Careers in Accounting
The Ultimate Guide to a Career in Accounting
Accounting is the practice of and knowledge about methods for recording transactions, keeping financial records, and reporting financial results. It can also include analyzing financial information, reporting those findings to management, and advising on taxation matters.
Why Choose a Career in Accounting?
Accounting offers high pay and fast career placement after graduation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for accountants is growing and outstripping supply. In other words, job opportunities are better than ever for accountants.
Thinking about a career in business? Accounting is one of the best ways to enter the business field, especially now.
In the last two decades, businesses have seen the rise of the Internet, increased government regulations, frequent tax law changes, globalization of business, and the constant downsizing and restructuring of corporations. More recently, we have seen a flurry of acquisitions and mergers.
All this equals higher demand for accountants and more ways for you to pursue accounting as a career. You could be a financial expert, systems professional, management consultant, managerial accountant, budget analyst, or forensic accountant, among other exciting roles.
Career in Accounting Quick Facts
- There are different types of accountants that have varying roles and responsibilities.
- The CPA license is the “gold standard” for accounting professionals and can be earned by meeting education and experience requirements and passing the CPA Exam.
- There are other certifications you can get to advance your accounting career like the CIA, CGMA, CFA, and CFP designations.
- Accounting students should make sure to take advantage of available accounting scholarships.
Types of Accountants
Accounting careers in public accounting focus on auditing, tax, and consulting functions. Public accountants usually provide services to multiple clients as part of a firm or on their own.
Education & Certification: Obtaining your Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license is required for those in the practice of public accounting. A bachelor’s degree and 150 credit hours are required to sit for the CPA Exam. For larger firms, also consider a master’s degree to set yourself apart.
Management accountants, also known as corporate accountants, work as controllers, financial reporting specialists, cost accountants, budget analysts, or financial analysts inside an organization.
Most of your work will focus on reporting and analytical functions within the organization to help guide planning and decision making. You will need to have strong problem-solving and communication skills and may oversee bookkeeping, financial management, forecasting, and other financial services.
You could also manage financial reporting to stockholders, regulatory agencies, and tax authorities.
Education & Certification: You should strive for a bachelor’s degree in an accounting program and pursue a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) license. While the CMA is not required to work as a management accountant, it is highly recommended for advancement in the field. You can also earn a related professional designation such as the CPA license.
As a government accountant, you could work at any level of government to analyze and oversee the performance and allocation of funds.
Education & Certification: If you’re interested in working in government agencies, earning your CPA license will benefit your career and add credibility to your title.
Internal auditors conduct compliance and performance audits, monitor and develop internal controls and internal control systems, and assist in developing and implementing new information systems. As an internal auditor, your involvement in operational audits results in recommendations to management as well as plans for continued financial and operational improvement within an organization.
Education & Certification: If you want to thrive in the internal auditing field, you should consider earning your CPA license as well as your Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) license. Both will help in advancing your career.
How to Become an Accountant
1. Get the right degree
You need a bachelor’s degree to be an accountant. If you are looking at the CPA exam, a total of 150 credit hours are needed to obtain your CPA license.
Most bachelor’s degree programs require 120 credit hours, so you will need an additional year of coursework to complete the 150.
- Consider double majors such as Accounting and Finance or Accounting with a minor in Business Communications to make the most of your time spent pursuing 150 credits.
2. Prepare to take the CPA Exam
Often considered the “gold standard” in the accounting profession, upcoming or recent graduates should research, prepare for, and pass the CPA Exam. Check with your state board for requirements to sit for the CPA Exam – some states allow you to sit before you have fully met the 150-credit-hour requirement.
3. Get a job
In order to get licensed as a CPA, most states require at least a year of work experience in accounting. This can be an internship or any type of accounting work in a public accounting firm or in a company.
Top Accounting Schools in the United States
*Rankings according to US News & World Report. (Not including room and board; and books and supplies.)
|University of Texas||Austin, Texas||$11,448||$40,032||40,048||32.00%||Urban|
|Brigham YoungUniversity||Provo, Utah||$6,120||$6,120||33,365||69.00%||City|
|Universityof Michigan||Ann Arbor,Michigan||$16,178||$53,232||31,329||26.00%||City|
|Universityof Notre Dame||Notre Dame,Indiana||$58,843||$58,843||8,874||19.00%||City|
|University ofSouthernCalifornia||Los Angeles,California||$60,275||$60,275||19,606||16.00%||Urban|
|New YorkUniversity||New York,New York||$56,500||$56,500||27,444||21.00%||Urban|
Accounting Certification and Licensure
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
The CPA license is a state license to practice as a Certified Public Accountant. It’s not necessary for accounting jobs, but many corporations encourage and look favorably on those with CPA licenses. It is the “gold standard” in the profession. Following are the basic requirements and need-to-know information to become a CPA.
Education: All states require CPA candidates to possess an undergraduate degree with the equivalent of a major in accounting and 150 credit hours.
Experience: Generally, one year of accounting experience is required for licensure.
Pass the CPA Exam: You must pass all four CPA exam sections. The exam is developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and administered at Prometric testing centers in partnership with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). The CPA Exam is a computer-based test. Each section of the exam is a 4-hour test.
Cost: The cost to take the CPA Exam varies from state-to-state. Expect to spend about $1,200, not including review course materials to help you study for the exam. Some firms will pay for and provide you with a review course but do your research on which course is best for you.
CPA Exam Scheduling: You can take a section one at a time and in any order but must pass all four within 18 months of passing the first section. The CPA Exam is offered year-round. Review the official CPA Exam Schedule to determine what date is best for your CPA exam testing.
Applying For The CPA Exam: Have you chosen a CPA exam test date? If so, you are ready to officially take the examination. Read our step-by-step guide on How to Apply For The CPA Exam.
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
The CMA certification is a globally recognized credential geared toward individuals in corporate accounting who are responsible for finance and accounting decision-making. The CMA program is designed to validate advanced competencies required to manage finance functions within an organization.
CMA Exam Scheduling: The exam is offered in three windows throughout the year (Jan/Feb, May/Jun, and Sep/Oct). Only one exam part can be taken at a time. Candidates must register to take one exam part within the first 12 months of entering the program and must complete both exam parts within three years.
Read our page about CMA Exam Dates and Registration.
Education: The education requirement for the CMA Exam is less strenuous than the CPA because you only need a bachelor’s degree to qualify (120 credit hours). You are also allowed to sit before you have completed your degree.
Experience & Membership Requirement: CMA certification also requires two years’ experience and membership in the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).
Read our guide on How To Register For The CMA Exam.
Cost: Expect to spend around $1,200 for the CMA Exam, not including your desired review materials. Student discounts are available to reduce the overall CMA Exam Cost.
Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
The CIA license is the only globally recognized designation for internal auditors. It is awarded by the Institute of Internal Auditors and demonstrates your knowledge, skills, and competencies as an internal auditor.
CIA Education & Experience Requirements: Candidates with a bachelor’s degree are required to have 24 months experience to become certified. Master’s degrees can substitute for 12 of the required 24 months experience. Additionally, candidates can apply and sit for the exams without the work experience or the degree, provided the experience and degree requirements are met within the three-year program eligibility period.
CIA Exam Structure: The CIA is a three-part, multiple-choice exam:
- Part 1: Essentials of Internal Auditing
- Part 2: Practice of Internal Auditing
- Part 3: Business Knowledge for Internal Auditing
Cost: Candidates should expect to spend around $900 for all three parts of the exam, not including your review preparation materials. Discounted rates are available to students.
Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA)
The CGMA designation is a globally recognized accounting designation that adds credibility to your resume by demonstrating your accounting and finance skills and establishing you as a strategic leader. It is a good fit for accountants worldwide, including board members and CEOs.
Path to Certification: The CGMA complements the CPA designation. In fact, CPAs with 150 credit hours and three years’ management accounting experience can sit for the strategic case study exam to obtain the CGMA. It is highly recommended to earn a CPA license first as, without a CPA, those with three years’ management accounting experience must first obtain the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) Certificate in Business Accounting (five exams) as well as the CIMA Professional Qualification (19.5 hours of exams) before they can sit for the strategic case study to obtain the CGMA.
Cost: Costs vary depending on which route fits your needs.
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
Considered the “gold standard” in the investment industry, professionals who pursue the CFA charter are generally from the corporate and investment worlds—financial advisers, investment banking analysts, portfolio managers, private bankers, research analysts, and traders. The CFA charter is issued by the CFA Institute.
Many accountants also have a finance background and may decide to pursue a career specializing in finance as a risk manager, financial advisor, or investment analyst. The CFA charter may be a good fit for accountants with such aspirations.
Education & Experience: You need a bachelor’s degree and three years of professional experience to sit for the exam. You are allowed to sit for the Level I exam before graduation provided that you meet the experience requirements.
CFA Exam Scheduling: The CFA exam consists of 3 exams, Levels I, II, and III. These exams are offered only on certain dates and are not exams that can be scheduled at your convenience. Level I is offered four times per year while Levels II and III are offered twice per year on designated days.
Learn more about the CFA Exam Dates for CFA Level I, II, and III.
Study Schedule: The CFA Institute recommends that you commit at least 300 hours to preparing for each level of the exam or 15-20 hours per week for four to six months.
Exam Format: The CFA exam is a computer-based exam.
Exam Structure: The three levels of the CFA Exam do not test subject matter separately as the CPA and CMA do. Instead, each level of the exam builds on the last and covers many of the same subjects but at broader and deeper levels.
Cost: You can expect to spend about $3,500 on exam fees and registration for all three levels, which does not include your review materials.
Learn all about the CFA Program Fees and what it costs to become a CFA.
Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
The CFP designation is another highly regarded designation. That’s because Certified Financial Planners have completed extensive training and are held to rigorous ethical standards. They typically excel as financial advisors or consultants and/or working in insurance, brokerage houses, or the banking industry. As accountants, the financial industry may be your niche, and you may find yourself considering CFP certification.
Education & Experience: To obtain the CFP designation, a bachelor’s degree is required as well as three years of professional experience in the financial-planning process or two years of apprenticeship experience that meets additional requirements. In addition, completion of the CFP Board’s coursework component is required. After successful completion of the education component, the candidate can sit for the CFP Exam.
CFP Exam Scheduling: The CFP Exam is offered three times per year in eight-day periods. It consists of two three-hour sessions taken at Prometric testing centers.
Cost: The exam fee is around $1,000, which does not include the cost of your coursework or review materials.
You should make a point to research the scholarships available to accounting students. Below are a few to get you started but be sure to check for scholarships your school offers as well.
Wiley’s Accounting and Finance Student Scholarship – Wiley is committed to driving the evolution of these rapidly changing professions by helping a broader community of students gain equitable access to education. That’s why we’re awarding a $1,000 scholarship to a new student studying accounting or finance each month.
Catching the Dream MESBEC Program — If you are Native American pursuing a STEM field and attend a school that is accredited on the state, federal, or tribal level, you should consider applying for this scholarship.
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or SHPE Scholarships — Provides opportunities for students or professionals pursuing technical certificates or graduate-level professional education that increase their professional competencies with select institutions.
HSF/Marathon Oil Corporation Scholarship Program — You must be a sophomore majoring in accounting, engineering, or a related field, and you must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
The National Society of Accountants Scholarship Foundation — In order to qualify, you must be working on a degree program at a two- or four-year university or college. You must also currently have a B average or higher.
Ritchie-Jennings Memorial Scholarship — The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners awards scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 to full-time graduate or undergraduate students enrolled in accounting, business administration, finance, or criminal justice programs.
Frank L. Greathouse Government Accounting Scholarship —The Government Finance Officers Association gives a $6,000 scholarship for undergraduates or graduate students preparing for a career in state and local government finance.
Online Accounting Degree Programs Scholarship — Students must have at least a 3.0 GPA.
COAG Scholarship — As long as you are a high school senior in the state of Georgia who plans to attend an accredited Georgia college or university while pursuing a degree in accounting, finance, pre-law, business, political science, government, or law enforcement, you qualify for this scholarship.
Texas Fifth Year Accounting Student Scholarship Program — In order to qualify, you must attend a public or private school in Texas.
A.A. and Hattie Mae Bush Accounting Scholarship — You must be a graduating high school senior or a current college or university student to apply, and you must be planning to attend West Texas A&M University, Amarillo College, or Texas Tech University.
American Society of Women Accountants Scholarship — You must be attending a two- or four-year college or university in southwest Missouri in order to qualify for this scholarship.
Financial Women’s Association of San Francisco — To be eligible, students must be enrolled at an accredited Bay Area college or university and must have a minimum 3.4 GPA.