How to Become an Accountant
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- Accountants need a bachelor's degree, and CPAs require additional classes.
- Entry-level accounting jobs help professionals gain experience and specialize.
- Professional licenses and certifications also help accountants move up the career ladder.
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.
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What Does an Accountant Do?
Accountants create and analyze financial documents. The field includes roles like certified public accountant (CPA), management accountant, forensic accountant, and government accountant. Within these specialties, accountants recommend financial strategies, prepare tax documents, and identify fraud.
A bachelor's degree represents the minimum educational requirement for accounting jobs. With a graduate degree, accountants can move into specialized and management roles. Whether you're considering a career change or choosing a major, accounting is a solid career option with an above-average earning potential.
Many business and financial occupations offer above-average salaries and career advancement opportunities. Accountants earned a median pay of $77,250 in May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- 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.
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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:
- Bachelor's in accounting
- Bachelor's in business management
- Bachelor's in economics
- Bachelor's in finance
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 $9,400-$37,600 in tuition and fees annually, according to 2020-2021 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 $48,000-$50,000 in entry-level roles, according to July 2022 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 $70,000 per year, according to July 2022 data from Payscale. Experienced accounting managers can earn over $80,000 per year.
Accountants can also move into specializations like:
- Tax accounting
- Forensic accounting
- Personal financial planning
- International accounting
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 July 2022 data from Payscale, professionals with the CPA credential report an average salary of $91,000.
A shortage of CPAs means higher demand for those on the job market.
The credential can mean a higher salary, with an average CPA salary of $91,000.
The AICPA offers multiple scholarships for accounting students planning to become CPAs.
CPAs can further specialize in areas like tax preparation, financial planning, business valuation, and forensic accounting.
CPAs must complete 150 credits of postsecondary education, which typically means 1-2 years of graduate education after earning a bachelor's degree.
The four-part CPA exam reports a 50% pass rate, meaning many candidates take sections repeatedly.
CPAs report busy work hours during tax season, which can cause burnout.
The job tasks may feel repetitive, particularly for those in tax preparation.
What to Know Before Becoming an Accountant
Accountants should always choose an accredited college. Accredited institutions — including accredited online schools — meet high standards for educating students. Students at these accredited schools qualify for more forms of financial aid. Only an accredited degree meets the requirements for a CPA license and accountant certifications.
The cost of a bachelor's degree can be high. According to 2020-21 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost for undergraduates exceeded $21,000 at in-state public colleges. Prospective students can save money by choosing a more affordable program, limiting hidden costs, and comparing programs by their true cost rather than only looking at the tuition rate.
Accountants report a median salary of $77,250 per year, according to May 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Salaries vary depending on the degree, industry, location, and experience. The highest-paid accountants report median pay of over $128,000 per year.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Accountant
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.
In addition to a degree, accountants typically need a detail-oriented outlook and strong analytical skills. Accountants work closely with numbers, so solid math and logic skills also help them. Some accounting career paths, like CPA, require additional classes to meet licensure requirements. CPAs need 150 postsecondary credits to receive their license.
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.
It's possible to work in accounting without a degree. However, many employers prefer to hire accountants with a degree, and many accounting certifications require a degree. Some employers hire bookkeepers and accounting clerks without a degree.
Some tax preparer roles may also not require a college degree. Taking accounting courses can prepare you for some roles without earning a degree. Those with a bachelor's degree in another major can also consider a graduate certificate in accounting. However, prospective accountants interested in career advancement benefit from holding at least a bachelor's degree.
Yes, you can become an accountant with an online degree. Many accredited schools offer online accounting degrees. Prospective accountants can earn their bachelor's degree in accounting online or pursue an associate degree in accounting. A bachelor's degree, which takes four years, meets the entry-level education requirement for accounting jobs.
Many universities also offer graduate-level accounting programs online, including graduate certificates in accounting and master's in accounting programs. Finally, students can also consider an online MBA with a concentration in accounting. A degree from an accredited school meets the requirements for professional certifications and licenses.
The earning potential for accounting careers depends on your experience, location, and industry. According to BLS data from May 2021, accountants earn a median pay of $77,250. 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 $48,000 per year, while the highest-paid accountants report median salaries of nearly $129,000 per year. Before pursuing an accounting career, research the job market and earning potential in your local area.