc.)
- Audit government agencies
The above are just some of the tasks that can be performed within niche areas of the field. However, they do show that an accountant can work in a broad range of unique areas that are not always associated with this profession.
The Difference Between a Bookkeeper and an Accountant
While the terms "accountant" and "bookkeeper" are often used interchangeably, they are very separate professions. To help you understand the distinction, here are some of the differences:
- Is generally not required to possess a formal finance-related education
- Records business transactions, such as sales, operating expenses, payroll, etc., and takes data up to the trial balance stage
- Follows company-mandated recordkeeping processes and systems
- Typically earns much less than a professional accountant
- Doesn't always get to see an organization at the big-picture level since he or she may only focus on recording very specific financial information
- Performs one small aspect of the accounting process
- Has likely earned an undergraduate or graduate degree and/or has received one or more professional certifications
- Often uses (and verifies) the work of a bookkeeper to produce financial statements and reports
- Can develop and modify recordkeeping processes and systems
- Typically earns more than a bookkeeper
- Looks at an organization's overall financial picture and can assess its efficiency, profits, operations, and more
- Is able to perform all parts of the accounting process, including bookkeeping
What You Can Do with an Accounting Degree
With a degree in this field, you could be qualified to take on a broad range of positions, earn advanced credentials, and much more. Here are some examples of what you could do:
- Earn your Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation
- Work in a public accounting firm, providing services to a number of clients
- Work for an individual business or organization, providing accounting services to one specific client
- Start up your own consulting business, helping organizations to become more efficient and effective
- Teach accounting and/or bookkeeping at a vocational school, college, or university
- Take on a role with the IRS or a state tax agency, auditing private businesses, organizations, and individuals
- Specialize in tax preparation and compliance for businesses or individuals
- Work for law enforcement agencies detecting and investigating fraud and other types of financial crime
- Develop computerized accounting software and related technologies for the accounting and finance industry
- Obtain a position with local, state, or federal government, ensuring compliance with relevant laws and regulations
- Work for non-profit groups such as charities, churches, and schools, making sure that finances are being handled efficiently and as prescribed by rules and standards
- Advise businesses, non-profit organizations, and governments on setting and abiding by internal control systems and budgets
- Work in financial planning and management, helping clients to set goals for savings, investments, and more
- Provide internal and external auditing services on a contract basis
- Direct and oversee the financial reporting and internal controls of an organization
- Offer consulting services to clients who are interested in environmentally responsible practices and want to adhere to related regulations
- Work for creditors and investors, determining the value of businesses and their associated assets
- Become a court-appointed trustee on behalf of unsecured creditors during bankruptcy proceedings
- Work for international corporations, investors, and other organizations handling mergers, acquisitions, and other international transactions
Some specific job titles that you could qualify for with an accounting degree can include:
- Financial analyst
- Forensic accountant
- Real estate assessor
- Business valuator
- Forensic actuary
- FBI agent
- Internal/external auditor
- Tax specialist
- Accounting manager
- Controller/assistant controller
- Chief financial officer (CFO)/chief accounting executive
- Bankruptcy trustee
- Financial planner
Breaking Into the Field
Choosing a route
Although you can opt to pursue a position in bookkeeping without a formal education, your employment opportunities and job responsibilities will likely be extremely limited.
Alternatively, diploma or associate's degree options exist for those who wish to become junior accountants. Opportunities for advancement are limited, however, without returning to school to earn a more advanced educational credential. Plus, junior accounting or bookkeeping positions tend to include more routine tasks such as recording basic transactions and reconciling monthly bank statements.
The best route to a career in accounting often begins with a degree—more specifically, a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree is the minimum education requirement for the popular Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation, and a bachelor's degree supplemented with additional credit hours or a master's degree is the minimum education requirement for the even more popular Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation.
Some employers prefer to hire accountants who possess a master's degree (generally a Master in Business Administration with a concentration in accounting or a Master's in Accounting); however, this preference is typically for higher-level positions that involve complex analysis or consulting.
Selecting a school and program
Deciding on a school and program is a big decision. Here are some things to consider if you are trying to select an educational option that will work best for you:
- Talk to local accounting professionals and hiring managers to find out what the standards are in your area, including which schools have the best reputation.
- Check out the individual schools that you are considering in order to obtain specific information about their graduates, such as job placement rates and examples of companies that have hired them.
- Look into accreditation at the school and program level. (And, if you are interested in becoming a CPA, find out if prospective programs are recognized and approved by your state board of public accountancy.)
- Check out the school's elective options if you are thinking about entering a niche area of the field such as forensic accounting.
Adding internship, co-op, or summer job experience within real-world accounting settings can also be an excellent way to further prepare for a future in the accounting field. This type of experience can open the door to potential job offers. Plus, industry experience is often a requirement for certification, and this can be a great way to start accumulating hours in the field.
When planning an accounting career, certification is one of the most important aspects that you'll need to make a decision about. Undoubtedly, certification can put you head and shoulders above competition in the job market. Certification can also legally entitle you to perform a much broader range of duties, making you a more valuable asset to any company.
However, there are a number of certification options to choose from, and it's important to understand each designation along with the associated educational requirements, limitations, and areas of practice. For example, becoming a CPA can allow you to practice in a variety of settings and perform a number of jobs that cannot be completed by other accountants. On the other hand, the CMA designation can open the door to future leadership positions within private sector organizations.
If you want to work for an accounting firm or a large corporation (basically any organization outside of a small business), then certification is likely the right choice for your career. Most companies look for accountants who are already certified (or are on track to becoming certified).
Additional benefits of certification can include:
- Credibility and respect in the field
- Increased opportunities for advancement
- Improved earning potential
- Added value on your resume
Once you're ready to get into the workforce, you could begin as a junior accountant or take on another entry-level position. Earning certification typically requires relevant work experience, which can often be obtained in a junior role. However, each certification is different, so it's a good idea to look at the individual conditions of the certification that you're interested in.
Further to this, you will need to keep any certification that you obtain current, which usually entails completing a prescribed amount of continuing education hours and paying a maintenance or renewal fee.
Within the profession, a number of certifications are available that you may want to consider. Each certification can provide different benefits and will have different prerequisites, all of which are essential to know about before choosing the one that's right for you.
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
CPA is generally regarded as the most popular and most recognized designation. In order to obtain this respected title, you will need to meet standards for education, examination, experience, and ethics (sometimes called the four E's).
CPA certification prerequisites vary from state to state but typically necessitate:
- Earning 150 credit hours of post-secondary education (equaling a bachelor's degree plus an additional year of study, or a master's degree), although a few states will accept extensive experience (usually 15 or more years) as a substitute
- Successfully passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination (Uniform CPA Exam) which is administered by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and set by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
- Obtaining two (or more) years of experience in the accounting field (working under a licensed CPA in approved areas of practice)
- Completing an ethics examination or the AICPA Professional Ethics for CPAs continuing professional education course
- Providing fingerprints and submitting to a criminal background check
The examination for CPAs covers a wide range of important subjects and contains four parts, each of which need to be passed in order to attain CPA certification. The individual components of the CPA examination include:
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
As a CPA, you could sign off on an organization's financial statements and perform audits. You could also be qualified to perform various tax duties that other accountants are not allowed to handle. And, as the name would indicate, becoming a CPA lends itself to a career in the public accounting field, which means working for accounting firms and/or a number of private clients.
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
In terms of both popularity and recognition, the CMA designation runs a close second to CPA. This credential is offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and is designed specifically for individuals who are interested in working for private companies.
CMA certification requires:
- Obtaining IMA membership
- Earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university
- Acquiring two years of continuous experience in acceptable accounting areas
- Complying with the IMA's Statement of Ethical Professional Practice
- Successfully completing the CMA examination
The CMA examination is laid out in a two-part form and includes:
- Financial Planning, Performance, and Control
- Financial Decision Making
As a CMA, you could play an important role in financial analysis, performance management, budgeting, and other areas related to business operations.
In addition to CPA and CMA certifications, a number of other designations can be achieved in the accounting field. Here are some of the more common options:
Certified Financial Manager (CFM)
This designation is also offered by the IMA and is intended for accounting professionals (including CMAs) who are interested in gaining a more specialized financial management credential. It has the same requirements as those for becoming a CMA plus one further examination component.
Certified Forensic Accountant (Cr.FA)
This designation, awarded by the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI), is designed to supplement the CPA credential and can qualify individuals to testify within a court setting, prepare reports, and perform investigations related to fraud and other financial crimes. To obtain the Cr.FA credential, you must be a CPA, submit three professional references, and pass an online examination.
Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
This designation is offered by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and is intended for those who want to be accepted as anti-fraud experts. This certification can prepare you to handle the specialized work of identifying, investigating, and preventing fraud and other white-collar crime. To become a CFE, you must hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution (or possess a number of years of relevant experience), be an Associate Member of the ACFE, pass the Uniform CFE Examination, provide character references, and abide by a professional code of ethics.
Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
This designation is granted by Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) and is designed to provide the credentials required to assist clients with investing, estate planning, tax planning, insurance, and risk management. In order to achieve this designation, you will need to complete a CFP Board of Standards registered program, pass a CFP Board certification examination, hold a bachelor's degree, possess three years of relevant experience, and sign the CFP Board of Standards' Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility.
Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
This designation is administered by The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and is designed for those who want to be recognized as experts in the field of internal auditing. To receive this title, you must hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited college-level institution, provide a character reference, possess at least two years of relevant experience (or a master's degree), and pass a four-part certification examination.
Enrolled Agent (EA)
This designation is bestowed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and is a specialized credential that is required to legally represent clients in all levels of the IRS for various tax matters. In order to achieve the EA designation, you must successfully complete the Special Enrollment Examination and pass a tax compliance check. This is one of the few designations that does not have a formal education requirement.
Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM)
The Association of Government Accountants (AGA) offers this designation for those who want to work in federal, state, or local government finance. In order to earn this credential, you must possess a bachelor's degree (with a specified number of credit hours in accounting, auditing, or another relevant area of business), have experience in the field, agree to adhere to the AGA's code of ethics, and pass the required examination.
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
This designation is conferred by the CFA Institute and is intended for those who want to gain recognition as an expert in the field of investment analysis, portfolio management, and financial planning. In order to attain this designation, you must possess four years of relevant experience, complete the CFA Program (which typically takes from two to five years), obtain CFA Institute membership, and promise to adhere to a professional code of ethics and standards of professional conduct.
Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
This designation is reserved for accountants who want to gain a specialized credential in the field of internal and external auditing. Offered by ISACA (previously known as the Information Systems Audit and Control Association), this designation requires that you pass the CISA certification examination and adhere to the ISACA Code of Professional Ethics, the Continuing Professional Education Program, and the Information Systems Auditing Standards.
Choosing the Designation For You
Each certification offers its own specific benefits, so determining which one is right for you should involve asking yourself a number of questions, such as:
- How much time am I willing to invest in obtaining an education and gaining professional experience?
- Am I interested in a focused area of the field, or do I want to gain a more versatile credential?
- Do I want to work in public accounting or for a private, non-profit, or governmental organization?
- What amount of time am I willing to commit to continuing education requirements on an annual or biannual basis?
Most often, CPA is the designation that is most popular with both candidates and employers alike. It provides the broadest selection of opportunities. On the other hand, the CMA designation offers many options for those who want to work in the private sector and envision a future in senior management.
If you are interested in getting your foot in the door as an accounting technician or clerk, then a short-term certificate, diploma, or associate's degree can be sufficient, and each of these options can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.
However, if your professional ambitions include earning a reputable designation such as CPA or CMA, then a bachelor's degree is the minimum standard. In this case, you will have to commit the time needed to earn a degree (typically three to five years) in addition to earning requisite field experience and passing comprehensive certification examinations. Overall, it could take you more than five years to earn one of these designations. Keep in mind that, once you've graduated with your degree, the rest of the process will typically take place while you are earning a paycheck and gaining experience in a junior accounting position.
Preparation for Schooling
Focusing on a number of key subjects can best prepare you to enter the accounting field.
Good courses to take at the high school or college level include:
- Business communication
- Computer science
You can also pursue a summer job in an accounting firm or another type of related position. In addition, an internship or job shadowing opportunity can provide useful insights.
According to national estimates from May 2016, the mean annual wage for accountants and auditors was $76,730, which works out to approximately $36.89 per hour. The highest-earning 10 percent received more than $120,910.**
The highest-paying regions for accountants included the District of Columbia, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Alaska.
Within the field, salary can vary greatly depending on a number of factors (in addition to location), such as:
- Area of expertise/practice—Specialized skills in areas such as management, information systems, internal auditing, and taxation can help you command a higher salary.
- Certifications/designations—The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) found that accounting professionals who possess the CPA certification have the potential to earn approximately $15,837 more than their uncertified counterparts, and those who hold CMA certification can make approximately $19,992 more. ***
- Educational background—Robert Half Accounting & Finance estimates that a five to 15 percent salary increase can be expected by earning a relevant graduate degree credential, or a professional certification. ****
- Years of experience—Like in any field, individuals with added experience tend to earn a higher wage.
On top of salary earnings, many accountants receive additional compensation, often in the form of bonuses (signing, annual, or performance), profit sharing, stock options, education incentives, and more.
The accountant job outlook for the near future is considered to be good, with the BLS estimating employment growth of 10.7 percent from 2014 to 2024. This change could account for 142,400 new jobs, which would add to the current 1,332,700 jobs that are currently held in this field.*
It is important to understand that these projections are generalized to the entire accounting and auditing profession and are not differentiated between the various designations and industries.
According to both the BLS and Robert Half Finance & Accounting (an international staffing firm), individuals who hold the CPA designation along with an advanced degree are expected to have the best opportunities for employment. However, the market for positions in the most desirable accounting firms and businesses will remain highly competitive.
The changing demand for accounting professionals can be attributed to a number of industry trends, including:
- Increased industry regulations following high-profile financial scandals, which have made qualified and certified accountants more employable and have led auditing services to be more in-demand
- Growing use of information technology within the accounting field, which has given way to the need for accountants who are tech-savvy
- Computerized accounting applications becoming more automated, resulting in clerical staff being able to handle more of the basic accounting tasks (shifting the need toward highly skilled and educated accountants)
- Rising awareness of financial crimes, which creates increased demand for forensic accountants and auditors to prevent, detect, and investigate various types of financial fraud
- A call for government accountability and transparency, which has brought on further need for government accountants and auditors
- An increase in international business transactions, which has created greater need for accountants who understand international relations, trade, and law
The overall trend of aging baby boomers nearing retirement is also increasing the demand for accountants and auditors across the board.
Typically, accountants work within corporate-like office settings, and most work on a full-time basis. However, they can be found in many different settings, such as:
- Home-based offices
- Client business environments
- Law enforcement agencies
- Tax agencies (such as the IRS)
- Colleges and universities
- Prestige—Accountants tend to enjoy a high level of respect and prestige (especially CPAs and CMAs) because they've met rigorous education and experience requirements.
- Room to advance—Many current executives, entrepreneurs, and managers got their start in accounting. This could be due to a number of reasons, such as the fact that accountants need to be aware of all aspects of business operations.
- Job outlook—There is strong demand for qualified accountants in the U.S. thanks to increased qualification requirements, many baby boomers nearing retirement, and other factors.
- Interesting work—Accounting involves a wide range of tasks, which can include reporting, auditing, advising, analyzing, and more. This can allow for an interesting and challenging workload.
- Earning potential—The field can offer a substantial wage (with proper education and certification). Additionally, many accountants receive considerable benefits, bonuses, and other perks.
- Career options—Financial services are required in all industries and all sizes of organizations. This means that accountants can find work in a variety of settings, from non-profit to corporate to government environments.
How To Excel as an Accountant
Some actions that could help set you apart in this profession include:
- Seeking out a mentor in the field who can provide guidance and support throughout your career
- Educating yourself about changes in the field, including regulations, laws, and business trends
- Joining state or regional accounting associations, which can offer access to continuing education, industry publications, networking opportunities, job listings, and more
- Keeping up with technological advances that affect the accounting profession
- Honing your leadership and people skills by participating in events, groups, and other activities
- Sharpening your logic skills by playing logic and problem-solving games
Many of the above actions fall under continuing education requirements, but it's crucial to take some initiative and commit to lifelong skill development and learning above and beyond the minimal obligations that come with certification.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website last accessed on March 4, 2016.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last accessed on September 13, 2017.
*** Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), IMA 2014 Salary Survey, website last accessed on February 3, 2017.
**** Robert Half International (RHI), 2015 Salary Guide, website last accessed on March 6, 2015.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), website last accessed on March 5, 2015.
The Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business, website last accessed on March 5, 2015.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), website last accessed on March 6, 2015.
American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), website last accessed on March 6, 2015.
National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), website last accessed on March 6, 2015.
This Way to CPA, website last accessed on March 5, 2015.
Start Here, Go Places, website last accessed on March 5, 2015.
Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), website last accessed on March 6, 2015.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on November 30, 2016.
American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI), website accessed on March 5, 2015.
International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), website last accessed on March 6, 2015.