How to Become an Accountant

There are many reasons you may be interested in a career in accounting. Accounting is a potentially growing field, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting “faster than average growth” for accountant and auditor positions through 2026. In addition to this projected growth, accountants are employed across many industries, which may make it a flexible and varied profession. Because of all the different career paths and certification options, there isn’t necessarily a singular process for how to become an accountant.

The steps you take in becoming an accountant can vary based on the types of accounting positions you're interested in pursuing, the industry in which you plan to work, and your educational background. The good news is that the various certification processes for accountants and auditors may allow you to make a switch later in your career. Below, we cover some possible steps and considerations in becoming an accountant, from what type of degree to pursue to how to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), or certified auditor.

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Accountant Education Requirements and Certification Process

Education Track

The path to becoming an accountant can start with pursuing an accounting degree or a business degree with a concentration in accounting. For accountant positions, a bachelor's degree may be sufficient, but you may benefit from returning to school for a master’s degree.1 You might also want to consider an online accounting degree if you're planning to pursue your master's in accounting while working full-time.

While some programs may offer more specific majors—such as an internal auditing or bachelor of accounting degree—a bachelor's degree in business administration may fulfill education requirements for accounting or auditing certifications you may choose to pursue later in your career.1

Certifications and Professional Experience

Once you have earned your degree, you may need to gain some professional experience while preparing to become certified. This is a great time to start exploring your different career options and getting exposure to the different types of accounting and auditing roles you might like to pursue in the future. Not all accounting or auditor positions require you to be certified (different certifications are discussed below), and it is possible to have a successful career without any specific certifications. However, depending on the specific career path you choose to pursue, you may need to go on to get a particular certification to enable you to advance in your field.1

Continuing Education Requirements

Once you've obtained the relevant certifications for your field and position, you'll likely need to keep up on some level of continuing education requirements. Many certifications require you to complete a certain amount of ongoing education and training to keep up with changes and shifts in industry practices and regulations in order to maintain your certification each renewal period.

The steps you take in becoming an accountant can vary based on the types of accounting positions you're interested in pursuing, the industry in which you plan to work, and your educational background.

Accounting Certifications

If you're researching how to become an accountant, you've probably encountered some of the following certifications, such as the CPA and CMA designations. In some cases, a certification may be required in order to get certain positions in your field—like how any accountant filing reports with the SEC must be a registered CPA. However, in other cases, these certifications may simply be a logical extension of educational training and work experience, and may even help in standing out with employers.1

While there are other certifications you may choose to pursue depending on your field and position, below are some of the common and relevant programs:

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

Those interested in working in tax accounting or with financial documents that must be filed with the IRS or SEC may want to consider becoming a CPA. Certified public accountants must pass the Uniform CPA Exam through the AICPA before applying for a license through their state's Board of Accountancy. Once certified, most states require CPAs to maintain some level of continuing education in order to retain their license.1, (Read more on how to become a CPA below.)

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) offers the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation for management accountants and those working in financial roles. To qualify for certification, you must have your bachelor's degree in accounting from an accredited college or university and must have at least two years of professional experience in management accounting or financial management.3

Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)

The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) offers a number of certifications for auditors working in various fields. For those intending to work as an auditor for a private business or large corporation, the Certified Internal Auditor designation acts as a marker of competency and experience in the field. In order to become certified, you must have a three or four-year post-secondary degree and at least two years of professional internal auditing experience. (For those with an advanced degree and/or significant professional experience, some of these requirements may be waived or reduced.4)

Forensic Accounting Certifications

For licensed CPAs working in forensic accounting, fraud detection, cyber security or litigation, there are two primary certifications available. The AICPA grants the Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) credential to current CPAs with at least 1,000 hours of forensic accounting experience and 75 hours of forensic accounting-related continuing professional development (CPD) within the past five years. (Applicants must pass the CFF Exam.5)

Additionally, the American Board of Forensic Accounting offers the Certified Forensic Accountant (CRFAC) designation for current CPAs looking to further specialize in forensic accounting. Applicants must have a currently valid CPA license, a bachelor's degree, and at least two years of qualifying professional experience.6

Male Accountant

CPA Exam

The first and possibly the most important step in becoming a CPA is to ensure you meet all the educational and professional requirements to take the Uniform CPA Exam. While the contents of the exam are the same regardless of where you take it, each state has different prerequisites (most of which include at least two years of public accounting experience, but which may also involve a specific number of credit hours completed during the course of your degree program).1, 2

The CPA exam consists of four parts: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG). Each section contains a mix of multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBSs) and written communication tasks.7 This means that while some questions will simply ask you to select the correct answer from several options, others will require you to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of the complex processes and skills required to complete certain accounting-related tasks.

Since you'll likely be required to have at least two years of professional public accounting experience before you can test, you should have plenty of time to prepare for the CPA exam.2 In addition to staying up-to-date on all the latest, most relevant laws, regulations, and accounting tools, you can also review exam blueprints and study materials in advance on the AICPA's website.

Types of Accountants

When you start studying for how to become an accountant, pay particular attention to the types of tasks and processes you're best at and those you most enjoy. Accounting is a broad field with many different areas of practice, and you may find that you're drawn to a particular type of accountant role.

The main types of accounting include:1

  • Auditor – Auditors review financial statements for accuracy and completeness. They may work within an organization (internal auditors) or can be employed by outside agencies (external auditors), and are typically responsible for checking for mismanagement, fraud, or errors in the records.
  • Public Accountant – Public accountants work with both businesses and individuals to help prepare legally required financial documents. This often involves tax forms but may also include financial statements submitted to the SEC and reports required to be made available to investors. (Many public accountants are CPAs, but not all.)
  • Forensic Accountant – Forensic accountants investigate financial statements, transaction histories, bankruptcy documents and other complex records to determine if financial crimes have occurred. They may be employed by an organization to investigate and monitor internal records and transactions, though many work with law enforcement to help gather and assess evidence of alleged criminal activity.

Accountant Career Paths

Just as your options for how to become an accountant can be fairly flexible and varied, the range of career paths open to accountants can be broad and extend into many different fields. Below are some—but certainly not all—positions you may choose to pursue as an accountant.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

We've already discussed options for becoming a CPA above, but it's worth mentioning again as it's a common position with quite a bit of flexibility for job growth.1 Certified Public Accountants may also have options as to whether they want to work for a large accounting firm, establish their own practice, or work as an internal accountant or financial officer for a single company.

Tax Examiner

While people sometimes think of CPAs as tax accountants, tax examiners deal exclusively with tax returns, audits and collections. In addition to helping prepare tax returns and all supporting documents, they might also consult on applicable credits and deductions to help individuals and businesses maximize their returns or even work for the IRS assessing and auditing returns once they're filed.8

Management Accountant

Rather than working on public, legally required tax documents, management accountants help prepare and analyze a company's internal financial records. They work closely with management on budget planning, cost and expense analysis, investment decisions, and other financial matters.1

Management Analyst/Consultant

Management analysts help businesses improve the cost-efficiency of their internal processes and workflows as well as product or service offerings. Typically working as outside consultants, they use their knowledge of accounting principles to analyze a company's financial statements, expenditures, employee costs, and revenue streams. They then present their findings to upper management and make recommendations for how to improve efficiency and profitability.9

Financial Analyst or Consultant

If you're looking for a way to apply your knowledge of accounting processes to investments and financial management, a career as a financial analyst is one choice. Financial analysts consult with individuals and/or businesses to help assess their immediate and long-term financial health. After evaluating financial statements, tax returns, and expenditures and investments, an analyst helps their clients plan for future expenses and advises on when and where to invest additional income.10

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1. "Accountants and Auditors." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm (Visited 11/22/17).
2. "CPA Licensure." Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Retrieved from: https://www.aicpa.org/becomeacpa/licensure.html (Visited 11/25/17).
3. “CMA Handbook.” The Institute of Management Accountants. Retrieved from: https://www.imanet.org/-/media/6f64b804887641d880afef2178a44b9c.ashx (Visited 11/25/17).
4. "Certified Internal Auditor® (CIA®) Eligibility Requirements." The Institute of Internal Auditors. Retrieved from: https://na.theiia.org/certification/CIA-Certification/Pages/Eligibility-Requirements.aspx (Visited 11/25/17).
5. "CFF Eligibility Requirements." Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Retrieved from: https://www.aicpa.org/membership/join/cff-eligibility-requirements.html (Visited 11/25/17).
6. "Becoming a Certified Forensic Accountant® [CRFAC®]." American Board of Forensic Accounting. Retrieved from: http://abfa.us/becoming-a-certified-forensic-accountant (Visited 11/25/17).
7. "Uniform CPA Examination Structure." Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Retrieved from: https://www.aicpa.org/content/dam/aicpa/becomeacpa/cpaexam/downloadabledocuments/next-cpa-exam-structure-white-paper.pdf (Visited 11/25/17).
8. “Tax Examiners and Collectors, and Revenue Agents.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/tax-examiners-and-collectors-and-revenue-agents.htm (Visited 11/22/17).
9. "Management Analysts." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/management-analysts.htm (Visited 11/22/17).
10. "Financial Analysts." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/financial-analysts.htm (Visited 11/22/17).

For important information about the educational debt, earnings, and completion rates of students who attended these programs, go to www.aiuniv.edu/disclosures . AIU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Financial aid is available for those who qualify.

AIU does not guarantee third-party certifications. AIU’s degree programs are not designed to prepare students for the CPA examination or any other certification exam. Certification requirements for taking and passing certification examinations are not controlled by AIU but by outside agencies and are subject to change by the agencies without notice to AIU. Therefore, AIU cannot guarantee that graduates will be eligible to take certification examinations, regardless of their eligibility status upon enrollment.
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