What is an Accountant?

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.

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 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.

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 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:

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

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 accounting 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.

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 such fields as marketing, production, information technology, and e-commerce.