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How to Choose an Accounting Career Path

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With so many different paths to take in accounting, it can be difficult to know which one is right for you. We’ve broken down some of the most common career paths to give you a sense of what each job in this industry looks like. 

In this guide, we’ll go over: 

Accounting Career Paths

Certified Public Accountant (CPA) 

As a CPA, accountants can work in taxation or government accounting roles, as well as for the Big Four accounting firms (like Deloitte). CPAs may work on things like tax preparation, consulting, and financial planning. 

“As a CPA, you’ll be able to work with clients in a variety of industries and environments, from large multinational corporations to nonprofits and even government agencies,” Bryan Sharpe, senior accountant at Solar Panels Network USA, says.  

CPAs typically have a degree in accounting and have passed a standardized exam, administered by the American Institute of CPAs. Having a CPA license signifies industry knowledge and credibility, making it a popular career path for accountants. 

“The CPA designation also comes with a lot of prestige, as CPAs are seen as experts in their field,” Sharpe notes.  

Learn more about the Certified Public Accountant career path

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

For those with an accounting background who want to focus on corporate finance, getting a certified management accountant (CMA) license can be a great choice. CMAs focus on financial accounting and managing a company’s money. While CPAs have a strong focus on summarizing and reporting financial information, CMAs handle corporate strategy and find meaningful insights in the financial data.

“This can be a great choice if you enjoy data analysis and digging into the numbers, but it can also mean less interaction with clients, since CMA designation holders aren’t typically involved in building relationships with their clients,” says Sharpe. 

Accountants interested in a career path in corporate finance may also consider becoming chartered financial analysts (CFAs). CMAs have a good foundation of knowledge, making it easier to go after a CFA certification. As a CFA, an accountant can work for some of the largest investment banking firms and expand their financial analysis skills to investing, economics, and portfolio management

>>EXPLORE: Learn more about working as an analyst in corporate finance with JPMorgan’s Corporate Analyst Development Program Experience.

Tax Accountant

An accounting career path in tax means specializing in filing tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Successful tax accountants know state, local, and federal laws and regulations on taxes like the backs of their hands. 

The clients for a tax accountant can range from individuals to large corporations to government organizations. Beyond filing tax returns, tax accountants may also work with their clients to streamline finances and locate areas of improvement or opportunities to save money. 

You typically need a CPA license to work as a tax accountant, and some choose to get an Enrolled Agent (EA) designation, which allows them to legally represent clients to the IRS.  

>>EXPLORE: Experience this career path with KPMG’s Tax Virtual Experience Program

Auditor

An auditor reviews a client’s financial statements and ensures that all financial information is recorded accurately according to tax laws. Clients for auditors are typically large public companies, who are required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to conduct regular reviews by third-party auditors. 

However, individuals, government organizations, and private companies may use an auditor, either as a requirement from the IRS or as a way to check that their finances are up-to-snuff. 

Auditors follow strict procedures set by the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB). Most auditors are required to have a CPA license, which shows that they understand the basic principles of accounting. 

>>EXPLORE: Find out more about this career with KPMG’s Audit Virtual Experience Program

Forensic Accountant

A forensic accounting career path involves examining financial statements to find evidence of crimes, like fraud. Forensic accountants typically have a CPA license and work for law enforcement agencies and insurance companies. Some forensic accountants even work for government organizations, like the IRS or the SEC. 

Being a forensic accountant may go beyond just looking at financial data. In fact, many forensic accountants are called to testify as expert witnesses in court cases. Using their CPA knowledge, they are able to locate if a company or individual has committed an act of fraud or embezzlement. 

Personal Accountant

As an accountant, you can work for yourself. Having a CPA license is the best place to start, and from there you’d need to register as a business, like a limited liability company (LLC). Independent accountants have more freedom in choosing the types of clients they work with. For example, you can choose a specific industry or size of business you want as clients, rather than working with whatever clients your employer has. 

This can be a great choice if you enjoy autonomy and being your own boss, but it can also mean that you’ll need to spend a lot of time finding new clients and building your client base,” Sharpe says. 

Other Career Paths for Accountants

If you have an accounting background, or even an accounting credential like a CPA or CMA license, that doesn’t mean you need to stay in accounting. In fact, the skills utilized by accountants every day are highly transferable to other careers in finance. 

For example, you can work as a budget analyst, reviewing a company’s spending habits and finding ways to make the budget more efficient. 

When working as an accountant in a company, it’s possible to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top and become a chief financial officer (CFO) — these are the top-ranked financial decision-makers in a business.

>>MORE: Explore more careers in finance

Accounting Salaries 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for accountants and auditors is $83,980. Working at big firms or corporations, accountants may see additional compensation in the form of bonuses or commissions for working on large client accounts. 

Tax accountants in particular may experience a higher volume of work during tax season, so those with hourly pay structures may see a bit of a boost considering the increased number of hours. 

>>MORE: See some of the best-paying jobs in finance

Skills for Accountants 

The most important skill for an accountant to have is understanding the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). These are the guidelines for being an accountant and are a standardized collection of classifications and procedures all accountants must adhere to. 

Besides knowledge of GAAP, accountants should have the following skills: 

  • Attention to detail
  • Analytical thinking
  • Time management
  • Proficiency in software, such as Excel
  • Understanding of business practices 

Certain types of accountants may need to be stronger in one area or another. For example, accountants who work for themselves may need strong people skills and the ability to sell themselves to clients. On the other hand, accountants with CMA licenses may need some leadership skills and a stronger understanding of corporate finance. 

Start building your skills with Forage’s accounting virtual experience programs

Pros and Cons of an Accounting Career Path

Pros

  • Stability
  • Good pay
  • Variety of opportunities

Accountants will always be needed, and it’s even a growing industry. BLS says that accounting and auditing jobs will grow by 6% between 2021 to 2031, totaling more than 136,000 new job openings each year. Being an accountant is a stable, dependable career path, and it includes a good salary. While the average salary is $83,980, the top 10% of accountants in the U.S. earn six figures. 

Additionally, because accountants work in such a variety of industries, there are always new opportunities. Accountants can work practically anywhere in the world because the principles of accounting are necessary everywhere. 

Cons

  • Busy season
  • Stressful environment
  • Tedious 

Accountants do have a busy season, unfortunately. Even for accountants who don’t work specifically in tax accounting, tax season is a stressful time for anyone tasked with reviewing financial statements. Beyond tax season, though, accountants are fully responsible for accurately recording and reporting a company’s finances — it is a lot of pressure to make sure no decimal points are out of place. 

That level of responsibility and attention to detail can become tiresome. Financial statements are fairly standardized, so there isn’t a lot of variety in the day-to-day work. Ultimately, accounting involves working with a lot of numbers, constantly. So, accounting can become tedious very quickly for those who are not mathematically inclined.

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