How to Become an Accountant: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become an accountant. Research the education requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in accounting.

Should I Become an Accountant?

Accountants can work in the public and private sectors providing consulting, auditing, and analyzing services. Job duties include the review and maintenance of financial records for businesses, the preparation and submission of tax documents for individuals and companies, the assessment of financial operations and the recommendations for fiscal efficiency to responsible parties, as well as day-to-day management of funds. Longer hours are usually required during tax season.

A bachelor's degree is a common requirement for an accounting career. Many accountants pursue voluntary certification as a way of demonstrating expertise to future employers or clients. Becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is necessary for those who file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; master's degree may be required
Degree Field Accounting
Licensure and Certification CPA credential required for some positions; professional certification options available
Experience May be required
Computer Skills Knowledge of relevant computer programs like Oracle and Microsoft Excel preferred, math and organization skills, attention to detail
Salary (2014) $65,940 per year (Median salary for all accountants and auditors)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Postings (September 2012)

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree is generally the minimum educational requirement needed to obtain an entry-level position in the field. Bachelor's degree programs in accounting are available by that title specifically, or accounting specialization options may be present in broader programs like business administration. While both types of programs include courses in accounting, taxation and auditing, some involve additional coursework in management, marketing and finance.

Success Tips:

  • Find an internship. An internship with an accounting firm or an organization's accounting department provides experience that may prove useful for securing a job after graduation. Accounting interns might assist in preparing financial statements, conducting audits, and communicating with clients. Additionally, an individual will often learn about accounting software programs.
  • Join a professional association. Joining an accounting organization can give you access to networking and career development opportunities. There may be a student chapter on campus, or you can get an individual membership. The associations may have special membership rates for students.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

Work experience can help you advance in the field of accounting, and some states require it to take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam. By taking an entry-level accounting position, or possibly an internship, aspiring accountants have an opportunity to observe the duties and responsibilities they'll perform on a daily basis.

Step 3: Consider a Master's Degree

A master's degree is not required, but it's beneficial depending on the type of position desired. Master's degree programs in accounting include managerial courses that cover advanced topics in auditing, taxation and finance. A master's degree is a common way for bachelor's degree holders to meet the 150 credit hour requirements for CPA licensing. While 150 credit hours are commonly mandatory, a master's degree is not necessary for CPA licensing.

Step 4: Become Licensed

Licensing and certification are not requirements to work as an accountant, but many employers prefer to hire accountants with credentials. The CPA license, administered by the jurisdiction's Board of Accountancy, is intended for individuals who file with the SEC or want to increase employment opportunities. Depending on the state, 120 to 150 credit hours are needed to be eligible for the Uniform CPA exam. In addition, some states might require a minimum number of accounting or business college credits, and years of work experience before allowing an individual to sit for the exam.

Step 5: Pursue Certification

Optional certifications help accountants stand out in the job market. They include the Certified Management Accountant, the Certified Internal Auditor and the Certified Information Systems Auditor credentials. They're all offered through different organizations and require professional experience and an exam. Licensed CPAs can take advantage of the American Institutes of CPAs, which allows them to obtain Personal Finance Specialist, Accredited in Business Valuation and Certified Information Technology Professional certifications. Some of them involve an exam, among other requirements.

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