What Is an Accounting Degree?
Updated May 23, 2023 • 6 min read
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If you excel with numbers, have strong organizational skills, and are good with money, you might consider an accounting degree.
Accounting is a broad field, covering the recording, tracking, and analysis of financial transactions for both individuals and businesses. Accountants also maintain financial records for government or tax officials.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants earned a median annual salary of over $71,000 in 2019 — more than $30,000 above the national average. This page explores educational requirements, degree options, and career paths for accountants.
What Kinds of Accounting Degrees Are There?
The answer to, "what is accounting?" is fairly broad; prospective accounting professionals can pursue several different educational paths at different academic levels. Most accountants earn at least a bachelor's degree, which can lead to a certified public accountant (CPA) credential, but there are other options as well.
Associate Degree in Accounting
An associate degree in accounting provides training in business and accounting foundations. Students learn to maintain, analyze, and present financial records while also exploring the professional standards and ethics of the profession. These degrees typically require 60 credits and take two years to complete.
In addition to fundamental courses like principles of accounting, associate accounting programs often include courses that introduce various career possibilities, like cost accounting, financial accounting, and federal taxation. Graduates can pursue careers as accounting or auditing clerks, financial clerks, and bill collectors.
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Bachelor's Degree in Accounting
A bachelor's degree in accounting is the most popular path to an accounting career. Bachelor's accounting programs require 120 credits and typically take four years to complete, covering business and accounting fundamentals before shifting to more advanced topics. Degree-seekers also explore accounting information systems, auditing, and business statistics.
In addition to the core curricula, ctudents can often choose elective courses or concentrations that help guide their eventual careers, exploring topics like financial accounting, management accounting, and forensic accounting. After completing an online bachelor's in accounting, graduates can pursue roles like auditor, cost estimator, or financial analyst.
What's the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Accounting?
While bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of science (BS) degrees in accounting have similar core courses, they differ in electives and training focus. A BA typically provides humanities training, focusing on areas like communications or psychology, while a BS focuses more on practical application courses, like business, marketing, or finance. BS degrees sometimes require more credits, which helps students more easily meet the 150-credit requirement for the CPA certification.
Due to these differences, the BA and BS degrees often lead to different specializations and careers. For example, a BS may prepare for financial analyst roles, while a BA better equips graduates for human-focused positions, like personal financial advisor.
Master's Degree in Accounting
A master's degree in accounting typically requires 30-45 credits and takes 1-2 years to complete. These programs emphasize advanced accounting principles, such as business analytics, sales and exchanges of property, or in-depth taxation. They also cover business management fundamentals and usually include CPA preparation or advanced technology skills.
Master's degrees also tend to offer specializations in areas like corporate accounting, financial management, or personal finances. With this training, master's graduates improve their chances of finding employment as tax examiners, management analysts, or financial managers. Master's degrees can also lead to management or executive roles.
Doctoral Degree in Accounting
Doctoral degrees in accounting can differ considerably in format and curriculum. Credit requirements vary between 60-120 credits, and they usually take five years to complete. While some programs offer concentrations, most require extensive independent research rather than offering traditional specializations.
Doctorates usually include research and methods courses, along with advanced business, economics, and statistics courses. Due to the considerable training required for this degree, graduates qualify for most accounting positions, including roles as top executives, financial managers, and other management careers.
What Can You Do With an Accounting Degree?
Accounting encompasses diverse careers for graduates at all degree levels. According to BLS occupational data, accounting graduates make up one of the largest workforces in the coastal states, and most accounting degree jobs are in metropolitan city centers.
In 2019, nearly 25% of accounting professionals worked in accounting services, with another 30% working in the fields of finance, government, management, and self-employment combined. In addition to traditional accounting positions, graduates can also pursue postsecondary teaching positions or careers in research. The following sections examine some of these accounting career options.
According to BLS employment data, the insurance industry employs approximately 9% of accountants and offers one of the highest median annual salaries: over $76,000. With a bachelor's degree, candidates can pursue careers as accountants or auditors, insurance actuaries, and insurance underwriters.
The insurance industry primarily focuses on financial data, benefits, and coverage, so accounts in this field must use their mathematical, analytical, and organizational skills. To gain a competitive advantage, accounting students should also take courses in statistics, risk assessment, and auditing.
The financial services industry employs approximately 9% of accountants and provides some of the highest wages, with a median annual salary of about $72,000. A bachelor's degree qualifies graduates for most positions in the field, including financial analysis, corporate accounting, and stockbroking.
Accountants in this industry rely heavily on mathematics, financial processing, and decision-making. Students pursing careers in this field could be sure to take classes in finance, communication, and economics.
The government uses accountants to maintain accurate numbers for its public budgets, projections, and initiatives. The government employs 8% of accounting professionals and pays a median annual salary of over $70,000.
Some positions — such as federal accountant, internal revenue agent, and financial examiner — require a CPA credential, which requires 30 additional credits after the 120 typically required for a bachelor's degree. Students can also improve their qualifications by taking courses in economics and government accounting.
What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With an Accounting Degree?
Accounting salaries vary depending on several factors, including employer, location, and job description. The data below shows the median annual salaries of the major accounting careers, along with projected job growth data and education requirements.
|Career||Median Annual Salary||Job Growth
|Typical Degree Needed|
|Personal Financial Advisors||$87,850||4%||Bachelor's|
|Accountants and Auditors||$71,550||4%||Bachelor's|
|Tax Revenue Agents||$54,890||-4%||Bachelor's|
|Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks||$41,230||-6%||None|
Accounting Professional Organizations
Contributing to the accounting profession since 1916, the AAA houses the largest network of accountants in academia in the country. Members share information, support research, and collaborate to drive innovation and strengthen the industry. The association offers access to education, industry publications, and events on the regional and national levels.
AICPA represents the accounting industry nationally. Founded in 1887, the association publishes professional rules and ethical standards and offers the CPA examination. AICPA also offers access to continuing education, career guidance and development, and industry news.
Founded in 1973, FASB sets standards for financial accounting and reporting, affecting accountants, financial professionals, and most organizations. The board provides access to industry news, professional standards, and a reference library.
IMA supports and strengthens the management accounting field through advocacy and professional suppoer. The association provides members with access to education and professional development opportunities.
This organization aims to help accounting and tax professionals develop and advance their careers. Members have access to industry news and information, education, and events, along with a large professional network.
Accreditation for Accounting Programs
When choosing a higher education program, students should always keep accreditation in mind, as it can affect financial aid, continuing education, and employment opportunities. In most cases, learners only need ensure they attend a regionally accredited school, but some disciplines also require programmatic accreditation from national organizations.
Accounting students should look for accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which enforces quality standards for business education. Depending on your accounting specialty, your postgraduate employment and industry certification opportunities may depend on AACSB accreditation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is an Accounting Degree Hard?
Like all degrees, an accounting degree is challenging for different students in different ways. Students should prepare for a heavy focus on mathematics. With proper preparation, study habits, and attention to detail, though, any learner can succeed.
Is Accounting a Stressful Job?
While accounting careers can be stressful, particularly during high-stakes times like reporting periods and tax season, well-trained professionals should be able to cope. Professionals with good time management skills and attention to detail will find this career less stressful.
Why Is Accounting Important?
Accounting is about ensuring the safety and accuracy of financial information for people and organizations. Most organizations and industries rely on accountants to keep track of their financial data, analyze the information, and make sound financial decisions. According to BLS employment data, the prevalence of the accounting field mirrors the health of the economy
How Long Does It Take to Get a Degree in Accounting?
The length of time it takes to complete an accounting degree depends on the program. Associate degrees take two years, bachelor's degrees take four years, master's degrees typically take two years after a bachelor's degree, and doctorates can take an additional five years. However, some programs offer accelerated degrees, so actual time to graduation varies.
Header Image Credit: MoMo Productions | Getty Images
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