How to Become an Accountant

Accountant working on a messy desk wearing a blazer
Updated:
April 26, 2024
6 min read
Expert Reviewed
Contents

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Numbers, spreadsheets, financial reports, and tax returns—if any of these pique your interest, read on to learn more about the field of accounting!

Albert Einstein is regarded as one of the most intelligent individuals the world has ever seen. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity and published hundreds of complex scientific papers that would have most readers scratching their heads. 

There was, however, one topic that even Albert Einstein struggled with—income tax. In fact, Albert Einstein was quoted saying that it's “the hardest thing in the world to understand…” It’s a sentiment many of us can agree with!

But, if you are someone who disagrees, or is intrigued to thoroughly understand this subject that confounded one of the world’s greatest geniuses, you may want to consider a career as an accountant! As one of the top 12 degrees, receiving a professional education in accounting is an excellent idea. This guide will explain how to become an accountant, what their roles entail, and career outlook.

What Does An Accountant Do?

Understanding how to become an accountant is one part of a three-part equation. The second part is exploring their roles so that you have a realistic idea of what your day-to-day life will look like in this field. 

The main tasks accountants are responsible for include:

  • Preparing and maintaining financial reports
  • Ensuring the accuracy of documents and their compliance with relevant regulations and laws
  • Preparing tax returns and ensuring taxes are paid on time and accurately
  • Offering guidance on cost reduction, risk management, revenue enhancement, and profit maximization
  • Evaluating financial operations to identify and help rectify any issues, to recommend best practices, and finding ways to help organizations run more efficiently
  • Maintaining accurate records of money that enters and leaves organizations
  • Maintaining informations systems for financial data
  • Processing payroll and financial statements
  • Conducting forecasting and risk analysis assessments

Types of Accountants

When thinking about becoming an accountant, there are several specialties that can center one’s career:

  • Cost Accountants: professionals who evaluate operational costs to assist companies increase their profits
  • Tax Accountants: professionals who help individuals and businesses with their taxes by preparing documents, advising on tax strategies, and identifying tax credits and deductions while considering all relevant regulations
  • Staff Accountants: professionals that take on various roles within a corporation, including recordkeeping, accounting duties, processing payroll, and preparing financial statements
  • Managerial Accountants: professionals who analyze and interpret a company’s financial data so they can help shape the best financial strategy and operational decisions
  • Certified Public Accountants (CPA): professionals who are the primary overseers of a business’s financial data. They can be considered financial advisors and may be responsible for audits, tax prep, and litigation services
  • Auditors: professionals responsible for examining and evaluating financial records, statements, and other documents to ensure their accuracy, compliance with relevant laws and regulations, and reliability. Auditors play a critical role in assuring stakeholders, including shareholders, investors, creditors, and the general public, that an organization's financial information is trustworthy and fairly presented. 
  • Forensic Accountants: professionals who apply financial expertise, investigative skills, and legal knowledge to analyze and uncover financial fraud, misconduct, or irregularities. They are crucial in legal proceedings, investigations, and dispute resolutions. 
  • Government Accountants: professionals who are often referred to as public accountants or government auditors, work within government agencies at various levels (local, state, or federal) to manage financial records, and budgets, and ensure compliance with government accounting and financial reporting standards.

Some accountants may choose to work in a particular sector, such as health, business, nonprofits, tech, or government organizations.

female office worker with binder open

6 Steps in Becoming an Accountant

As you learn more about this profession, you may be wondering “How long does it take to become an accountant?” Preparing accurate financial reports requires a high level of knowledge and skill. 

If accountants make the wrong calculations or file inaccurate taxes, people can end up missing out on deductions and credits, owe more money to the IRS, or face financial penalties. To avoid this, accountants spend at least four to five years in training to be adequately prepared for the field. Here are the steps involved in this training:

Step One: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming an accountant is getting into college. You will need to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in accounting or business. Accounting degrees are generally preferred because they provide students with more targeted foundational skills and knowledge.

These programs typically take four years to complete. Considering many accountants are CPA certified, students tend to opt for combined accounting degrees that include both a bachelor’s and master's in accounting. 

This program takes five years to complete and provides students with the necessary credits to sit for their CPA exam, which we will discuss further in this guide. 

Step Two: Join Internships or Co-ops

While students complete their education they should pursue accounting internships to begin gaining experience in the field and honing the skills required to thrive in it. These internships will enable you to expand your network and build professional connections that can help you secure a full-time position. 

Your internship can also turn into full-time employment if you prove you’re an asset to the team! 

Step Three: Decide if You Want to Specialize in the Field

The most successful business employees of any field typically specialize in a given field. This elevates their “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” identification to someone who is a master at their craft. You can specialize in the field by continuing your education in a streamlined area.

Some examples of specialized accountants include management accounting, public accounting, and forensic accounting. Focusing on any of these fields will help you become a specialized accountant.

Step Four: Consider Getting CPA Licensed

While not all accountants are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), these professionals have more expertise and can perform more complex duties than regular accountants. Accordingly, CPAs are more marketable and sought after by employers.

Depending on the state you live in, you will have to meet certain requirements to become CPA-certified. Most states require candidates to have 150 semester hours of education. Typical four-year bachelor’s degrees are only 120 semester hours. 

While the most popular way for students to receive the extra 30 credits is to enroll in a five-year professional accounting program that combines a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in accounting, there are other ways to meet this requirement:

  • Combining an undergraduate accounting degree with a master’s degree at the same school or a different one
  • Combining an undergraduate degree in a different discipline with a master’s in accounting or an MBA with a concentration in accounting

On top of these educational requirements, students must pass an exam which involves four sections:

  • Auditing and attestation
  • Business environment and concepts
  • Financial accounting and reporting
  • Regulation

This exam is known to be rigorous and challenging! Students are recommended to study at least 300–400 hours to prepare for it. To officially gain their CPA designation, accountants must also have at least two years of public accounting experience. The majority of accountants are actively employed as they study for and write the CPA.

Step Five: Consider Other Certifications

Becoming a CPA might not be the best path for you. Depending on your goals and areas of expertise, other accounting certifications may be more useful for you. These certifications can help enhance your career and get promotions and raises.

Here are some of the best accounting certifications:

  • Certified Financial Analyst (CFA): to train and prepare professionals for a career in finances and investing, particularly on Wall Street or for investment funds
  • Certified Management Analyst (CMA): designed for accountants interested in management and executive level roles for mainly private companies such as the Fortune 500 
  • Enrolled Agent (EA): a credential given through the IRS to demonstrate one’s knowledge in US tax code and its applications, best for those trying to outsmart Einstein!
  • Certified Internal Audit (CIA): strictly for compliance officers and auditors that typically work in large companies 
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA): for professionals working in information systems, with emphasis on control, security, and auditing
  • Certified Accounts Payable Specialist (CAPS): to educate professionals on the Accounts Payable process so they can become more risk aware 

It is not uncommon for accountants to hold several certifications throughout their careers. As you gain more experience in accounting, your interests may shift or you may want to gain more comprehensive training to qualify for more jobs!

Step Six: Get a Job as an Accountant

And that’s it! This is your final step! You’ve already done the hard part up until now, so this step should be relatively smooth as you acquire what you’ve been working towards.

Remember that a vital part of becoming an accountant is networking, like any other field of business. At every step of your journey, you should be looking for chances to market yourself and grow your network. Attend social events, contact previous employers who hired you as an intern, and ask if they’re looking for work. Get your skills noticed!

accountant holding cash

What Skills Do You Need to Be An Accountant?

Honing the following skills will not only ensure you’re prepared to become an accountant, but that you can be the most efficient and marketable accountant possible:

  • Attention to detail: to ensure financial statements, reports, and tax documents are accurate and comply with company, local, state, and federal regulations
  • Analytical thinking: to effectively analyze risk and predict and financial concerns 
  • Communication: to coordinate with other team members on projects and to explain complex reports to clients
  • Software savvy: accountants use various software to perform their job
  • Mathematically inclined: excellent math skills are required to prepare and analyze financial statements
  • Organization: to keep a record of all financial information so that it is easily accessible 

If you possess these skills and are willing to continue enhancing them throughout your education and career, you will be set for a prosperous career in accountancy!

Accountant Salary and Job Outlook

The final part of the accounting equation is your career outlook! Considering the field of accounting is diverse and relevant to almost every sector, accountants are in steady demand. The job market for these professionals is expected to increase by around 4% by 2032, with thousands of new job openings each year.

Your next question might be, “How much do accountants make?” and we have the answer! On average, accountants make $79,880 a year, but their salary tends to increase with their experience.

Job Title Job Level Salary Range
Budget Analyst Intermediate $71,338
Accountant Intermediate $74,240
Financial Analyst Intermediate $85,944
Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Intermediate $70,235
Tax Accountant Intermediate $64,394
Auditor Intermediate $64,914
Cost Accountant Intermediate $68,624
Senior Accountant Senior $92,541
Senior Financial Analyst Senior $105,249
Controller Senior $141,166
Finance Director Senior $160,365
Vice President of Finance Senior $198,004
Chief Financial Office Senior $228,698

Should I Become a CPA and What are the Requirements?

Pros Cons
Increased Career Opportunities Due to High Demand Challenging Certification Process
Higher Earning Potential, Average Salary of $91,000 Continuing Education Requirements
Professional Recognition Workload and Stress
Many Career Paths
(private, government, non-profit, entrepreneurship sector)
Cost
Personal Growth 50% Pass Rate on the Exam

Deciding to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) involves weighing professional growth and opportunities against the time-consuming journey of certification. CPAs are highly sought after in various sectors, from public accounting to corporate finance, to the government and non-profit sector, offering advanced career prospects and higher earning potential. The respect and recognition that come with the CPA designation underscore its value. 

However, aspiring CPAs must pursue a bachelor's degree with 150 semester hours, typically more than a standard four-year degree, and pass the 16-hour Uniform CPA Examination. Additionally, gaining relevant accounting experience under a licensed CPA, which varies from one to two years depending on the state, and meeting ethics requirements in some regions are essential steps. 

Despite the financial and time investment, not to mention the potential for high workload and stress, especially during peak periods like tax season, the pursuit of a CPA license can be an excellent choice for those dedicated to a career in accounting and finance. This journey also includes a dedication to continued education, as CPAs are required to complete Continuing Professional Education (CPE) to maintain their certification, making sure they remain at the forefront of the field.

acountant with client

FAQs: How to Become an Accountant

While we’ve covered the basics of how to become an accountant, you may still have some questions about this field! To answer these inquiries, here are the most frequently asked questions:

1. How Long Does It Take to Become An Accountant?

The time it takes depends on the educational path you choose. For instance, if you choose to complete an undergrad and then a master’s degree separately, it will take you six years to reach your accounting goals. This excludes the time you’ll spend interning before you can independently practice accountancy. 

On the other hand, if you complete a professional accounting program that combines an undergrad and a master’s, it will only take five years to become an accountant. These two options are most common because they allow you to meet the educational requirements to become a CPA.

For students who do not plan on becoming CPAs, a four-year Bachelor’s degree in accounting can suffice to join the field. 

2. What Qualifications Do You Need to Become An Accountant 

At the minimum, you will need a Bachelor’s degree in accounting or business and some field experience to grow in the field of accounting.

3. How Much Do Accountants Make?

Accountants make around $79,880 a year on average. However, the top 10% of accountants make upwards of $130,000.

4. How Do I Start an Accounting Career?

To start your accounting career, you will first need to obtain the necessary education. Depending on whether or not you want to become a CPA, this will take four to six years. Once you have gained the necessary training, you will have to apply it by gaining experience in the field.

5. What Is the Fastest Way to Become an Accountant?

CPAs are the most sought-after accountants, so the fastest way to enter the field is to complete a professional, five-year accounting program that will ensure you meet the education requirements to write your CPA exam. 

You should also pursue internship or co-op experience while you’re completing your education so that you can enter the field as soon as you graduate.

6. How Can I Prepare For an Accounting Career In High School?

The best way to prepare for a career in accounting while you’re in high school is to take IB or AP classes in mathematics and economics and participate in useful extracurriculars, like DECA, to develop your business and finance skills. 

Final Thoughts

Apparently, it does take a genius to understand taxes—just not Albert Einstein. If you’re prepared to complete the extensive curriculums and certifications to join this field, an accountant may be the perfect career for you! 

We hope after reading this article that you’re more confident about how to become an accountant. There is significant room for growth in this company, and your opportunities will only increase as you gain more experience and expertise as an accountant!

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