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Accountant Career Guide

What is an accountant?

An accountant is a professional who manages financial records and transactions. They play a critical role in maintaining a company’s financial health, fostering growth, and ensuring that stakeholders, from employees to investors, clearly understand an organization’s financial standing. Their expertise is foundational to any organization, from multinational corporations to small businesses. The work they do goes beyond mere number-crunching; it is often instrumental in strategic planning, tax preparation, and regulatory compliance.

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 either conduct internal audits to verify the accuracy of financial information or assist external auditors.

Work environment

They typically work in an office, either within an accounting firm or a corporate setting. Modern accountants rely heavily on software to aid their analyses and reports. In larger corporations, they may work in teams, with each handling specialized areas such as tax, audit, or management accounting.

While they often work independently, collaboration with other departments is common, especially when discussing budgets, financial planning, or discrepancies.

Typical work hours

Most accountants work a standard 40-hour 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.

How to become an accountant

This career guide section outlines the 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.

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.

Step 3: Seek professional certification

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

Step 4: Consider a master’s degree

To increase job prospects, you might want to consider earning a master’s in accounting. It usually focuses on more advanced 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, like auditing, tax accounting, forensic accounting, or management accounting. Specialization often requires additional study or certification, but it can vastly enhance your career prospects and earning potential.

How much do accountants make?

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 the work required.

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.

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 to give evidence in legal proceedings, 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 perform a wide range of tasks, such as preparing and analyzing financial documents, conducting audits, or assisting in tax preparation.

Tax accountant

These accountants 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.

Top skills for accountants

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

Proficiency with numbers

Accountants need to have a solid understanding of finance and numbers since their daily tasks include dealing with statistical figures, financial statements, and various numerical data.

Critical thinking

A successful accounting professional also needs critical thinking skills. These skills allow them to efficiently evaluate, analyze, and interpret financial information, spot irregularities, understand trends, and make effective decisions.

Attention to detail

Precision is key in this profession. Every figure and decimal point is important in financial statements and reports, so attention to detail is a prime requirement for anyone in this field.

Communication skills

While numbers dominate 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. The ability to communicate effectively is vital whether talking to clients or presenting reports to executives.

Accounting career paths

The future looks bright, with several paths available. 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.

Work experience and continued education often lead to a senior accountant position. These individuals lead teams, make strategic decisions, and participate in financial planning.

From there, you might aim for a management role such as accounting manager or chief accountant. They oversee an accounting department, manage budgeting tasks, and form strategies to maximize financial health and decrease costs.

Specialized roles exist too, including auditor, forensic accountant, tax specialist, or international accountant, each offering extensive opportunities for growth and specialization.

At the peak of your accounting career, you might aim to become a chief financial officer (CFO). A CFO is responsible for all financial aspects of a company and participates in high-level decisions and strategic planning.

Finally, some accountants choose to open their own firms. This path provides the highest level of autonomy and potential income but also carries greater risks and responsibilities.

Advances in technology are impacting the profession, forcing a shift away from traditional tasks like compliance and tax preparation and toward advisory services. 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.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of accountants and auditors is projected to grow 6 percent through 2031. Employment growth is expected to be closely tied to the health of the overall economy.

Accounting career tips

Understand industry norms and standards

Understanding industry-specific accounting standards thoroughly is important for success in this role. Depending on your location and the company’s size, these standards include generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) or international financial reporting standards (IFRS).

Stay updated with tax laws and regulations

Changes in tax laws and business regulations can significantly impact company finances. As such, it is vital to keep up-to-date with federal, state, and local tax codes. 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)

Practice 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.