How to Become an Accountant

Accountants are fundamental players in most successful businesses. While specific roles may vary depending on the size of the companies they work for, from a bookkeeper to a strategic adviser, they are vitally positioned to drive future business decisions. Whether they are working in a home office or at a massive, global company, accountants must blend analytical and communication skills to maintain and inspect financial accounts, report on financial performance, understand the impact of financial rules and regulations, prepare tax returns and propose solutions to business roadblocks.

Students looking to pursue a master’s degree in accounting can anticipate going beyond the fundamentals to instead focus on the intricacies of more advanced topics — such as tax planning, financial analysis and financial reporting. Entering the business world means possessing qualities and skills that go beyond number crunching. It means being able to understand and apply the complex regulatory, legal and ethical standards of practice.

Being an accountant has the benefits of competitive compensation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2020 median pay for accountants and auditors was $73,560. The profession also has strong job security. The BLS projects 7% job growth for accountants and auditors between 2020 and 2030, which is in line with predicted labor market growth as a whole, and the need for accounting professionals is expected to remain steady, making the profession more stable than that of other roles. This combination of salary and stability makes becoming an accountant a rewarding career choice.

Accounting Major

Most employers will require applicants to possess a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field to be eligible candidates. Many colleges and universities offer an accounting major, making it a smart choice for anyone who is aware that this is their desired career path. Students may opt to major in other related fields, such as business management, business administration, finance or economics. However, aspiring accountants should be careful to consider their state’s requirements for licensure, as some states require that the majority of accountants’ coursework be accounting focused.

At a minimum, all states require that candidates have earned a specific number of hours in accounting-related coursework. Some employers may prefer to hire applicants with a master’s degree, depending on the position. Many accounting firms will not be able to promote employees past a certain level unless they have a graduate degree.

Becoming an Accountant

Those interested in how to become an accountant should know that pursuing an undergraduate degree in accounting is a typical first step, but this isn’t a hard requirement. Earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field like business will also meet the requirement. Courses commonly offered at the undergraduate level cover subjects such as finance, auditing, taxes, accounting types and ethics.

In addition to earning a degree, gaining practical experience through an internship program can help pave the way to becoming an accountant. Whether paid or unpaid, an internship enables students to apply classroom knowledge in a controlled, real-world environment. Applied processes learned in an internship can serve individuals well as their careers progress.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next step toward an advanced accounting career is earning an advanced degree, such as a master’s in accountancy. A master’s degree provides a deeper exploration into some core topics addressed at the undergraduate level. It also examines more complex concepts related to the accounting field, such as cost accounting, federal taxation, nonprofit accounting and business analysis methods. Gaining knowledge of these advanced topics can help prepare individuals to make important decisions concerning some of the trickier, more intricate accounting components they may encounter in their jobs. Most programs typically feature a capstone project that allows individuals to take a deeper dive into an aspect of accounting or accounting theory.

Earning an advanced degree is usually the route taken by those interested in becoming certified public accountants (CPAs) due to the CPA exam’s hours requirement. While a master’s isn’t technically required to apply for certification, earning just a bachelor’s degree usually does not cover the 150 hour minimum requirement. Earning an advanced degree can prepare students for other specialized accounting roles as well. It can also help potentially expand an individual’s job opportunities, as some employers may set a master’s degree as the minimum hiring requirement for some accounting roles.

Accounting Skills

Successful accountants are typically just as good with people as they are with numbers. Communication is a big part of the role, as accountants are responsible for translating numbers and complex financial information into digestible takeaways that clients or their less-trained colleagues can easily understand. Some skills that may be important to possess, or to work on strengthening, for success in this position are:

  • Comfortable with math: Being naturally good with numbers is a huge bonus for excelling as an accountant. After all, accountants and auditors must be able to analyze, compare and interpret facts and figures. However, complex math skills are not necessary.
  • Organized: Accountants often work with a range of financial documents, sometimes for a variety of clients, and must be able to stay on top of them all.
  • Detail oriented: Needing to successfully track documentation and important files, as well as notice any discrepancies in them, means that accountants must have an eye for the small stuff (that could become big stuff).
  • Analytical: Accountants are able to identify major issues and suggest sensible solutions. That could mean reducing tax liabilities or finding fraudulent uses of funds.
  • Skilled at communication: Accountants and auditors must be able to communicate effectively with clients, managers and co-workers. That means being able to listen carefully to both facts and concerns, as well as share findings in meetings and written reports.

An accountant meets with clients.

Licenses, Certifications and Registrations

For many years the CPA license has been the gold standard in the accounting profession. Auditors who sign the opinion for companies that file their annual reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must be licensed CPAs — it’s required by law. Becoming a CPA also enhances the future job prospects of accountants, helps them gain clients and can increase their earning potential. After earning a bachelor’s degree, students must meet the requirements for their jurisdiction and then they’ll be able to sit for the CPA exam. These requirements vary depending on location. For example: Nevada requires 150 educational hours to be eligible for the exam, with no minimum age. However, New York state requires that applicants be 21 to take the exam, and they must have 33 semester hours of accounting education at an upper-division level.

Requirements for licensure may differ from the requirements for taking the exam. For example, New York allows participants to sit for the exam with a completed bachelor’s degree and 120 semester hours from an accredited institution (CPA Exam, 2020). However, to obtain a CPA license, the state of New York requires 150 semester hours Similarly, the University of Nevada, Reno also requires 150 semester hours to obtain a CPA license.

All states use the four-part Uniform CPA Examination from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Candidates do not have to pass all four parts at once, but most states require that candidates complete all four parts within 18 months of passing the first portion of the assessment. One can expect to find the test divided this way:

  • Audit and Attestation
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Regulation
  • Business Environment and Concepts

Typically, testing 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

If accountants wish to set themselves apart from their peers, they can seek certifications from any of a variety of different institutes. This not only shows professional competence, it also showcases skills in a specialized field of accounting and auditing. Some potential certifications include:

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

This is offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and requires that candidates complete a bachelor’s degree, work at least two years in management accounting, pass a two-part exam and agree to meet the requirements of continuing education and comply with standards of professional conduct.

Certified Internal Auditor

This is offered by the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) to candidates who pass the exam and have five years of experience auditing information systems.

For accountants who possess a CPA, there are further certifications offered by the AICPA, including:

  • Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) — Must pass a written exam, complete six business valuation projects and have 75 hours of continuing education
  • Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) — Must have 1,000 hours of business technology experience and 75 hours of continuing education
  • Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) — Must meet standards for work experience and continuing education, as well as pass a written exam

Certification can prove valuable when looking to further one’s career in accounting and can open up doors to more jobs with higher pay.

Accounting Careers

Primarily, accountants prepare and review financial records and tax returns. They are responsible for making sure that such documents are accurate and that the taxes are paid properly and on time. Accountants oversee financial operations in a professional manner, helping to ensure that an organization is running effectively. However, depending on certifications, education and interests, there are a variety of roles within the field that accountants can fulfill.

Public Accountants

Public accountants are responsible for a broad range of tasks, including auditing, consulting and managing taxes. Clients can vary, but include governments, corporations and individuals.

Many public accountants work with financial documents disclosed by their clients, including balance sheet statements that must be shared with potential investors. Some public accountants may opt to focus on tax matters, depending on their clients’ needs, and will lend their advice on the tax advantages of specific business decisions or prepare individual tax returns. In order for  public accountants  to sign documents that public companies submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission, they must be licensed CPAs.

Forensic Accountants

Public accountants who specialize in forensic accounting investigate financial crimes like fraud and embezzlement. Forensic accountants combine their knowledge of accounting and finance with expertise in the law and criminal investigation techniques. These accountants may be utilized by lawyers and law enforcement personnel to aid in investigations.

Management Accountants

These accountants may also be referred to as managerial, corporate or private accountants. They are responsible for recording and analyzing financial information for their companies. They may help with budgeting tasks, as well as evaluating the cost of doing business. Management accountants may also work on asset management, helping to plan financial investments and monitor them on an ongoing basis.

Government Accountants

Government accountants are responsible for maintaining and examining the records of public agencies. Accountants who work for federal, state and local governments make sure that revenues are spent according to laws and regulations, and prepare financial statements for government organizations.

Other roles that graduates with accounting degrees may wish to pursue include personal financial adviser, auditor, tax adviser, budget analyst, financial analyst, cost estimator or tax authority agent, like an IRS revenue agent.

Continued Education

Accountants must continue their education to maintain their license and certifications. If one works in a state that requires ongoing professional and educational development, it is crucial to stay up to date with the requirements. However, even as a professional in a state without these requirements, further education in accounting may provide an opportunity for faster advancement and a higher salary.

The University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Accountancy program can help students achieve their goals of advanced education. The online program is designed to allow students to cultivate a deeper understanding of accounting’s fundamental principles in an environment that can fit their busy schedules. Learn more about how we can help prepare tomorrow’s advanced accountants today.

Recommended Readings

Masters in Accounting Salary and Career Outlook
Potential Forensic Accounting Jobs for MAcc Graduates
Welcome to the Online Master of Accountancy Program at the University of Nevada, Reno


American Institute of CPAs, 150 Hour Requirement for Obtaining a CPA License
American Institute of CPAs, Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints
Bizfluent, “What Does an Accounting Intern Do?”, CPA Exam Requirements for Each State, How to Become an Accountant
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accountants and Auditors