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 advisor, they are vitally positioned to drive future business decisions. Regardless of 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, and instead focusing on the intricacies of more advanced topics – like tax planning, financial analysis and reporting. Being prepared to enter 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.

As of 2018, the median pay for accountants and auditors is $70,500 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). Being an accountant has the benefits of a high salary, as well as strong job security unrivaled by many other fields – making it a lucrative career choice.

What to major in to become an accountant

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 decision for anyone who is aware that this is their desired career path. For those aspiring to work as a certified public accountant (CPA), the minimum standard to take the CPA exam in most states is a bachelor’s degree and 150 credit hours. Students may opt to major in other related fields, such as business management, business administration, finance or economics – but should be careful to consider their state’s requirements, as some expect that the majority of their 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.

Desired 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 they 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. Although, complex math skills are not necessary.
  • Organizational skills: 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: Successfully tracking documentation and important files, as well as noticing any discrepancies, means that successful accountants must have an eye for the small stuff (that could become big stuff).
  • Analytical skills: Accountants are able to identify major issues and suggest sensible solutions. That could mean reducing tax liability or finding fraudulent uses of funds.
  • Good at communication: Accountants and auditors must be able to communicate effectively with clients, managers and coworkers. That means listening carefully to both facts and concerns, as well as sharing their findings in meetings and written reports.

Licenses, certifications and registrations

For many years the CPA license has been the gold standard in the 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 future job prospects, helps gain clients and can increase 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 vary 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. A few states will allow a number of years working in the field to substitute for a college degree, but again, it varies from state to state.

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 a variety of different institutes. Not only does this show professional competence, but 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 (CIA):
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.

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

Career opportunities

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 to which various records pertain are paid properly and on time. Accountants oversee financial operations in a pivotal 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 accountants can fulfill.

Public accountants: Public accountants are responsible for a broad range of tasks, from 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 tax forms and balance sheet statements that are necessary to share with potential investors. Some public accountants may opt to focus on tax matters, dependent on their clients’ needs and will lend their advice on the tax advantages of specific business decisions or preparing individual returns. Many public accountants are CPAs and thus required to sign documents that public companies submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There are public accountants that specialize in forensic accounting, working to investigate financial crimes like fraud and embezzlement. Forensic accountants use a combined knowledge of accounting and finance with 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 the companies they work for. 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 that work for federal, state and local governments make sure that revenues are spent in congruence with laws and regulations.

Other roles that graduates with accounting degrees may wish to pursue include personal financial advisor, auditor, tax advisor, budget analysis, financial analyst, cost estimator and tax authorities, like an IRS revenue agent.

Continued education

Many states require that individuals 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 requirements.

However, even as a professional in a state without these requirements, further education in accounting may warrant faster advancement and a higher salary. Deciding how to advance one’s position in the field of accounting can be dependent on many factors. For more on obtaining an MAcc degree, read about University of Nevada, Reno’s online program.


Suggested Readings

Potential Forensic Accounting Jobs for MAcc Graduates

Masters in Accounting Salary and Career Outlook

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Accountancy



Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2019. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from: 2020. CPA Exam Requirements. Retrieved from: