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How to Become an Accountant

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Accountants help both individuals and more complex organizations keep and analyze financial records, stay in compliance with tax laws and regulations, and determine how to spend money wisely.

Accountants may specialize in any of a number of different fields. Public accounting involves consulting with clients to ensure they are meeting their tax and auditing obligations under the law. Some public accountants, known as forensic accountants, investigate financial crimes.

Another branch of accounting is management accounting, and these accountants typically work directly for businesses planning budgets and investments. Other accountants work as internal auditors, making sure an organization’s money is being managed appropriately.

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What kind of training is required to become an accountant?

Most accounting jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, but with an associate degree in accounting, you may be able to perform some accounting tasks, like payroll, for an employer.

Many colleges and universities offer accounting programs at the bachelor’s degree level. These programs include coursework in accounting principles, finance, management, economics, statistics, and ethics. Learning to work with accounting systems and tools like spreadsheets and databases is also important. Many accounting degree programs require students to take on internships to gain practical experience.

Holding a master’s degree is not a requirement for entry-level accounting jobs, but you may consider taking graduate courses or earning that degree to advance your career or further specialize in your field.

Are there any certification or licensure requirements?

Many accountants become licensed as Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). Accountants whose jobs include tasks like filing reports with the US Securities and Exchange Commission must earn a CPA license, but even if a license is not legally required for the kind of accounting you want to do, earning one can still enhance your job prospects and earning power because it shows that you have met high standards for education and experience.

Each state has its own licensing requirements, but all require CPA candidates to pass the Uniform CPA Examination. In most states, you must complete 150 semester hours of education in accounting, which will likely include graduate-level coursework, and gain some amount of accounting experience before you can be licensed.

There are other certification options available to accountants besides CPA licensure. While not state-regulated, many professional accounting associations offer certification programs. You can become a Certified Management Accountant through the Institute of Management Accountants or a Certified Internal Auditor through the Institute of Internal Auditors, for example. Earning one of these certifications shows that you have deep knowledge and experience in your accounting specialty. Employers often search for accountants with specific certifications and pay more to accountants who hold them.

How long does it take to become an accountant?

For most accounting jobs, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree, which usually takes four years to complete. Once you’re out of school, you can take on an entry-level position like staff accountant, tax staff, or junior internal auditor. After you have gained some experience in your entry-level role (typically two years), you can work on earning your CPA license.

With three to six years of experience, you can advance to senior positions in your area of expertise, and after that move on to management positions.

What does an accountant earn?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for all accountants was $61,690 in 2010. The top 10 percent of earners in this field made more than $106,880 that year, while the lowest 10 percent made less than $38,940.

What are the job prospects?

Accountants and auditors find themselves on many yearly “top jobs” lists such as those produced by Forbes, Yahoo!, and CNN.

According to a job outlook survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 51 percent of responding employers were planning on hiring accounting graduates in 2013.

What are the long term career prospects for accountants?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of accountants and auditors will increase 16 percent between 2010 and 2020, compared to 14 percent growth for all other occupations during that time period.

Many consider accounting to be a “recession-proof” job because individuals and organizations must pay their taxes and optimize their finances during both good times and bad. Despite this commonly-held belief, thousands of accounting jobs were lost during the Great Recession of 2008, but the profession is now recovering.

Accountants can better their long-term prospects by becoming CPAs and earning advanced degrees to set themselves apart from other job seekers. There are many opportunities for career advancement in the accounting field; accountants with experience and education can become managers and partners in accounting firms or serve on the executive boards of corporations and other organizations.

How can I find a job as an accountant?

The key to finding a job in accounting is experience. Even a junior-level position can require two to three years of accounting experience. If you don’t yet have any experience, consider seeking internships or entry-level clerical work.

You can search for jobs with accounting consulting firms, but you may also find opportunities working in government, education, or health care.

How can I learn more about becoming an accountant?

There are several professional organizations for accountants, including the American Accounting Association, the Institute of Management Accountants, the National Society of Accountants, the American Institute of CPAs, the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the International Federation of Accountants. These and other organizations are dedicated to the advancement of the accounting profession and often provide education and career resources to those currently practicing and to those who are interested in learning about the field.

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