Accounting Career and Degree Guide

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Accounting Career Overview: Traits of a Successful Accounting Professional

Do you see an accounting career in your future? See if your skills and accounting add up to a good fit.

What you'll do in an accounting career?

Accounting careers comprise much more than just preparing tax returns. Accountants help companies and organizations to meet the requirements and standards set by the government and by their industries. In today's business world, accuracy is more important than ever and proper financial planning is a key to the success of every business. On a day-to-day basis accountants are expected to:

  • Prepare and examine financial records
  • Organize and maintain accurate records
  • Ensure that financial statements comply with laws and regulations
  • Compute taxes owed, prepare tax returns and ensure prompt payment
  • Assess financial operations
  • Advise ways to reduce costs, enhance revenues and improve profits

Accredited accountants are always needed to keep individuals' and businesses' financial affairs in flawless order, which means accounting skills are in high demand. If you've thought of becoming an accountant, learn which personal and professional traits and degree you'll need to succeed in this career.

You are…

  • Computer savvy
  • Good with numbers
  • An analytic thinker
  • Enterprising
  • Goal oriented
  • Highly organized

You should have…

  • Strong math skills
  • Attention to details
  • Clerical skills
  • The ability to focus
  • Desire to collaborate

Ethics are important for accountants

According to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA),  students interested in becoming an accountant must abide by a code of ethics in companion to completing their college coursework. The fundamentals that must be learned and complied with include these principles:

  • Integrity in professional and business relationships
  • Objectivity, lack of bias and no conflict of interest
  • Professional competence and due care
  • Confidentiality
  • Professional behavior and compliance with laws and regulations
  • Avoid actions that discredit the profession

Ethics is a term that refers to a moral system that provides guidance for evaluating right and wrong. As an accountant, you will need to learn how to act with professional ethics in the workplace. Ethics are as important as the technical and legal aspects of your career as sometimes your knowledge and legal ability will not be enough to inform your decisions.

Often accounting organizations will have a professional code of ethics that they request or require their members to keep. For example, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) has a Code of Professional Conduct that dictates ethical conduct for its members. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), the national organization for accountants working in industry and government, has its own code, and the Institute of Internal Auditors—accountants that provide internal auditing services for organizations—has a unique code of conduct as well.

During your education career, you may study different aspects of ethics, which may include the following:

  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Independence
  • Due care in relationship to your role as an accountant

These aspects involve analyzing and understanding the effectiveness of professional accounting ethics, analyzing the social, legal, and economic developments defining ethical expectations for accounting professionals, evaluating models of ethical behavior and applying these to accounting issues, understanding relationships between accountants and stakeholders, and keeping up with current trends in accounting ethics nationally and internationally.

As part of your ethics education and training, you must learn how to remain free from conflicts of interest and other questionable business practices. Learning due care as a professional accountant means learning to properly understand financial information, be competent in your use of your knowledge, and diligent in following the best training of your profession. Learning and practicing ethics by remaining free from conflicts of interest, using diligence, and keeping accounting competence as a professional accountant will mean success with your chosen work.

What degree programs can accountants take?

As an accountant, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree to enter the field, though demand is especially strong for those who have earned a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation. Depending upon your area of interest, you should also consider taking technology, analysis, budgeting and forecasting courses. If you plan on pursuing a senior-level role or becoming an administrator, you'll need to complete an MBA degree program. Read all about degree programs and curriculum.

There are two paths your accounting career can take with a bachelor's degree:

  • Certified Public Accountant degree
  • Certified Management Accountant certification

The difference between the two is how much flexibility you can have with either specialization. Earning a certified public accountant degree will allow you to be employable in more business sectors and internationally. It is the more established degree for accounting. Furthermore, CPA has a higher entry barrier with greater education requirements. To earn CPA certification, you must pass the four-part Uniform CPA Examination and be licensed by the Board Accountancy in the state in which you wish to practice.

There are four sections of the test. Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR),  Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), and Regulation (REG) all make up the exam. In addition, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) requires 150 hours of undergraduate or graduate education before you can take the CPA exam. Those accountants that belong to the AICPA must also have 120 hours of continuing education every three years. Experience is important to obtaining your accounting degree. The measure of accounting experience varies by state, but most will require at least two years as a public accountant before allowing licensing.

A certified management accountant, in contrast to a CPA, works primarily with single corporations or businesses with an emphasis on daily operations and internal financial analysis such as business planning, cost accounting, financial management advice. The requirements for a CMA are as follows:

  • Be a member of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)
  • Have at least two years of prior management or financial experience
  • Have at least a bachelor's degree
  • Complete the CMA program that can be done online

There are no additional licensure requirements from state boards. While the CMA is an easier certification to obtain, it does limit your career options more than if you were to obtain a full CPA accreditation.

What are some tips for success in my education program?

You'll need to be the right personality fit to become an accountant, so it's important to learn whether this is the career for you before you jump into the time and expense of a school program. If you're detail-oriented, motivated, possess great reasoning and analytical skills, and have a high level of integrity, this might be the field for you.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person who wants to be an accountant should be an analytical thinker with good communication skills, have an ability to pay attention to details and possess strong organizational skills. It helps to have an aptitude for math and technology as these will be critical components of an accountant's skill set. Being a good communicator is also a skill to develop as a professional accountant.