How to Become an Accountant - Education & Qualifications
An enormous number of major decisions come down to dollars and cents, and, in that regard, accountants are the ones who help people and businesses determine what’s possible.
At a core level, accountants prepare and examine financial records. But inside that cursory definition is a lot of potential for nuance. Accountants can specialize in tax matters; they can ferret out ways to improve a company’s operational processes; they can perform rigorous audits and financial evaluations; they can even on leadership roles as top corporate executives. The economy simply can’t run without accountants, which is part of the reason why the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job openings in accounting will grow 10 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding nearly 140,000 jobs.
But being a top-class accountant takes more than just a knack for numbers. There are numerous educational pathways to get started, but even outside of school, the learning never really stops. Accountants have more professional certifications than nearly all other professions—and knowing which acronyms to put at the end of your name can be a task in and of itself. If you’ve done the math on an accounting career and have decided to invest your time, read on to find our step-by-step guide to becoming an accountant.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Accountant
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, the first step for future accountants is to earn a bachelor’s degree. While there are several options to major in (e.g., finance, business, economics, statistics, math), the most direct path is to major in accounting. Admissions requirements will vary from school to school, but generally include the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater), SAT and/or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.
Purdue Global has a bachelor of science in accounting program that can be completed entirely online. Students may choose from four concentrations: auditing and forensic accounting; managerial accountancy; public accountancy; and tax accountancy. The curriculum covers general education, business, and accounting subjects, and contributes to the eligibility requirements for later certifications. The 180-credit program generally takes four years to complete.
The University of Southern California has an on-campus bachelor of science in accounting program that’s ranked seventh of all accounting programs in the U.S. It’s designed to prepare graduates for either immediate entry into the workforce or advancement to master’s-level programs. Students take accounting and business classes, as well as electives and core general education subjects. The 128- to 134-credit program generally takes four years to complete.
Step Two: Build Early Work Experience (Timeline Varies)
After earning a bachelor’s degree, it’s possible to find entry-level work as an accountant. At this stage it’s particularly beneficial to work under the supervision of a certified public accountant (CPA) if at all possible, as the experience will enhance one’s eligibility to take the CPA exam later on.
Early work experience can also inform one’s decision about what type of graduate-level education to pursue. And, depending on one’s employer, it’s possible to receive financial support for further schooling or licensure, making that early work experience an enticing investment.
Step Three: Earn a Master’s Degree (One to Two Years)
Earning a master’s degree is one of the easiest financial decisions an accountant is ever likely to make. While graduate-level education is not a requirement for accountants in all states, it’s an endeavor that reaps a significant return on investment: those who graduate with a master’s of business administration (MBA) earn double what they earned previously. Entrance requirements for master’s programs will vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater), GMAT or GRE scores, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and work experience.
Rutgers Business School offers an on-campus MBA with a concentration in professional accounting that makes students both eligible and prepared for the CPA exam upon graduation. The curriculum is broken down into accounting courses and business administration courses in equal measure. And it’s possible to add an additional certificate in audit analytics by taking just one extra course. Students can complete the 66-credit program in 14 months or more when taken full-time.
Maryville University has an MBA with a concentration in accounting that can be completed entirely online. Designed to prepare students for the CPA exam, the accounting curriculum covers areas like tax planning, financial statement analysis, forensic accounting, and strategic accounting. Meanwhile, students will still take part in the core MBA curriculum, learning broader business and management skills. The 39-credit program may be completed in 14 months.
Accountants who want a more focused education may choose instead to earn a master’s of accountancy (MAcc). Eschewing the broader business skills taught in MBA programs, MAcc programs prioritize accounting expertise above all else. The University of Scranton Kania School of Management has an AACSB-accredited MAcc program that can be completed entirely online. Every course in the curriculum is dedicated to accounting, and the electives dig in deep to issues like advanced taxation and regulation. Students may complete the 30-credit program in 10 months (full-time) or 20 months (part-time).
Step Four: Get Licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (18 Months)
After completing graduate-level education, a prudent step is to get licensed as a CPA. All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. The difference is one of education, experience, and opportunity. Earning a CPA license is a fundamental mark of distinction for accountants, and one which easily repays the time and money spent on acquiring it.
Each state has its own eligibility requirements for taking the CPA exam. Most require a bachelor’s degree that includes significant semester units in both accounting and business. And while the requirement to take the exam is usually only 120 credit-hours (the typical length of a four-year degree), the requirement for actual licensure is often 150 credit-hours. In addition, some amount of work experience is usually required; generally, one year of accounting experience. A state-by-state breakdown of precise eligibility requirements is available here.
Once deemed eligible, applicants will take the uniform CPA examination. It consists of four separate four-hour sections:
- Auditing and attestation (AUA)
- Business environment and concepts (BEC)
- Financial accounting and reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
Applicants have 18 months to complete and pass all four sections. Exam fees vary by state but cost approximately $200 per exam section. Far more expensive, however, are preparatory courses for the CPA exam, which may still be a worthwhile investment, given the short timeframe one has to pass all four sections while, presumably, maintaining their employment. Once they’ve earned their CPA, accountants will generally need to renew it by completing 40 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) per year.
The Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) also offers its own suite of advanced certifications. Accountants who already hold the CPA designation may become:
- Accredited in business valuation (ABV)
- Certified in financial forensics (CFF)
- A personal finance specialist (PFS)
- A certified information technology professional (CITP)
- Certified in entity and intangible valuations (CEIV)
- Certified in the valuation of financial instruments (CVFI)
The details of each credential’s corresponding exam, work experience requirements, and recertification vary but can be found on the AICPA’s website.
Step Five: Build Further Work Experience (Timeline Varies)
Once an accountant has been licensed as a CPA, it’s time to put all of one’s skills into practice. Work experience at this stage can be career-defining, as it’s where accountants solidify their specialization and build their resume for positions of enhanced responsibility. While a CPA license can establish an accountant as capable across a wide range of roles, it’s the practical work experience that comes afterward that will determine which niche of accounting they’ll become an expert in.
Step Six: Get Advanced Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After they’ve solidified their career trajectory and identified what niche of accounting they wish to specialize in, many accountants go on to pursue advanced certifications. In a profession that is built around trust and objectivity, advanced certifications from industry-recognized associations serve as reputational currency and they can significantly boost one’s salary and employment opportunities.
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) offers the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation. Accountants who hold this certification generally see a 20 to 30 percent salary increase. In order to meet eligibility requirements, applicants will need two years of work experience and either a bachelor’s degree or a professional accounting certification.
Once deemed eligible, applicants will take a two-part exam. Part one covers financial reporting, planning, performance, and control. Part two covers financial decision making. On average, it takes between 12 and 18 months to complete certification. Exam fees and entrance fees total $1,180. In order to maintain their certification, CMA holders will need to complete 30 hours of continuing education per year.
The IMA also offers the Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis (CSCA) designation. This is a specially designed credential for IMA members who hold the CMA designation, building upon its strategic planning and analysis skills. To earn the CSCA, applicants will need to pass a three-hour, 60-question multiple-choice test that also includes one case study. In the process of completing the exam and an associated preparatory course, applicants will gain over 50 continuing professional education (CPE) units. The exam fees are $375, and the preparatory course costs $525.
For accountants who are focused on internal auditing, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) provides the only globally recognized certification, the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) designation. In order to be eligible, applicants will need either a bachelor’s degree and two years of work experience, or a master’s degree and one year of work experience.
Alternatively, there is a practitioner-level CIA designation for those with only six months of work experience. All applicants must submit a character reference form signed by someone who holds a professional designation issued by the IIA. The CIA exam consists of three parts: the essentials of internal auditing; the practice of internal auditing; and business knowledge for internal auditing. Once certified, CIA-holders will need to earn a certain number of continuing education units that corresponds with the particulars of their practice. Further information can be found on the IIA’s website.
In addition to the CIA designation, the IIA offers other advanced certifications, which include: the certified government auditing professional (CGAP); the certified financial services auditor (CFSA); the certification in control self-assessment (CCSA); the certification in risk management assurance (CRMA); the certified process safety auditor (CPSA); the certified professional environmental auditor (CPEA); and the qualification in internal audit leadership (QIAL). The precise cost and eligibility requirements for each certification vary but can be found on the IIA’s website.
Helpful Resources for Accountants
Being an accountant requires a lot more than a calculator. Continuing education is crucial. Best practices, ethical standards, and governmental regulations are all subject to change. Professional societies and scholarly journals provide a platform where accountants can network, learn, share their experiences, and stay up to date. If you want to listen in on the conversation taking place between accountants, check out some of the resources below.