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Accountant Career Guide

What is an accountant?

An accountant manages and analyzes financial records, ensuring accuracy and providing insights based on financial information. Their expertise is foundational to any organization, whether a multinational corporation, a small business, or a non-profit. Their work goes beyond mere number-crunching; they are often instrumental in strategic planning, tax preparation, and regulatory compliance.

They play a crucial role in maintaining financial health, fostering growth, and ensuring that stakeholders, from employees to investors, clearly understand an organization’s financial standing. By providing transparency and reliable financial data, these professionals uphold trust and accountability, which are fundamental to the smooth operation of any entity.

Duties and responsibilities

Accountants carry out various tasks centered around financial records and their interpretation. They prepare, analyze, and verify financial documents to ensure accuracy and compliance with regulations. One of their primary responsibilities is to compile and present financial statements, including the balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement.

They also assist in budgeting, forecasting, and risk analysis. In the realm of taxes, these professionals prepare tax returns and ensure that taxes are paid correctly and on time. They might also offer tax planning advice to minimize tax liabilities. Additionally, those involved in auditing processes either conduct internal audits to verify financial information’s accuracy or assist external auditors.

Work environment

The work environment for accountants typically consists of office settings, whether within an accounting firm, a corporate office, or a government entity. Modern accountants rely heavily on software and technological tools to aid their analyses and reports. In larger corporations or accounting firms, they may work in teams, each handling specialized areas such as tax, audit, or management accounting.

While much of their work is done independently, collaboration with other departments, such as human resources or management, is common, especially when discussing budgets, financial planning, or addressing discrepancies.

Typical work hours

Most accountants adhere to a standard 40-hour work week. However, during certain periods, such as tax season or the end of a financial quarter or year, they may experience a surge in workload and work additional hours to meet deadlines. It’s common for those in public accounting to work extended hours during these peak times. Some might also have flexible schedules, especially if they are self-employed or work remotely.

How to become an accountant

This career guide section outlines the steps to become an accountant. It provides a clear path for individuals considering a profession in accountancy, laying out the required education, certifications, and experience needed to excel in this field.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Most hold a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a similar field. This degree provides a thorough understanding of accounting principles and financial management, setting a solid foundation for your career.

Step 2: Gain practical experience

Once you’ve completed your degree, gaining practical experience in the field is beneficial. This could be through part-time jobs, internships, or entry-level positions related to accounting. Work experience helps you apply theoretical knowledge into practice, understand the work environment better, and develop crucial relationships in the industry.

Step 3: Seek professional certification

Becoming certified can greatly enhance your job prospects and credibility. The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation is the most common certification, which requires passing the Uniform CPA Examination and meeting education and work experience requirements.

Step 4: Consider a master’s degree

For some job roles or to increase job prospects, you might want to consider earning a master’s degree in accounting. It usually focuses on more advanced accounting concepts and can often meet the 150 semester hours required to study for the CPA exam in many states.

Step 5: Stay updated on industry regulations

Staying informed about changing finance laws, rules, and regulations is important. Continuous learning through seminars, workshops, or additional courses can help you stay current in your field.

Step 6: Advance your career with specializations

Once established professionally, you can diversify your career by specializing in a particular area. This could be auditing, tax accounting, forensic accounting, management accounting, or others. Specialization often requires additional study or certification, but it can vastly enhance your career prospects and earning potential.

Step 7: Apply for jobs

Finally, after completing all the necessary education, gaining appropriate experience, and securing the relevant certifications, you are now ready to apply for full-time roles as an accountant. Detailed resumes, cover letters, and excellent interview skills will be key in securing a good position.

How much do accountants make?

Accountant salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Other factors impacting compensation include specialized certifications such as CPA and the complexity of accountancy work required, such as financial analysis, tax preparation, or auditing.

Highest paying industries

  • Securities and Commodities Contracts – $96,260
  • Federal Government – $93,430
  • Monetary Authorities – $92,330
  • Brokerage Firms – $89,450
  • Insurance and Employee Benefit Funds – $88,520

Highest paying states

  • New York – $95,120
  • New Jersey – $90,960
  • Virginia – $88,620
  • California – $85,780
  • Connecticut – $82,950

Browse accountant salary data by market

Types of accountants

Below, we highlight the various career types and areas of specialization for accountants. In this section, we’ve compiled a thorough listing of professional roles in the accounting field, which we’ll explain to give you a better understanding of each.

Auditing accountant

The role of an auditing accountant involves carefully examining financial records for errors, fraud, or discrepancies. In this position, professionals ensure accuracy and compliance with regulations and laws, making it vital for every organization.

Forensic accountant

The intriguing world of forensic accounting involves investigating financial crimes and disputes. These experts may be called on in legal proceedings to give evidence, making this career a unique blend of finance and detective work.

Management accountant

As management accountants, their main role is centered on strategic decision-making. Their tasks often involve preparing detailed reports and forecasts, which managers and executives use to make informed business decisions.

Public accountant

Public accountants offer their skills to individuals, businesses, or non-profit organizations. They may cover a broad spectrum of tasks, such as preparing and analyzing financial documents, conducting audits, or assisting in tax preparation.

Tax accountant

Working with tax systems and regulations is a tax accountant’s expertise. They assist clients in preparing and filing tax returns, ensuring that all information is accurate and complies with the latest tax laws.

Cost accountant

A cost accountant’s primary role is to analyze an organization’s financial expenses. They aim to understand the specific costs of products and services, providing data that helps the management set prices and cut unnecessary expenses.

Government accountant

A government accountant manages and maintains public funds. Professionals in this role ensure that revenues and expenditures align with laws and regulations. Given their impact on public services, it’s a position with significant responsibility.

Top skills for accountants

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as an accountant.

Proficiency with numbers

An individual in an accounting role must have a solid understanding of finance and numbers. Their daily tasks include dealing with statistical figures, financial statements, and various numerical data. Thus, a strong mathematical inclination is essential.

Critical thinking

A successful accounting professional also needs critical thinking skills. With this ability, they can efficiently evaluate, analyze, and interpret financial information. It allows them to spot irregularities, understand trends, and make effective decisions.

Attention to detail

In an accounting role, precision is key. Every figure and decimal point plays a significant part in financial statements and reports. Hence, attention to detail is a prime requirement for anyone pursuing a career in this field.

Communication skills

While numbers dominate the day-to-day tasks, an accountant also needs strong communication skills. In the professional environment, they must explain financial data to stakeholders clearly and succinctly. Whether it’s talking to clients or presenting reports to executives, the ability to communicate effectively is vital.

Accountant career path options

If you’re an accountant, the future looks bright, with several paths available to advance your career. The specific path you choose may depend on your personal interests and career goals. Nevertheless, many accounting professionals progress from junior to senior positions over time.

With work experience and continued education, they are often promoted to a senior accountant role. Aside from keeping financial records and performing auditing tasks, they also lead teams, make strategic decisions, and participate in financial planning.

From there, professionals might aim for a management role such as accounting manager or chief accountant. In these roles, they oversee the entire accounting department, manage budgeting tasks, and form strategies to maximize financial health and decrease costs.

A fruitful avenue of career progression is toward specialized roles, dependent on their area of interest. They could opt to become an auditor, forensic accountant, tax specialist, or international accountant, each offering extensive opportunities for growth and specialization.

At the peak of an accounting career, individuals might aim to become a chief financial officer (CFO) or open their own accounting firm. A CFO is responsible for all financial aspects of a company, participating in high-level decisions and strategic planning.

By starting their own firm, accountants are taking on an entrepreneurial role, offering their expertise to clients and managing a business. This path provides the highest level of autonomy and potential income but also carries greater risks and responsibilities.

Advances in technology are impacting the accountancy profession, forcing a shift away from traditional tasks like compliance and tax preparation and toward advisory services. Accountants are expected to become business advisors that provide insight and strategic advice. Shifting economic conditions, regulatory changes, and the rise of digital transformation are contributing to this trend.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies are also shaping the profession. Many repetitive tasks traditionally done by accountants are now being automated, leading to increased efficiency but possibly job displacement. As these profesisonals adapt, analytical skills, understanding of digital ecosystems, and ability to interpret complex data are becoming more important than the processing work.

Employment projections for accountants

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of accountants and auditors is projected to grow 6 percent through 2031. This is about as fast as the average for all occupations. In general, the employment growth of these professionals is expected to be closely tied to the health of the overall economy. As the economy grows, more workers should be needed to prepare and examine financial records.

Accountant career tips

Understand industry norms and standards

For success in this role, it’s important to understand industry-specific accounting standards thoroughly. These standards include the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) or the international financial reporting standards (IFRS), depending on your location and the company’s size. Being well-versed in these standards will help to ensure your work aligns with industry regulations and best practices.

Stay updated with tax laws and regulations

Changes in tax laws and business regulations can significantly impact company finances. As such, keeping up-to-date with federal, state, and local tax codes is vital. Regularly reviewing these updates will allow you to provide accurate and timely advice to your company or clients, which can directly impact the bottom line.

Pursue relevant certifications

Earning advanced certifications increases your credibility and may open up new job opportunities. Consider pursuing certifications relevant to your career path and interests, such as:

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
  • Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
  • Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)

Build a professional network

Having a robust professional network can provide you with valuable resources, advice, and job opportunities. Consider joining professional associations such as:

  • American Institute of CPAs (AICPA)
  • Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
  • National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP)

Practise continuous learning

The accounting field is ever-evolving, so continuous learning is crucial for staying relevant in your career. This can involve various activities such as:

  • Taking online courses in new accounting technologies
  • Attending webinars on updates to tax laws and regulations
  • Reading financial news and accounting journals to stay informed of industry trends

Where the accountant jobs are

Top employers

  • Deloitte
  • EY
  • PwC
  • KPMG

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Monster
  • CareerBuilder
  • LinkedIn


What skills are fundamental for an accountant?

An accountant should have excellent numerical skills, a strong attention to detail, and an ability to analyze and interpret complex financial data. Knowledge of accounting and tax principles and the aptitude to handle multiple tasks under pressure is key. They should also be proficient in accounting software.

What is a typical day like for an accountant?

A typical day for an accountant may include a variety of tasks, including reviewing financial documents for accuracy, preparing tax returns, advising clients on how to reduce costs, and presenting financial information to managers. They also often work in teams to complete audits or solve complex business problems.

What are the most challenging aspects of being an accountant?

One challenging aspect of being an accountant may be ensuring compliance with constantly changing federal, state, and local laws. It can also be difficult to analyze and explain complex financial data in understandable terms to clients or non-financial management. Additionally, the profession often requires long hours and tight deadlines, especially during tax season.

What types of companies or industries hire accountants?

Accountants are needed in every industry. Companies of all sizes need them, from small private firms to large corporations. Various sectors, including finance, healthcare, academia, government, and non-profits, all hire accountants. Many also work for accounting firms or are self-employed.

Do accountants travel for work?

Most of an accountant’s tasks can be completed at their primary workplace, but some roles may require travel. For instance, those working in auditing may have to visit their clients’ premises. Additionally, those who work as consultants or are self-employed may find a moderate amount of travel necessary.

Is accounting a stressful profession?

Like many professions, the stress level in accounting can depend on a variety of factors, including workload, deadlines, and the complexity of tasks. Certain times of the year, like the end of the fiscal year or tax season, may be particularly busy and stressful. However, good time management and organizational skills can significantly help mitigate stress.

What kind of work-life balance can an accountant expect?

Work-life balance as an accountant can be influenced by your field of work, your employer’s expectations, and the time of the year. Some may work longer hours or on weekends during peak periods like tax season. However, many employers promote a balanced lifestyle and offer flexible work schedules or remote work opportunities.

Is it essential for an accountant to hold a certification?

Certifications may not be strictly required for all entry-level accounting positions, but they can provide a competitive edge in the job market. The CPA credential is highly respected and can open up more job opportunities. Some roles, particularly in corporate accounting or auditing, might specifically require this certification.

What is the impact of technology on the role of an accountant?

The emergence of digital technology has transformed the role of an accountant. Automation and artificial intelligence have taken over repetitive tasks, making the role more strategic and focused on analyzing data, advising clients, and business planning. Familiarity with various accounting software and tools is now a crucial skill in this field.