Accounting Career and Degree Guide
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Prepare for an Accountant Career
Have a knack for numbers? Learn how to become an accountant and get on the path to a great career.
In This Article
They're not just number-crunchers any more. Accountants drive business decisions through the accurate, orderly management of finances and cash flow. You can find these professionals working in self-employment, for the government, and in businesses ranging from large public accounting firms to sports arenas and everywhere in between. Here's how to become an accountant.
No matter whether they work in a home office or on the global playing field, accountants blend analytical and communication skills to:
- maintain and inspect financial accounts
- report on financial performance
- understand the impact of financial laws and regulations
- prepare and complete tax returns
- propose solutions to business roadblocks
Accounting: Skills and Aptitudes
Contrary to the old bean counter stereotype, successful accountants tend to be equally good with numbers and with people. After all, they're the professionals who translate complex financial information into clear business insights for their colleagues.
Do you have the skills for the accounting profession? Here are the go-to talents for which accountants are known:
|Excellent at math||A natural fluency in the language of numbers is a great starting point for a career that revolves around cash flow and finances.|
|Extreme organization||Chaos is the enemy of clean record keeping. Charged with maintaining accurate and orderly records, accountants often have the neatest desks in the office.|
|Analytical bent||The numbers don't lie. Accountants are great at parsing data and numbers to find the patterns that emerge in reporting cycles.|
|Investigative mindset||When the numbers don't quite add up, an accountant goes digging for the source—and doesn't give up until the mystery is solved.|
|Sharp eye for detail||Accountants can't gloss over the fine points. A misplaced decimal point or transposed digit can wreak havoc in a financial report.|
|Structured work style||Accounting requires diligence and consistency, which attracts people who prefer a high degree of predictability in their work.|
|Aptitude for technology||From spreadsheets to specialized accounting software, accountants rely heavily on technology to keep the numbers on track.|
These skills lay a strong foundation for a career in accounting, but you'll also need a degree to move into this versatile field.
How to Become an Accountant? Education is Key
Although some people find employment in entry-level accounting positions (such as bookkeeper or clerk) without earning a diploma, most accounting professionals hold at least a four-year bachelor's degree. Some choose to pursue more education and go on to become certified public accountants.
If you're just starting out your school journey—or returning after an absence—you're in the right place. Here are the accounting education options to get you started on the path to success in the field:
Available online or in a traditional classroom, this degree provides a solid grounding in the fundamentals of accounting and accounting technology. It can pave the way to an entry-level position with an organization's finance and administration team, such as billing clerk, accounts receivable clerk or staff bookkeeper.
Time commitment: one to two years
Almost all staff accounting positions require a bachelor's degree, which is available online, in a traditional classroom, or some combination of the two. Specific courses will depend on the school you choose, but expect to study the principles of accounting, business communications, accounting technology, business law and more.
Time commitment: up to four years, depending on your previous college credits
Master's in Accounting
After a few years in the field, you might decide to move up the accounting ranks into a more challenging role. The master's in accounting degree opens the door to management-level jobs in a huge variety of industries, from banking to construction to high tech.
Time commitment: one to two years
[Learn more about the master's degree in accounting.]
Getting Certified: CPA
Are your long-term sights set on becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)? After earning 150 credit hours in a master's degree program, you'll be eligible in most states to sit for the rigorous CPA exam. Then you'll need to work under the supervision of a licensed CPA to prove your stuff. Once you've successfully met these challenges, the path to senior accounting roles is open.
Online Accounting Degrees
Already juggling a busy life full of work and family commitments? Consider online accounting classes, designed with working adults in mind. The online option is:
- Flexible – Many online schools have year-round, rolling start dates. No more waiting around for spring semester to start!
- Efficient – With short classes, weekly homework deadlines and no need to commute, you can adjust your study schedule to accommodate family and work obligations.
- Mobile – Thanks to mobile apps and interfaces, you can access online classes just about anywhere there's an Internet connection.
- Affordable – The online option might save you money. There's no need to relocate, and the tuition cost can be lower than on-campus programs.
[What exactly will you study in online accounting courses?]
How to Become an Accountant: 7 Potential Roles
Accounting can take you to some surprising places. But before you choose a professional direction, you'll need to discover just which kind of accountant you really want to be. Here are a few options in this wide-ranging arena:
Becoming an Accountant: The Places You Can Go
Think that all accountants wear suits and commute to a bank or insurance office every day? It's time to update your image. Today, the opportunities for trained accountants are practically endless.
Here are a few places your accounting degree might take you:
Where can you go?
|Asia, Europe and beyond||With companies expanding globally, accountants (and especially those trained in forensics) are helping create business deals that make the world go round.|
|Casinos||In these complex, closely monitored organizations, a robust back office is key to keeping the numbers on track and the business in the black.|
|Education||Love school? You might want to stay put. AICPA, the professional association of CPAs in the U.S., points to a growing need for qualified instructors at the college level.|
|Entertainment||There's no business like show business. Whether it's a Hollywood studio or nonprofit theater group, savvy financial management makes the magic happen.|
|High Tech||From gaming to online advertising, the tech industry relies on accounting professionals to provide guidance, build business partnerships and maintain financial integrity.|
|Healthcare and hospitals||The U.S. healthcare system is notoriously complex. Accountants are uniquely qualified to navigate the numbers and maintain a healthy balance.|
|Sports Management||There's a reason it's called "moneyball." Whether they're helping to operate a huge arena or manage the team office, accountants keep all the balls in the air.|
Salary & Job Growth
Annual Average Salary
Accounting Salaries and Job Growth
In the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' current Occupational Employment Statistics, the average national annual salary for accountants and auditors stood at $79,520. Of course, actual earnings vary greatly depending on location, accounting specialty, experience and much more.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics also pegged the average salary for financial analysts at $109,330. Personal financial advisors stood to earn more than $119,290.*
Accounting ranks among the country's most popular college majors.** And no wonder. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of accountants will grow 4% over the next decade—which is right in line for growth for all occupations.
[Find details and more information about accounting salaries and job outlook.]
Ready to keep exploring a career in accounting? Whether you're brand-new to the field or eager to open the doors to new opportunities, a solid education is the place to start.
*Program outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guaranteed. The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors.
**USA Today, 10/26/14