How to Become an Accountant

Are you considering becoming an accountant? Whether you have earned an undergraduate degree in accounting or a completely different field, there are many paths to a career in accounting.

Accounting can be a stable profession, with higher-than-average job satisfaction rates and earning potential. In fact, a sample study of 16,000 workers found that accountants and auditors are least likely to leave their jobs. Accountants and auditors also reported the highest job satisfaction levels among all careers sampled.

This study surveyed only a small fraction of accountants, but it is not hard to understand why they reported such positive feedback about their occupations. Accountants receive a median salary of $70,500, and the job growth is as fast as average occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you are considering a career in accounting, read on for a step-by-step guide on how to become an accountant and learn about different certifications you can pursue in the field.

How to Begin Your Accounting Career

If you have a strong work ethic and you are skilled with numbers, you may find a career in accounting to be rewarding. To prepare for your accounting career, ask yourself:

  • What sector do I want to work in — public, private or financial services?
  • What areas of accounting are interesting?
  • What areas of accounting are not of interest?
  • How much time am I willing to dedicate to my education in accounting?
  • What level of qualifications do I need for my desired accounting role?

Keep in mind: You do not need to know exactly what specialization you wish to pursue or what company you want to work for. However, you should develop an understanding of the aspects of the accounting industry that interest you.

5 Steps to Become an Accountant

There is no one-size-fits all guide on how to become an accountant. Some people start with an undergraduate degree in another field, such as business or data science, before opting to enter into a bachelor’s or master’s in accounting program. Others decide to pursue a certification like a certified management accountant (CMA), while others opt to distinguish themselves with a master’s in accounting.

However, there are some general steps you can take to move into a career as an accountant. Here is a breakdown of one path you can take, with personalized choices for you to make along the way.

1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree

For entry-level accounting positions, a bachelor’s degree is the standard minimum requirement. A bachelor’s degree in accounting provides you with a foundational knowledge of accounting principles and theories.

It is during this time that you would learn the fundamentals, such as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Additionally, you will take courses like auditing and accounting information systems. Whether you want to work in the public sector, private sector, or serve in the financial services industry, obtaining a bachelor of accounting is one ideal starting point.

Many bachelor’s in accounting students also work as interns in firms to gain the hands-on experience employers like to see on resumes. Many of those accounting firms end up hiring their interns for full-time jobs. For example, Deloitte hires more than 3,000 interns each year, many of whom are hired as full-time employees at the firm.

2. Decide Between Becoming an Accountant and CPA

You may have heard of the term certified public accountant (CPA) when looking into becoming an accountant. This is a certification an accountant can pursue to stand out as a qualified accounting professional.

All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. CPAs must take an extra step and fulfill rigorous state requirements to earn their licensure.

Employers realize the value of a CPA license, with many firms offering bonuses to employees who obtain a CPA license. PwC, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, states:

“PwC offers significant incentives to those who obtain their CPA and other primary credentials (CFA, CISA, CIA) early, as well as reimbursement and educational programs to help you achieve this goal.”

It is not uncommon for firms to offer employees incentives to obtain a CPA license. CPAs earn more and can perform more duties than accountants. There are also other accounting certifications employers like, such as fraud examination certification, internal auditor certification and others.

3. Pick an Accounting Specialty

Rather than simply being an accountant, you should aim to be an accountant skilled in a specific sector. This could be forensic accounting, personal finance planning, or a host of other specialties. A major benefit of accountant specialization is that it makes you valuable to potential clients. As a talent acquisition leader for RSM (formerly McGladrey) shared:

“You’ve got to be very open to specialization, because that's the way of the world. Especially now with the way there are so many industry standards, clients want people who are specialists within industries.” — Jennifer Busse

Consider your interests and the type of accounting you could see yourself doing on a daily basis. Examples of accounting specialties include:

  • Tax accounting
  • Business valuation
  • Nonprofit accounting
  • Government finance
  • Auditing
  • Environmental accounting
  • International accounting
  • Information management and technology assurance
  • Personal finance accounting

4. Earn a Master’s in Accounting Degree (Optional)

Despite the growth of the industry, accounting remains a competitive field. To work at top firms and vie for lucrative roles, it is necessary to stand out from other accountants. Experience and education help.

If you are unable to devote yourself to full-time on-campus study, decide whether an online master’s in accounting is right for you. Earning a master’s in accounting can give you deeper knowledge of the industry and increase your earning potential. It also signals your work ethic, determination and mental aptitude to employers.

As one HR director put it:

“In our firm, advanced degreed students right out of school are more attractive to us. We know they come in ready to go straight to work, and have more experience and education in tax and audit.” — Karen Mattull, director of HR at BeachFleischman.

If you hold a bachelor’s degree—even one related to accounting—you are eligible to apply to a master’s in accounting program. You will likely have to take additional courses to build your foundational accounting knowledge. Look into different graduate accounting programs to understand what schools would accept your degree in their master’s in accounting program. If you are worried about the GRE or GMAT requirement for an accounting master’s program, there are some programs that waive the GRE and GMAT for eligible individuals.

5. Obtain Accounting Certification

Once you are an accountant, pursue certification to enhance your skill set and credibility as a professional. Accounting certifications vary and you can earn more than one. The CPA certification is the most widely known, but there are others like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and Enrolled Agent (EA) that can help propel your accounting career. Below is a look at some of the most popular accounting certifications:

Other Types of Accounting Certifications

A CPA certification is well known and respected, but there are other certifications that can enhance your professional standing:

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

If you are interested in honing both your finance and managerial skills, the CMA certification is a great choice. This certification allows you to build strategic management skills, equipping you to pursue top roles such as chief financial officer.

The Institute of Management Accountants issues the certification. As the organization explains:

“CMAs can explain the ‘why’ behind numbers, not just the ‘what.’ And that can give you greater credibility, higher earning potential, and, ultimately, a seat at the leadership table.”

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

The CFA certification signifies that one is a specialist in investment management. Earning this certification is a very involved process that includes a three-tiered exam sequence and becoming part of a local CFA chapter. The amount of work invested in obtaining the certification is offset by the high return on investment being a CFA yields. If the stock market appeals to you, and you desire a challenge, look into this certification.

Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)

Some certifications like the CMA open the door to many different career paths; some are designed for a more specific use. If you want to work as an auditor, the Certified Internal Auditor certification can enhance your credibility. While the exam is still difficult, it is less time-consuming and less expensive than CPA or CMA processes.

Enrolled Agent (EA)

The Enrolled Agent (EA) certification focuses on tax law. Accountants with this certification are well versed in U.S. tax code. Many professionals who desire the practicing freedom enjoyed by CPAs opt for an EA certification because it requires less education and experience. The EA certification is the highest qualification awarded by the IRS. The IRS explains the freedom EAs have:

“Enrolled agents, like attorneys and certified public accountants (CPAs), have unlimited practice rights. This means they are unrestricted as to which taxpayers they can represent, what types of tax matters they can handle, and which IRS offices they can represent clients before.”

This certification does not hold the same esteem as a CPA license, but it is still a useful way to boost your credentials.

Tips on Passing the CPA Exam

The CPA exam can be difficult and requires a great deal of preparation. Before you sit for the exam, you have to meet your state’s educational requirements.

The examination has four sections:

  1. Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  2. Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  3. Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  4. Regulation (REG)

To pass the exam, the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) suggests utilizing CPA Exam Blueprints. These study resources are a guide to the real exam. They lay out the format and scoring of the test and provide a look at what will be tested.

The AICPA recommends forming a support network to prepare for the CPA exam, which requires about 300 to 400 hours of preparation. As you can imagine, the CPA is no small undertaking. Using the resources provided by the test administrator will aid in successful preparation.

Finding Entry-Level Jobs for Accountants

Before you become an accountant, you must also understand how to find work as an accountant. Depending on your qualifications, the jobs open to you will vary in responsibility and salary. When just starting as an accountant, building up experience is crucial.

Here are some tips to find a job as a new accountant:

1. Utilize Your Network

Knowing the right people can be the difference between landing an interview or completely missing an opportunity. As a 2019 Job Seeker Nation survey noted:

“Nearly half of respondents also hear about jobs by word of mouth via friends, while 37% say they also learn through professional networks.”

You don’t have to know the CFO of a major accounting firm to reap the benefits of networking. Talk to past coworkers who work in accounting, family friends who know people in the industry, and others with any connections to the field. You can also visit conferences like the Accounting & Finance Show. Events like these welcome accounting professionals to network and learn.

2. Scour Job Boards

As helpful as recommendations can be, it is important to take the job search into your own hands. Look for roles on job boards that appeal to your professional goals. The AICPA has a job board of finance and accounting jobs that is regularly updated. You can filter results based on your qualifications, desired salary and other factors.

3. Consider Part-Time Roles

You may have your sights set on a dream role with a great salary. But how do you know if you will actually enjoy that work? Consider a part-time role to gain experience and boost your resume without committing fully to the position. A part-time role also allows you to get an inside look at a company and gives you flexibility.

How to Start Your Own Accounting or CPA Firm

With the knowledge of how to become an accountant under your belt, you may be interested in establishing a firm. Below you will find common steps to take toward starting your own firm; however, it is also important to conduct your own research.

Before you set up shop: Make sure you have a thorough understanding of the services you are legally allowed to provide. Based on your education and certifications, you are able to perform certain services and not others. For instance, only CPAs are permitted to file reports to the SEC.

1. Draft A Business Plan

This plan will lay the foundation for your firm. Address the who, what, where and other logistical aspects of the business. It may be helpful to define your ideal target market. The services you offer should meet a need in the target market, and the location should be chosen with this group in mind. Other steps in this process include:

  • Determine startup costs and a source of funding.
  • Calculate first-year expenses.
  • Set pricing of services.
  • Create your business policies/procedures.
  • Define the mission of your business.

2. Legally Form Your Corporation

To protect yourself from potential lawsuits, separate yourself from your business. You can do this by forming a limited liability corporation (LLC). There are a number of digital platforms that allow you to perform this important step. An LLC is just one business structure option. You can opt to form another type, such as a partnership or S corporation.

3. Register Your Business

A smart step in setting up your business is to register it with either the state, local, or federal government. To learn more about specific requirements, visit the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) website. As the site shares:

“In some cases, you don’t need to register at all. If you conduct business as yourself using your legal name, you won’t need to register anywhere. But remember, if you don’t register your business, you could miss out on personal liability protection, legal benefits, and tax benefits.”

You can also apply for specific licenses and permits through SBA. These requirements vary from state to state.

4. Establish a Business Bank Account

Keep personal and business transactions separate. Doing so will lead to fewer headaches when it comes time to report expenses. It will also keep a clear line between you and your business. Take the time to set up a unique credit card and bank account strictly for business use.

5. Set Up an Online Presence

Make sure potential clients can find your business easily. Set up a website with information that people will find useful. Add an About Us page to introduce your business and build a relationship with site visitors. Make sure to share your qualifications to enhance your credibility. An FAQ page may be beneficial as well to address common inquiries.

6. Consider a Niche

Your firm can start by offering general accounting services and then gradually specialize. Conversely, you can specialize from the start if you have the qualifications and a big enough target market. This step is not necessary, but it can help differentiate you from other firms.

7. Market Your New Business

Now that your business is formed and ready to operate, you need to get yourself in front of potential clients. There are numerous ways to advertise. For instance, you can utilize targeted social media advertising on platforms like Facebook and Linkedin. Another way to increase visibility is through activity in the community you serve. Form connections with other local small businesses and sponsor an event that allows you to be seen by more people. Be creative with marketing; you do not need a large budget to make an impact.

Do You Have What it Takes to Become an Accountant?

There are many paths you can take, from getting a specialization to starting your own firm and beyond. The journey to becoming an accountant is challenging, demanding effort and intense study. Nevertheless, the reward includes higher-than-average salaries, a marketable career and room for growth.