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Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Career Guide

What is a certified public accountant?

A certified public accountant is an accountant who has met specific education and experience requirements and has passed the CPA examination, which qualifies them to perform specialized tasks in the accounting profession. This designation is recognized internationally but is most prominent in the United States.

Being a CPA signifies a high standard of knowledge, ethics, and expertise in the field of accounting. While all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs. The certification elevates the professional’s credibility, assuring clients, employers, and stakeholders that they possess a deep understanding of accounting principles, tax regulations, and business practices.

Duties and responsibilities

While CPAs can perform all the duties of a general accountant, their certification equips them to handle specialized roles that require the CPA designation. They are authorized to perform audits and reviews of financial statements, which are essential for public companies due to regulatory requirements. They can represent clients before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for tax issues, ensuring that the clients’ rights are upheld and offering expert advice during disputes.

Additionally, these accountants often play roles in financial planning, business valuation, forensic accounting, and consulting on financial strategies. Their expertise is also sought after in mergers, acquisitions, and other business transactions where financial intricacies need in-depth scrutiny.

Work environment

CPAs often work in public accounting firms, ranging from small local practices to the globally recognized “Big Four” firms. Within these settings, they might specialize in areas like audit, tax, advisory, or consulting. They can also be found in corporate environments, serving as finance officers, controllers, or other high-ranking financial positions.

Their work environment is predominantly office-based, using advanced accounting software and tools. However, they might also travel to client locations, especially during audit engagements or business consultations. Interaction with clients, regulatory bodies, and internal teams is a common aspect of their daily routine.

Typical work hours

Similar to general accountants, CPAs usually work a standard 40-hour week. However, there are periods, like tax season or during major audit engagements, where they might put in extra hours, including weekends, to meet deadlines. Additionally, those in public accounting or consultancy roles might experience more fluctuating hours depending on client demands and the nature of specific projects. Travel and onsite client engagements might also impact their daily schedules, demanding flexibility and adaptability.

How to become a certified public accountant

This career guide section outlines how to become a certified public accountant. Among the primary steps, earning a degree, passing a rigorous exam, and gaining relevant experience stand out.

Step 1: Complete high school education

The journey begins with completing a high school education, focusing on classes related to business, accounting, and mathematics. These subjects lay the foundation for the further complexity of accounting matters.

Step 2: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Aspiring accountants generally require a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field. Additionally, most state boards of accountancy require a degree with at least 150 semester hours of college coursework, which often goes beyond a typical four-year bachelor’s degree.

Step 3: Gain initial accounting experience

The practical aspect of becoming a certified public accountant involves gaining experience. This could be through internships during college or entry-level job positions related to accounting. This initial experience provides a practical understanding of the industry and aids in developing key accounting skills.

Step 4: Prepare for and pass the CPA exam

The next crucial step is passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, a comprehensive test established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The examination tests numerous aspects of knowledge and can be taken in four separate sections. Many individuals invest in a CPA exam review course to prepare.

Step 5: Work in a public accounting firm

Post-graduation, prospective accountants should seek employment with public accounting or professional services firms. These roles offer a wide range of experiences and exposure to various industries, thus expanding one’s skillset.

Step 6: Complete required experience for CPA licensure

States typically require one to two years of public accounting experience to obtain a CPA license. It’s important to note that rules may vary, and candidates must check individual state requirements. This hands-on experience is acquired while working in a supervised environment.

Step 7: Obtain CPA licensure

Once the education, exam, and experience requirements have been met, candidates can apply for licensure with their state board of accountancy. Upon approval, candidates officially become CPAs, opening doors to greater career opportunities.

How much do certified public accountants make?

Certified public accountant salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Specific factors impacting their salary include years of accounting experience, a master’s degree or other advanced qualifications, and specializations such as forensic or tax accounting.

Highest paying industries

  • Finance and Insurance – $110,400
  • Management of Companies and Enterprises – $108,950
  • Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services – $106,200
  • Securities and Other Financial Activities – $105,700
  • Federal Executive Branch – $103,800

Highest paying states

  • New York – $113,300
  • New Jersey – $110,120
  • Virginia – $105,840
  • Connecticut – $102,490
  • Massachusetts – $98,750

Browse certified public accountant salary data by market

Types of certified public accountants

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for certified public accountants. Below, we highlight the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.

Tax accountant

While every CPA needs familiarity with tax laws, tax accountants specialize in preparing and filing clients’ tax documents. They also provide strategies for minimizing tax liabilities, staying in compliance with tax laws, and managing audits by tax authorities.

Auditing accountant

Working mainly with corporations, auditing accountants evaluate financial records to confirm accuracy and compliance with regulations and laws. They also assess financial operations to help their clients run efficiently.

Forensic accountant

A forensic accountant scrutinizes financial records for legal cases. They often work with law enforcement and lawyers, looking for evidence of illegal financial activity, such as money laundering, fraud, and embezzlement.

Management accountant

Involved in strategy and management decision-making, management accountants analyze financial information for business planning, performance evaluation, and cost management. Their ultimate goal is to guide their company’s financial direction and contribute to business strategy.

Financial accountant

Financial accountants’ primary task is preparing financial reports based on a company’s financial history. Business stakeholders, including managers, investors, and regulators, use these reports to make informed decisions about the company’s future financial direction.

Government accountant

Working for government agencies, these accountants deal with financial management and planning for government projects. They also ensure the lawful use of public funds and may audit private businesses or individuals.

Top skills for certified public accountants

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a certified public accountant.

Financial expertise

These professionals often serve in various financial roles, and superior knowledge of financial theory and practices is vital. This includes understanding accounting principles, tax laws and regulations, and auditing procedures.

Analytical skills

Working with financial data calls for exceptional analytical skills. A proficient CPA is needed to analyze and interpret complex financial information to provide clear, actionable insights and recommendations.


Precision and attention to detail are fundamental traits for a successful accountant. Recording, analyzing, and presenting intricate financial data with great accuracy is a key part of the job.

Interpersonal skills

While numbers are undoubtedly a key aspect of their career, they must also engage with clients and teams. Effective interpersonal skills aid in fostering high-quality client relationships and functioning well within a team setup.

Ethics and integrity

Given the sensitive nature of financial data and the potential implications of their actions, a strong code of ethics and high levels of integrity are a must. CPAs need to adhere strictly to professional standards and protect client confidentiality.

CPA career path options

At the entry-level, many CPAs start in positions such as tax associate or auditor in public accounting firms. From these positions, they typically move up the ladder to senior-level roles.

Demonstrating competency and gaining experience in initial roles opens up the possibility of becoming a manager within a few years. Managers oversee younger CPAs and ensure that work is completed accurately and timely. This helps to develop the leadership and supervisory skills needed for further progression.

After several years at the managerial level, professionals in this industry can reach senior management positions like director or partner. These roles involve strategic decision-making and business development responsibilities. They reflect an individual’s expertise and standing in the field and often come with significant financial rewards.

Additionally, there’s a broad spectrum of career opportunities outside of public accounting firms for those who prefer not to follow a traditional path. CPAs can find roles in government agencies, non-profit organizations, or private companies. They can also seek specialization in areas like forensic accounting, corporate finance, IT consulting, and international tax, which may open doors to niche roles and leadership positions. Some also opt to start their own private practice.

Over the past years, accounting software has become a significant tool, shifting the focus from manual data entry to analysis and interpretation. CPAs must keep up with this shift and adjust their working methods accordingly. Mastery of such software allows for increased accuracy and time efficiency, thereby providing clients with high-quality service.

Another emergent trend lies in specialization. With many industries and complex financial scenarios, those understanding specific market sectors are increasingly in demand. These specializations might cover areas like healthcare, cybersecurity, or international business. Having in-depth knowledge of a specific industry sector helps these professionals stand out and increase their employability.

Lastly, along with technological and specialization trends, ethical practice gains importance due to increased scrutiny over transparency and corporate governance. By incorporating high standards of accountability and integrity into their working practices, CPAs can better their community’s trust, contributing to the profession’s credibility overall.

Employment projections for CPAs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data, the employment of accountants and auditors, which includes CPAs, is projected to grow 6 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. Economic growth and complex financial regulations will continue to drive demand for these professionals.

Certified public accountant career tips

Get certified

To maximize your career success, getting certified is a major step. While the job title itself suggests certification, it’s important to note that becoming a CPA requires passing a specific exam. This certification, issued by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), is recognized globally and adds credibility to your position.


Specialization allows you to deepen your expertise in a specific area of accounting and can set you apart in the job market. Some areas for specialization include corporate accounting, personal financial planning, forensic accounting, or auditing.

Pursue continuing education

Continuing education not only helps you maintain your certification but can also enhance your skills and help you stay up-to-date with industry changes. Some recommended options for continuing education are:

  • Taking advanced accounting courses
  • Attending seminars and webinars on accounting regulations and trends
  • Getting training on accounting software and technologies

Stay updated with the tax laws

One of your key responsibilities is to help your clients navigate the complex world of tax laws. These laws often change from year to year, so a dedicated professional stays updated with the changes to provide the most accurate advice possible.

Build a professional network

Networking with other professionals in your field can open doors to new opportunities and help you learn from others’ experiences. Some professional associations for accountants include:

  • The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA)
  • The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA)
  • The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
  • The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)

Where the jobs are

Top employers

  • PwC
  • Deloitte
  • Ernst & Young
  • KPMG

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Illinois
  • Texas
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Monster
  • AICPA Job Board
  • Robert Half


What is the role of a certified public accountant outside of tax season?

Outside of tax season, a CPA may conduct client audits, review financial statements, or manage budgeting and financial planning. Accounting work continues throughout the year, so their duties may also increase in investment strategies, financial consultation, or advising on laws and regulations.

Is it necessary for a certified public accountant to have a deep understanding of software?

Yes, it is necessary, as most accounting tasks are carried out on specialized software. Understanding these tools and how to use them efficiently is key to being productive in the role. Familiarity with spreadsheet programs, as well as accounting and tax preparation software, is typically required.

How do certified public accountants stay updated with the latest financial laws and regulations?

Staying updated with financial laws and regulations is a continuous process. CPAs often participate in professional development courses, subscribe to industry journals, and attend industry-related seminars. Membership in professional organizations also provides exposure to the latest in the field.

What are the typical working hours for a certified public accountant?

A CPA typically works a standard 40-hour week. However, work hours can increase significantly during peak times such as major audits or the tax filing season. This often includes evening and weekend work. Some self-employed accountants have the flexibility to set their own hours.

What interpersonal skills are important for a certified public accountant to possess?

A CPA must be able to communicate clearly and effectively, as they are expected to explain complex financial situations to clients who may not have a financial background. They need to be good listeners to understand their client’s needs. Building and maintaining strong relationships is also key, which requires reliability, honesty, and excellent customer service skills.

How important is accuracy for a certified public accountant?

Accuracy is one of the most essential parameters in accounting practice. A small error can have significant consequences in financial reports and tax computations. CPAs must be detail-oriented to catch and prevent errors, ensuring that every number they record and use for analysis is precise.

What is the difference between a certified public accountant and a general accountant?

The main difference is that a certified public accountant has passed the CPA exam and met other state licensing requirements. As CPAs, they have legal prerogatives that a general accountant doesn’t, including the ability to sign tax returns as a paid preparer and represent clients before the IRS during audits and other matters.

What professional development opportunities exist for a certified public accountant?

Professional development opportunities for a CPA are ample. They can specialize in a particular area, such as financial planning, forensic accounting, or information technology. They may also advance into roles such as finance manager or director, chief financial officer, or even company president or CEO. Some also opt to open their own private practices.

What ethical standards must a certified public accountant follow?

Given their significant responsibilities, CPAs are held to high ethical standards. They are expected to maintain their clients’ confidentiality and may not disclose any client information without specific consent unless mandated by law. They must also present information truthfully and fairly, avoid conflicts of interest, and ensure accuracy in their work.