The Everything Guide to Working as an Accountant
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Are you a numbers person? Do you enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces? Do you get satisfaction from following guidelines, standards, or rules to a T? If you immediately and enthusiastically said, “Yes!” to any of these, a career in accounting could be right up your alley.
You may know accountants as the people who handle your taxes—and ask if you can deduct your home office or claim your dog as a dependent—but they’re much more than that. Accounting is essentially the backbone of business. Accountants track a company’s finances, make sure all financial transactions happen correctly (whether it’s paying employees or collecting money from clients), and ensure they’re complying with tax codes and financial regulations—and companies need them now more than ever. It’s a highly skilled, tech-centric profession that’s evolving fast and offers lots of opportunities to work for any type of company, in any industry, and in any location.
Sounds exciting, right? Here’s everything you need to know about how to become an accountant, what kinds of accounting jobs you can find, and why you should consider a career in the field.
What is an accountant and what do they do?
When you think about accountants, you might conjure up images of someone “buried beneath stacks of paper, going through Excel spreadsheets with a calculator,” says Liz Barentzen, vice president of operations and talent initiatives at the Center for Audit Quality. But there’s a lot more to the job than that—and it’s been evolving rapidly in recent years.
Accounting still involves numbers, but most of the number-crunching has been automated. When you work in accounting, Barentzen says you’ll learn to make sound financial decisions, use data analytics, find solutions to complex problems, and work in a collaborative environment. “Accounting is the language of business,” she says. As an accountant you’ll “understand the inner workings of a business and how fundamental decisions get made that impact profitability of an organization.”
As an accountant, you’ll handle an array of finance-related tasks for companies or individuals. While the exact tasks and responsibilities vary depending on your specific role, they might include:
- Preparing and interpreting financial records
- Ensuring that financial documents and records comply with laws and regulations
- Preparing financial reports
- Preparing tax returns and making sure taxes are filed and paid accurately and on time
- Evaluating financial operations to identify problems, develop solutions, and recommend best practices
- Providing financial forecasting and risk analysis
- Suggesting cost-effective financial strategies
- Handling payroll, including tracking and paying payroll-related taxes
Many accountants also go on to earn the designation of certified public accountant (CPA). All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs, Barentzen explains. And only CPAs can represent clients in front of the Internal Revenue Service—when they’re faced with an audit—and file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
How technology is changing accounting
Many of the mundane accounting tasks, like manual data entry and calculations, have been taken over by artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, and other innovations.
But even as technology evolves, experienced accountants are needed for analytics, problem-solving, interpretation, and communication, says Christine Smith, senior professor of practice in the accounting department at Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business. “Robots can do a certain amount, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take an experienced person to say, ‘Does this make sense?’”
What are the different types of accounting?
There are two main types of accounting: public and private. Public accountants usually help individual or business clients with their tax, financial, and other accounting needs. Private accountants work for a company’s in-house finance team.
Note that despite the name, CPAs and all other types of accountants can find opportunities in public or private accounting.
There are other types of accountants that work in both public and private accounting. (Click on each title to search for open roles on The Muse!):
- Financial or staff accountants keep track of an organization’s finances, including preparing and analyzing financial statements (might also be called controllers)
- Cost accountants examine and oversee the budget for business’s operations and recommend solutions to cut costs and save money.
- Management accountants (including financial analysts and higher-level positions like chief financial officer) make major decisions about a company’s operations
- Forensic accountants investigate financial activities, including allegations of fraud
- Tax accountants who perform different tax-related services
- Auditors examine financial statements to ensure they meet generally accepted accounting principles and accurately represent a company’s financial position
What are the biggest benefits of an accounting career?
Job security is the No. 1 benefit of being an accountant, Smith says. Accountants are always needed. By 2031, employment of accountants and auditors is expected to grow 6%, and there will be more than 135,000 job openings in the field each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
But that’s only part of the picture, a 2022 Deloitte poll revealed that 82% of hiring managers for accounting and financial roles at public companies and 69% at private companies were struggling with talent retention. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) reports that fewer people are graduating with accounting degrees, and the number of people taking and passing the CPA exam is declining. Also, about 75% of all CPAs reached retirement age in 2020.
To entice people to join the industry, many accounting firms are raising salaries and offering benefits, like student loan repayments and paid parental leave, Barentzen says. Some are also providing resources to help new hires study and pass the CPA exam.
For instance, KPMG, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, launched the CPA Kickstart program, which offers new employees a full-time salary with benefits for two months to study for parts of the exam. Ernst & Young’s EY Career Path Accelerator Program provides courses to help people entering the field reach the 150 credit hours needed for the CPA exam.
How do I become an accountant?
So you’re interested, but you might be wondering what you’ll need to do to start an accounting career.
Education and certifications
You’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree for most accounting careers—generally in accounting, finance, economics, or your school’s equivalent. You can often get an entry-level job in accounting out of college, but many higher-level (and higher-paying) accounting jobs require a CPA license.
The minimum requirements to become a CPA vary by state. But most require a bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance and 150 college credit hours—which is 30 more than a typical bachelor’s degree requirement. You might look for an undergrad accounting program that offers these additional credits, or you could pursue a master’s degree.
You also usually need to get some relevant work experience to sit for the CPA exam—which is changing in 2024 to account for the industry’s growing emphasis on technology, Smith says. Candidates will continue taking core parts of the exam, including accounting, tax, and auditing, but will be able to choose an area of specialty, including analytics, information systems, or compliance.
Once you pass the test, you’ll become licensed. Then, each year, you must complete continuing education, as required by your state. “Having a CPA may require additional education and experience, but it’s also highly regarded and provides accountants with many career opportunities,” Barentzen says.
Depending on what area of accounting interests you most, you may choose to obtain other accounting licenses including certified internal auditor (CIA), certified public bookkeeper (CPB), certified financial analyst (CFA), and chartered global management accountant (CGMA)—each of which has its own set of requirements.
Hard skills for accountants
Being good with numbers and having strong business acumen are crucial skills for accountants. Here are some other technical and hard skills that will make you successful in the field:
- Understanding the foundations of business
- Data analysis and management
- Knowledge of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP)
- Knowledge of general tax codes, laws, and regulations
- Preparation of financial statements and tax reports
- Research skills
- Math skills (but complex mathematics is typically done via technology)
- Accounting software (especially Intuit QuickBooks)
- Spreadsheet software (such as Microsoft Excel)
- Computer literacy (i.e., the ability to quickly learn to use software and other tech, like data visualization tools, cloud computing, and databases)
Many employers provide training on specific accounting software and other tools, Smith says. “But anything you can put in your toolbelt that you’re ready to take out and use the first day on the job is super helpful.”
Soft skills for accountants
Technical skills are key for success in accounting, but soft skills are what help you stand out in the field, Barentzen says. “It’s being able to interpret data and communicate that data in a way that tells a story and is compelling to your audience.”
Necessary soft skills include:
- Critical thinking
- Time management and planning
- Listening skills
- Interpersonal skills
- Attention to detail
Key facts about accounting careers
Here’s a look at some of the details about pay, work environment, and more.
Where do accountants work?
Really, anywhere. As an accountant, you can take many different paths and change direction along the way. Accountants can work for large or small accounting firms, in the private sector at companies across industries, at nonprofits, or within government agencies. You can even start your own private practice or use your skills to start a non-accounting business as an entrepreneur.
Starting your career in public accounting first can help build a foundation and serves as “launching pad” for advancing in the field, Smith says. Isaac Heller, CEO of Trullion, an AI accounting software, recommends working at an accounting firm or as a company’s in-house accountant first to get some practical experience.
What’s a typical work environment for an accountant?
It depends. Since accountants can work in-house at different types of companies in different sectors—including manufacturing, healthcare, or technology—or at dedicated large or small accounting firms, work environments are highly varied. Accountants might work in an office, remotely, or a hybrid of the two. Some positions may involve travel. With so many options, you’ll likely be able to find a role with the right work environment for you.
Depending on your specific role, you might have busy seasons, Smith says. “So you may be working really hard for a few weeks, and then you have a much lighter load.” Some roles are busy around tax season, which is the first part of the year leading up to the tax filing deadline of April 15. A company’s fiscal year-end, which can be any time of year, might be another busy time. Some accounting firms may close for a week around July 4 to give employees time off during a less-busy season, Smith says.
Can accountants work remotely?
Because accounting is a communications and people business, Barentzen says many roles are more likely to be hybrid than fully remote. But again, it depends on the job and company. For example, Heller says his accounting employees work fully in-office, but a fully or mostly distributed company may hire fully remote accountants.
How much do accountants make?
It varies depending on the exact role, level of experience, and location. The median salary for all accountants and auditors was $77,250 in May 2021, according to BLS. But the earning potential could be much higher depending on the specifics of an accountant’s role.
Should I become an accountant?
Ultimately accountants build trust with consumers and investors, forming what Heller calls the “bedrock of trust” in the economy. If this appeals to you—and you're drawn to the types of roles and responsibilities described above—accounting could be the right path.
It also offers flexibility (there are so many specialties!), opportunity (there's demand!), and compensation (it pays!). A different job in the financial field might pay more early in your career but after passing the CPA exam and getting a couple of years of experience in accounting, you can go anywhere you want and negotiate your salary upward.
“I think in the long run, accounting provides the highest earnings potential and I know the greatest array of opportunity,” Smith says. The sky’s the limit, she adds, especially if you get a CPA license.
The bottom line is that accounting is a stable career, and you likely won’t have trouble finding a job that’s right for you. “From big tech to the FBI to the NBA, every single industry and every single company needs an accountant,” Barentzen says.