What Does a Career in Accounting Look Like?
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Accountants work in a stable field with high earning potential.
Accountants are responsible for maintaining and analyzing financial records for companies, government agencies, and other organizations. Given the demands of the job, accountants must be analytical and detail-oriented. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants earned a median annual salary of $71,550 in 2019.
Individuals with educational backgrounds and ample professional experience can pursue careers within subsets of the field, like forensic accounting, public accounting, and auditing.
What Do Accountants Do?
Accountants prepare financial records to ensure accuracy. While keeping records up to date, they ensure that financial transactions and operations adhere to applicable laws and guidelines. Accountants also compute taxes and confirm their client, company, or organization pays them on time.
Within companies, accountants work with executives and managers, often providing advice on how to minimize costs, boost revenue, and increase profits. They may supervise accounting clerks and staff as well.
To become an accountant, individuals need at least a bachelor's degree. A career in public accounting necessitates certification through the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). The AICPA administers the Universal CPA Examination®, a four-part assessment of accounting knowledge and skills. CPAs work with small companies and large corporations alike.
Accounting professionals can also pursue a certification in management accounting. A certified management accountant (CMA) focuses on financial planning, strategic decision-making, and financial management for private companies.
Where Do Accountants Work?
Many accountants work full time in office settings. They can also work from home, especially if they work freelance, providing services to individual clients rather than a single company or corporation. Accountants may work as part of a team, but they are just as likely to work independently.
The accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services industry employs the highest number of accountants and auditors in the United States. Finance and insurance companies and government bodies also employ accountants. The industries that pay the most for this profession include transportation, the federal government, and information services.
Generally analytical and organized, accountants can benefit from a strong attention to detail. This helps them assess financial activities, finding solutions to problems that arise. They also offer advice about ways to reduce costs and increase revenue, which requires well-honed reasoning skills.
Accountants also need strong written and verbal communication skills, which help them prepare reports and explain financial concepts. Accountants can work on their own or as part of a team, often using specialty software or technology.
Continued education hones an accountant's soft and hard skills. By expanding business competencies, accounting professionals can learn to strategize and lead. Specialized coursework can prepare accountants for niche fields. For example, forensic accounting trains accountants to assess financial records with an eye toward potential criminal activity.
According to the BLS, accountants earned annual median salaries above $71,000 in 2019. The BLS also projects job growth between 2019 and 2029. PayScale reports that major cities on the East and West coasts offer accountant salary rates well above the national average.
Salary and Job Growth for Accountants
Job Growth (2018-2028)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Highest Paying Metro Areas for Accountants
Auditors ensure people and companies comply with federal laws and regulations. They also identify financial risks and malfeasance, offering suggestions to improve financial efficiency. Auditors work within an organization, assessing funds to determine ways to minimize waste, mismanagement, and potential fraud. They can also serve as external auditors, brought in by an outside entity to review financial records objectively.
Financial managers oversee the financial activities of a company or organization. They monitor financial transactions, budgets, and trends, providing guidance to fellow managers and executives about financial decisions. Financial managers develop short- and long-term financial goals, analyze financial data, and assess investment potential and risk. They may participate in investment activities, mergers and acquisitions, or payroll and cash flow processes as well.
Financial analysts explore financial trends, determining which investments offer the most valuable outcomes for businesses or individuals. Financial analysts develop investment strategies, offer guidance to financial services agents, and prepare reports about potential investment risks. Financial analysts may either specialize in portfolio management, buy and sell mutual or hedge funds, or assess a client's ability to pay debts.
Why Become an Accountant?
Accountants can find employment in almost any industry. They work for independent financial and accounting firms, within government agencies, and as full-time professionals in businesses of various sizes. Accountants can also thrive as entrepreneurs or work in the nonprofit sector.
Accountants enjoy analyzing data and solving problems while working with numbers. They must work well independently and as part of a group. They offer guidance to clients and organizations about financial decisions while ensuring the integrity of financial records and activities.
A major responsibility for accountants is tax preparation and submission — an annual requirement in the United States. For accountants, tax season is the busiest time of the year. Identifying deductions and investment opportunities to help clients get the most out of their tax returns is a major service that accountants can provide.
How to Get Hired
To enter the accounting profession, you first need an accounting degree. While enrolled in an undergraduate accounting program, learners can complete an internship to gain practical experience and demonstrate competency to potential employers. When applying for an accountant job, employers look for candidates with work experience and proficiency in software programs applicable to a role in accounting.
To become a CPA, individuals need at least 150 credits of college coursework. Most bachelor's degrees only include 120 credits, so a master's degree is ideal for learners preparing for the CPA exam. A master's degree in accounting also offers advanced coursework that gives students an opportunity to explore niche specialties like international, forensic, and managerial accounting.
AAA unites accounting professionals, teachers, and researchers through outreach programs, publications, and educational resources. It offers 17 special interest sections, so members can access information specific to their fields. Regional groups support networking through annual meetings, events, and online forums.
Representing the public accounting profession since 1887, AICPA oversees administration of the CPA exam. It also develops standards and practices for public accountants, provides continuing education programs, and offers career guidance. AICPA also offers specialized credentials and designations for accounting professionals.
NSA supports accountancy and taxation professionals through publications, educational programs, and an extensive knowledge center. Established in 1945, NSA monitors state boards of accountancy, advocates on behalf of tax preparers, and provides discounts to members.
Frequently Asked Questions
Accounting professionals fall into four general categories. First, corporate accountants assess, process, and maintain financial data for a company or corporation. Second, forensic accountants recover lost financial data, often alongside law enforcement professionals, to investigate financial impropriety or fraud. Third, government accountants work for local, state, and federal entities. Finally, public accountants ensure the accuracy of financial data for individual clients, companies, and corporations.
Accountants must understand foundational principles of math, but they mostly use computer software to perform advanced mathematics. The majority of an accountant's duties involve analyzing data, quantitative problem-solving, and applying rules and regulations to financial information.
A career in accounting can be stressful, especially at specific times of the year. Accountants often prepare taxes, making the months leading up to tax deadlines stressful. As detail-oriented, analytical thinkers, accountants can alleviate stressors through effective time management.
Most accounting jobs require at minimum a bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, or a related field. Many accountants become CPA certified — a process that requires a requisite number of college credits, practical experience, and successful completion of the certified public accountant exam. Accountants who specialize in other aspects of the field, such as auditing, cost accounting, or business taxation, may benefit from continued specialty education or training.
Header Image Credit: Jay Yuno | Getty Images
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