Accounting Job Description: What You'll Do

Here's what you'll do in your role as an accountant.

accountant at work

Perhaps you interact with accountants regularly, or only once a year during tax season. That's when they’re most visible, but accountants work behind the scenes year-round.

As the financial backbone of a business, they help people to conceive goals, plan how to achieve them and then take the necessary steps.

If you've got a knack for money matters, a career in accounting might make perfect cents. (Sorry—we couldn't resist!)

What does an accountant do?

The primary task of accountants, which extends to all the others, is to prepare and examine financial records. They make sure that records are accurate and that taxes are paid properly and on time. Accountants and auditors perform overviews of the financial operations of a business in order to help it run efficiently. They also provide the same services to individuals, helping them create plans of action for improved financial well-being.

On the job, accountants:

  • Examine statements to ensure accuracy
  • Ensure that statements and records comply with laws and regulations
  • Compute taxes owed, prepare tax returns, ensure prompt payment
  • Inspect account books and accounting systems to keep up to date
  • Organize and maintain financial records
  • Improve businesses efficiency where money is concerned
  • Make best-practices recommendations to management
  • Suggest ways to reduce costs, enhance revenues and improve profits
  • Provide auditing services for businesses and individuals

What education or certification will I need to work in accounting?

One unique thing about accounting is that you can enter the field with education at every degree level. An associate's degree will prepare you for entry-level positions, while a bachelor's will impart a greater base of knowledge and pave the way for a Master of Business Administration or other advanced degree. Your master’s will usually take one to two years to obtain.

According to Robert Half International, CPA is the certification most frequently requested by employers; therefore, many accountants get licensed to increase their prospects. CPAs are licensed by their state’s board of accountancy, which facilitates a national exam and outlines state requirements. Be sure to check the requirements for the state in which you plan to study and work. Almost all states require CPAs to take continuing education to maintain their license.

Learn more about accounting curriculum on What You’ll Study.

What career paths can I take in accounting?

Usually, accountants and auditors work in offices, although some work from home. Auditors may travel to their clients’ workplaces. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following industries employed the most accountants in 2012:

  • Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services: 36 percent
  • Management of companies and enterprises: 4 percent 
  • Management, scientific and technical consulting services: 2 percent
  • State government: 2 percent

Many accountants specialize, depending on their client or clients’ type of business and needs. Typical specializations include assurance services (improving the quality or context of information for those in decision-making positions) and risk management. Accountants can also specialize by industry, choosing to work in healthcare, for instance.

The four main types of accountants are:

  • Public accountants: Their clients include corporations, governments and individuals. They fulfill a broad range of accounting, auditing, tax and consulting duties.
     
  • Management accountants: Also called cost, managerial, corporate or private accountants. They record and analyze the financial information of the clients they work for, and provide it for internal use by managers, not the public.
     
  • Government accountants: Maintain and examine records of government agencies, audit private businesses and individuals whose activities are subject to government regulations or taxations.
     
  • Internal auditors: They check for risk management of an organization or businesses' funds. They then identify ways to improve the process for finding and eliminating waste and fraud.

Advancement in the field can take many forms. Entry level public accountants will see their responsibilities increase with each year of practice, and can move to senior positions within a few years.

Those who excel may become supervisors, managers or partners. They may also open their own public accounting firms, or transfer to management and internal positions in private firms.

Management accountants often start as cost accountants, or junior internal auditors. They can advance to accounting manager, chief cost accountant, budget director or manager of internal auditing. Some become controllers, treasurers, financial vice presidents, chief financial officers (CFOs) or corporation presidents.

The four main types of accountants enjoy a degree of cross-over potential that is unique in business. They can transition from one type to another throughout their careers.

Learn about Pay & Job Projections for accountants. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook places employment of accountants and auditors at 13 percent through 2022, about as fast as average for all occupations. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

Interest in accounting has grown in response to the high, public profile of global corporate scandals and financial crises. Stricter laws and regulations may increase the demand for services as organizations work to comply with new standards. And tighter lending standards are expected to increase the importance of audits, says the BLS.

Do your skills lie with economics, business and people, but you aren’t sure accounting is right for you?  Similar careers worth pursuing include bookkeeping, budget analysis, financial management, personal financial advising and teaching.

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Accounting Career and Degree Guide