CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become an accountant.
Is becoming an accountant right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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High school level math and accounting courses can lay the foundation for a career in this field.
While associate degrees are offered, the minimum educational requirement to enter the field is increasingly a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting.
Programs that award an associate degree provide a basic understanding of the fundamentals of accounting, taxation, financial statement analysis, and accounting technology. They prepare students for junior entry-level roles including billing clerk, accounting assistant, accounts receivable clerk, payroll clerk, or bookkeeper.
The vast majority of staff accounting positions require a bachelor’s degree, typically offered as a Bachelor of Science. Graduates from programs at this level come away with an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the business cycle and accounting principles. Courses typically include the following:
A survey of the application of procedures commonly used when auditing for-profit organizations, with emphasis on professional auditing standards and liabilities
- Understanding the practice of professional, governmental, and internal auditing
- Applying auditing techniques
- Ensuring accuracy of data
- Creating internal controls
Preparing Federal Income Tax Returns
Introduction to the structure of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for both personal and business tax filing
- How to complete individual and business/organizational tax returns
- Understanding and interpreting tax laws
- Maintaining ethical tax records
Creation and analysis of various financial statements, drawing on real-world case studies
- Evaluating the financial health of organizations
- Preparing company valuations
- Computing free cash flows
The importance of internal reporting and how cost accounting influences decision-making within organizations; study of commonly used costing systems
- Implementing best practices in recording, coding, and reporting cost data
- Analyzing cost behavior and using this data to make informed business decisions
- Advanced budgeting
Many accredited programs incorporate an internship that allows students to gain on-the-job training before graduation.
When choosing an accounting degree program, students are advised to seek out schools that are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
Graduate Education / Work Experience / CPA Certification
To be eligible to sit for the Uniform Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam students must typically complete a certain number of credit hours of coursework at the graduate level and/or gain at least two years of work experience under the supervision of a licensed CPA.
Many students looking to become a CPA choose to earn a Master's Degree in Accounting. The following is a list of the components that make up most master’s programs in this discipline:
Advanced Managerial Accounting
How to use cost information in managerial roles and control business activities, with emphasis on data analysis
- Designing and managing accounting procedures
- Incorporating information technology in accounting procedures
- Understanding activity-based costing techniques
Advanced Business Law
The legal framework of businesses and laws that impact activities conducted within accounting
- Understanding business law and government regulation topics pertinent to businesses
- Creating and analyzing contracts
- Completing commercial transactions
- Brokering debtor/creditor relations
- Navigating securities regulations and accountant liability
Information Systems Control
Manual and computerized accounting; nuanced data analysis techniques and security measures
- Ability to implement security and cost management control systems
- Understanding how these systems vary based on different business models
How to recognize opportunities in tax planning; how to make calculated and ethical business decisions when developing tax strategies
- Up-to-date knowledge of federal tax system regulations
- Mastery of online research software and research techniques for tax preparation
- Advanced understanding of investment models
- Tax arbitrage and implicit taxes
The two general areas of specialization are public accounting and corporate/business accounting. There also several subspecialties in the field.
Continuing Education / Resources
Most U.S. states mandate that CPAs complete continuing education coursework to maintain their certification.
The American Institutes of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) offer various competency and learning opportunities, as well as specialized credentials and designations, such as Personal Financial Specialist (PFS), Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV), and Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP).
Accountants and CPAs may also opt to pursue additional credentials, which may help them stand out in the job market. These include:
- CFA – Certified Financial Analyst
- CGMA – Chartered Global Management Accountant
- CIA – Certified Internal Auditor
- CISA – Certified Information Systems Auditor
- CMA – Certified Management Accountant
- CPP – Certified Payroll Professional
- MBA – Master of Business Administration
- PMP – Project Management Professional
Among the most respected professional organizations for accountants are:
- American Association of Finance and Accounting
- The Institute of Internal Auditors
- Professional Association of Small Business Accountants