As an accountant, you will be responsible for the financial records of businesses or individuals, making sure they are properly prepared, and checking them for errors. Accuracy is of primary importance, so that all federal, state, and local taxes are paid correctly, on time, and in full. You will also have responsibility for making sure that financial management is done properly.
A major focus of an accountant’s job is to provide an accurate picture of the company’s financial standing because the reports that you will generate will be used for making important business decisions. You must be able to explain financial findings to supervisors and other workers. This means preparing, writing, and presenting reports, while also conducting meetings with clients and managers. Also, you will be responsible for audits, for providing tax consultations, for creating processes to stop fraud and financial waste, for recording and analyzing data, keeping records, and more.
What is Accounting?
The field of accounting is very broad and varied. It includes such things as:
- Examining tax records and financial statements to make sure they are accurate and that they comply with laws and regulations
- Working out how many taxes have to be paid, through the preparation of tax returns, while also making sure payments are made in full and on time
- Inspecting existing accounting records and books to make sure they are efficient and meet the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAPs)
- Maintaining and organizing all financial records should an audit happen
- Assessing the financial operations of businesses, making recommendations for improvement to managers and executives
- Finding ways to lower costs while increasing profits
It is also quite common for accountants to specialize in certain fields, including assurance services or risk management. Others focus on specific types of organizations, such as health care, manufacturing, or individual taxes.
There is a need for accountants across every level of society, from the individual person to a Fortune 500 company. Your role is to make sure finances are managed in such a way that they have the greatest amount of disposable income (or profit), while also meeting all the relevant tax laws and regulations.
As an accountant, you can expect to work full time. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 20% worked more than 40 hours per week in 2014. It is also common to see overtime hours, particularly around tax season or at the end of a budget year. On average, accountants can expect to earn around $67,190 per year at bachelor’s degree level. The BLS has also reported that they expect an 11% growth in demand from 2014 to 2024, which is faster than the national average.
According to the BLS, there were 1.3 million accountants in 2014.
See where Accounting is ranked in our MBA degree salary outlook guide.
They are found across a range of different industries and businesses. The BLS reported that:
- 26% work in accounting, payroll services, bookkeeping, and tax preparation.
- 8% work for the government.
- 8% work in finance and insurance.
- 7% work in the management of enterprises and companies.
- 6% work in manufacturing.
Some of the positions for those with a bachelor’s degree in accounting are:
- Cost accountant
- Tax accountant
- Corporate accountant
- Public accountant
- Assistant controller
- Cost estimator
- Budget analyst
- Accounting manager
According to the BLS, the average annual salary for accountants as of May 2015 was $67,190. The bottom 10% of accountants earned $41,400 or less. The highest 10%, meanwhile, earned $118,930 per year. The industry in which the accountant works has a direct impact on their earnings. According to the BLS, those who work in:
- Finance and insurance earn an average of $71,760 per year.
- Management of enterprises and companies earn an average of $69,560 per year.
- Accounting, payroll services, bookkeeping, and tax preparation earn an average of $67,440 per year.
- Government earn an average of $65,180 per year.
Meanwhile, geographical location is also important. The best five states in terms of annual average earnings are:
- New York: $93,280
- District of Columbia: $93,210
- New Jersey: $88,940
- Virginia: $83,380
- California: $82,620
For CPAs, the top cities to work in are:
- New York, NY
- Houston, TX
- San Francisco, CA
- Chicago, IL
- Boston, MA
- Washington, DC
- Los Angeles, CA
- Atlanta, GA
- Dallas, TX
- Seattle, WA
Online Degree Programs
For many aspiring accountants, studying online is possible. This is understandable because it means that they can work and study at the same time. For those looking into a master’s degree, this is a particularly viable option. Do make sure, however, that your degree program is properly accredited. This will tell you that the core curriculum meets or exceeds, the minimum standards. The Southern New Hampshire University, for instance, offers the Master of Accounting online as well as a number of other Accounting and Finance degree options.
There are several accounting degrees to be obtained at bachelor’s degree level, namely the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), the Bachelor of Science in Accounting (BSA), and the Bachelor of Accountancy (BAC). However, none of these degrees give people the required education to take the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) examination. That said, the degree does prepare for a variety of interesting positions within the field of accountancy.
Master’s or MBA Degree
In order to become an accountant, you will need to complete a bachelor’s degree. However, if you want to take on a senior position and take the CPA exam, you must have completed a master’s degree. The alternative is to have two years of work experience, but this has to be a specific experience, which can be hard to prove and does not give you the right educational preparation. Just as you have different options at bachelor’s degree level, you also have different options for your MBA or master’s. The most popular ones are the Master of Professional Accounting (MPac), the Master of Business Administration (MBA) with Accountancy concentration, the Master of Science in Accounting (MSC), and the Master of Accountancy (MAcc).
Each school can set its own admission requirements. However, at master’s degree level, it is common to see the following criteria:
- Completion of an undergraduate degree
- Prerequisite courses
- Letters of recommendation
- A minimum GPA
- A resume
Each school will also offer its own curriculum. This is one of the reasons why accreditation is so important, as it will prove to prospective employers that you have received at least the minimum standard of education.
Typical courses for the bachelor’s degree include:
- Accounting courses
- Taxation and auditing
- Business law
- Computer applications
- General business and management courses
Typical courses for the master’s degree include:
- Managerial statistics
- Economic development of the business
- Financial statement analysis for decision making
- Financial accounting problems
- Cost accounting
- Business processes and systems assessment
- Financial statement auditing
- Federal income taxation
- Professional accounting research and policy
Schools will, on top of these core courses, also require you to complete a number of elective courses.
Because the field of accounting is so broad and varied, schools have started to offer elective courses that enable students to focus on a specific area of accounting. General accounting also continues to exist.
Some of the most common specializations for accounting include:
- Public accounting, for which you will need to be a CPA. As a CPA, you can work for the government, companies, or individuals. You will focus mainly on legal requirements and regulations in terms of balance sheet statements and tax forms. Often, CPAs become tax advisors, helping their clients minimize how much tax they pay. Others focus on financial crimes, meaning they have become a forensic accountant.
- Management accounting, also known as corporate, industrial, managerial, or cost accounting. You will record and analyze data in relation to your employer’s finances. This is then given to managers, rather than being available to the public. You will generally focus on performance evaluation and budgeting, although some focus on asset management.
- Government accounting, which focuses on the records of government agencies. A government accountant may also audit businesses and individuals. If employed by federal, state, or local government organizations, they often focus on making sure all regulations and laws are followed in terms of spending revenue.
- Internal audit, whereby you will make sure there is no mismanagement of funds internally. You will help to reduce abuse, waste, and fraud, while at the same time improving the overall financial process.
- External audit, where your role is to audit an organization of which you are not a part of. You will usually address your reports to the shareholders of the company.
Completing a degree in accounting, particularly at the master’s degree level, is an expensive enterprise. Not only will you have to contend with the cost of the degree (tuition, materials, and so on), but you will also find it difficult to work full time, even if you study online. Fortunately, a lot of financial assistance is available. You can apply for student financial aid, and your chosen college or university may also have financial aid, scholarships, or grants available. There are also external agencies that offer scholarships and grants, including the:
- John L. Carey Scholarship to the value of $5,000
- Accountemps Student Scholarship to the value of $10,000
- Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students to the value of $5,000
- Newton B. Becker Scholarship Program, offering various scholarships
- Fellowship for Minority Doctoral Students to the value of $2,000
- CMA Scholarship to the value of $500
- National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), offering various scholarships
- Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) Scholarship Program to the value of $10,000
- National Society of Accountants Scholarship Foundation, valued at between $500 and $2,000
- Daniel B. Goldberg Scholarship to the value of $12,000
- Frank L. Greathouse Government Accounting Scholarship to the value of $7,000
- Government Finance Professional Development Scholarship to the value of $7,000
Often, you have to meet a number of key requirements. For instance, some scholarship programs want you to demonstrate a commitment to entering government, others work with minority students only, and so on.
If you truly want to be an accountant, then you should pass the CPA examination. To be accepted, you must have completed at least five years’ of school, which equates to 150 hours. Only with a CPA report are you able to file your reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). There are other certificates and credentials you may want to consider, including:
- Certified Internal Auditor
- Certified Information Systems Auditor
Some certifications are only available for those who are already CPAs, and they are to provide them with even more specific credentials. These include:
- Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV)
- Personal Financial Specialist (PFS)
- Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP)
If you know that you want to have a career as an accountant, then it may be beneficial to become a member of one or more professional organizations. This is a great opportunity for enhancing professional skills, as well as giving you the opportunity to network, which, in turn, can help to benefit your career. Some of the best known accounting-related associations are the:
- American Accounting Association
- National Society of Accountants
- Association of Chartered Accountants in US
- American Institute of CPAs (AICPA)
- DFK USA
The career of an accounting is incredibly diverse and rewarding. You can also earn a lot of money, and you will have a lot of job security. Additionally, it gives you the opportunity to hold responsibility for the financial health of the country, organizations, or individuals, which should give you a great deal of pride.
Accounting By State
Learn more about Accounting career opportunities by state including salary figures, outlook as well as campus and online accounting programs available.
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- Occupational Outlook Handbook – Accountants and Auditors. (2015, Dec. 17) Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm
- Master of Accounting Online. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/programs/master-of-accounting/program-formats/online-accounting-at-unc
- Scholarships and Financial Aid. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.accounting.com/financial-aid/
- Guide to Certifications For Accounting, Finance and Operations Management. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.accountingweb.com/sites/default/files/guide_to_certifications_robert_half.pdf
- Philip Smith. The Top 40 Networks & Associations 2016: The Survey. (2009, May 28) Retrieved from https://www.accountancyage.com/aa/analysis/1776670/top-35-networks-2013-the-survey