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Accounting programs cover foundational accounting principles and practices, including methods of recording and reporting financial performance, cost accounting, and auditing. Graduates can pursue many careers with an accounting degree, often securing jobs as certified public accountants (CPAs), financial analysts, tax auditors, and accounting managers.
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Why Pursue a Career in Accounting?
There are many different careers in accounting, many of which offer lucrative salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for accountants and auditors is just over $71,000.Additionally, the high demand for these professionals typically leads to strong job prospects for entry-level positions; however, the amount of graduate students entering the workforce often makes jobs with the best firms much more competitive.
Accountants typically work with multiple clients at once and are tasked with solving complex financial problems. As such, successful accountants typically have strong organizational, communication, and problem-solving skills.
Accounting Career Outlook
The outlook for careers for an accounting major is largely positive. The BLS projects the demand for accountants to grow by 6% between 2018 and 2028. While the industry continues to add jobs at a steady rate, technological change is expected to impact future roles of accountants; however, these changes are only expected to change job functions rather than decrease the demand for these professionals.Two factors largely affect salaries for accounting professionals: education and professional experience. Professionals with many years of industry experience tend to enjoy much higher salaries than entry-level accounts. For example, while an entry-level CPA earns about $52,000, a mid-career accountant can expect an average salary of almost $70,000. For additional salary estimates, refer to the table below.
|Certified Public Accountant||$52,440||$58,470||$69,850||$82,200|
|Certified Financial Planner||$51,250||$59,820||$72,450||$85,420|
Skills Gained With an Accounting Degree
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 professionals advance in their accounting careers, the following skills become increasingly important.
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.
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.
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.
Accounting Career Paths
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.
Accounting students who do not pursue concentrations can prepare for different career paths within the field. Read on to learn more about how to begin a specific career in accounting.
Nearly every accounting position requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree in accounting or a closely related field. Some employers may prefer applicants who hold a master's degree, although most entry-level positions can be obtained with a bachelor's degree. Accounting professionals looking to advance their careers can pursue a master's degree or CPA certification. To become eligible for the CPA exam, candidates must hold a bachelor's degree and earn an additional 30 credits -- the exam requires 150 postsecondary credits and bachelor's programs only provide about 120 credits. As such, many students prefer to earn a master's degree prior to pursuing CPA certification. This allows them more time to prepare and fulfill the number of required credits necessary for exam eligibility.
Both options help build highly specialized skills and typically lead to salary increases and new career opportunities as financial managers, finance directors, and accounting managers.
Associate Degree in Accounting
An associate degree in accounting prepares graduates for entry-level jobs as bookkeepers, account collectors, and financial clerks. During an associate program in accounting, students learn basic accounting methods and concepts, such as those related to 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.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Accounting?
Bookkeepers help organizations manage accounts and record financial transactions. These professionals 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 clerks perform administrative tasks. 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.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Accounting?
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. Many entry-level accounting positions require a bachelor's degree.
Budget analysts advise organizations on their finances. They 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 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 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, require 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 CPA certification.
Prospective students can learn more about the most affordable online master's programs in accounting.
What Can You Do With a Master's 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 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 managers create and implement systems for collecting, verifying, and reporting an organization's financial information. They 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 directors oversee finance teams. They design strategic plans to meet a company's financial goals, implement financial plans, and conduct performance evaluations. These professionals may also identify areas of improvement for a company to increase efficiency. Most positions require a master's degree and finance experience.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Doctorate 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.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Accounting?
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 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 usually complete 20-30 credits of coursework. Accounting students can typically complete these programs in under a year. Graduates are prepared 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 under a year to complete.
Aspiring accountants can learn more about the top online accounting graduate certificate programs.
How to Advance Your Career in Accounting
Once you have earned a degree in accounting, there are several ways to increase your salary potential and advance your career. While a master's program is the most direct path to a new career and salary prospects, many working professionals may not have the time and/or money needed to pursue a graduate degree. Certificate and online programs offer great alternatives that often require less of a commitment.
Additionally, many accounting professionals choose to pursue CPA certification after earning their bachelor's degree; however, eligibility for this exam requires accountants to earn an additional 30 credits.
Although pursuing certification can be rigorous and demanding, CPAs are highly regarded in the accounting field and typically secure top jobs and salaries.
Arguably the most effective way to advance your career in accounting is by earning CPA certification. This certification generally leads to increased wages and more job opportunities and responsibilities.While some professionals recommend earning a master's degree prior to taking the exam, it is possible to obtain this certification without an advanced degree. Other notable certifications include the chartered financial analyst (CFA), certified management accountant (CMA), and enrolled agent (EA) credentials. CFA certification confirms your ability to perform tasks like budget and investment analyses. It is especially beneficial to professionals looking to advance their career in finance. Students interested in accounting at the government level should consider earning EA certification, which certifies your expertise in taxation and your suitability to represent the IRS. CMA certification verifies your skills in cost management and forecasting auditing. This type of certification is useful for professionals looking to advance into managerial accounting roles.While many regard the CPA as the top accounting certification, it may not be the best option for you. When choosing an accounting certification, consider your career goals and focus area.
Mastering new programs like Quickbooks and SAP can add substantial value to your professional resume. Additionally, pursuing continuing education demonstrates a desire to learn and stay relevant as the field evolves. Many continuing education programs offer certifications upon completion, which can help further demonstrate your skills and knowledge to your employer. These proficiencies can lead to pay raises and increased responsibilities in your current role.
Expanding your contacts, such as by joining a professional organization or networking with colleagues, can lead to new roles in your current workplace or with other companies.Becoming involved in accounting organizations can open the door to new resources. These organizations actively help their members gain access to new job opportunities, prepare for certification, and form relationships with colleagues across the country.
Another way to advance your career is by seeking out a mentor. Experienced accountants can help guide you through your desired career path and connect you with different companies and organizations. Whether you want to become certified or sharpen your knowledge and skill set, a mentorship can help keep you on track and lead you to your target job.
How to Switch Your Career to Accounting
There are several ways to switch your career and transition into accounting. However, you must first meet the minimum education requirements. For most entry-level accounting jobs, a bachelor's degree in accounting or a closely related field is required. You do not, however, usually need a bachelor's degree in accounting to enroll in a master's in accounting program. Students often only need a few foundational courses to develop an understanding of basic accounting practices and principles.Another option for learners who already possess a bachelor's degree is gaining certification in a specialized area. While these exams are extremely rigorous -- even for tenured accountants -- it is possible to pass them without industry experience.Professionals without a college degree may want to consider enrolling in an online accounting program, which typically offer more flexibility and affordability than an on-campus program. Top accounting programs often provide job placement support and can help you decide which type of accounting is best for you.
Where Can You Work as an Accounting Professional?
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 fields.
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: $83,460
Management of Companies and Enterprises
This industry includes establishments that hold securities and equity interests in companies. Accountants in this area provide financial and accounting services.
Average Salary: $80,620
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: $81,480
Professionals in this area engage in financial transactions, such as raising funds, underwriting insurance, and issuing securities. They also provide risk management, auditing, and analysis services.
Average Salary: $99,580
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: $81,730
Since accounting is a staple function in nearly every organization, job opportunities abound across the country. Some states, however, feature a higher concentration of financial service professions. For example, California and New York account for roughly 260,000 jobs alone, largely due to Silicon Valley and the New York Stock Exchange.
Washington, D.C and New Jersey may not provide the same abundance of jobs, but they offer the best salary prospects for accountants. The map below details the average salaries and number of employed accountants in each state.
Interview With a Professional in Accounting
Senior A&A Manager
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 her firm's recruiting team, developing 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 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. However, I had 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 a 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 a CPA certificate, 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.
Resources for Accounting Majors
Since accounting plays an integral role in nearly every business, there is no shortage of industry publications and organizations dedicated to providing educational resources for aspiring accountants and current professionals. Below is a list of professional organizations, open courseware, and academic journals that can help boost your accounting knowledge and better prepare you for exams.
The field of accounting features many different professional organizations. These groups can help newly graduated students prepare for credentialing exams, network with accountants and other professionals who work in finance, and learn about seminars and conferences in their city or state.
American Institute of CPAs: Founded in 1887, AICPA represents certified public accountants. The organization manages certifications related to accounting, auditing, risk management, and forensic accounting. AICPA also offers educational resources, career guidance, and scholarships.
Institute of Management Accountants: 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.
Association of Certified Fraud Examiners: The ACFE provides CFE exam preparation materials and administers the examination, which tests fraud examiners on knowledge related to financial transactions, fraud schemes, fraud prevention, and deterrence. The association also provides continuing education opportunities, hosts events, and offers professional development resources.
National Society of Accountants: 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.
American Accounting Association: An association that brings together academic and professional accountants, the AAA was founded in 1916. The association publishes scholarly research, promotes collaboration, and grants awards. Doctoral students can also access a career center to find accounting positions in academia.
Accounting & Financial Women's Alliance: AFWA represents women working in accounting and finance. The alliance offers 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.
American Association of Finance and Accounting: AAFA maintains 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.
International Federation of Accountants: Based in New York, this global organization consists of more than 170 permanent member organizations representing roughly 2.5 million accountants across 130 different countries and jurisdictions. IFAC's main goal is to standardize the profession of accounting on a worldwide scale through ethical review and international collaboration.
Today's students can enroll in web-based open courses sponsored by leading colleges and universities. Unlike traditional college courses, open courses are typically non-credit courses that are free to students, regardless of their major or enrollment status at their own school.
Introduction to Financial and Managerial Accounting - MIT: This course is taught by Sugata Roychowdhury, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Roychowdhury teaches the course from the perspective of those who read and review financial reports (rather than the accountants who compile them) with the goal of providing an alternative perspective for accounting students.
Business Analysis Using Financial Statements - MIT: This graduate-level course explains how accountants can perform different analyses to determine the financial status and value of a given firm or organization. The course is moderated by Peter Wysocki, a former MIT Sloan School of Management associate.
Fundamentals of Business Analysis - UC Irvine: This seven-part course focuses on different strategies for accountants to employ when analyzing the financial efficacy of firms and organizations. Covered topics include enterprise analysis, elicitation, and requirements of management and communication.
Publications - Open Access Journals
Historically, access to academic journals has been reserved for college students, faculty members, and paying subscribers. In recent years, however, many journal publishers have begun to upload their publications online and allow anyone to access new and archived entries for free.
The following list describes a few of the best open access publications in accounting.
The International Journal of Digital Accounting Research: Founded in 2001, this journal focuses on the intersecting fields of accounting and information technology. With the increasing popularity (and necessity) of online platforms as effective business analysis tools, accountants must incorporate web-related skills into their profession. Past journal entries in the IJDAR have covered topics like online corporate reporting, e-commerce, and social analytics.
Accounting and Finance Research: Founded in 2012, this publication explores the role of accounting in investments, the stock market, insurance, capital markets, and other topics related to personal and corporate finance. This journal is available in both print and online versions.
Journal of Accounting and Economics: This publication explores how and why accounting and economic theory are related. Many authors approach common accounting problems using economic analyses, while others discuss the merits of applying broad economic standards to firms and organizations that manage their accounts differently. Readers have access to 57 different volumes, and the archive dates back to 1979.
Asian Journal of Finance & Accounting: This bi-annual journal is devoted to articles and research that explore the economic relationship between the East and the West, as well as political, cultural, and social factors that play a role in the dynamics between Asia and the rest of the world.
Publications - Books
Taking advantage of online journals and open courses are relatively new ways that accountants can hone their skills and advance their careers. However, the time-honored art of reading a book still benefits accountants who are hoping to learn more about the intricacies of their professions.
The following list describes a few popular and acclaimed books that accountants should consider checking out.