How to Become an Accountant
How to Begin Your Accounting Career
- What sector do I want to work in — public, private or financial services?
- What areas of accounting are interesting?
- What areas of accounting are not of interest?
- How much time am I willing to dedicate to my education in accounting?
- What level of qualifications do I need for my desired accounting role?
5 Steps to Become an Accountant
There is no one-size-fits all guide on how to become an accountant. Some people start with an undergraduate degree in another field, such as business or data science, before opting to enter into a bachelor’s or master’s in accounting program. Others decide to pursue a certification like a certified management accountant (CMA), while others opt to distinguish themselves with a master’s in accounting.
However, there are some general steps you can take to move into a career as an accountant. Here is a breakdown of one path you can take, with personalized choices for you to make along the way.
- Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
For entry-level accounting positions, a bachelor’s degree is the standard minimum requirement. A bachelor’s degree in accounting provides you with a foundational knowledge of accounting principles and theories.
It is during this time that you would learn the fundamentals, such as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Additionally, you will take courses like auditing and accounting information systems. Whether you want to work in the public sector, private sector, or serve in the financial services industry, obtaining a bachelor of accounting is one ideal starting point.
Many bachelor’s in accounting students also work as interns in firms to gain the hands-on experience employers like to see on resumes. Many of those accounting firms end up hiring their interns for full-time jobs. For example, Deloitte hires more than 3,000 interns each year, many of whom are hired as full-time employees at the firm.
- Decide Between Becoming an Accountant and CPA
You may have heard of the term certified public accountant (CPA) when looking into becoming an accountant. This is a certification an accountant can pursue to stand out as a qualified accounting professional.
All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. CPAs must take an extra step and fulfill rigorous state requirements to earn their licensure.
Employers realize the value of a CPA license, with many firms offering bonuses to employees who obtain a CPA license. PwC, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, states:
“PwC offers significant incentives to those who obtain their CPA and other primary credentials (CFA, CISA, CIA) early, as well as reimbursement and educational programs to help you achieve this goal.”
It is not uncommon for firms to offer employees incentives to obtain a CPA license. CPAs earn more and can perform more duties than accountants. There are also other accounting certifications employers like, such as fraud examination certification, internal auditor certification and others.
- Pick an Accounting Specialty
Rather than simply being an accountant, you should aim to be an accountant skilled in a specific sector. This could be forensic accounting, personal finance planning, or a host of other specialties. A major benefit of accountant specialization is that it makes you valuable to potential clients. As a talent acquisition leader for RSM (formerly McGladrey) shared:
“You’ve got to be very open to specialization, because that’s the way of the world. Especially now with the way there are so many industry standards, clients want people who are specialists within industries.” — Jennifer Busse
Consider your interests and the type of accounting you could see yourself doing on a daily basis. Examples of accounting specialties include:
• Tax accounting
• Business valuation
• Nonprofit accounting
• Government finance
• Environmental accounting
• International accounting
• Information management and technology assurance
• Personal finance accounting
- Earn a Master’s in Accounting Degree (Optional)
Despite the growth of the industry, accounting remains a competitive field. To work at top firms and vie for lucrative roles, it is necessary to stand out from other accountants. Experience and education help.
If you are unable to devote yourself to full-time on-campus study, decide whether an online master’s in accounting is right for you. Earning a master’s in accounting can give you deeper knowledge of the industry and increase your earning potential. It also signals your work ethic, determination and mental aptitude to employers.
As one HR director put it:
“In our firm, advanced degreed students right out of school are more attractive to us. We know they come in ready to go straight to work, and have more experience and education in tax and audit.” — Karen Mattull, director of HR at BeachFleischman.
If you hold a bachelor’s degree—even one related to accounting—you are eligible to apply to a master’s in accounting program. You will likely have to take additional courses to build your foundational accounting knowledge. Look into different graduate accounting programs to understand what schools would accept your degree in their master’s in accounting program. If you are worried about the GRE or GMAT requirement for an accounting master’s program, there are some programs that waive the GRE and GMAT for eligible individuals.
- Obtain Accounting Certification
Once you are an accountant, pursue certification to enhance your skill set and credibility as a professional. Accounting certifications vary and you can earn more than one. The CPA certification is the most widely known, but there are others like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and Enrolled Agent (EA) that can help propel your accounting career. Below is a look at some of the most popular accounting certifications:
Other Types of Accounting Certifications
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
Enrolled Agent (EA)
Tips on Passing the CPA Exam
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)