A step-by-step guide on how to become an accountant.

Step 1

Is being an accountant for me?

Step One Photo

The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursing 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:

Overview
What do accountants do?
Career Satisfaction
Are accountants happy with their careers?
Personality
What are accountants like?

Still unsure if becoming an accountant is the right career path? Take the free CareerExplorer test to find out if this career is in your top matches. Perhaps you are well-suited to become an accountant or another similar career!

Described by our users as being “shockingly accurate”, you might discover careers you haven’t thought of before.

Step 2

High School

High school level math and accounting courses can lay the foundation for a career in this field.

Step 3

Bachelor’s Degree

While Associate’s Degrees in accounting are offered, the minimum educational requirement to enter the field is increasingly a Bachelor’s Degree.

Associate’s Degree

Programs that award an Associate’s 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.

Bachelor’s Degree

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:

Auditing
Focus
A survey of the application of procedures commonly used when auditing for-profit organizations, with emphasis on professional auditing standards and liabilities
Target Skills
• Understanding the practice of professional, governmental, and internal auditing
• Applying auditing techniques
• Ensuring accuracy of data
• Creating internal controls

Preparing Federal Income Tax Returns
Focus
Introduction to the structure of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for both personal and business tax filing
Target Skills
• How to complete individual and business/organizational tax returns
• Understanding and interpreting tax laws
• Maintaining ethical tax records

Financial Statements
Focus
Creation and analysis of various financial statements, drawing on real-world case studies
Target Skills
• Evaluating the financial health of organizations
• Preparing company valuations
• Computing free cash flows

Cost Accounting
Focus
The importance of internal reporting and how cost accounting influences decision-making within organizations; study of commonly used costing systems
Target Skills
• 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).

Step 4

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.

Learn how to become a CPA by state

Learn about the CPA Exam

Step 5

Master’s Degree

Many students looking to become a CPA choose to earn a Master of Accounting Degree. The following is a list of the components that make up most Master’s programs in this discipline:

Advanced Managerial Accounting
Focus
How to use cost information in managerial roles and control business activities, with emphasis on data analysis
Target Skills
• Designing and managing accounting procedures
• Incorporating information technology in accounting procedures
• Understanding activity-based costing techniques

Advanced Business Law
Focus
The legal framework of businesses and laws that impact activities conducted within accounting
Target Skills
• 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
Focus
Manual and computerized accounting; nuanced data analysis techniques and security measures
Target Skills
• Ability to implement security and cost management control systems
• Understanding how these systems vary based on different business models

Tax Strategy
Focus
How to recognize opportunities in tax planning; how to make calculated and ethical business decisions when developing tax strategies
Target Skills
• 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

Step 6

Specialization

The two general areas of specialization are public accounting and corporate/business accounting. There also several subspecialties in the field.

Step 7

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

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Accountants happy?

Accountants rank among the least happy careers. Overall they rank in the 7th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

While this strikingly low happiness metric among accountants may not be simple to categorically explain, some aspects of the work do paint a picture of long hours and high pressure, brought on by the exhaustive and potentially overwhelming responsibility of preparing and examining other people’s and corporations’ financial records.

What are Accountants like?

Based on our pool of users, Accountants tend to be predominately enterprising people. Next on their interest archetype scale are ‘conventional’ and ‘investigative.’ These three characteristics align perfectly with the work that accounts do. Accountants must understand how businesses and enterprises work. They must abide by the conventions and regulations of financial reporting. And they must consistently use their analytical skills to investigate budgets and accounting discrepancies.

Should I become an Accountant?

The bean counter stereotype that once characterized the accounting industry is no more. While fluency in the language of numbers is valued in a career focused on finances, the contemporary accountant and CPA need to excel at more than just math. Those that thrive in the field also have advanced interpersonal and communications abilities and organizational skills. They are detail-oriented and able to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data – qualities that are key for professionals tasked with analyzing and translating complex fiscal information, maintaining impeccable accounting records, and preserving financial stability to avoid potential legal repercussions. People who pursue this occupation generally have an investigative mindset; they enjoy digging for the source of an accounting discrepancy and feel rewarded when they resolve such mysteries. They have an aptitude for technology and typically appreciate a structured work environment that offers a considerable degree of predictability.

Steps to becoming an Accountant

The path to becoming an accountant often starts with showing interest in math and accounting in high school. It continues with earning a Bachelor’s Degree in accounting and in most cases with pursuing professional certification.

How long does it take to become an Accountant?

To qualify for most entry-level jobs, accountants must possess a Bachelor’s Degree, which usually takes four years to complete. After about two years in an entry-level position, accountants generally have sufficient experience to pursue their Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license.

Some colleges offer a five-year undergraduate CPA program that prepares students for both entry-level employment and the Uniform CPA Exam.

How to become an Accountant

A Bachelor’s Degree is widely considered the minimum education requirement for an accountant. This degree prepares students for entry- and mid- level positions. A Master’s Degree in an accounting related discipline is often required for senior roles. The Master of Accounting and the Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in accounting are quite common in the field. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits accounting degree programs which meet specific standards of curricula, faculty, and general resources.

Bachelor’s programs in accounting focus on accounting principles, finance, management, economics, statistics, taxation and auditing, and ethics. They also cover accounting systems, databases, and software. Successful completion of an internship is often a prerequisite for graduation.

In the U.S., many accountants become licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). This credential is mandatory for accountants whose jobs involve filing reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Licensing regulations vary from state to state, but every jurisdiction’s Board of Accountancy requires CPA candidates to pass the Uniform CPA Examination.

It is important for students considering this profession to know that accountants who are not CPAs (or ‘CAs/Chartered Accountants,’ as they are known in many other countries) can perform certain limited tasks, such as the preparation of financial statements and tax returns (if they have fulfilled IRS requirements). They are not permitted to conduct audits or review financial statements.

While the CPA is the preeminent credential for accountants in the United States, other voluntary certifications are administered by such industry associations as the Institute of Management Accountants and the Institute of Internal Auditors.