How to Become an Accountant

Accountants earn a median salary of over $77,000 per year. Discover how to become an accountant.
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Accountants work closely with financial documents. They specialize in areas like management accounting, public accounting, and financial accounting.

If you're interested in an accounting career, you'll need a bachelor's degree. And some accounting roles, like a certified public accountant (CPA), require additional classes. Our guide walks through how to become an accountant.

What Does an Accountant Do?

  • Create financial statements that accurately report financial information and comply with regulations.
  • Prepare individual and business tax returns, making sure to follow the law while minimizing taxes owed.
  • Recommend accounting strategies to increase profits, reduce fraud, and improve efficiency.
  • Analyze financial documents to create budgets, evaluate performance, and help organizations plan their costs.
  • Investigate financial fraud and crimes like embezzlement, including testifying in legal proceedings.

Featured Accounting Programs for You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Are the Steps to Become an Accountant?

Accountants spend several years preparing for their field. Some career paths require additional training and a professional license. This section offers a step-by-step guide on how to become an accountant.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting

Accountants begin their career path by earning a bachelor's degree. The best college majors for accountants include:

During an undergraduate program, accounting majors take courses in cost accounting, financial accounting, management accounting, and auditing. They can also pursue internships and other experiential learning opportunities to prepare for the job market. Finally, accounting majors should focus on in-demand soft skills like communication and collaboration.

Degree-seekers can expect to pay $9,800-$40,700 in tuition and fees annually, according to 2022-2023 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Step 2: Get an Entry-Level Accounting Job

A bachelor's degree meets the entry-level education requirement for careers in accounting. College grads can improve their job search by gaining hands-on experience with an internship, taking advantage of networking opportunities, and improving their interview skills. Some colleges also offer career bridge programs.

Accountants can expect to earn around $58,000 in entry-level roles, according to May 2024 data from Payscale. Salaries vary depending on location and job title.

Step 3: Decide if You Want to Specialize in the Field

Accountants can specialize in areas like management accounting, public accounting, and forensic accounting. CPAs work in public accounting, one of the most popular specialties.

While accountants can enter some specialties with on-the-job training, others require additional education. CPAs, for example, often hold a master's degree. Professionals interested in the CPA credential can gain accounting experience and research graduate certificates and master's programs designed for CPAs. The licensing section below provides additional information on how to become a CPA.

Step 4: Earn Your Master’s of Accounting

A master's degree in accounting prepares accountants for specialized roles like CPA or for roles with managerial responsibilities. Although CPAs are not required to hold a master's degree, it is recommended and can open the door to more advanced and well-paying positions. Other than CPAs, accountants do not need a graduate degree, and some grad school alternatives can also provide career advancement.

For some accountants, a graduate degree makes sense. With a master's degree, accountants can increase their earning potential. Accountants can also consider related programs like a master's in forensic accounting or an MBA in finance. However, before applying to graduate programs, consider the return on investment. In many fields, accountants may not see large salary jumps with a graduate degree.

Step 5: Get a Job as an Accountant

With or without a graduate degree, accountants can increase their earning potential by gaining experience. Experienced senior accountants report salaries of over $65,000 per year, according to Payscale. Experienced accounting managers can earn close to $80,000 per year.

Accountants can also move into specializations like:

  • Tax accounting
  • Forensic accounting
  • Personal financial planning
  • International accounting
  • Auditing

Pursuing a professional certification or continuing education also helps accountants stay current in the field.

Step 6: Consider Continuing Education

Accountants need to keep their skillsets current, and continuing education is mandatory for licensed CPAs. Training programs and further graduate education can help accountants learn new techniques and methods. Many employers offer skill-building opportunities, as do professional organizations like the American Accounting Association.

Professionals can also consider a doctorate in accounting, which can lead to academic career opportunities like accounting professor.

Gaining experience and maintaining current skills can help accountants increase their earning potential.

How Do I Become a Licensed Accountant?

Most accountants do not need a license to practice. However, CPAs must hold a license.

CPAs must meet educational requirements to apply for a license from the Board of Accountancy in their state. A master's degree or a graduate certificate in accounting meets the requirement. They must also pass a four-part examination offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AIPCA).

CPAs generally spend five years in school, and passing the licensure exam can take up to 18 months.

Should I Become a CPA?

CPAs handle financial documents that contain information that must be disclosed by law. This includes tax filings and earnings reports for publicly traded companies. For example, accountants must be a CPA to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Becoming a CPA requires additional training and a challenging four-part certification exam. Accountants can gain experience after earning a bachelor's degree to decide whether the CPA credential will advance their career. The credential can mean a higher earning potential. According to 2024 data from Payscale, professionals with the CPA credential report an average salary of $98,000.

Pros

  • Check
    A shortage of CPAs means higher demand for those on the job market.
  • Check
    The credential can mean a higher salary, with an average CPA salary of $98,000.
  • Check
    The AICPA offers multiple scholarships for accounting students planning to become CPAs.
  • Check
    CPAs can further specialize in areas like tax preparation, financial planning, business valuation, and forensic accounting.

Cons

  • X
    CPAs must complete 150 credits of postsecondary education, which typically means 1-2 years of graduate education after earning a bachelor's degree.
  • X
    The four-part CPA exam reports a 50% pass rate, meaning many candidates take sections repeatedly.
  • X
    CPAs report busy work hours during tax season, which can cause burnout.
  • X
    The job tasks may feel repetitive, particularly for those in tax preparation.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Accountant

What qualifications do you need to become an accountant?

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Accountants need a bachelor's degree for entry-level roles. Most accountants earn their bachelor's degree in accounting, business administration, finance, economics, or a related field. During an undergraduate program, accountants take courses in financial accounting, accounting systems, and auditing procedures.

What is the fastest way to become an accountant?

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You can become an accountant with no prior training by earning a bachelor's degree in accounting. Most bachelor's programs take four years and include general education requirements in addition to courses within the major. Those with a bachelor's degree in another field can become an accountant by pursuing a graduate certificate in accounting or taking courses in accounting.

Professionals with an associate degree can enroll in a degree completion program to earn a bachelor's in accounting in around two years. Some accounting careers such as CPA require additional time. CPAs complete around 30 graduate-level credits to qualify for their license.

How much money can I make as an accountant?

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The earning potential for accounting careers depends on your experience, location, and industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2023, accountants earned a median pay of $79,880. Accountants working in finance and industry report salaries above the median while those in tax preparation and payroll services report slightly lower salaries.

The lowest-paid accountants earn under $50,000 per year, while the highest-paid accountants report median salaries of over $137,000 per year. Before pursuing an accounting career, research the job market and earning potential in your local area.

Note: The insights on this page — excluding school descriptions — were reviewed by an independent third party compensated for their time by BestColleges. Page last reviewed in 2023.

BestColleges.com 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.

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