The Ultimate Guide to a Career in Accounting

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Accounting is an exciting career field that is ALWAYS in demand. While other industries languish, every single business will require an accountant at some point to provide services. Accountants are responsible for a lot of the “back-end” work that goes on in a business, like keeping track of financial accounts, transactions, data storage, and presenting that data in useful reports and analyses. Accountants can be found in aiding businesses prepare financial information for tax returns, use in forecasting, setting up and ensuring the security of financial information and many more fields.  In short, do much more than taxes and are a ridiculously important part of the business fabric.

As the business world evolves, the accounting world evolves with it—often changing in a way that directly impacts the way companies conduct their affairs. The reality is that accountants are constantly learning, and use their knowledge to provide expert services to those that employ them. Accounting skills open many doors, and because accountants are always in demand, accounting is a stable career path. In fact, the industry is expected to grow by as much as 16% in the next five years.

Fast Facts 
2015 Median Pay $67,190 per year
$32.30 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor’s Degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On the Job Training Many firms will sponsor training to keep accounting skills relevant
Job Outlook  11-16% growth over the next five years
Average Work Week 40+ hours per week during regular seasons, 50-80 hours per week during tax seasons or budget seasons
Key Skills Analysis, communication, detail oriented, math skills, organization skills


why_business_need_accountanWhy do businesses need accountants?

Some business owners are fantastic at their job. They may be great salesman of products or services. But when it comes to bookkeeping, handling things like payroll, taxes, and financial statements, their skills don’t do them much good. The truth is, their time could be better spent elsewhere instead of handling the day to day accounting of their company.

Why Businesses Need Accountants?This is where an accountant can ease the burden of a company by handling these crucial tasks. Regardless of the size of the company, an accountant or a team of accountants can simplify the back end of a business and provide useful financial data for companies to make decisions.  Accounting goes beyond simple bookkeeping. Accountants can answer questions like, “Why isn’t profit increasing when revenue is increasing?”

Businesses large and small, individuals rich and poor all need accountants. Anytime there is a difficult thing that no one wants to do (a really crap job) there is an opportunity for someone to be irreplaceable and earn good money. The truth is that though many processes can be automated, at the end of the day someone needs to make an actual financial decision that can make an impact on the company—and that person usually has accounting training.


Uncle SamFor many people the word “taxes” brings a shiver of fear down their spines. This is because the tax code that we live with is constantly changing, and understanding it is no easy feat. An accountant specializing in individual taxes helps people figure out how much taxes they owe, and how much they can claim back from the government. Everyone loves to pay less taxes right?


The stereotype of accountants could not be more wrong. Long gone are the bookkeepers wearing thick glasses, pouring over paper bound ledgers in a dusty room. Today’s accounts can be found in both private and public accounting, working for large and small businesses as well as private accounting firms.

Accountants today are internal and external auditors responsible for ensuring financial transactions are recorded properly and a company’s internal controls are sufficient to mitigate risk. Accountants of the 21st century take advantage of the latest software developments to make their jobs easier. In fact some accountants combine accounting knowledge with computer expertise to audit and implement information systems for a wide variety of companies.

If law enforcement and accounting sounds like an odd couple, it really isn’t. Most people have heard of the infamous kingpin of crime, the mobster Al Capone. During his reign in Chicago, Capone was seen as public enemy number one. What finally brought him down, however, wasn’t a smoking gun or an eyewitness to a murder—it was an accountant. Capone finally went to jail because of tax evasion and a number of other fraud-related crimes.

The sad truth is that financial crimes are just as prevalent today as they were back then and need to be fought with people trained to understand how accounting and crime can work together. Fraud examiners, forensic accountants are among those that are on the front line against white collar criminals.


Public Accountants

Typically careers in public accounting center around tax and audit practices, though many large accounting firms like the Big 4 have diverse offerings. Public accountants typically work for a variety of clients ranging from corporations, partnerships, and more. Public accounting typically has a linear promotion schedule, and is considered to be a very stable industry to get into. Public accountants are typically required to obtain a Certified Public Accountant credential in order to be promoted.

Management Accountants

Management accountants are involved in budget analysis, forecasting, establishing internal controls, and working with internal and external auditors. Management accountants are focused on what is called cost accounting—an essential skill in helping organizations determine plans and making decisions. Generally speaking, these accountants work within an organization and advance to positions like directors of internal auditing, controllers, treasurers, chief financial officers and more. In fact, many corporate executives have a background in audit, cost accounting, and finance.

Government Accountants

When a democracy is established, its crowning virtue is often its system of checks and balances. Government accountants are part of that system of checks and balances, working at all levels of the government. From small municipalities to large cities, the Department of Defense to the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission, government accountants are there to help make sure taxpayer funding is used for the right reasons and in the right way. Every tax dollar is a hard earned dollar, and these accountants hold the government accountable.

Auditors and Internal Auditors

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the financial world has been rocked by accounting scandals. In fact, thanks to the financial indiscretions of energy firm Enron and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, the United States government has enacted stricter legislation to help protect investors. A massive increase in the number of internal and external auditors required are a direct result of this legislation, as many large firms are now required to submit to an audit and have stringent controls in place to prevent financial misstatements. Internal auditors work within an organization and work to ensure that their accounting processes, internal controls, and information systems are reasonably free of error, while external auditors work as a “second set of eyes” to improve fiscal integrity.


Out of all career paths, accounting is probably one of the most straightforward.  While this whole article is about how to become an accountant, this is the quick version.

Get an education

Usually, this means a bachelor’s degree in accounting, but there are other paths towards accounting that you may want to explore. The section below will have more information.

Get an Internship

In the business world companies are primarily concerned with what you can do. Yes, the academics and GPA may look great on paper, but if you can actually perform or if you have experience you’ll be ahead in the game.

Get a Job

Yes, it is kind of obvious, but the education and internship should give you practical experience and an edge in getting a job.

Get certification

Depending on your field of accounting, you will probably require some kind of advanced certification. If finding a job is proving difficult, then certification will increase your hireability.


You should be on a good path to a stable career by now. Good luck!


Don’t be put off by the math skills. If you struggled with trigonometry and other maths in school there is still hope for you being an accountant. In all reality, the math involved with most accounting functions deals in addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, percentages, and some algebra for formulaic functions. Accounting is more about organization and understanding accounting laws than it is about complex math.

accountant_skillsWhat skills do you need to be an accountant?

Accounting is a business related function industry, and as is such requires a lot of the same skills and attributes sought out in the business world.  Successful accountants are analytical,  with an eye towards number related details. Accountants are organized and need to have the ability to communicate clearly both with their co-workers and their clients. In fact, one of the most sought after skills in accounting is writing. This may seem like a paradox, many people go into accounting because they don’t like writing. However, because so much of communication today is done via email, instant messenger services, writing is more relevant than ever before. Depending on the specific work that an accountant might do, writing audit reports, tax research memos, and financial forecasts might be an everyday norm.

  • Analytical
  • Detail oriented
  • Writing
  • Verbal communication
  • Organizational skills
  • Basic math skills

Beyond soft skills, there are a number of technical that every accountant should have. The first and foremost is a knowledge of how accounting works—a knowledge of debits and credits, accounts payable and receivables, generally accepted accounting practices (US GAAP) and a familiarity with software. Most of this knowledge comes from school programs and classes in financial and cost accounting, as well as tax and audit classes. Software knowledge comes with on the job training, though being familiar and very comfortable with Microsoft Excel would give would-be accountants an edge in their job.


What kind of education do you need to be an accountant?

The first step in becoming an accountant is getting the right degree. Most accounting jobs require at minimum a Bachelor’s degree. But what is more important than the degree is that the right classes are taken and that the right amount of credits are taken so that graduates qualify for their respective licensing requirements. Since the CPA is the most popular of the certifications, we will use it in our examples.

The CPA doesn’t require an undergraduate degree in accounting, but it does require 150 semester hours (credits) before candidates qualify for the test. What this means is that someone could take an undergraduate degree in accounting, obtain 150 credit hours and qualify for the CPA. Alternatively, a candidate could take an undergraduate degree in an unrelated field, obtain a masters degree in accounting to get the right classes and the credit hours and still qualify for an accounting job.

In fact, this second option is what many career changers go through—with some opting for an MBA with a concentration in accounting if they already have a strong financial background. While business knowledge does help potential accounting candidates, the key to getting hired is to stand out from your peers. At the end of the day, as long as students have taken the right classes that will let them qualify for certification, they will be able to find a job as an accountant.

Advanced degrees for accountants?

Unlike other careers that make a big deal out of advanced degrees, accounting is more concerned with licensing than anything else. Beyond a Bachelor’s degree, the remaining advanced degrees for accountants are a Master’s degree in accounting and a doctor of philosophy (PhD). A PhD in accounting focuses more on the academic aspects of accounting. Graduates with a PhD will often teach at a college or university and conduct research within various fields of accounting study.

In some states, a master’s degree is a requirement to practice accounting as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), while in other states accountants must have a certain number of credits before qualifying to sit for the CPA. Though the CPA is considered a gold standard in accounting credentials, it is not the only license out there. In fact depending on your field of expertise, a CPA may not even be relevant. While a lot of focus is on the CPA, there are many more certifications that may be more relevant to your interests. The section below details more about the different kinds of certifications available in the industry.

A Note about MBAs and Masters in Accounting

An MBA is a great, well-rounded degree for anyone going into the business world. It trains students to be able to recognize many of the challenges that a company may face in the ordinary course of business. Some students may opt for an MBA with a concentration in accounting before transitioning into a career as an accountant. While this may be sufficient for some firms, it may not be enough for a career in a larger firm. Public accounting firms tend to be more interested in whether or not students will be able to sit for the CPA exam after graduation, while other public companies may be more concerned with the experiences that a candidate has.  An MBA might be a great fit for a student that already has an accounting undergraduate degree and is looking to expand their business knowledge.

A masters degree in accounting, on the other hand, is much more specific to accounting. It shows potential employers that you have a well-rounded knowledge regarding accounting practices and the financial practices of a business. It’s more specialized than an MBA with a concentration in accounting but opens more doors that are specifically accounting related.

So, what does this “it depends” answer mean for those wanting to be accountants? Do your research. Reach out to people in the industry and people that are doing the same line of work that you want to get into. Learn about their career paths and educational background.

Accounting Program Course Materials

Most accounting programs in the United States offer similar course content in their undergraduate and graduate degree programs. General courses tend to lay a foundation for students to better understand the accounting material, while electives and more advanced courses give students an opportunity to study topics that they have interest in. Many schools emphasize that graduates from their respective programs will be ready to sit for the CPA exam, but that they do not teach specifically to passing the exam.  The following is an example of a program you may see at both the undergraduate and graduate levels:

Undergraduate Programs

  • Standard General Education Classes
  • Cost Management
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Accounting information Systems
  • Federal Taxation
  • Advanced Accounting
  • Financial Statement Auditing

Graduate Programs

  • Managerial Statistics
  • Macro and Microeconomics
  • Financial Statement Analysis
  • Accounting Information Systems and Processes
  • Financial Statement Auditing
  • Federal Income Taxation
  • Professional Accounting Research

Elective Classes depend on what each program offers, but often the following classes may be offered:  

  • Advanced Financial Accounting
  • Advanced Managerial Accounting
  • Advanced Accounting Information Systems
  • Information Technology Auditing
  • Internal Auditing
  • Accounting for Income Taxes
  • International Accounting Practices
  • International Tax
  • Risk Performance Measurement
  • Governmental Accounting, Reporting and Auditing
  • Principles of Fraud Investigation
  • Fraud and Forensic Accounting

Finally, an internship is prized above almost all course material because it shows that a student can handle “real world” accounting work. Almost all programs have an internship requirement, with some programs requiring an internship for graduation.

One major thing that students need to be aware of is that studying accounting in the United States will give students a good understanding of the Generally Accepted Accounting Practices of the United States (US GAAP). US GAAP applies only to the United States and its territories. This means that international students hoping to study in the United States and then return to their home countries might find that their education is not entirely relevant when they return to their home countries.  Many countries in the world adopt a variation of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) as their method of accounting—a system that isn’t addressed as much in American schools. While the accounting methods are similar, they do differ enough that significant time needs to be spent on learning each one. That being said, students could find work internationally for American companies and use their US GAAP knowledge.


Certified Public Accountant

Let’s start with the biggest and most popular license—the CPA. A certified public accountant is considered a “gold standard” in the accounting profession, with many corporate firms encouraging accountants to earn this distinction. It’s not easy to get it. In fact, if you intend on getting a CPA, you need to make sure you’re willing to spend the time to learn the material and study for the four grueling exams. But even before the CPA, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve got 150 credit hours from school under your belt.

There are four parts to the CPA exam:  

  1. Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  2. Regulation (REG)
  3. Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  4. Business Environment & Concepts (BEC)

These exams may be taken in any order, but the real catch is that once you pass one, you’ll only have 18 months to clear the remaining three exams. If you don’t make it within that time window, you’ll have to retake the exams you’ve passed previously. Generally speaking, one year of accounting experience is required for this license.

Certified Management Accountant

While the CPA is a good “well-rounded” certification for public accounting, the CMA is designed specifically for individuals that are involved in corporate accounting and accounting based decision making. The CMA is geared towards people that are responsible for the financing of corporate production schedules, and financial functions within an organization.  The requirements for this certification aren’t as strenuous as the of the CPA, requiring only 120 credit hours. Be aware that there are certain windows that the CMA exam can be taken (January and February, May and June, and September and October), and that candidates have three years to pass the two part exam. The CMA exam requires at least two years experience and membership in the Institute of Management Accountants.

Certified Internal Auditor

If internal audit is your passion then the CIA (no, not that one) is the place for you. A Certified Internal Auditor is a globally recognized certification for internal auditors and prepares auditors for strategic risk management and assessment, as well as internal control development and assessment. Since many internal auditors don’t stay in the internal audit career track for their whole careers, this designation helps them prepare for roles in management and in the design of a company’s internal accounting functions.

The CIA exam is made up of three parts: 

  1. Internal Audit Basics
  2. Internal Audit Practice
  3. Internal Audit Knowledge Elements.

Candidates for this exam must have two years experience, though a master’s degree can substitute 12 months of that time.

Chartered Global Management Accountant

A CGMA is a complement designation for the CPA and CMA that enables holders to showcase their skills and experience globally. For business strategists, international accountants, board members, and other C-suite officers, the CGMA is a great designation that showcases discipline, commitment and the intellectual acumen needed to lead a company to success.

The requirements for this certification are a lot more stringent than the other degrees, and it is HIGHLY recommended that you first obtain a CPA before getting this designation. CPAs with 150 credit hours and three years management experience can sit for the strategic case study exam of the CGMA. Without a CPA those with three years management experience must obtain the Chartered institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) certificate in business accounting as well as the CIMA professional Qualification before they can sit for the strategic case study. The CIMA certificate consists of five exams, and the CIMA professional qualification is an additional 19.5 hours worth of exams.

Boom. Better to get a CPA first isn’t it?

Chartered Financial Analyst

While the CFA is traditionally an investor designation, many accountants have a finance background and find that the CFA is a great designation to have when specializing in risk management, financial advising, or the many finance related functions within a company.

The CFA consists of three levels, and its an exam that must be taken on specific days in the testing window. Each level gets progressively harder, and you need at minimum a bachelor’s degree or four years of professional experience to sit for the exam.


Accounting ScholarshipsHowever you choose to approach accounting, you will need to go to school for it. To that end, a scholarship will help alleviate some of the costs of school. The following is a list of some scholarships available for accounting students.

Scholarship Websites


Accounting Specific Scholarships

  • EFWA – Laurels Fund Scholarships From the Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting, the Laurels Fund was established in 1978 to provide scholarships for female students pursuing an advanced degrees in accounting. Scholarships up to $5000  are awarded to PhD students.
  • ICPAS – Herman J. Neal Scholarships – From the Illinois CPA Society this scholarship supports African American students. The scholarships awards up to $4000 for students in their junior or senior year, or in their additional year of schooling to obtain their CPA credential.
  • ALPFA – Academic Scholarships – The Association of Latino Professionals for America offers academic scholarships for students ranging from $2000 – 10,000.
  • NSA – NSA Scholarship Foundation – The National Society of Accountants (yeah not the other NSA) provides scholarships for undergraduates enrolled in accounting programs at accredited schools.
  • GFOA – Frank L Greathouse Government Accounting Scholarship – The Government Finance Officers Association is keenly interested in raising new generations of accountants. Awareded to students that are planning on a career in government accounting, this scholarship offers $7,000 to its recipients.
  • ACFE – Ritchie Jennings Memorlal Scholarship Program – This scholarship offered by the Association for Certified Fraud Examiners offers amounts ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 to its lucky recipients, paid directly to their university. This award is generally granted to students looking to advance their education and enter an anti-fraud career path.
  • OADP – Online Accounting Degree Programs Scholarship – A $1500 scholarship for undergraduate students looking to earn a degree in accounting. Generally offered twice a year.
  • Wiley CPA Excel – Accounting Student Scholarship – Wiley CPA Excel is one of the leading CPA study courses in the market. To help students in their education, they offer a $1000 scholarship prize and their Gold level CPA review course.
  • College for All Texans – Fifth Year Accounting Student Scholarship Program –  Like the name suggests, this scholarship is for students that have already completed 120 credit hours of college coursework and are embarking on their fifth year of school. The idea here is to support students that are going to take the CPA exam in the state of Texas.
  • AFWA –  Scholarships – The Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance primary mission is to promote and advance education and career development for women in finance and accounting. As a result, AFWA has a number of scholarships open to undergraduates, graduates, and doctoral students.
  • SILA Foundation – Post Secondary College Scholarship – The Securities and Insurance Licensing Association Foundation usually offers 10 $2500 scholarships for students enrolled in business, education, finance or accounting, marketing, mathematics or insurance studies.
  • AICPA/Accountemps – Student Scholarship Award – A whopping $10,000 scholarship, four of these awards are offered to students that participate in the AICPA Legacy. The AICPA is the primary licensing board for the CPA exam, and they do offer a wide range of scholarships for students with minority backgrounds, liberal arts backgrounds, and more. Search their website for more information.

accounting_job_boardsJOB BOARDS

Accountemps: A Robert Half Company

RobertHalf helps professionals find meaningful careers and companies find the talent they need to be successful. This job search site offers up-to-date employment opportunities for all types of accounting positions.

Accounting Jobs Today is a career resource for finance and accounting professionals. This site offers a free job search tool with sign-up options to receive job alerts, career advice videos, accounting news and more. 

IHireAccounting offers accounting jobs categorized by state, title, and position. Job seekers can sign up for a free account. This site also offers career advice and resume writing to help members find better employment. – Accounting Jobs

CareerBuilder offers a list of over 2,500 jobs for accountants. The site offers helpful filters so that you can find the perfect job, with the prefect hours, at the perfect salary. One of the helpful filters is Annual Pay which allows job seekers to specify positions offering the salary they desire.

Accounting Now is a financial recruiting company matching financial professionals with the right opportunities in finance, banking, and accounting careers. This company has recruitment offices across the U.S.

Search Accounting Jobs was created by an elite group of independent finance & accounting recruiters. These recruiters post accounting jobs that they discover through networking. If you are not connected with a recruiter, this would be the best option for finding one. 

CPA Jobs offers position listings for CPAs only. Don’t let the look of the site fool you. The site is regularly updated with new positions. Positions are listed by specialty.

Locate Accounting Jobs connects accounting job seekers and employers. This job site offers highly-targeted, niche job boards that allow seekers to find the exact type of positions they’re looking for. – Accounting Jobs

Live Career overs thousands of jobs across the board with over 3,000 job titles under accounting. This site allows job seekers to search by company, title, date posted, and location.

Bookkeeper Jobs is a job and resume board strictly for bookkeepers. Job seekers can sign up for job email notifications. Jobs are actually pulled by but offer a one-stop solution for bookkeepers seeking employment.