1. Research your state’s requirements for accountants.
Figure 2.2 “Before I’ll let you kiss me, I’ll need to see your adjusted gross income.”
Every state in the U.S. sets its own standards for licensing accountants. Knowing ahead of time what your state is going to expect of you at the various stages of your education and career will help you map out your plans for college, internships, and exams. The hoops you’ll have to jump through may even inform your decision about which licenses to pursue. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) provides contact information for every board of accountancy in the United States, to help you find authoritative information.
Now is also the time to start thinking about what kind of accounting you want to do. You’ll find a brief comparison of various specialties at the bottom of this page.
2. Earn at least one degree in accounting.
To advance as an accountant, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree or higher. An associate’s degree or accounting certificate from a two-year college may qualify you for an entry-level position such as bookkeeper, but little else. Because most states won’t license you as a Certified Public Accountant unless you’ve completed 150 college credits, and a bachelor’s degree is only 120, some colleges and universities offer a five-year accounting degree for students on track to become CPAs. Alternatively, you can pursue a master’s degree; the most popular are the Master of Accountancy (MAcc), the Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an accounting emphasis, and the Master of Science in Taxation (MST). Take advantage of internship opportunities offered by your school; experience will be important when you start applying for jobs.
3. Begin working as an accountant.
Figure 2.3 Accountants get us through tax season; distillers get accountants through it.
Expect to work your way up through a hierarchy of accounting or auditing positions. You’ll start out in an entry- or mid-level position, depending on your level of education and previous experience, and you’ll probably be eligible to earn your first promotion after a year or two. One of the benefits of becoming an accountant is qualifying for a variety of high-ranking jobs; senior managers and CEOs sometimes start out in accounting or internal auditing.
Once you have some professional experience, you’ll be able to apply for certification. The minimum number of years experience required for certification varies, depending on the state in which you work and the type of certificate you’re hoping to get. Plan to log at least a year or two of full-time accounting or auditing first.
4. Get certified, if you want to.
Becoming a certified accountant is optional, but definitely a good idea. Any form of certification from your State Board of Accountancy will show employers and clients that you’re committed to certain professional and ethical standards—which means it will also qualify you for more, better, and higher-paying job opportunities. There are about as many types of certification as accounting specialties, but the most popular and versatile options are Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Management Accountant (CMA). You’ll earn your certification by fulfilling minimum education and experience requirements, passing a notoriously difficult four-part national exam within a prescribed time period, and jumping through any other hoops specific to your state or specialty. Afterward, you’ll maintain your certification by participating in continuing education and renewing your license every couple of years.
Different Types of Accountants
You may have decided to become an accountant, but you’re not nearly done making decisions. The field of accounting is a pretty vast one, so you have some freedom to choose a specialty that suits your interests and preferences. Public accountants do the widest variety of jobs, including general consulting and advising, and have a diverse client base that can include individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations. Those who specialize in forensic accounting participate in the investigation of financial crimes. Management accountants work closely with businesses, making budget recommendations based on careful analysis of up-to-date financial information. Government accountants represent government agencies, often as auditors for the Internal Revenue Service, or work within businesses to ensure that they abide by the government’s financial regulations. Increasingly, businesses and organizations are hiring internal auditors to help them work toward maximum efficiency and keep all of their financial activity within the law.
Within these categories, there are many more specialized careers and opportunities for promotion or branching out into related fields. Some accountants become upper-level managers; others transition into the development or adaptation of financial software. That’s one of the great advantages of becoming an accountant: you’ll never be without some kind of job.