As of 2018, accountants earn an average salary of $73,560 annually—an impressive 31 percent more than the $56,310 earned by the average workers across all industries.
Additionally, the industry is estimated to grow 7 percent, adding about 135,000 job openings each year through 2030
With a high salary and job security unrivaled by many other occupations, becoming an accountant is an attractive career choice for many. But the question is: How does someone actually become an accountant? Ultimately, it comes down to having the right education and using that education to find and apply to the right jobs.
6 Steps to Becoming an Accountant
The most common path to becoming an accountant is to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which requires you to sit for, and pass, the Uniform CPA Exam, administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
The exam is designed to measure your proficiency in the skills and knowledge that you’ll need to effectively perform your job responsibilities. It consists of four separate four-hour sections, each of which covers a different focus area: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation.
Because each state has the ability to set its own requirements for licensure, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) is a great resource that you can turn to determine the eligibility terms specific to your state or jurisdiction. Generally speaking, though, these requirements include:
- Post-secondary education: Most states require that candidates have earned at least a bachelor’s degree in order to sit for the CPA exam.
- Accounting coursework: Some states require that this bachelor’s degree specifically be accounting focused (such as a BA in Finance and Accounting Management), while others are more flexible. At a minimum, all states require that candidates have earned a certain number of credits in accounting-related coursework. (24 credit hours in financial accounting is a common requirement.)
- Work experience: While no states require work experience to sit for the exam, developing your skills in a real-world setting provides insight that can help you successfully pass the exam. For this reason, internships and co-op experiences are highly valuable.
With these requirements in mind, following the steps below can be a great entry point for a career in accounting.
1. Earn your bachelor’s degree.
As mentioned above, all states require that candidates for accounting licensure have earned at least their bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Though some states may allow for degrees other than accounting degrees, others specifically require a bachelor’s degree in accounting. If you are unsure of which state or jurisdiction you will ultimately work in, earning your BA in Accounting is likely to be the safest bet, making it easier to transfer between jurisdictions.
2. Gain relevant work experience.
While not required to sit for the CPA exam, gaining real, hands-on experience is a great way of reinforcing the lessons of your degree, and may ultimately make it easier for you to pass the exam. It can also help you test the waters in a number of different careers. For this reason, when choosing a bachelor’s degree program, it’s important to find one that offers experiential learning components such as internships or co-op experiences.
3. Sit for the CPA exam.
After earning your undergraduate degree and ensuring that you meet all of the eligibility requirements for your jurisdiction, you can sit for the CPA exam. The exam consists of four sections, and you’ll have to pass each one with a score of at least 75 percent. If you do not pass a particular section, you can sit for just that (or those) sections, but you must pass all four sections within 18 months.
Testing typically takes place at the following times each year:
- January 1 through March 10
- April 1 through June 10
- July 1 through September 10
- October 1 through December 10
4. Apply for state licensure.
After passing the CPA exam, you will need to actually apply for state licensure. The specific steps involved in this process will vary by state.
5. Get an entry-level job.
Though it is not required that you have work experience in order to sit for the CPA exam, it is invaluable in helping you land a job post-licensure. As in most industries, companies prefer to hire employees who already come with a certain level of experience.
Though you might have the ultimate goal of working in management or a more advanced accounting role, you will have greater success on the job hunt immediately after graduation by applying for entry-level positions. These roles will allow you to gain even more experience that you can leverage to advance in your career.
The job title of “accountant” is likely to be the position that you are most qualified to pursue, but it isn’t the only path forward for you in your career. Other job titles (and their salaries) are shown below. Though they are related to accounting, each has its own unique differences. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and your CPA license can help you to land one of these jobs:
- Accountant: $73,560
- Personal Financial Advisor: $89,330
- Auditor: $73,560
- Tax Adviser: $55,640
- Budget Analyst: $78,970
- Financial Analyst: 83,660
6. Continue your education.
Many states require that individuals continue their education in order to maintain their license and certification. If you work in a state that requires ongoing professional development, it is critical that you stay up to date on all requirements.
Even if you don’t work in a state that requires additional education, earning a certificate in a particular specialization or pursuing a master’s degree in accounting can be beneficial, making it easier to advance in your career and earn a higher salary.
Accounting Degree Options
While in most states you will be required to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field in order to sit for the CPA exam, that is not your only educational option. Below, we explore other degree options that can prepare you for a career in accounting and help you advance beyond the entry level.
1. Associate Degree
Earning an associate degree in accounting may not be enough to prepare you to sit for the CPA exam, but it can prepare you for an entry-level career in accounting that does not require licensure or certification. It may be an ideal degree for someone who isn’t sure they want to become an accountant, or for someone who would like to save money on the cost of tuition before enrolling in a full bachelor’s degree program.
If you are considering earning an associate’s degree as a stepping stone to a full bachelor’s degree, it is important to note that classes and degrees don’t always transfer credit-for-credit. Before committing to a degree, you should understand which credits will carry over so you can choose the best degree for your goals. Some institutions, like Northeastern, have dedicated agreements and partnerships with community colleges to help make the process of transferring easier for students.
2. Bachelor’s Degree
A bachelor’s degree is typically seen as the lowest level of education that you will need to sit for the CPA exam and become a fully-licensed accountant.
While some states do not require that your bachelor’s degree specifically be in accounting, others do. Therefore, if you know for certain that you would like to become an accountant but are unsure of exactly where you will ultimately be working, it likely makes sense to earn your bachelor’s degree in accounting. (This will also make it easier to transfer between jurisdictions later, if necessary.)
Whether you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree specifically in accounting or you can get by with a degree in a related field will depend on the jurisdiction you live and work in. Precise coursework will naturally vary depending on the institution from which you are earning your degree, and the particular concentration you are pursuing (if any), but will generally include a focus on financial auditing, preparing federal income taxes, preparing financial statements, and cost accounting.
Specifically earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting can bring a number of benefits to your career. The network that you develop during that time and the connections that you make with your professors, instructors, and students can have a lasting impact on your career, opening doors that may otherwise have been kept shut.
3. Master’s Degree
Earning a graduate degree like a Master of Science in Accounting can be a smart decision for anyone who would like to advance to a more senior-level accounting position within their organization or industry.
Graduate-level degrees in accounting are more comprehensive than undergraduate degrees and are designed to prepare students to work in a managerial or leadership capacity. They often (though not always) include specialization or concentration. For example, Northeastern’s Master of Science in Accounting offers two specializations, in auditing and taxes.
Because continuing education and professional development is a requirement for licensure in many states, many accountants choose to earn their master’s degree over the course of their careers.
Not everyone must become a licensed accountant to put accounting skills to use. Many professionals perform accounting duties or interact with the accounting department of their organization and thus may benefit from learning about accounting best practices; however, they do not necessarily need to earn a full degree in accounting. For those individuals, earning a certificate in accounting may be a smart move.
Education for Success
Becoming an accountant requires a certain level of education, experience, and expertise to pass the CPA exam.
While a bachelor’s degree is often enough to kickstart your career, earning a master’s degree or continuing your education in other ways can also bring a number of career benefits. Choosing the right path forward simply requires that you understand your personal career goals. Once you do, finding the right path forward should be easy.
Interested in taking the next step on your path to becoming an accountant? Learn more about how a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or certificate in accounting from Northeastern University can help you reach your career goals.