Accounting is so much more than counting beans. The best accountants possess a rare combination of traits. They have an eye for numbers, are highly organized and detail-oriented, but they also have the ability to consider financial datasets as a whole. A well-planned accounting education will provide you with the skills you’ll need to both audit and interpret financial records. You’ll be prepared to tackle an array of financial puzzles from taxes and asset management to business strategy.
The following guide will help you understand the fundamentals of the accounting profession, identify an academic program that fits your schedule and budget, and polish up your financial chops to launch a fruitful career.
Part I. The Accounting Industry
All accountants work with data and business transactions to assess the financial capabilities of an organization or business. The business vertical in which you are working, however, will determine the specifics of your job.
There are generally four main types of accounting:
The only licensed accounting professionals are those who pass the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam and apply for a CPA license. There is not a national licensure program; instead, licenses are issued by state boards of accountancy in 55 jurisdictions across the United States. So it is important to research the specific requirements of the jurisdiction where you plan on working.
According to U.S. News & World Report, most accounting students must complete at least 150 hours of related coursework before they can sit for the exam. Most four-year undergraduate programs credit students with a degree after 120 credit hours, so many students will continue working towards a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA). The coursework of this degree often prepares students for the CPA exam.
A CPA must take courses every year to keep their license and stay abreast of changes in the field. According to Rebecca Mahler, manager of career research and student organizational partnerships at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), this invaluable credential can boost your salary by 10 to 15 percent.
In addition to CPA careers, virtually every business or organization employs professional accountants to track their financial records and transactions. With this wide range of opportunities, you should become familiar with all of your available options. Do you see yourself working for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms? Or would you prefer managing the assets of a government agency, national non-profit or community organization? You may start your career as a bookkeeper, move up to be a controller or even reach the pinnacle and become a Chief Financial Officer.
Consider the impact an accounting career may have on your lifestyle. During tax season, for example, you may spend long hours at the office if you work for a large accounting firm. Putting in extra time during the early stages of your career may help you land a more desirable, long-term position.
Technology has dramatically changed the world of accounting. Most accountants rely on software programs to do their job, and computer literacy is a must-have skill for your accounting tool belt. Microsoft Excel is an example of one such software program, but you may use others depending on the size of your firm, organization or business; in some cases, you will be required to learn a custom-built program designed by in-house programmers.
Career and Salary Outlook
The business world relies on accountants whether the economy is booming or in recession, and this level of demand allows trained accountants to enjoy comfortable job security. The accounting field is expected to grow 16% by 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In response to the recent economic crisis and resulting financial regulations, many businesses and organizations will have an increased need for thorough financial documentation.
The median annual wage of accountants and auditors was $61,690 in May 2010, with the top 10 percent of the field earning more than $106,880. However, there is a large number of different positions in the field of accounting. This chart effectively illustrates pay scales as they relate to specific positions and careers.
Part II. Accounting Programs
Roughly 80% of accountants have a bachelor’s degree; if you are ready to invest in an accounting education, there is a wide variety of programs from which to choose.
The University of Texas; The McCombs School of Business
- Course requirements: The four-year Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree allows you to select accounting as an emphasis. There are advanced degree options, including an integrated BBA and master’s program that typically requires five years to complete. Students select either a corporate or a financial institution track, and take courses such as auditing, taxation fundamentals and financial statement analysis.
- Specialized degrees: The Master’s in Professional Accounting program has an excellent reputation in the field, and most MPA students are offered permanent positions right out of the McCombs School as part of the program’s guided job search.
- Cost: Tuition ranges depend on residence, program and the length it takes you to finish the courses. The cost can run between $5,000 for Texas residents and $18,000 for non-residents, per semester.
- Financial aid: McCombs offers numerous scholarships to prospective and current students for every degree level. Beyond the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) there is a university scholarship application form that will place you in the running for thousands of merit and need-based aid dollars available specific to accounting programs.
The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business
- Course requirements: UM students can apply for entry into the three-year bachelor’s program prior to their sophomore year. Once accepted into the program, students may choose from a range of courses, with options for independent study projects through internships and outside projects.
- Specialized degrees: The 10-month Master of Accounting program provides its students with a quick degree completion turn-around, while also preparing them to sit for the CPA exam in all 50 states with one of the highest passing rates of any program in the country.
- Cost: Tuition for the bachelor’s degree program will cost roughly $16,432 for Michigan residents and $43,592 for out-of-state residents. The master’s degree costs $47,944 for Michigan residents and $52,944 for out-of-state residents.
- Financial Aid: All students admitted into the Ross School are considered for a slew of scholarships, but students are encouraged to apply for general UM aid, FAFSA and seek private scholarships to finance the hefty tuition bill that many accrue. There are also some substantial tuition reimbursement programs for students who want to work as a Graduate Student Instructor.
Colorado State University
- Course requirements: The bachelor’s program at CSU will give you the theoretical and practical framework for working in the field of accounting with the basic course building blocks as well as a capstone project, which allows students to pool their courses together to demonstrate their understanding of fieldwork. The degree requires 17, 3-credit courses, and the master’s program requires 36 additional credits. Students can enroll for classes on their own pace.
- Specialized degrees: In addition to the traditional degree options, CSU offers students the opportunity to choose a specialization in a related field such as healthcare, information technology or small business entrepreneurship.
- Cost: A bachelor’s will cost roughly $18,000 in tuition dollars for the entire degree. The master’s program will cost roughly $18,000, as well.
- Financial Aid: One financial advantage of the CSU online program is the tuition guarantee; as long as you continue to take classes while maintaining a good financial standing, the university will lock-in your tuition rates based on the cost when you begin the program. This eliminates anxiety over annual tuition hikes. There are also several scholarship and financial assistance programs for CSU students that you can read about here.
Florida Tech University
- Course requirements: Florida Tech structures its accounting programs to include a broad range of future career options. Students can choose from a liberal arts degree in accounting to a career-specific business concentration. The BA requires 105 credit hours to be taken at the student’s pace.
- Specialized degrees: There is an option for an online MBA program as well, but keep in mind that employers may consider a traditional university MBA to be more credible than an online program, as the latter are still gaining clout in the industry.
- Cost: Tuition is $495 per credit hour, for a total degree cost around $51,000. The MBA costs $896 per credit hour.
- Financial aid: Florida Tech encourages students to go through FAFSA to obtain low-interest loans and grants depending on student financial need.
UPenn’s Wharton School of Business
- Course requirements: The bachelor’s program is designed to be completed in four years, and length of the master’s programs depend on the selected program. The accounting discipline is designed to take a multidisciplinary approach to the field. As a research program they focus on integrating finance and economics as they relate to organizational issues in the business environment. If that sounds a little vague, check out the course descriptions.
- Specialized degrees: Degrees follow the traditional categories of a four-year bachelor’s, MBA and Ph.D. program. The undergraduate program also requires courses in mathematics, statistics, economics, finance, humanities, and behavioral and natural sciences. The master’s program focuses on accounting data, and also prepares students for the CPA or CMA (chartered management accountant) exams.
- Cost: Tuition and fees for full-time undergrad is $43,738 and $53,926 for graduate programs. At graduation, 82.1 percent of graduates of the full-time program are employed.
- Financial aid: Since Penn is a member of the Ivy League, financial aid is need-based only. Penn is also unique as it doesn’t include loans in student financial aid packages. This guide will give you more specifics on how to finance a Penn education.
Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business
- Course requirements: The bachelor’s program requires 121 credit hours spanning four years with a core of business classes and a specialization in accounting.
- Specialized degrees: There are select undergrad programs, which allow you to earn a master’s degree as well, and still finish within four years. About 75% of the master’s curriculum is flexible and designed around the students interests.
- Cost: Tuition cost per year for undergraduate students is $10,037 for in-state and $25,445 for out-of-state students. Graduate tuition is $30,179 for Ohio residents and $47,491 for non-residents.
- Financial aid: OSU has numerous financial aid opportunities based on both merit and need. Beyond scholarships there are numerous fellowships and assistantships up for grabs every year.
Part III. Breaking Into High Finance
Ready to begin marketing yourself out in the job market? Remember, there are many ways to break into this large, complex field. Take some time to consider your individual needs and interests before making any decisions.
Organize Your Job Search
- Test the field at a community college. There are many excellent certificate and two year programs that can earn you a credential while also giving you a lower-cost opportunity to try out the field before you make a major investment in a longer-term program.
- Bookmark some of the top 25 best accounting blogs to stay abreast of what’s new in the field. These are also great conversation starters and ways to demonstrate your knowledge to future employers, professors and peers.
- Browse these job boards early and often, whether you are in the job market or not. This can also help you to get a better feel for career paths:
- AICPA job board
- The Professional Accounting Society of America, a job board built specifically with entry to mid-level job opportunities.
- The Ernst & Young career guide for students and graduates
5 Insights From Industry Leaders
- If you are looking for practical experience, why not volunteer? You could offer to help a local charity or sports club to keep their books. Ask your family and friends if they know anyone in business who would be prepared to give you work experience. - Jane Scott Paul, chief executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians
- Work reinforces what you are studying. And there are some things you can only learn at work, from more experienced colleagues, such as dealing with difficult clients. – Dominic Franiel is a graduate recruitment officer at professional services firm Ernst & Young, on working while in school.
- My advice would be to keep up-to-date with current affairs from the world of business.. reading the business pages of reputable papers will stand you in good stead. – Amanda Akien is a senior marketing executive for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
- In public accounting, entry-level jobs include staff accountant or junior auditor. On the private side, you might start by doing monthly reports or internal audits, or working in the budget department doing forecasts or mergers-and-acquisitions analysis. The accounting career ladder for state and federal workers begins with preparing and analyzing financial reports, or reviewing and recording revenues and expenses. Even before you graduate, you may be able to find work as an accounting assistant or accounting clerk, if you can work during business hours. At the end of your sophomore year, you should have no problem landing a summer accounting internship. - Dona DeZube, Monster Finance Careers Expert
- Accountants are in especially high demand in April. But throughout the year, large firms require the assistance of public accountants to prepare, analyze, and verify financial documents. The Labor Department projects that more than 279,000 accounting positions will become available between 2008 and 2018. - Jada A. Graves, U.S. News & World Report
Stay on top of a fast-paced industry
Accounting is a field that grows and morphs with the nature of industry demands and changes in the market. Self-starters who are willing to become lifelong learners often excel in this fast-paced industry, as do those with an affinity (and patience) for extensive number-crunching. And due to the vital functions of their job, good accountants are constantly sought after by companies and organizations nationwide and across the globe.