Are you a number cruncher, a problem solver, or a mathematical sleuth? If any of these descriptions apply to you, a career in accounting may be a good choice.Accounting is an area of study that studies expenses and profits of businesses, individuals, and governments. But, it provides a lot more flexibility than many realize. Though solid math skills are an essential foundation for a good career, an accounting degree program often covers taxation, auditing, business and management classes, as well as all levels of accounting practice. Accounting students are taught to think critically, analyze data, and become technically savvy.
An accounting degree is one that lays the foundation for work as a public, government, or management level accountant. Becoming an auditor is also an option for those who study accounting. From working as a self-employed bookkeeper to handling complex forensic accounting for a large international firm or government agency, there is a lot that can be done with skills and certification in accounting. The U.S. Department of Labor agrees, and indicates that the demand for auditors and accountants will grow by at least 20% within the next few years.
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Would I need a master’s degree in order to start my own accounting business?
No. If you get a bachelor’s degree you will have all of the knowledge that you need to offer bookkeeping services as well as do professional-level accounting work. However, if you are interested in becoming a CPA (Certified Public Accountant), you need the master’s level degree and its 150 hours of coursework. The good news is that with an associate’s degree you can start working as an accountant and continue studying while earning an income from your career.
Is an accountant automatically allowed to become an auditor?
The training done by accountants and auditors is nearly identical, and some of the work the professionals do does seem similar. However, they are different fields. Auditors are more like financial inspectors, and they check the work of accountants and others. Your degree in accounting can pave the way for you to become an auditor, and you will need to graduate at the bachelor’s level to do so.
How do I become a CPA?
A large number of people want to study accounting in order to become Certified Public Accountants. And though requirements vary by state, many demand that you earn graduate credits before you can sit for the licensing exam. You may also need work experience before your state’s accountancy board allows you to take the exam. These standards tend to apply to the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exam as well.
How long does it take to actually become an accountant?
With a four-year bachelor’s degree you can learn what you need to practice mid-level accounting. If you intend to move forward to your CPA or CMA licensing, you will have to complete 30 hours of coursework at the graduate level. This means that you may become an accountant in four years, but need to work for five to six years for the higher level of certification. Each state’s Board of Accountancy has specific requirements, and you will have to explore what your state demands to determine the right track.
There are many ways to study accounting. As is the case with many professions involving a lot of formal training, if you are considering a career in accounting, you will need to know about available work based on your degree.
For example, without the course hours from a master’s level degree, you are unable to sit for the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CMA (Certified Management Accountant) exams, and these are often essential in moving a corporate or government career forward.
- Certificate: Some students can get a very detailed introduction to accounting in certificate classes. A small business owner is an ideal candidate for such training, but this can also be a good way for someone only considering accounting as a career. Additionally, the certificate is applicable toward graduate hours required for a CPA exam.
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS): The result of a two-year program, the AAS covers the basics of accounting. It is a degree noted for preparing students for entry-level employment. With this, you might become a bookkeeper or a junior accountant in a larger firm.
- Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Arts (AA): The AS is mathematics focused, and considered a step toward bachelor’s level training. The AA is liberal arts focused, many use this as a time to determine whether to or not to transfer into a bachelor’s program and/or to get what is needed to work as a bookkeeper.
- Bachelor’s of Science (BS) or Bachelor’s of Arts (BA): Ideal for entry or mid-level employment. Most employers prefer this four-year degree when seeking to employ accountants as this level of education allows them to analyze, report, and recommend certain financial activities, which AAS graduates often cannot do. The BA focuses on other disciplines while the BS is a much more scientifically and technically focused degree.
- Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA): Focused on areas useful to people looking to work in accounting or financial management.
- Combined Bachelor’s and Master’s Program: You may find that some institutions are offering career track training that helps to streamline the process of sitting for the CPA. These programs let you earn both degrees at one time in order to hit the 150 hours needed to sit for the exam.
- Master’s of Accountancy (MACC): Also called a Master’s of Science (MS) in Accounting by some schools, it is ideal for paving the way for a management level position, this degree ensures graduates can sit for their professional certification exams, including the CMA and the more familiar CPA.
- Master’s of Business Administration (MBA): The MBA in Accounting focuses on business accounting and is often chosen by those looking to immediately enter into a management, or even an executive, level position.
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD): Those hoping to assume the highest management positions may want this two-year degree. It is common for COOs, CFOs, and many college and university professors to earn their PhD. The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) offers a very similar outcome.
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Online Degrees & Accreditation
You will discover that online degrees in accounting are available up to the master’s level (though doctorate degrees are available online, few would be seen at the same professional level as traditional PhDs). They are going to cover all of the same content as “brick and mortar” institutions, and the degrees earned through online degree programs give you the same access to employment and career growth.
One important factor to consider is accreditation when choosing an online school. If you intend to follow your track to the master’s or doctorate levels, and work in academia (such as teaching at a university), you must study through accredited schools. And though you may find PhD programs online, most will warn against such a step. While getting to the master’s level and sitting for the CPA is entirely possible through online coursework, the intense research and interaction with professors that is part of a doctorate degree is not available through online studies and should instead be done through an on-campus degree program.
Any programs chosen should have Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation as this is often described as the “gold standard” for online programs.
Additional resources for researching (degree) accredited programs of study:
- Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
- International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized United States Accrediting Organizations
Course of Study
As previously indicated, accountants are not just people who crunch numbers. They are professionals who require a range of skills and knowledge. While certificate and associate’s programs may have time enough only to cover the essential accounting mathematics and basic clerical skills, there is a great deal more to be learned.
To study at any level you need only be accepted to the college or university offering the program you desire, and any specific admissions criteria for that school or program.
There are no formal prerequisites to enroll in an accounting program, but there is the need for interest and enthusiasm to do with all things mathematical.
Accounting majors will also have to do the same “general education” coursework that other students are required to cover. This means you will have classes in other disciplines, such as social or natural sciences, arts, and humanities. Your college or university program determines the number of such classes. With accounting programs, there is an obvious emphasis on math classes beyond the usual core programs.
Once you begin to delve into your accounting studies, you will focus on specific accounting mathematics, the laws relating to finance and taxation, technologies relating to accounting (such as software and the use of technology for business), analysis of data and the clear presentation of it, theories of economics, and skills such as critical thinking, decision making, and reasoning. Accountants cover a great deal of clerical study as well as communication studies too.
The lengthier the time spent studying, the more specialized the coursework may become and should a student choose to become certified in one of the many professional areas of accounting, their later studies may emphasize these points. We identify the most common certifications below.
Accountants can work in the public, corporate and government worlds. Those with associate’s degrees can find employment as entry-level bookkeepers or junior accountants, and study further as they are pursuing higher degrees. This would allow them to sit for their CPA or CMA and truly grow their career. Those with a bachelor’s degree can begin working immediately as accountants in large or small firms, in their own small businesses, or they may consider some of the career paths below:
Careers with a BA or BS degree in (subject):
Keep general ledgers, provide financial reports, and may handle payroll and billing at small to large businesses or government entities.
Has more autonomy than a junior accountant. Works with corporate or government accounting offices or entities.
Uses analysis of data and accounting skills, to determine the amount of labor, time, and money may be required to complete manufacturing or construction projects and programs.
Certified Tax Preparer:
Prepares annual tax returns for individuals, as well as businesses, and will see a high demand during the usual tax season that runs each year from January to April. Certified tax preparers work with CPAs and accountants.
Analyzes the legalities of corporate or government financial information, internal or external auditors are tasked with assessing policies and procedures used within the organizations audited.
Personal Financial Advisor:
Works with clients to assess their personal finances and apply their knowledge to provide them with suggestions for reaching personal financial goals.
Uses statistics and analysis to calculate likelihoods and outcomes. The most common industry where actuaries are at work is the insurance industry.
Develops and implements financial plans for businesses or other agencies. Using analysis, critical thinking and problem solving they will also be called on to give functional financial advice.
Uses skills and knowledge of financial laws and accounting principles to pursue crimes committed by businesses, government agencies, and others. Works directly with law enforcement.
Supervises and trains staff and/or oversees more substantial financial processes such as billing, payroll, and overall financial statements.
Applies analysis and actuary skills to underwrite a loan. This form of accounting will determine whether or not businesses or individuals will successfully repay a loan. Loan officers most often work for banks or financial institutions.
Careers requiring advanced degrees or degrees in other fields:
You can begin working as an accountant with an associate’s level degree, but there are far more opportunities with the bachelor’s and master’s degrees. You will want to pursue certification in specific areas if you intend to follow certain career paths, and you will have to begin by meeting your state’s requirements for certification.
Professor (PhD in Accountancy):
Teaching at the college or university level, this demands a graduate degree along with the many hours or years of research and study it would take to become an expert in accounting of all kinds.
CFO or Chief Financial Officer (Master’s or PhD in Accountancy):
Holding the highest financial position within a firm, the CFO is responsible for all aspects of an institution’s financial and monetary situation.
Certified Public Accountant (Master’s degree and state exam):
If you want to work in assurance, consulting, IT, forensic accounting, environmental accounting, international accounting, taxation related work, or financial planning, you must take and pass the CPA exam. This is essential for signing official documents such as tax forms and filings as well.
Certified Management Accountant (Master’s degree and state exam):
If you want to work in corporate or government accounting, and at the mastery level, this path will ensure you have the critical accounting and financial management skills needed in the modern business world.
Licensing, Certifications, and Exams
There is no demand for licensing to work as an accountant, but the wisest career path is to pursue the CPA or CMA. This allows you to sign official documents relating to taxes and other filings, and perform work with much greater autonomy. To do this means qualifying for the exam per your state’s requirements. The minimum includes:
- Bachelor’s degree in accounting from an accredited school or program
- Additional graduate work – traditionally around 30 hours
- Passing score on the Certified Public Accountant exam for your state. See the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy website for individual state listings.
There are also specialized certifications that can open up unique career pathways for those with accounting skills and knowledge. Available through accredited colleges and universities, these include certifications in bank auditing, financial planning, forensic accounting, fraud examination, information systems auditing, internal auditing, managerial accounting, and tax preparation. Some states may require exams for these specialized certifications.
Additional Resources for Certification information
- Details on maintaining a CPA license from the NASBA
- American Accounting Association
- National Society of Accountants
Future Outlook for Primary Career
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates job growth is anticipated in the field of accounting. Interestingly enough, the next decade is expected to see a 16% increase in demand for those with accounting or auditing skill. The diversity of locations in which jobs will be found is very wide.
Currently, almost ten percent of accountants are self-employed, and the rest work within the corporate, government or accounting industries. This is not expected to change, but one point to note is that the best job prospects seem to be for those working as CPAs and as forensic accountants. The AICPA (American Institute of CPAs) noted that 2013 and 2014 were record setting years for the hiring of accounting graduates (with more than 40k hired after completing studies), so there is a very clear demand for CPAs.
Salary expectations and career outlook
According to the BLS, the median salary for an accountant in 2013 was $65,080 with the highest paid earning more than $113,000 per year. The highest paid accountants are those working for securities and commodity exchanges. Bookkeepers earnings are at the low end of the spectrum, averaging at $37,250, and financial managers are at the uppermost end with annual salaries averaging more than $126,000. Clearly, this illustrates the financial benefits of following the path towards the CPA or CMA and obtaining an advanced, graduate degree.
The accounting major is fortunate in their exposure to a long list of marketable skills during their years of study and work. These should not be overlooked when considering which area of the job market to explore. These skills include:
- Problem solving
- Use of technology and software
- Decision making
- Quantitative reasoning
- Critical thinking
Although you will find great diversity in the accounting job market, and high rates of employment, there are distinct benefits in developing specific skill sets. One of the finest ways to do this is through applying your new knowledge and skills in real world settings. During your time spent studying, you have a chance to enjoy career-focused internships that let you experience your future job market while enhancing and using skills.
The following is a list of internship possibilities for an accounting major:
- Working in the collection and billing department of a business or corporation
- Doing data entry and analysis
- Working in a budgeting office for a non-profit, corporation, or government office
- Assisting a bookkeeper for a business or corporation
- Working with financial software designers
- Assisting financial or tax lawyers
- An internship with a tax-debt resolution firm
- Seeking an internship with a government office conducting forensic accounting investigations
- National Association of State Boards of Accountancy
- American Accounting Association
- American Institute of CPAs
- Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business
- National Society of Accountants
- National Society of Tax Professionals
Suggested Online Degree Programs
- Temple University, Fox School of Business and Management: Established in the early 1900s, this business school has an excellent reputation for creating business leaders and professionals and is considered one of the largest business schools in the world.
- Texas A&M College of Business: With a mission of preparing students to become successful leaders, the graduates of this business school are frequently sought after by some of the top employers in the world.
- University of Amherst Eugene M. Isenberg School of Management: With an online program ranked as one of the top in the world by the Financial Times, their programs are remarkably valuable for an online accounting student’s career potential.
- Learn about the CPA Exam Application Process
- Explore the many types of internships open to accounting students (online and brick and mortar)
- Scholarships available to accounting students through the National Society of Accountants
- Occupational Outlook Handbook
- Career Paths information from the American Institute of CPAs
- Accounting Jobs Board from the Professional Accounting Society of America