Accountants create financial reports for corporations and individuals, monitor financial outlooks, and examine financial documents. Accountants work in nearly every sector of the economy, including at Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Accounting professionals can also start their own businesses as personal financial advisors, certified public accountants (CPAs), or financial planners.
Professionals with accounting degrees enjoy diverse career paths with strong growth potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 10% growth in the number of accountant and auditor positions between 2016 and 2026. Additionally, the number of financial managers, who make a median salary of over $127,000 per year, are projected to grow by 19% over that same time period. The following guide outlines the career opportunities, salary potential, and resources for professionals with an accounting degree.
Skills Gained in an Accounting Program
An accounting degree teaches students diverse and transferable skills, such as analytical reasoning, communication, and organizational competencies. Accountants can continue to hone these skills by pursuing certifications and gaining professional experience. As individuals advance in their accounting careers, the following skills become increasingly important.
- Analytical Skills
Accountants and auditors analyze documents to identify potential problems and solutions, which requires keen analytical skills. Public accountants apply these skills to minimize tax liability, while auditors rely on their analytical abilities to uncover fraud and mismanagement of resources.
- Organizational Skills
Accountants often work with multiple financial documents, providing services for many clients at once. Certain accountants, such as external auditors and tax examiners, may review hundreds of financial documents over the course of a work week. Accountants need strong organizational skills to analyze these financial documents, oversee accounting departments, and manage an organization's finances.
- Attention to Detail
When creating financial reports and analyzing financial documents, accountants must pay close attention to detail. An auditor might identify fraud by finding a single error in a financial report, while a tax examiner can find misclaimed deductions by examining one line in a tax return.
Accountants work with individuals to help them plan for retirement or save for educational expenses. These workers may also provide financial information to CEOs and oversee a team of accounting professionals. To advance in the field, accountants need strong communication skills, including the ability to interact with clients and managers and present their work orally and in writing.
- Math Skills
The ability to analyze, compute, and interpret figures remains fundamental to the accounting field. While accountants do not usually need complex math skills, they must feel comfortable managing numerical data.
Why Pursue a Career in Accounting?
Accounting professionals benefit from strong job growth and lucrative salaries. According to the BLS, the median income for accountants and auditors is above $70,000 annually, and the field is expected to grow at an above average rate in the coming years. Accountants with graduate degrees may qualify for management-level positions that offer even higher salaries, like accounting directors and financial managers.
Accounting careers include CPAs, financial managers, budget analysts, auditors, and personal financial advisors. Accounting students can also customize their degrees around their professional goals and interests by pursuing concentrations like managerial accounting, fraud examination, and tax accounting.
How Much Do Accounting Majors Make?
The salary potential for accounting professionals increases with experience and education. For example, entry-level CPAs earn about $52,000 a year, although this increases to $69,000 after 5-9 years of experience. Certified financial planners (CFPs) also enjoy strong salary growth throughout their careers. In addition to degree level and experience, several other factors, including certification, job title, and location, can influence accounting salaries.
|Job Title||Entry Level (0-12 Months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Certified Public Accountant||$52,000||$57,000||$69,000||$80,000|
|Certified Financial Planner||$51,000||$59,000||$72,000||$88,000|
Interview with a Professional
Nicole Kint has more than 12 years of experience in real estate private accounting, serving as a sales agent and accountant for a large rental portfolio and construction group. This experience affords her a comprehensive understanding of her clients' needs. She works with clients to provide attest and consulting services. Nicole is co-leader of the firm's recruiting team, working to develop strategies to attract the best talent, streamline the interview process, and collaborate with schools to better prepare future accounting graduates.
- What inspired you to become an accountant?
I previously worked for a client of the accounting firm I now work for: Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer, P.C. During my time there, I realized that the owner of the company contacted his accountant (one of our current shareholders -- David Chase) for guidance and input before making any important business decisions. I was inspired by the idea of being a resource to successful business owners in various industries. This encouraged me to get my degree in accounting -- something I previously had interest in but lacked the insight to see the diverse and interesting opportunities a career in accounting afforded.
- What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job?
The most rewarding part of the job is when I feel like I am resource to someone else, whether it be a client or coworker. It feels great when others reach out to me for my opinion or assistance. The challenging part of my job is also the thing that keeps it interesting -- you never stop learning. Guidance and regulations change, technology becomes more advanced, clients face new challenges -- there is always something new to learn. This keeps the job from getting boring, but you need to have a lot of stamina.
- What certifications do you have? Which certifications should aspiring accountants be aware of?
I currently have my CPA license and I am also a Housing Credit Certified Professional (a specific credential related to low-income housing tax credits). There's currently a lot of interest in data analytics in the industry, so that is definitely a certification that aspiring accountants should be aware of.
- When researching accounting programs, what do you recommend students look for?
I definitely recommend programs that provide a wide spectrum of opportunities in the accounting industry. There are many career paths that a professional with an accounting degree can take, so it's important to be exposed to different opportunities. Public or industry, Big 4 or local/regional firms -- these all provide very different career paths and lifestyles. A program that exposes students to the many different options allows students to make better decisions about their future career.
- How do you see the accounting field evolving in the future?
There's a lot of discussion about IT and AI disrupting the accounting industry, but I believe this field will always require a human element. I think advancing technology will automate some of the more compliance-related aspects of the industry but will also increase opportunities in the advisory and consulting arena.
How to Succeed in Accounting
Most entry-level accounting positions require an associate degree in accounting or a bachelor's degree in accounting. During an associate program, students learn fundamental accounting principles, preparing for careers as financial clerks and bookkeepers. Accounting majors in bachelor's programs gain additional skills, often pursuing a concentration to specialize their training. A bachelor's degree leads to opportunities as an accountant, auditor, and personal financial advisor.
Workers can advance their accounting careers by earning a master's degree in accounting, which meets the requirements for the CPA credential and prepares students for managerial roles like financial managers and accounting directors. Accountants interested in research, policymaking, and academia benefit from pursuing a doctorate in accounting. Alternatively, certificate programs provide less expensive accounting training than full degree programs, with options available for undergraduate accounting certificates and graduate accounting certificates.
Some accounting positions -- particularly those at the management level -- require several years of experience in accounting or a related field. Individuals may also need to gain professional experience before qualifying to sit for certification exams. Accounting students can strengthen their professional experience by completing an internship, which provides hands-on training. An internship demonstrates a candidate's commitment and aptitude to potential employers, while also providing valuable experience for the accounting professional.
Licensure and Certification
Accountants can advance their careers by pursuing certifications. Most certification programs set minimum educational and professional experience requirements. Candidates who meet these qualifications usually need to pass an exam and engage in continuing education to maintain their credential. Some positions, such as CPAs, also require a state license to practice.
Certified Public Accountant
Certified public accountants earn 10% more than non-certified public accountants, according to Investopedia. Accountants interested in the CPA credential must meet educational requirements; this is typically done by earning a master's in accounting. Qualifying candidates take the CPA examination, which is administered by the American Institute of CPAs. After candidates pass the four-part exam, they can apply for a state CPA license. Because state licensure requirements vary, prospective CPAs should research their state's specific requirements.
Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
Offered by the CFP Board, the certified financial planner credential recognizes professionals who meet certain educational requirements and pass an examination. Candidates must hold a bachelor's degree for initial certification, although students enrolled in a bachelor's program can begin the CFP examination process. Candidates who pass the four-part examination must demonstrate at least three years of relevant work experience before they can earn the credential.
Other Common Certifications:
- Certified Management Accountant: The CMA credential recognizes accountants who specialize in management and financial accounting. Offered by the Institute of Management Accountants, candidates must hold a bachelor's degree and a minimum of two years of relevant professional experience to qualify for this credential.
- Certified Internal Auditor: On average, CIAs earn $38,000 more per year than auditors without certification. Internal auditors qualify for this credential by holding an associate degree or higher, meeting professional experience requirements, and passing an examination.
- Certified Informations System Auditor: Professionals can earn this credential after accruing at least five years of professional experience in information systems auditing. Earning an accounting degree can be used to meet some of these professional experience requirements.
Concentrations Available to Accounting Majors
Most accounting programs offer concentrations that prepare accounting students for specialized careers. Students planning to become CPAs, for example, can concentrate in public accounting. Learners pursuing careers in auditing or fraud examination can also pursue concentrations in those specialties. Concentrations differ by program and degree level, so students should review the specific offerings of their prospective schools.
- Public Accounting: A public accounting concentration teaches students how to prepare and review financial statements, complete income tax returns, and audit financial records. Public accounting students qualify for the CPA exam after earning at least 30 credits beyond the bachelor's level.
- Auditing: An auditing concentration teaches students how to prepare financial statements, tax returns, and other accounting documents. Auditors look for problems in financial documents, working internally to improve an organization's operations or externally to identify fraud, waste, and mismanagement. This concentration prepares graduates for certifications, such as the Certified Internal Auditor credential.
- Financial Accounting: This concentration trains students to create financial reports for organizations, including income statements, cash flow statements, and balance sheets.
- Managerial Accounting: A managerial accounting concentration blends business skills with accounting, preparing graduates for management roles at organizations. Managerial accountants create cost projections, performance reports, and budget analyses. These reports help executives make informed decisions about an organization.
What Can You Do With an Accounting Degree?
Accountants with a bachelor's degree can work in fields that offer above-average salaries, including auditing, fraud prevention, and budget analysis. Professionals with a master's in accounting qualify for management-level positions that offer even more lucrative opportunities. For example, the BLS reports that financial managers take home a median annual salary of nearly $128,000.
As accountants earn more advanced degrees, their salary potential and career opportunities increase. Many managerial positions prefer accountants with a master's degree, while academic positions often require a doctorate. Candidates for the CPA credential need 150 postsecondary credits, which many learners complete by earning a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree or a graduate-level certificate.
Associate Degree in Accounting
An associate degree in accounting prepares graduates for entry-level positions like bookkeepers, account collectors, and financial clerks. During an associate program in accounting, students learn basic accounting methods and concepts, such as payroll accounting, tax preparation, cost accounting, and budgeting.
This degree trains students to create financial reports, use accounting software, and analyze financial information. Accountants with an associate degree can also transfer into a bachelor's program to advance their career opportunities. Prospective students considering an online accounting program can research the top online associate programs in accounting.
Bookkeepers help organizations manage accounts and record financial transactions. Bookkeepers also create financial statements and reports, prepare bank deposits, and create invoices. They may also oversee payroll. An associate degree meets the requirements for most bookkeeping positions.
- Bill and Account Collector
Bill and account collectors recover payments on overdue bills. They locate consumers or businesses with overdue bills and negotiate payment plans with debtors. Bill and account collectors may also offer credit advice or refer consumers to a debt counselor.
- Financial Clerk
Financial clerks perform administrative tasks for organizations in several sectors. Their responsibilities may include keeping records, helping customers, and carrying out financial transactions. Financial clerks also compute bills, provide customer assistance, and update financial records. They may work in billing, payroll, procurement, insurance, or new accounts.
Bachelor's Degree in Accounting
Graduates with a bachelor's degree in accounting work in public accounting, financial services, managerial accounting, and other subfields. This degree can also lead to a career as an auditor, budget analyst, cost estimator, or tax examiner.
During a bachelor's program, students study fundamental concepts in accounting and auditing, including fraud examination, accounting ethics, and tax reporting. Graduates qualify for certifications that can help advance their careers. Prospective accounting students can learn more about the top online bachelor's in accounting programs.
Accountants prepare financial records, ensuring accuracy and compliance with U.S. tax laws. They also assess financial operations, prepare tax returns, and organize financial records. Accountants work in several subfields, including public accounting, management accounting, and government accounting. Most entry-level accounting positions require a bachelor's degree.
- Budget Analyst
Budget analysts advise organizations on their finances. They can work for businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations, where they prepare reports and evaluate budget proposals. Budget analysts also review financial data to determine the cost and benefit of different programs, recommend funding levels, and research economic and financial developments. Entry-level positions require a bachelor's degree.
- Cost Estimator
Cost estimators collect and analyze data to produce an estimate of the time, money, and materials required to complete a project. They calculate financial estimates -- by factoring in production times and labor -- and recommend cost reduction measures. Cost estimators also maintain records of estimated and actual costs.
- Tax Examiners
Tax examiners review tax returns, identify taxes owed, and conduct audits. They work for government agencies, including the IRS and state tax departments, to review the tax returns of individual taxpayers and businesses. Tax examiners ensure that taxpayers correctly claim tax credits and deductions.
Auditors examine tax records to ensure compliance with regulations and laws. They may check for mismanagement of organizational funds, identify ways to find and eliminate waste and fraud, and conduct internal and external audits.
Master's Degree in Accounting
Earning a master's degree in accounting prepares accountants for roles with greater responsibilities and higher salaries. Most CPAs, for example, hold a master's degree. Additionally, many management-level accounting positions, such as financial managers, accounting managers, and finance directors, call for a master's degree.
During a master's program, accounting students typically complete specialized training in a concentration, such as public accounting, managerial accounting, or fraud examination. Accountants with a master's degree qualify for many in-demand certifications, including the CPA credential. Prospective students can learn more about the most affordable online master's programs in accounting.
- Certified Public Accountant
CPAs manage accounting, tax reporting, and auditing for individual clients, corporations, and government agencies. They review financial information; prepare documentation on finances, taxes, and audits; and monitor government regulations.
- Financial Manager
Financial managers oversee the financial health of an organization. They create financial reports, direct investment activities, and develop strategies to meet an organization's long-term goals. Financial managers also review financial reports to identify ways to reduce expenses, analyze market trends, and advise management on financial decisions.
- Personal Financial Advisor
Personal financial advisors help individual clients make decisions related to investments, insurance, and tax law. They also provide advice on financial planning, including saving for retirement. These professionals may specialize in retirement, risk management, or other areas. A master's degree can help personal financial advisors advance their careers.
- Accounting Manager
Accounting managers create and implement systems for collecting, verifying, and reporting an organization's financial information. As a mid-level business manager, accounting managers hire and train employees, oversee teams, and enforce company policies and procedures. They may also prepare and regulate annual budgets, monitor revenue and expenses, and recommend financial improvements.
- Finance Director
Finance directors oversee finance teams. They design strategic plans to meet a company's financial goals, implement financial plans, and conduct performance evaluations. These workers may also identify areas of improvement for a company to increase efficiency. Most positions require a master's degree and finance experience.
Doctoral Degree in Accounting
A doctorate in accounting prepares graduates for many of the top positions in the field. Accountants with a doctorate can conduct research, work in management, and hold academic positions. During a doctoral program, students complete specialized coursework, strengthen their research skills, and work with a faculty advisor to complete a dissertation.
As the terminal accounting degree, a doctorate leads to management-level career paths, preparing students to serve as chief financial and executive officers. Professionals with a doctorate in accounting can work in financial management, public policy, research, and other managerial positions. A doctorate also meets the qualifications for the CPA exam. Additionally, accountants interested in teaching or research typically need a doctorate. Prospective doctoral students can learn more about the top online doctoral programs in accounting.
- Accounting Professor
Accounting professors work at colleges and universities, teaching accounting courses in their specialty. They give lectures, assess student learning through examinations, and mentor accounting students. Accounting professors often conduct research and publish their findings in scholarly journals.
- Chief Financial Officer
CFOs oversee the financial operations of a business. They manage budgets, project profits and expenses, provide advice to CEOs about company goals, and manage an organization's financial health. CFOs may also oversee the finance department at an organization.
- Chief Executive Officer
CEOs act as the highest manager of an organization. They oversee company operations, create and implement policies, and report to the board of directors on company goals. CEOs also collaborate with other top executives to ensure an organization meets its goals.
Certificates in Accounting
Accountants can also opt to pursue certificates to advance their careers. Prospective accountants without a bachelor's degree can pursue undergraduate certificates, while those with a bachelor's can earn graduate certificates in accounting. Certificates generally require less time and money than a full-fledged degree. Certificates provide specialized training in fields like bookkeeping, financial accounting, and forensic accounting.
Undergraduate Certificate in Accounting
While earning an undergraduate certificate in accounting, students complete 20-30 credits of coursework. Accounting students can typically complete these credentials in under a year. Participants prepare for specialized roles, such as bookkeepers. Students can learn more about the top online accounting certificate programs.
Graduate Certificate in Accounting
A graduate certificate in accounting can help accountants earn the 150 postsecondary credits required to sit for the CPA exam. Most graduate certificate programs take less than a year to complete. Aspiring accountants can learn more about the top online accounting graduate certificate programs.
Where Can You Work With an Accounting Degree?
Accountants can find jobs in nearly every industry. In business settings, accountants provide financial, auditing, and tax preparation services. They may also work for government agencies, such as the IRS, and for nonprofit organizations. Several factors, including location and industry, help shape an accountant's career. These factors can influence job availability, salary potential, and accounting career paths.
Accountants comprise a significant portion of the workforce in every state. Some specializations show strong regional concentrations, such as the high concentration of financial services professionals in New York. Similarly, salary potential varies by location, with states like New York, New Jersey, and Virginia offering some of the highest salaries for accountants. The following map shows the number of accountants employed in each state and their average salaries.
Accountants work in many industries, including tax preparation, financial services, and management consulting. Opportunities for accounting professionals vary based on their education and professional experience. The following table shows examples of different industries that hire accountants and what roles accountants play within those industries.
- Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services
Many accountants work in accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services. In this industry, accountants with an associate degree work as bookkeeping clerks, while those with a bachelor's or master's provide accounting and tax preparation services.
Average Salary: $83,000
- Management of Companies and Enterprises
Management of companies and enterprises includes holding securities and equity interests in companies. Accountants provide financial and accounting services in this industry.
Average Salary: $78,670
- Insurance and Employee Benefit Funds
In the insurance and employee benefit funds sector, accountants perform risk management services, act as budget analysts, and project the funds necessary to cover employee benefits.
Average Salary: $70,880
- Financial Services
Among the highest-paid accountants, financial services professionals engage in financial transactions such as raising funds, underwriting insurance, and issuing securities. They also provide risk management, auditing, and analysis services.
Average Salary: $94,570
- Management Consulting
Management consulting professionals provide advice and feedback to managers on improving efficiency and effectiveness. Accountants in this industry analyze budgets and financial projections to advise managers on financial improvements.
Average Salary: $80,840
How Do You Find a Job as an Accounting Graduate?
Accounting graduates can look forward to a strong job market. For example, the BLS projects that nearly 140,000 new accountant and auditor positions will be created between 2016 and 2026. While earning an accounting degree, students can strengthen their job prospects by building professional experience and pursuing certifications like a CPA or Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential. These certifications can help accounting professionals stand out on the job market.
Accountants work in nearly every sector, including business, government, and nonprofit organizations. In addition to professional organizations that offer career centers, including the American Institute of CPAs and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, other resources provide job boards for accountants, such as Accounting.com and iHireAccounting. Many job boards offer opportunities for specialized positions. For example, professionals with a Ph.D. in accounting can identify academic opportunities through the American Accounting Association's career center.
Professional Resources for Accounting Majors
Founded in 1887, the AICPA represents certified public accountants. The organization manages certifications in accounting, auditing, risk management, and forensic accounting. The AICPA also offers educational resources, career guidance, and scholarships.
A professional organization for management accountants, IMA offers career guidance, educational resources, and current research. IMA also awards the Certified Management Accountant and Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis credentials.
ACFE provides CFE exam preparation materials and administers the examination, which tests fraud examiners on financial transactions, fraud schemes, fraud prevention, and deterrence. ACFE also provides continuing education opportunities, hosts events, and offers professional development resources.
A professional association focused on tax accounting, NSA offers tax and accounting credentials and grants scholarships to accounting students. The society also hosts educational events, runs a career center, and provides tax resources and other professional development tools.
An association that brings together academic and professional accountants, the AAA dates back to 1916. The association publishes scholarly research, promotes collaboration, and grants awards. Ph.D. students can also access a career center to find accounting positions in academia.
AFWA represents women working in accounting and finance. The alliance hosts a directory of accounting and finance professionals, career development tools, and events through 70 local chapters. AFWA also offers scholarship opportunities for women pursuing accounting degrees.
AAFA holds professional affiliations with many finance and accounting search firms, helping accountants identify job opportunities. This national network connects accounting professionals with recruitment firms and job openings.
The AICPA offers multiple scholarship opportunities for undergraduate and graduate accounting students. Students can apply for the AICPA Legacy Scholars program, scholarships for prospective CPAs, and fellowships for doctoral students. Several scholarships provide $10,000 or more for learners pursuing a degree in accounting.
Fraud examiners can identify career opportunities through the ACFE's career center. This center offers resources for new anti-fraud professionals, people considering a career change, self-employed fraud examiners, and professionals seeking career advancement. Job seekers can visit the job board to see current openings and upload a resume.