How to Become an Accountant

To become an accountant, you'll need a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a field such as accounting, finance, or business. If you want to earn a designation, you will also need to meet certification requirements. These include additional coursework specific to the profession, working a certain number of professional hours, and you must pass a qualifying exam.

 

This profession is not for everyone: it requires a lot of coursework and practical experience to earn a mid or senior-level job, it favours logic and analysis over creativity, and it requires a rigid commitment to the profession. If you want to become an accountant, you should determine if this career path is a good fit for your skills, interests and personality traits.

 

Does the following describe you?

 

• You are able to read through many pages of documentation and spot discrepancies

• You have the ability to the ability to analyze, compare, and interpret facts and figures

• You are able to pay close attention to detail, for long periods of time

• You are highly ethical, punctual, presentable, and well-mannered

• You are willing to work long hours, especially at the end of each month

• You enjoy having clear rules and methods for your work

• You are interested in a career path that offers room for growth into executive management

• You are willing to pursue certification that can take an additional 2-3 years after your bachelor’s degree

 

Below we've outlined what you'll need to begin a career as an accountant. We've also included helpful information for this career, such as salary expectations, an outline of the skills you’ll need, educational requirements, a list of possible employer types, and much more!

 

 

Education Needed for This Profession

The educational requirements for becoming an accountant can vary quite a bit from being a basic accountant, to an accountant with a higher designation, such as a CPA. Either way, to get started you'll likely need an undergraduate degree in one of the following fields:

 

• Accounting

• Auditing

• Business/Commerce

• Finance

• Taxation

 

Having a degree in one of the above-mentioned fields will qualify you to work in many entry-level, and some mid-level accounting jobs within various organizations. However qualifying for many mid-level and most senior-level jobs in accounting, you will need an accounting designation.

 

Having a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field is considered the minimum education requirement for those who plan to become an accountant with a designation.

 

Earning an accounting designation typically requires the completion of advanced coursework beyond the scope of a bachelor’s degree. This typically includes coursework in areas such as financial reporting, taxes, auditing and other areas of business. To earn your designation, you will also likely require a certain amount of professional work experience, and you must pass a certification exam.

 

Success Tip: If you plan on earning a designation, you are strongly advised to check specific requirements and course suitability with the appropriate professional association, institute, or society before enrolling in a post-secondary program.

 

 

 

 

Skills Needed to Be Successful

While being able to work with numbers is important, you don't need advanced skills in mathematics to become an accountant. Below is an overview of the skills you’ll need:

 

Analytical Skills: Accountants must be able to review many pages of documentation and identify issues, as well as provide recommendations as to how to fix those issues. For example, public accountants apply analytical skills to minimize the tax liability of their clients and employers.

 

Communication Skills: Accountants must be able to listen carefully to facts and concerns from clients, managers, and other stakeholders. Accountants must also be able to communicate the results of their work and recommendations in meetings and in written reports.

 

Close Attention to Detail: Accountants must pay attention to detail when compiling and examining documentation, as well as when preparing reports. Accountants must also be able to do so with stamina, as they may have several documents and reports to work with during a given day.

 

Math and Logic Skills: You do not need complex math skills if you want to become an accountant. You do however, need the ability to analyze, compare, and interpret facts and figures, as well as spot discrepancies.

 

Organizational Skills: These professionals also need exceptional organizational skills, as they often work with a wide range of financial documents for a variety of clients. If not properly organized, the work of an accountant can quickly become very inefficient, resulting in mistakes, duplicate work, and ultimately a loss of clientele.

 

 

Characteristics & Traits Needed

To enjoy working in this field, you need certain personal traits and characteristics, including:

 

• High ethical standards

• Willing to work long hours, especially during the end of each month

• Enjoy having clear rules and organized methods to guide work activities

• Enjoy working with and completing complex reports

• Enjoy developing innovative solutions to problems

• Enjoy working independently

• Enjoy advising others in an area in which you are knowledgeable

 

 

Certification Needed

In order to qualify for specific designations, accountants must meet certain requirements. Below is an overview of these requirements:

 

 

Certified Public Accountant (CPA) - United States

To become a CPA in the United States, you must meet requirements that are set out by your state’s Board of Accountancy, which may differ from state to state.

 

Almost all states require CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college coursework to be certified, which is 30 hours more than the usual 4-year bachelor’s degree. Many schools offer a 5-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree to meet the 150-hour requirement, but a master’s degree is not required.

 

Becoming a CPA in the United States also requires passing a national exam and meeting other state requirements, which may include completing a certain number of professional working hours.  

 

All states use the four-part Uniform CPA Examination from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). CPA candidates do not have to pass all four parts at once, but most states require that they pass all four parts within 18 months of successfully completing their first part.


 

Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) - Canada

To become a CPA in Canada, you first need to have an undergraduate degree. Your degree can be in any field, although a degree in Accounting, Finance or Business will give you an advantage, as they are likely to include all of your pre-requisites.

 

If your degree does not include the pre-requisite coursework, you can either pursue it at an accredited post-secondary institution, or you can take it through your local CPA Association’s PREP course, which takes around 2 years to complete on a part-time basis. To become a CPA in Canada, you also need to complete 30 months of practical work experience, and pass a series of qualifying exams.

 

 

Deciding Your Career Direction: Different Types of Accountants

The term “Accountant” may refer to many different types of accountants: those with specific designations, as well as those who are not certified. There are notable differences among different types of accountants, such as:

 

• The level of competence they can demonstrate in certain areas of accounting

• The level of responsibility, and pay, they can have in their work

• The limitations of tasks they can perform

 

Below is a brief overview of the types of accountants in Canada and the United States:

 

Non-certified Accountant - Canada and United States: Accountants who are not certified may find entry and mid-level jobs within the accounting departments of a variety of organizations. They are often authorized to perform certain limited tasks, such as the preparation of financial statements. They may not, however, conduct audits or review financial statements.

 

Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) - Canada: The CPA designation is the new standard for professional accounting in Canada. The Chartered Professional Accountant credential represents the highest level of integrated accounting and strategic management experience. CPA’s have competencies in financial reporting, audit, taxation, management accounting, finance and strategy.

 

Certified Public Accountant (CPA) - United States: CPA’s can perform all of the same tasks as a non-certified accountant, however in addition they may conduct audits, review statements, and represent clients before the IRS.

 


 

 

Choosing an Area of Specialty

Most accountants choose an area in which to specialize. Their choice may be based on a number of factors, including:

 

• Personal preference

• The needs of their employer

• The availability of job opportunities

• The specific educational path they have taken

 

The two general areas of specialization are public accounting, and corporate/business accounting. A number of sub-specializations within each of these areas also exist. These sub-specializations may include:

 

Assurance: Assurance services can include review of any kind of financial document or transaction, such as a loan or a contract. This assurance review certifies the correctness and validity of the item being reviewed by the accountant.

 

Corporate Treasury: Involves the monitoring of all projected cash inflows and outflows of an organization, in order to ensure that there is sufficient cash to fund company operations, as well as to ensure that excess cash is properly invested. Corporate treasurers must also ensure that existing assets are safeguarded through the use of safe forms of investment and hedging activities.

 

External Auditing: External auditors are independent 3rd parties who are responsible for the examination of financial statements, with the purpose of expressing an opinion as to fairness of presentation and compliance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

 

Financial Accounting: Financial accountants keep track of a company’s financial transactions. Using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the transactions are recorded, summarized, and presented in a financial report or financial statement that is available to certain stakeholders, such as management, lenders, shareholders, and others.

 

Fiduciary Accounting: Involves the handling of accounts managed by a person entrusted with the custody and management of property of or for the benefit of another person. Examples of this type of accounting include trust accounting, receivership, and estate accounting.

 

Forensic Accounting: Involves investigating and interpreting bankruptcies and other complex financial transactions.

 

Internal Auditing: Internal auditors are concerned with evaluating and improving the effectiveness of risk management, control and governance processes within an organization.

 

Management Accounting: Involves recording and analyzing a corporation's financial information in addition to budgeting, performance evaluation, cost management, and asset management.

 

Public Accounting: Accountants that specialize in this area perform a broad range of accounting, auditing, tax, and consulting activities for clients, who may be corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, or individuals.

 

Risk Assessment: Involves determining the likelihood that a specified negative event will occur with regards to undertaking a new venture; what rate of return is required to prudently make a particular investment; or how to mitigate an activity's potential losses.

 

Tax Accounting: Accountants that specialize in taxation are responsible for ensuring that their clients or employers (organizations and individuals) are following legislated rules when preparing and submitting their tax returns. The tax accountant may be the person preparing the tax documents and returns, or they may simply provide consultation to their client or employer. 

 

 

Who Employs Accountants?

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what skills, education and certification you’ll need to get into this field, you can begin to start thinking about where you want to work.

 

Most accountants work full-time, although some jobs are on a part-time, or even contractual basis, for the following types of organizations:

 

• Publicly owned and privately owned businesses

• Professional service offices, such as legal offices

• Municipal, provincial/state and federal government agencies

• Management consultant practices

• Corporate and personal tax preparation offices

• Banks and financial institutions

• Manufacturing and distribution companies

• Stock exchanges

• Credit offices

• Public accounting practices

• Educational institutions

• Self-employment

 

 

 

Putting it all Together: Steps for Becoming an Accountant

To sum all of this up, here are the essential steps you’ll need to take to become an accountant:

 

 

Step 1 - Check if you’re well suited

Are you willing to work long hours? Are you interested in a well-paying career that involves a lot of number crunching? Can you handle working in front of a computer for long periods of time? If most of your answers started with a “y”, then you’re on the right track. 

 

Step 2 - Get an undergraduate degree 

You’ll need to start with an undergraduate degree in accounting, or a very closely related field, such as finance. This will enable you to earn the skills and competencies you’ll need, while also acting as a prerequisite for professional certification.

 

Step 3 - Choose an area of specialty

While you’re in school, you’ll be exposed to various specialized areas of accounting, such as taxation, public accounting, fiduciary accounting, management accounting, and many others. This will give a chance to find out the areas in which you have skills and interest. 

 

Step 4 - Get relevant experience 

While you're in school, you should consider gaining experience in accounting, such as working as a bookkeeper, accounting technician, or as a junior accountant. This will help you decide if this field really is for you, as well as help you develop contacts and valuable experience for your resume. 

 

Step 5 - Get a job after graduation

Now that you’ve earned your degree, and you have an idea of what area of accounting you wish to specialize in (hopefully), the next thing to do is to start working in the real world. It’s also worth pointing out that you likely won’t be able to achieve professional designation without a few years worth of experience as a junior and/or mid-level accountant. 

 

Step 6 - Get certified 

Getting certification, such as the CPA designation, can really help advance your career by qualifying you for senior-level roles, and by showing potential employers and/or clients that you have met the highest professional competence standards of the industry.

 

 

 


 

 

Details of the Work: Job Description

Accountants are responsible for providing financial consulting and reporting services to individuals and organizations. Their main function is to compile and examine financial records and documentation, and to present recommendations and prepare reports based on their findings. 

 

 

General Job Duties

• Examine financial statements to ensure that they are accurate and comply with laws and regulations

• Suggest ways for organizations to reduce costs, enhance revenues, and improve profits

• Prepare or consult for budgets, tax returns, financial statements and other reports

• Prepare sales and income tax returns for individuals and businesses

• Provide support in matters pertaining to litigation

• Provide internal or external auditing services

• Assist with financial strategies

• Assess financial operations and make best-practices recommendations to management

• Maintain knowledge of current taxation legislation

 

 

Typical Salary Level in This Field

It’s important to know what kind of salary you can anticipate when setting out to become an accountant for several reasons: you’ll want to know if you’ll be able to re-pay your student loans; you’ll want to know what kind of lifestyle your salary will be able to afford you; and many other reasons.

 

The salary level you could earn in this profession can vary quite widely, depending on the following factors:

 

• Your level of education

• Your level of accreditation and certification

• Your field of specialty (if applicable)

• The level of responsibility inherent in your job

• The size and type of your employer

• The region in which you will work

 

Typical Salary Level - Alberta: According to the 2015 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, Albertans working in the Financial Auditors and Accountants occupational group earn an average salary of $85,631 per year.

 

United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary level of American workers in the Accountants and Auditors occupational group is $67,190 per year. The lowest 10% of salaries in this group are below than $39,930 per year, and the top 10% are above $111,510.

 

 

Accountant Jobs

Our job board below has "Accountant" postings in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Career Advancement Possibilities

Having career mobility is important to many people. A career in accounting offers such mobility. Typically, those who work hard and show competence and dedication in their work will put themselves in a great position to advance to a position of greater responsibility and higher pay.

 

Accountants may advance to management positions or teach at the post-secondary level. Those working in public accounting firms can move up to take on bigger accounts, or become managers and partners. In private industry, accountants can become:

 

• Controllers

• Treasurers

• Chief financial officers (CFO's)

• Senior executives

 

 

Typical Work Environment

Working Conditions: Many accountants spend a good part of their day working independently in front of a computer. They may spend some time during the day attending meetings with co-workers, management, or clients. Their work is often quite demanding, especially during month-end and tax season, when there are financial reports and tax-returns to complete.

 

Work Setting: Accountants typically work in an office setting. It is also not uncommon for self-employed accountants to work out of a home office. Depending on the needs of their employers or clients, they may be required to travel from time to time.

 

Working Hours: These professionals typically work normal, weekday working hours. Their schedules can vary widely however, depending on their level of responsibility within an organization, as well as during certain times of the year. For example, most accountants work overtime at month-end, and also in late-winter and early spring.

 

 

Similar Occupations in Our Database

Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Accountant, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.

 

Auditor

Controller

Cost Analyst

Financial Advisor

Financial Analyst

 

 

References for this Career Guide

The following resources were drawn from in the preparation of this How to Become an Accountant career guide:

 

• “Occupational Profile: Accountant.” (n.d.). Alberta Government - Alberta Learning Information Service. Retrieved August 12, 2016.

• “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Accountants and Auditors.” (May, 2015). United States Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved August 12, 2016.

• “What is a CPA?.” (n.d.). Chartered Professional Accountants British Columbia. Retrieved August 12, 2016.

 

 

Scholarships for Relevant Majors

Looking for scholarships to help you on your way to gaining the necessary education? We’ve got you covered! Here's how to find the best-suited scholarships:

 

• On academicinvest.com, our scholarship listings are sorted by major

• The “Applicable Majors” section below shows what majors apply to this career

• Scholarships for becoming an accountant can be found on our Accounting Scholarships and Finance Scholarships pages

 

 

Relevant Majors

Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point to becoming an Accountant. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!

 


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