What is an Accountant?

Annual Salary Range

Full-time: $40,000 to $80,000+

The salary range reflects differences in job responsibilities, the size and type of employer, and the supply and demand for accountants in a given geographic area.

Educational Requirement

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 introductory, intermediate, and advanced financial accounting, cost accounting, income tax, auditing, and accounting systems. Also required within the 120 credits are business courses such as organizational behavior, human resources, 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 or masters degree that qualifies you to take the CPA Exam.

Learn more about choosing a College or University

Membership Associations

Accountants can join national organizations with local chapters such as the Institute of Management Accountants, Institute of Internal Auditors, Accounting & Financial Women's Alliance, National Association of Black Accountants, and others.

Who Hires Accountants?

Many companies are sufficiently large and complex to require the ongoing expertise of an in-house accountant. As an accountant, you may find yourself working for a manufacturer, hospital, bank, insurance company, brokerage firm, or any one of the many other types of businesses. Accountants are also employed by U.S. 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 finance and accounting is just one dimension of being a successful accountant. Therefore, an employer strives to hire an accountant who, in addition to demonstrating excellent accounting skills, also possesses the following traits:

  • Pays close attention to details, but does not lose sight of how details affect the bigger picture
  • Is a problem solver and a strategic thinker
  • Has a productive curiosity about business systems (why a company is profitable, how it attracts new customers, etc.)
  • Has good listening skills
  • Can communicate complex financial information in a clear, straightforward manner
  • Works well as a member of a team
  • Can supervise and develop subordinates

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) at a manufacturing company, you might supervise several cost accounting clerks who 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 maintaining the general ledger and preparing financial statements that comply with generally accepted accounting principles. In this role you might supervise an accounts payable clerk and payroll clerk, and your title might be general ledger accountant, chief accountant, corporate accountant, accounting manager, or corporate controller.

At larger and more complex companies, some accountants may have titles such as internal auditor, coordinator of profit plans and budgets, researcher of accounting and tax issues, financial analyst, or tax accountant.

Future Needs

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 marketing, production, information technology, and e-commerce.