Accountant Careers

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges
TheBestSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Essential Career Information

2018 Median Pay $70,500 per year / $33.89 per hour
Number of Jobs, 2018 1,424,000
2018, wage of lowest 10 percent $41,590
Employment Change, 2018-28 +90,700
2018, wage of the highest 10 percent $208,000
Job Outlook, 2018-28 6% (As fast as average)
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor's degree

Source: BLS

Alternate Job Titles


What Is an Accountant?

Accountants prepare and examine financial records. They file tax returns, advise executives on improving profits, and ensure financial records follow regulations and laws. Accountants can specialize in areas like public accounting, financial accounting, managerial accounting, and auditing.

Entry-level accounting jobs require specialized training and a bachelor's degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median accountant salary exceeds $70,000 per year, with accountants in the top 10% earning over $120,000 per year. Accountants who pursue credentials like certified public accountant (CPA) can increase their earning potential.

Frequently Asked Questions


How do you become an accountant?

Most entry-level accounting jobs require a bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, business, economics, or a closely related field.

What are the careers in accounting?

Accountants can work as CPAs, managerial accountants, financial accountants, auditors, forensic accountants, and in other in-demand accounting specialties.

How long does it take to become an accountant?

Prospective accountants can typically earn a bachelor's degree in four years of full-time study. Graduates qualify for many entry-level accounting jobs.

What Does an Accountant Do?

Accountants analyze financial reports, create financial records, and help businesses run efficiently. They examine financial statements to ensure they follow regulations and laws, prepare tax returns for businesses and individuals, and maintain financial records. Accountants also prepare reports on their work and explain accounting decisions to clients.

Accountants can specialize in several areas. A CPA specializes in financial documents that require public disclosure, including tax returns. A management accountant advises executives on cutting costs and increasing profits, while a personal accountant helps an individual or business manage tax filings and business records. A forensic accountant investigates suspected financial fraud.

Accountants often work closely with finance professionals and business executives, depending on their specialty. Many professionals become a certified accountant within their specialty to demonstrate their skills.

Accountants draw on several skills to complete their work. For instance, accounting professionals rely on analytical skills to examine financial records. They must also have an attention to detail and strong organizational and communication skills. Accounting professionals build these skills through coursework and professional experience.

What is a CPA?

A CPA works with financial records that must, by law, be disclosed, including tax documents, corporate balance sheet statements, and annual reports. CPAs may work for individuals, businesses, or government agencies. They prepare and file tax returns, consult on public accounting matters, and audit public accounting documents.

CPAs must complete additional training beyond a bachelor's degree. To qualify for the credential, candidates must complete 150 credits of postsecondary coursework. Many prospective CPAs earn a master's degree or graduate certificate to meet the requirement. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants administers the CPA exam and reports an average CPA salary of $119,000 per year.

Financial vs. Managerial Accounting

Both financial and managerial accountants help companies run efficiently and effectively; however, they perform different functions within an organization.

Financial accountants create financial reports based on a company's performance. Organizations send these reports to the government, stockholders, and lenders to represent the company's financial state and pay taxes. Managerial accountants analyze financial information to help managers make decisions for the company. These reports estimate future earnings, compare budget projections with actual spending, and offer cost estimates for products or services.

Actuary vs. Accountant

Like an accountant, an actuary analyzes financial reports and draws on statistics, mathematics, and financial theory; however, actuarial science focuses on risk management and assessing uncertainty. Actuaries estimate probabilities and costs to help companies minimize their risks. The insurance industry accounts for the majority of actuary jobs.

Actuaries often work closely with accountants and other finance professionals to perform their duties. Actuaries and accountants both need a bachelor's degree for most entry-level jobs. Actuaries often major in statistics, actuarial science, mathematics, or a related field. Actuaries also earn higher median salaries and benefit from stronger projected job growth than accountants.

Become an Accountant

Prospective accountants often begin their career by earning a bachelor's degree in accounting or a closely related field. After several years of working as an accountant, professionals can pursue management roles. Accountants with graduate training qualify for advanced roles and credentials, such as a CPA.

Many accountants specialize their skills while earning a degree. Accountants can also pursue professional certification to demonstrate expertise in an area like public accounting, fraud examination, or management accounting.

Certificate Degree Programs

Prospective accountants can complete a certificate program to build foundational skills in the field. An undergraduate accounting certificate trains students for entry-level roles, such as bookkeeper and accounting clerk. During an undergraduate certificate, students complete courses in accounting principles, tax accounting, and accounting software.

Earning an undergraduate certificate in accounting generally takes one year and requires 25-40 credits. Undergraduate certificates typically set few prerequisites and often do not require standardized test scores. These certificates offer excellent preparation for an associate or bachelor's degree.

Accounting professionals can also earn a graduate certificate in accounting. Many prospective CPAs choose a graduate certificate to meet the 150-credit requirement for the CPA license. A graduate certificate builds on undergraduate accounting training. Learners study topics like federal income tax rules, accounting principles for financial statements, and auditing.

An accelerated graduate accounting certificate can take less than a year to complete. Requirements for a CPA license vary by state, so prospective CPAs considering a graduate certificate should ensure their potential programs meet the requirements in their state.

Associate Degree Programs

Earning an associate degree in accounting prepares graduates for careers in bookkeeping, payroll, and tax preparation. While many accounting careers require a bachelor's degree, an associate degree provides foundational accounting skills and prepares graduates for several job opportunities in the accounting field. In lieu of an associate in accounting, students can earn an associate degree in business administration with an accounting concentration. This option provides business training in addition to accounting knowledge.

During an associate program in accounting, students take classes in accounting principles, finance, tax preparation, and business. Some programs incorporate an internship to give students hands-on professional experience. Students also complete general education requirements in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Through accounting electives, students can specialize the degree and prepare for specific careers after graduation.

An associate degree generally takes two years for full-time students to complete. The 60-credit degree often lets students seamlessly transfer into a bachelor's program. Transfer students pay two years of community college tuition and two years of four-year college tuition, which can mean thousands of dollars in savings. Most associate programs do not set prerequisite courses or a minimum GPA for admission. Applicants often need a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

A bachelor's degree in accounting prepares graduates for careers in public accounting, financial accounting, managerial accounting, and other specializations. During a bachelor's in accounting, students take courses in accounting, finance, organizational behavior, and federal tax law. Many accounting programs offer concentrations to prepare students for specific careers. Students can also customize the degree through electives.

Accounting majors build strong analytical and organizational skills through accounting courses. A bachelor's degree also incorporates general education classes in disciplines like English, mathematics, and natural science, which strengthen critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Prospective accountants can also earn a bachelor's in business administration with a concentration in accounting. A business administration degree incorporates classes in management, leadership, and organizational decision-making, which prepare students for careers in managerial accounting or business.

Earning a bachelor's degree generally takes four years for full-time students to complete. Transfer students with prior college credits can earn a degree in less time. Bachelor's students typically need to complete 120 credits of major coursework, general education classes, and electives to graduate. Graduates can pursue accounting careers or enroll in a graduate program.

Master's Degree Programs

A master's degree in accounting provides advanced training in an accounting specialty. Master's students can specialize in areas like financial accounting, government accounting, or public accounting. Students take courses on topics like advanced cost accounting, financial reporting, auditing, and corporate tax decisions. Many accounting programs also offer specialized electives like enterprise risk analysis, advanced fraud examination, and international tax planning.

Earning a master's degree prepares graduates for advanced roles in the field. Accountants with a master's degree qualify for a CPA license, for example, and many employers prefer to hire management-level accountants with a master's degree.

A master's degree in accounting typically takes two years of full-time study to complete, though some programs offer accelerated options. Applicants to master's programs typically need a bachelor's degree in accounting or a closely related field. Most master's programs set accounting prerequisite courses, which applicants generally meet through their undergraduate degree.

Accountants considering a master's degree can also earn an MBA with an accounting concentration. An MBA offers leadership and management training in addition to accounting coursework. Both a master's in accounting and an MBA with an accounting concentration build advanced accounting skills that help accountants stand out in the job market.

Doctoral Degree Programs

The highest degree in accounting, a doctorate prepares accountants for academic and research roles. For example, most tenure-track professors need a doctorate in their field. During a doctorate program, students must complete advanced accounting coursework, pass comprehensive examinations, and defend a dissertation based on original research. A doctorate in accounting typically takes at least 4-5 years to complete.

Most doctoral programs in accounting incorporate 2-3 years of coursework in the student's specialty. After meeting coursework requirements and passing comprehensive examinations, doctoral students conduct research on their dissertation topic, working under the supervision of a faculty advisor. Completing the dissertation can take another two or more years. At the end of the program, doctoral students must defend their dissertation before a faculty committee.

Doctoral programs typically require a bachelor's or a master's degree in an accounting-related field for admission. Doctoral students gain strong research and analytical skills, often pursuing academic careers after graduation. Accounting professors teach courses and publish research in their specialization. Prospective doctoral students can also earn a doctorate in business administration with an accounting concentration.

Professional Licensure and Certifications

Accountants can demonstrate their expertise and qualify for additional accounting jobs by pursuing a professional license or certification. While most certifications remain voluntary, some accounting professionals must hold certain licenses, like the CPA license, to practice. In addition to the CPA license, accountants can pursue credentials like certified information systems auditor (CISA), certified management accountant (CMA) or certified internal auditor (CIA).

Candidates for an accounting certificate must meet the education and experience requirements. Most credentials also require passing an examination. For example, ISACA grants the CISA credential to accountants with five years of auditing information systems experience who pass an examination. The Institute of Management Accountants requires a bachelor's degree for the CMA credential, plus two years of work experience in management accounting. CMA candidates must also pass a two-part exam that covers risk management, financial statement analysis, and valuation.

Similarly, the Institute of Internal Auditors grants the CIA credential to candidates who hold two years of experience in internal auditing and pass a four-part exam. During the certification process, applicants must submit required materials, pass the examination, and pay a fee. Earning accounting certification increases earning potential. For example, professionals with the CIA credential earn an average of $38,000 more per year than those without certification.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Woman working at desk