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How to Become an Accountant in 7 Steps

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What is an Accountant?

Accountants focus on preparing, examining, and ensuring the accuracy of financial records for businesses or individuals. Accountants commonly prepare taxes and ensure tax laws are met, but they also advise clients on investments and business decisions.

In this Article

Steps to Become an Accountant

Choose a program.

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Many schools offer accounting programs, but you'll want to do a little homework before you enroll in one to ensure you select a program that suits your needs. Here are some things to consider when evaluating programs:

Accreditation: This seal of approval means that a school or program meets quality standards and prepares students for their chosen career.

Internships: They give you valuable on-the-job work experience to help build your resume.

Online programs: Many accounting degree programs are offered online, giving you flexibility with scheduling and physical location

Choose a degree.

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There are several accounting degrees to choose from. Most accountants enter the field with a bachelor's degree, and some will go on to earn a master's degree. Associate degree programs are also available for those looking to get started in the profession more quickly.

Associate Degree: Generally two years of full-time studies to complete. Graduates with an associate degree are qualified for positions under an accountant, such as financial clerk or accounting clerk.

Bachelor's Degree: Typically takes four years. A bachelor's degree offers the broadest choice of entry-level career options for future advancement.

Master's Degree: Depending on the program, it generally takes one to two years to earn a master's after you've already earned your four-year degree. This can be a good choice for accountants who want to earn a certification or pursue a managerial or executive position. 

Enroll in a program.

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To be admitted into an associate or bachelor's program, you'll need a high school diploma or GED. Bachelor's degree programs often expect a high school GPA of 2.5-3.0 or better, plus they may require ACT or SAT scores.

Some schools may have prerequisite courses, although sometimes students are allowed to take those after being accepted to a program.

Complete your studies and internship.

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Most accounting degrees cover many of the same subjects but dive more deeply the further you are in your studies. For example, it's common to have more general courses on taxation, accounting, and auditing in the curriculum for associate and bachelor's degrees. At the master's degree level, those courses could become more specialized and include topics such as taxation of business entities, public sector accounting, and advanced auditing.

Internships are a common requirement for undergraduate programs, and they are often counted as credits toward your degree. Completing an internship gives students valuable work experience and skills, which can be especially helpful when looking for your first accounting role.

Find your first job.

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Entry-level jobs for people with bachelor's degrees are often positions such as staff accountant, tax accountant, or financial analyst. The duties of these positions vary greatly, depending on the size of a business. For example, a staff accountant at a small business may handle all bookkeeping and accounting duties, while someone at a large corporation may focus on a single aspect of accounting.

Boost your expertise with a certification.

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There are many certifications accountants can earn to demonstrate their expertise and skills. Certified public accountant (CPA) is perhaps the best known.

While there is a healthy job market for accountants who are not CPAs, earning that certification elevates your professional profile. It provides a wider scope of career opportunities, boosts your earning potential, and allows you to perform more accounting services. For instance, as a CPA, you can represent clients before the IRS during audits.

Build your career.

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A master's degree can help you advance your career by helping you specialize or build a broader base of business knowledge.

A master's degree in accounting can help you prepare to become a CPA or earn other certifications and specialize in areas such as forensic accounting and management accounting. A master's in business administration (MBA) with a focus on accounting augments accounting knowledge with managerial skills, making it a good choice for someone seeking to advance with a leadership position.

Decide if Accounting Is the Career for You

Regardless of its size or industry, nearly every business needs an accountant. Similarly, government agencies and many individuals also rely on accountants.

An essential role of an accountant is preparing, examining, and analyzing financial records. This can include bookkeeping business transactions, filing taxes, and making sure all government regulations are met.

"A good accountant is the backbone in the business because they not only read the financial health of the company and see the opportunities and the challenges, but they also can work with the strategic team and be part of the strategic team," says Angel Chatterton, senior instructor of accountancy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Good accountants "communicate well and are part of the proactiveness, not just reactive."

Accountants are at the forefront of emerging fields such as cybersecurity and data analytics. Forensic accounting, or investigating financial crimes, is another growing field.

Certified management accountants (CMAs) analyze financial records for trends and opportunities, enabling them to make recommendations on business strategies that can help chart a company's future. Some accountants specialize in advising individuals on their personal investments and retirement plans.

Accountants are now at the forefront of emerging fields such as cybersecurity and data analytics. Forensic accounting, which involves investigating embezzlement and other financial crimes, is another growing field.

Roles for an Accountant 

One advantage of becoming an accountant is the variety of specialties and positions. Some of these roles include:

  • Financial analyst: Examines financial data and helps businesses make profitable decisions, often by managing investments.
  • Internal auditor: Independently reviews and evaluates a company's finances to ensure accuracy and that the company is following regulations.
  • Tax preparer: Completes income tax returns for businesses or individuals.
  • Staff accountant: Generally one of several in the accounting department of a business, working under a senior accountant.
  • Personal financial advisor: Helps clients make decisions about their financial needs, such as investments, insurance, and retirement planning. 

Where Accountants Work 

A variety of organizations and businesses of all sizes and in all industries need accountants. They work in:

  • Government, including local, state, and federal agencies
  • Businesses, both privately and publicly owned
  • Accounting firms, where they work for a variety of clients

How Long Does It Take to Become an Accountant? 

It generally takes 4-6 years, depending on which degree you pursue and if you are able to take a full-time or part-time course load. There are accelerated programs available, as well as options that allow you to study at your own pace, especially if your lifestyle has more demands on your time. 

Job Outlook and Salary

The accounting profession is expected to grow 4.4% through 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That is just above the average for all occupations. Accountants earn a median annual salary of $78,000, according to the BLS. Many factors can influence salary, including where you live and the industry in which you work.

Professional Resources

Professional resources are a great tool to help you advance your career. They can help you stay on top of trends, learn or reinforce skills, and connect with others in your field.

Here are a few to get started:

mj grenzow

Written and reported by:

M.J. Grenzow

Contributing Writer

angel chatterton

With professional insights from:

Angel Chatterton

Senior Instructor of Accountancy, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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