Career Opportunities in Accounting
Becoming an accountant is a wise decision for a number of reasons. Not only is it one of the most solid careers in terms of employability and stability, but also in terms of consistent growth. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for accountants and auditors is projected to grow by 11% and increase by approximately 142,400 jobs over the 10-year period between 2014-2024, which is faster than the average job is projected to grow.1
Training to become an accountant means much more than just learning bookkeeping and budgeting. In fact, there are a number of varied career paths for someone who holds a degree in accounting. These days, an accounting degree provides numerous career options because graduates are well-versed in the language of business and possess a strong grasp of core business concepts. Accounting majors are attractive to employers in many industries because an accounting degree demonstrates skill in quantitative analysis and the intelligence and work ethic necessary to complete a challenging curriculum.
If a graduate chooses to pursue a career in the accounting field, popular options include working in the accounting department of a medium-to-large company in a role like cost accountant, budget analyst, or payroll manager. Another option pursued by many new graduates is to work as an auditor at one of the Big 4 accounting firms: Deloitte, Ernst & Young (E&Y), KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), or smaller firms. Acquiring a CPA license after graduation can lead to additional opportunities such as a corporate management position or opening the doors to your own public accounting business. There are also a variety of niches within the accounting profession such as forensic accounting, which may involve working for the FBI or other law enforcement to investigate fraud and suspected financial crimes.
What does an accountant do?
Accountants perform a variety of tasks, all of which help businesses with their financial records and statements. Accountants may work for the government, private or public accounting firms, or in a corporate environment. An accountant may organize and maintain financial records for a company and prepare financial statements such as tax returns, ensuring taxes are paid on time. They may also suggest ways to improve financial operations by implementing best practices and evaluating and improving budgets. Accountants also make recommendations to management to help reduce costs, run the business more efficiently, and improve revenue for the enterprise. Said to be the “language of business,” accounting measures the success of a business’s economic activities, and accountants carry out that measurement. Some accountants investigate possible fraud and embezzlement charges, determining whether any activities within the business are illegal. Accountants must also be able to explain their findings to managers, boards of directors, governments, and individuals. They may communicate these findings verbally or in written reports to stakeholders.
One common field within the accounting umbrella is auditing, and some accountants choose to focus on this specialty. Auditors evaluate an organization’s funds, checking for mismanagement, identifying risks, and suggesting ways to improve processes to cut costs and run the business as efficiently as possible. Auditors can be internal or external, but both objectively and systematically look for ways to improve the way businesses are run and ensure that financial statements are correct and up-to-date. Successful auditors will be unbiased in their judgment.
Since accountants and auditors deal with possible criminal activity and complex financial problems, the profession can be stressful and fast-paced, especially during certain times of year (e.g., tax season for tax accountants).
“With the growing availability of affordable payroll and reporting software, the role of the accountant is changing. As the profession adapts to the automation of traditional accounting tasks, the accountant’s role is evolving into a forward-looking trusted advisor and/or an outsourced CFO.”
-Kerri Gibson, CPA
Kerri has spent over 20 years in the accounting industry, both as a practitioner and as a software executive.
Helpful Skills and Experience
First and foremost, prospective accountants should have excellent skills in basic math, being able to analyze and interpret facts and figures. Their analytical skills should be well developed, as a large part of their job will be to identify issues and risks in a company, and to offer the best solutions. They should have excellent communication skills, allowing them to effectively and clearly relay their findings, ideas, and solutions to a variety of clients. They ought to be able to ask the right questions, to listen carefully, and to discuss their findings verbally and in writing. Additionally, accountants should be detail-oriented and organized. In the field of accounting, details can make all the difference.
How to Become a CPA
Many schools offer programs for specific accounting fields such as a bachelor’s in internal auditing or an associate’s degree in bookkeeping. However, these days, the most common accounting certification is the Certified Public Accountant or CPA. Most states require a master’s degree and/or 150 semester hours (which typically requires education above the bachelor’s level) to sit for the CPA exam. Once the required college hours have been completed, becoming a CPA requires passing a national exam as well as meeting a number of individual state requirements.
Once aspiring accountants complete their education pathway that leads to a CPA certification, they are required to take and pass the four-part Uniform CPA Exam from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Most states require that candidates pass all four parts within 18 months of passing the first part of the exam. Once all requirements have been fulfilled, CPAs are licensed by their state’s Board of Accountancy. Additionally, most states require CPAs to continue with ongoing education classes to keep their CPA license.
Types of Accounting Certifications
For people who are targeting a career in accounting, it’s recommended to earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Many pursue a master’s degree in accounting. Once the degree is obtained, the majority of accounting students tend to work towards their certification as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) to further their career. The duties required of a CPA include auditing, business compliance, tax accounting, fraud examination, forensic accounting, financial risk management, merger or acquisition appraisals, etc.
Although a traditional CPA certification is certainly the most sought after in terms of employment, there are many other accounting certifications available:
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
- Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
- Certified Bank Auditor (CBA)
- Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP)
- Enrolled Agent (EA)
- Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) and Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC)
- Accredited Business Accountant (ABA)
- Accredited Financial Examiner (AFE)
- Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA)
- Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP)
- Certified Bookkeeper (CB)
- Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
- Certified Forensic Accountant (Cr.FA)
- Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA)
- Certified Quality Auditor (CQA)
- Forensic Certified Public Accountant (FCPA)
Career Outlook for Accounting Graduates
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting and auditing jobs are projected to grow by 11% from 2014 to 2024 in the United States.1 This rate is considerably higher than average. Those accountants who are Certified Public Accountants should have the best prospects for employment. Total employment was about 1,332,700 in 2014 and is expected to increase by 1,475,100 by the year 2024.1
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting and auditing jobs are projected to grow by 11% from 2014 to 2024 in the United States, which is higher than average. Those accountants who are Certified Public Accountants should have the best prospects for employment. The total employment of accountants and auditors was about 1,332,700 in 2014 and is expected to increase to 1,475,100 by the year 2024.1 There are several factors that are driving change and growth in the accounting profession. The Vault Career Guide to Accounting points to rising complexity of corporations, technology innovations, and the growth of international business as factors leading to job growth in the accounting sector. In addition, legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act following the Enron collapse has tightened accounting regulation in US businesses, increasing the need for knowledgeable accountants to ensure compliance. Here are the top 10 cities in the US for being a CPA according to LedgerLink:
Top 10 Cities for CPAs
10. Seattle, WA
9. Minneapolis, MN
8. Denver, CO
7. Philadelphia, PA
6. Phoenix, AZ
5. Washington, DC
4. Chicago, IL
3. Boston, MA
2. Houston, TX
1. New York, NY
Salary for Accounting Professionals
Because there are so many employment opportunities for Certified Public Accountants, the average accounting salary can be quite varied. Like most careers, accounting salaries are often based on the individual’s education, career path, certifications, and experience, as well as other factors such as location and size of the employer. However, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for accountants and auditors was $68,150 in May 2016.1
The median annual salary for accountants and auditors in the top five sectors are as follows:
|Sector||Median Annual Salary|
|Finance and Insurance||$72,950|
|Management of companies and enterprises||$70,790|
|Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping,|
and payroll services
Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2016.1
Choosing an Accounting Career
In addition to general bookkeeping tasks, most accountants are able to perform more complex tasks such as fraud auditing and payroll reporting as well as accurately reporting financial information to the government and to shareholders. In simple terms, accountants allow businesses and individuals to understand and evaluate money spent and profitability, creating an indispensable need for accountants in almost every sector.
Working as an accountant means enjoying an engaging and dynamic career for people who like working with others and are interested in the financial side of business. Understanding accounting fundamentals can help prepare you for a wide range of career possibilities from running your own accounting practice to investigating financial crimes with the FBI. Since students learn to understand “the language of business,” accounting is a flexible major that can lead to many business related professions. To explore the wide variety of careers available for those with an accounting degree, click on any of the career titles below:
|Accounting Office Assistant||Public Accounting|
|Accounting Specialist||Corporate Accounting|
|Budget Analyst||Corporate Accounting|
|Cash Manager||Corporate Finance||Cost Accountant||Corporate Accounting|
|Credit Manager||Corporate Finance|
|Financial Accountant||Corporate Accounting|
|Financial Analyst||Corporate Finance||Financial Manager||Corporate Accounting|
|Forensic Accountant||Government/Public Accounting|
|Hedge Fund Manager||Commercial and Investment Banking|
|Insurance Underwriter||Insurance||Investment Banker||Commercial and Investment Banking|
|Management Accountant||Corporate Accounting|
|Payroll Manager||Corporate Finance|
|Public Accountant||Public Accounting||Tax Accountant||Corporate Accounting|
|Venture Capitalist||Commercial and Investment Banking|
Accounting Office Assistant
Accounting office assistants perform standard bookkeeping and administration tasks for a group of accountants or an entire accounting office. This is a position of high visibility, giving the employee the opportunity to interact with others at various levels inside and outside the organization. Common tasks for accounting office assistants include updating ledgers, tracking payroll, and processing accounts payable and receivable. They may also be expected to perform administrative tasks such as tracking office supply inventories, answering the office phones, and greeting arriving guests. Accountants may also request that accounting office assistants help in tasks such as running reports or data entry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track the pay for accounting office assistants, but the similar position of secretaries and administrative assistants earn a median of $37,230 per year, or $17.90 per hour.2
Accounting specialists are paraprofessional accounting clerks who work in an administrative role assisting professional accountants with routine daily tasks. They are familiar with the basic principles of accounting, so they are able to take on greater responsibility for accounting tasks than other administrative professionals. Common tasks for an accounting specialist include preparing and releasing invoices, maintaining accounting databases, and daily and monthly account balancing. People in this role may be expected to provide regular auditing and analysis of accounts payable and receivable to their employer and to work with accountants and others on special projects.
Budget analysts create, monitor, and report budgets for their employers. Depending on the size of the company or institution for which a budget analyst works, he or she may be responsible for budgeting for a single department or an entire organization. The budget analysis performed in this role is the basis for an organization’s planning and decision-making, so it carries with it a high level of responsibility. People in this role track, confirm, and verify the sources of incoming funds and outgoing expenses, reconcile spending reports, and forecast balances. They may also be asked to assist in developing new budget control systems, so database management is another important aspect of a budget analyst’s job. Budget analysts may be expected to assist with procurement in some organizations.
Cash managers oversee an organization’s daily, weekly, and monthly cash flow. The basic goal of a cash manager is to reduce the amount of cash in collectible status while ethically maximizing the amount of time between receiving payable goods or services and disbursing payment, also known as “disbursement float.” Cash managers must practice precise data collection and invoicing in order to ensure that payment and disbursement records are correct and in compliance. Although clerks reporting to a cash manager may handle much of the invoicing and purchase order paperwork, cash managers are typically responsible for the actual disbursement of funds. To perform these job functions, cash managers commonly implement and adjust cash flow processing procedures, analyze and address trends and variances, and coordinate cash management strategy with other managers and executives.
Cost accountants measure a given company’s costs, including the production of products and services, by measuring and analyzing the fixed and variable expenses of production. These costs include, but are not limited to, research and development, marketing, equipment, real estate, and human resources. There are several methods of cost accounting that can be used to determine a product or service cost. Cost accountants analyze and present this information to managers so that they can measure the company’s profit and loss. They may also make recommendations to management based on the cost trends found. Other typical tasks for cost accountants include installing and maintaining cost systems, taking inventory of products, and forecasting and budgeting for future expenses.
A credit manager, or credit analyst, works to extend credit for goods or services on behalf of his or her employer to third parties, typically direct customers. Credit managers often work hand in hand with sales managers to determine the best avenue for supporting sales while limiting credit risk to the organization. This may include training those in sales roles on employing credit pre-screening and other best practices. Other common tasks include analyzing the financial statements of potential borrowers, negotiating payment plans, and ensuring accuracy in reporting systems, typically focused on accounts receivable. Credit managers may also be expected to analyze and adjust credit standards for the organization. According to the BLS, credit analysts earn an average annual salary of $81,160.3
Financial accountants typically work for private companies or as self-employed consultants or advisors. The duties of a financial accountant include preparing, auditing, and analyzing the financial statements of an organization, making recommendations to organizations on best practices and strategic financial decisions, and ensuring that organizations adhere to requirements on tax filings and other financial reporting. They may also be responsible for accurately forecasting an organization’s income, revenue, and taxes based on past data and anticipated changes in the marketplace and regulatory environment. Financial accountants occupy a visible position in most organizations and regularly work with company management and executives.
Financial analysts work with individuals and businesses to create and maintain investment strategies and recommendations. A financial analyst must take into account economic factors and the client’s financial standing and goals in order to make a profit for the client. Common tasks include studying the financial statements of clients and potential investments, researching funds and stocks, forecasting financial performance, and creating monthly and annual financial plans. Financial analysts may also identify and create presentations outlining financial risks for clients. In-person meetings and teleconferences to update clients and peers on these findings are daily activities for people in this role.
Financial managers are responsible for ensuring the financial health of an organization, division, or department within an organization. They are typically at the top of the reporting structure for a given area of responsibility and may report directly to an executive such as a chief financial officer. The primary focus of a financial manager is to oversee and assist in an organization’s financial planning through budget analysis, forecasting, and other operational reviews. Financial managers may also make investment decisions on behalf of their employers to source and acquire long- and short-term financing through loans, stock offerings, and other measures. People in this role ensure that the institutions for which they work are operating within compliance of state and federal regulations, adhering to industry best practices, and maintaining a healthy financial position. The BLS reported that financial managers earned a median salary of $121,750 per year in May 2016.4 The highest-paid 10% earned over $208,000 and the lowest-paid 10% earned under $65,000 per year.4 Those financial managers in the professional, scientific, and technical services sector earned the highest salaries, followed by those managing companies and enterprises.4
Forensic accountants specialize in analyzing and investigating financial statements and reports for signs of irregularities, which may indicate fraud. In fraud cases, forensic accountants will reconstruct the events and activities involved in financial wrongdoing. They also create presentations in support of legal cases and may be called upon to testify in court regarding their findings. Common tasks for forensic accountants include auditing records, investigating inconsistencies, tracing assets, and interviewing individuals who created, contributed to, or reviewed records under analysis. Forensic accountants may also participate in electronic discovery and records preservation.
Hedge Fund Manager
Hedge fund managers are asset managers responsible for creating investment portfolios to guard against losses for organizations and individuals. The hedge funds that these managers create and manage for this purpose are made up of a wide variety of different investment types, including stocks, bonds, futures, and unregistered securities. As a result, one of the primary tasks of people in this role is to research and analyze different investment classes and opportunities in order to identify the best assets for a hedge fund portfolio. Hedge fund managers then buy and sell these investments for the fund. Creating forecasts and managing funding are other primary duties for this position. Hedge fund managers regularly meet with their clients and with the executives responsible for running investments included in the fund.
Insurance underwriters work for insurance companies to determine whether or not to issue an insurance policy and decide the terms and costs of those policies following company guidelines. They typically specialize in one area of insurance, such as property, health and life, auto, mortgage, or other types of policies, such as corporate insurance. Typical duties for insurance underwriters include reviewing insurance applications, researching rates, and analyzing the profitability of issued policies. They may also work with other insurance companies to divide the risks on a particular policy, which is more common with high-value policies. Insurance underwriters are also generally expected to solicit new clients. According to the BLS, insurance underwriters earned a median salary of $67,680 in 2016, with those working in direct health and medical insurance earning the highest salaries, a median of $68,480.5
Investment bankers are responsible for managing business’ financial strategies at an executive level. They may advise clients on financial investments and organization, mergers and acquisitions, and the issuance of stocks and bonds. Raising capital is one of the key responsibilities for investment bankers. Common tasks for may include preparing and analyzing financial statements and records, creating presentations for directional suggestions based on quantitative data, and ensuring compliance with the regulations of various government entities.
Management accountants are responsible for collecting and analyzing the financial data of organizations in order to compile reports and make recommendations on financial decisions to key business areas. The work of a management accountant supports the work of other managers within an organization. Due to the scope of the work, people in this position work hand in hand with other knowledge specialists, such as professionals in information technology. Regular duties of a management accountant include processing and auditing monthly balances, reconciling accounts, and ensuring that all accounting records are adequately controlled and in compliance with organizational, state, and federal requirements.
Payroll managers handle the tasks necessary to paying the employees of an organization and may also handle hiring, training, and managing others who are responsible for carrying out specific duties related to payroll. A payroll manager’s duties include managing the payroll systems of an organization, confirming that calculations related to time worked, wages, deductions, and exemptions are made accurately, paying employees by supervising the issuance of paychecks, and creating reports showing the payroll data at department and organizational levels. Payroll managers must ensure that all local, state, and government laws relating to the payment of employees are followed. Payroll managers are also responsible for preparing tax reports and paying the employer’s share of applicable taxes.
Public accountants work as external consultants and advisors for corporations, small businesses, non-profits, government entities, and individuals. A public accountant differs from a private account in that he or she remains completely objective and is typically not on the client’s payroll, but is paid through consulting or advisory fees. Typical duties include auditing financial records, preparing earnings statements, completing cost accounting reports, and helping clients navigate accounting problems. After accumulating experience, public accountants may also be responsible for directing or supervising the work of support staff. Meeting with clients and coworkers is an integral part of their job duties.
Tax accountants specialize in preparing taxes for private individuals, private and public companies including non-profits, and in some cases, government entities. They also create tax strategies to reduce the amount of taxes a client owes while remaining compliant with generally accepted accounting principles and the law. Tax accountants must interpret and understand tax law, and must occasionally explain tax law and its implications to clients. Common responsibilities include preparing and filing taxes, financial planning, attending and participating in strategy meetings with clients and others, preparing presentations and reports on tax situations, reporting, and law, and researching and reviewing past tax filings when necessary.
Venture capitalists are financial professionals who finance innovative but potentially risky new companies and their projects. This financing may be completed via loans, direct investments, or other financial maneuverings between a company, the venture capitalist, and third-party investors. Venture capitalists analyze the financial strength and credit risk of potential investments and research the potential market for a company’s offering. They are frequently involved with the companies that they invest in at an executive level, often sitting on a company’s board of directors or otherwise assisting with major business decisions. Venture capitalists may also travel frequently to meet at the headquarters of the companies in which they invest, the banks that finance the operations of these companies, and to participate in networking and industry events.
Professional Associations for Accountants
Joining a professional association can be a terrific way to enhance your career by growing your professional network, participating in educational opportunities, and volunteering to gain leadership experience. Some examples of accounting professional associations are:
- American Accounting Association – Promotes the excellence of accounting education, research, and practice.
- AICPA – The national professional association for CPAs in the US.
- IMA – The Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals Working in Business
Frequently Asked Questions
How much do accountants make?
The salary for those in accounting careers depends on the job. As mentioned above, the field of accounting includes jobs such as accounting office assistant, who earn a median salary of $37,230 per year, and financial managers, who earn a median salary of $121,750 per year, along with many other job titles, each with their own salary range. Because of this, the range of salaries an accounting career can offer is broad and dependent on the education you pursue, the experience you accumulate, and the track of accounting you decide to follow.
How do I begin a career in accounting?
Most accountants start with pursuing a degree in accounting or a related field. Accounting degrees at the certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level will help you find a job in accounting. Many jobs require a minimum of a bachelor’s in accounting, but in order to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), most jurisdictions require college coursework beyond the bachelor’s level, so obtaining a master’s degree is becoming more an more common among accountants.
What do accountants do?
Accountants perform a wide variety of tasks, but in general, they speak the “language of business,” which includes preparing and examining the financial books of a company or individual, ensuring the payment of taxes is accurate and timely, and even act as consultants or advisors to their clients. The particular tasks accountants do depend on the type of accounting they do. See the job descriptions above for more details.
- This Way to CPA : An AICPA site for students.
- Accounting Today: News and resources about the accounting field.
- Robert Half Salary Guide: A report on salaries for accounting and finance professionals.
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Accountants and Auditors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Secretaries and Administrative Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/secretaries-and-administrative-assistants.htm
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016, Credit Analysts: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes132041.htm
4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016, Financial Managers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/financial-managers.htm
5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016, Insurance Underwriters: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/insurance-underwriters.htm