There exists today a wide range of job opportunities in the field of accounting.
Entry-level jobs are dependent on the extent of your education. Positions of bookkeeper and accounting clerk, for example, require a high school diploma and perhaps a two-year associate degree in accounting. The position of accountant demands that you have a more thorough understanding of financial concepts and so requires a minimum of a four-year bachelor's degree in accounting. Some accountants go on to become certified public accountants, or CPAs, as this opens up additional job opportunities for them. To become a CPA, you will need to earn college credits over and above your accounting major, gain some work experience, and, most importantly, you will need to pass the CPA Exam.
For purposes of our discussion, we've classified accounting jobs into four categories:
For each category, we'll present information on salary, educational requirements, and types of employment opportunities.
Annual Salary Range
Full-time: $18,000 to $40,000+
The salary range reflects differences in job responsibilities, the size and type of employer, and the supply and demand of bookkeepers in a given geographic area. (General salary information is available at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Some bookkeepers enter the work force with a two-year associate degree in accounting, while others enter with a high school diploma and an expectation that the employer will provide on-the-job training. If you are hired as a bookkeeper, you should assume that you will need some experience (either formal or on-the-job) in the use of accounting software. Bookkeepers are not expected to have a four-year degree in accounting.
Three organizations offer membership and/or certification status for bookkeepers:
Memberships in these organizations may offer you opportunities for additional training and certification, as well as evidence of bookkeeping credibility.
Who Hires Bookkeepers?
Bookkeepers are typically employed by companies that may not have the need or the means to employ an on-staff accountant. Such companies hire a bookkeeper to handle a range of routine financial activities, such as payroll, billing, and purchases. Small manufacturers, retail stores, distributors, large law offices, small accounting firms, and not-for-profit entities are examples of such companies. If an accountant is needed, the company typically contracts with an outside accounting firm for the services it needs.
Types of Tasks and Responsibilities
Bookkeepers are detailed-oriented; they are expected to be accurate and efficient with a range of basic financial tasks that are critical to a company's ability to keep accurate financial information. As a bookkeeper, you would be expected to handle large volumes of routine financial transactions in areas such as sales, purchases, and payroll. You may also be expected to generate/handle the documents associated with transactions. For example, a purchase made by a company may include a purchase order, a receiving ticket, the supplier's invoice, and payment to the supplier. A bookkeeper's duties may also include the generation of internal financial documents as well as routine external financial reports.
A bookkeeper's work may be reviewed by an accountant or business manager from inside the company, or by an accounting firm contracted by the company.
The increasing affordability of computers and software means that employers will continue to look for bookkeepers who are proficient in accounting/business software. With the advent of new technologies such as software as a service (SaaS, also known as "cloud computing"), small businesses will give preference to hiring bookkeepers who are adaptable to changes in computing systems.
Annual Salary Range
Full-time: $18,000 to $40,000+
The range reflects differences in job responsibilities, the size and type of employer, and the supply and demand of accounting clerks in a given geographic area. (General salary information is available at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Some accounting clerks enter the work force with a two-year associate degree in accounting, while others enter with a high school diploma and an expectation that the employer will provide on-the-job training. Accounting clerks are not expected to have a four-year degree in accounting.
Types of Tasks and Responsibilities
Companies large enough to have one or more accountants on staff are the companies that also hire accounting clerks to assist the accountants with routine tasks. Whereas a bookkeeper is expected to perform a range of basic financial responsibilities, the accounting clerk has a more narrowly focused task, such as a payroll clerk, an accounts payable clerk, an accounts receivable clerk, an inventory clerk, or a cost clerk.
For example, your primary responsibility as an accounts payable clerk at XYZ Company may be to compare the information on each supplier invoice to the information on XYZ's corresponding purchase order and receiving ticket. If the information on these documents is consistent, you process the supplier's invoice for payment. If the information is not consistent, you investigate and resolve the differences before payment can occur.
Annual Salary Range
Full-time: $40,000 to $80,000+
The range reflects differences in job responsibilities, the size and type of employer, and the supply and demand of accountants in a given geographic area.
Accountants are expected to have a bachelor's degree in accounting from a four-year college or university. Of the 120 semester credits needed for the degree, approximately 30-36 of these credits will be in accounting courses such as financial accounting, cost accounting, income tax, consolidations, auditing, and accounting systems. Also required within the 120 credits are business courses such as organizational behavior, marketing, business statistics, computer systems, business law, economics, and administrative policy.
While a bachelor's degree in accounting will qualify you to be an accountant, it will not meet today's requirements for becoming a certified public accountant (CPA). That is why some colleges and universities now offer both an accounting major as well as a 150-credit degree program that qualifies you to take the CPA Exam.
Accountants can join national organizations with local chapters such as the Institute of Management Accountants, Institute of Internal Auditors, American Society of Women Accountants, National Association of Black Accountants, and others.
Visit Career Resources for links to these and other organizations.
Who Hires Accountants?
Many companies are large enough and complex enough to require the ongoing expertise of an in-house accountant. As an accountant, you may find yourself working for a manufacturing firm, a hospital, a bank, an insurance company, or a brokerage firm. Accountants are also employed by federal government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). State government agencies and large not-for-profit organizations also hire accountants.
Tasks and Responsibilities
Being proficient in matters of finance and accounting is just one dimension of being a successful accountant. Employers know this, and will prefer to hire an accountant who, in addition to demonstrating excellent accounting skills, also possesses the following traits:
Some accountants are generalists, while others prefer to specialize in a given area. For example, if you are hired as a cost accountant (or cost accounting manager) for a manufacturing company, you might supervise several cost clerks who work with you to calculate the costs of products manufactured, prepare cost estimates for potential sales of new products, and monitor the cost of raw materials, labor, and overhead.
Or, you might be responsible for analyzing a large corporation's general ledger account balances and preparing financial statements that comply with generally accepted accounting principles. As such, you would supervise accounts payable clerks and payroll clerks. For this type of accounting, your title might be general ledger accountant, chief accountant, corporate accountant, accounting manager, or corporate controller.
The larger and more complex a company is, the more numerous and varied will be the accountants that are on the staff, with titles such as internal auditor, coordinator of profit plans and budgets, researcher of accounting and tax issues, financial analyst, or tax accountant.
As the world becomes more interconnected via global systems and international commerce, the need increases for accountants to be knowledgeable in international accounting standards as well as new technologies that assist management in making decisions. In short, accountants will need to be life-long learners who work closely with people in such fields as marketing, production, information technology, and e-commerce.
Annual Salary Range
Full-time entry level: $50,000 to $60,000
Full-time with several years of progressive experience: $100,000+
The entry-level range will vary by industry, geographic location, and other factors. You can obtain more detailed information concerning starting salaries from the career services or placement office of the college or university that you plan to attend.
Increases in annual salary will depend on your professional growth. If you are an effective supervisor, work well with fellow employees and clients, and know how to improve profits, your salary increases can be significant. Annual salaries of experienced CPAs can be in excess of $100,000. Some CPAs with more than 10 years of continuously increasing responsibility can earn more than $200,000 per year.
Most state boards of accountancy now require that CPA candidates have 150 college credits in specified accounting and business courses before they are allowed to sit for the Uniform CPA Examination. (You need to check with your own state's board of accountancy to determine what the requirements are. If you do not meet your state's requirements, you will not be allowed to sit for the CPA Exam.) Reputable colleges and universities have accounting curriculums that meet their state's 150-credit requirement.
Because the CPA Exam is considered to be highly rigorous, it is to your advantage that you select a college or university with an equally rigorous accounting program that will adequately prepare you for the CPA Exam.
After you've passed the CPA Exam, most state boards of accountancy require you to have at least one year of professional experience and pass an ethics test before you can be licensed as a CPA. Once licensed, you will be required to earn professional continuing education credits to maintain your license. Again, check with your own state's board of accountancy for specifics.
In addition to the organizations targeted to non-CPA accountants, CPAs are eligible to join a state society of CPAs and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
Who Hires CPAs?
Before you can become a licensed CPA, you must first pass the CPA Exam, and then you must work for a period of time to meet the work experience criterion. As a result, a company that is looking to hire a new, young CPA often will hire a newly graduated accounting major who intends to become a CPA. Such employers recruit students who graduate with high grade point averages from well-respected accounting programs, as these are the students most likely to go on to pass the challenging CPA Exam.
Major employers of CPAs include:
Tasks and Responsibilities during First Year at CPA Firms
In order for a CPA firm to be profitable, its CPAs must be highly focused individuals who can complete tasks within a reasonable amount of time. CPAs are often billed out to clients using a per-hour billing rate, and clients do not want to pay high fees for CPAs who spend time on non-essential tasks.
Some larger CPA firms assign newly hired college graduates to work in their tax departments or advisory services area. More common, however, is for firms to start new hires in the auditing department where they typically work audit engagements on a team comprised of a supervising or senior accountant, a manager, and one of the firm's partners.
Smaller CPA firms, however, perform relatively few audits, so there is likely to be more variety in the workload for the new hire. Responsibilities in a smaller CPA firm might include: reviewing a business client's financial statements, preparing a business tax return, preparing the business owners' personal tax returns, and tax planning.
Most CPA firms find their busiest season to be the months of January through March or April. The reason for this is that many clients are businesses with an accounting year ending on December 31. As a CPA, you would prepare and audit annual financial statements for your business clients during January and February. Additionally, your clients who are individuals will want you to complete their personal tax documents in time to meet the IRS deadline of April 15. Some CPA firms try to "smooth out" their annual workload by taking on clients whose fiscal years end in varying months. For example, school districts and some nonprofits have accounting years that end on June 30.
If you are a recent hire who is planning to take the CPA Exam, May through December is the time period during which you are most likely to study for the exam.
After the First Year at CPA Firms
After one year at a CPA firm, you may be assigned to work with new clients as well as with your familiar clients. The firm's goal is to deepen and broaden your range of experiences while offering clients efficient and professional service. Each subsequent year you are with the firm, you can expect more and diverse responsibilities in areas such as audit planning, supervising the work of other auditors and accountants, increased client contact, and additional training.
Tasks and Responsibilities at non-CPA Firms
Not every CPA wants to work in the field of public accounting. Some prefer to be employed as accountants for companies such as e-commerce, manufacturing, banking, insurance, federal government agencies, state agencies, or not-for-profit organizations. Such accountants may have obtained their CPA license simply to keep their options open, or to distinguish themselves from other accountants.
Some CPAs might choose to specialize. For example, in large international corporations whose stock is publicly traded, external reports must be provided to stockholders, the SEC, and the IRS. Each of these reports requires compliance with specific reporting standards. Some CPAs find intellectual challenge and satisfaction in keeping current and complying with new reporting standards.
Some graduates begin their careers in public accounting, gain valuable experience, obtain their CPA license, and then choose to move out of public accounting and into different challenges. Some choose to work for businesses or not-for-profit organizations, some become entrepreneurs, and others seek additional education to become accounting professors.
As the world becomes more interconnected via global systems and international commerce, the need increases for CPAs to keep current with both domestic and international accounting standards, as well as with new technologies that assist management in making decisions. CPAs are expected to be at the top of their profession. Those who audit corporations and advise clients on accounting systems need to keep current on developments that inform or impact accounting.
Below is a table that provides some examples of the accounting job opportunities at large and small CPA firms:
Below is a sampling of the various accounting positions found in corporate accounting:
Regardless of the accounting position you seek, here are some suggestions to better prepare yourself:
Before You Need a Job
When Seeking a Job
After the Interview