Accountants are in high demand across industries, as businesses work to comply with new regulations and adapt to changing system implementation. Not only is demand high, but, according to Robert Half, talent is often in short supply, causing many firms to try to improve their pay and benefits as well additional perks to win over top talent.
With many top job titles earning at or above six figures and ample opportunity in a wide range of sectors, an accounting career path is both an in-demand and lucrative one. As digital transformation has enabled automating of routine tasks like data entry, employees need to increasingly focus on strategic work, navigating data analytics, cloud-based systems and emerging tools and technologies. A growing number of firms place “a premium on excellent soft skills,” according to Robert Half, which includes business acumen, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication.
Accounting Career Paths by Industry
One important distinction in selecting a career path is determining whether you would prefer to work for a single company in a specific industry, or a company that supports others with accounting services. Both the public accounting career path and the private accounting career path offer plenty of options; aspiring accountants simply need to understand which career path is the right fit for their individual strengths and goals.
Public accountants typically work for accounting firms, providing a variety of services ranging from auditing, tax, forensic accounting, as well as advisory and consulting services. The Big Four public accounting firms – Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG and PWC – often attract top talent.
Public accounting jobs often entail a variety of tasks, longer work hours, and can also include travel. A dynamic environment requires public accounts to be quick to learn and adapt.
The entry-level role in public accounting is a general accountant, followed by a senior accountant before moving up into leadership positions. The top job in public accounting is the elite partner role.
Private accounting is typically more routine, both in terms of tasks and hours. Private, or corporate, accountants typically travel less and focus more on helping their company comply with new regulations, as well as overseeing system implementation.
Job titles can include accountant, senior accountant, analyst, tax manager, tax director, or auditor; the top job in private accounting is CFO.
Forensic accountants blend their accounting background with investigative skills to support litigation or crime investigations in an accounting context, typically helping to investigate crimes like embezzlement or fraud. Forensic accountants can work in several industries: in public accounting as part of a forensic accounting division, in consulting as part of a risk management consulting team, or for other organizations including law firms, law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, government organizations, or financial institutions. Generally, the job title in the forensic accounting career path is auditor.
Government accountants ensure individuals and corporations are compliant with taxes, disclosing as required, and releasing accurate financial statements. Typically, government accountants start as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Financial accountants work for one organization or business creating financial reports for external stakeholders, including creditors, taxing agencies, and stockholders. These reports, which access fiscal performance, can include balance sheets, profit and loss statements, and cash flow statements.
Management, or Managerial, Accounting
Like financial accountants, managerial accounts also prepare reports that assess fiscal performance; however, managerial accountants focus on internal stakeholders, creating reports to help business leaders better plan, budget and drive higher performance.
A tax accountant specializes on tax-related accounting, which includes preparing quarterly or annual tax returns for businesses or individuals at the local, state and federal level. The tax manager is the highest position in this path, which generally begins with tax accountant.
Generally employed in large organizations, an internal auditor helps to ensure the company is compliant with any state or federal requirements, funds are being managed responsibly and honestly, and resources are used effectively. This can also include auditing the organization’s transactions. Internal auditing careers generally begin with an internal auditor position and advance to managerial roles.
Accounting Career Paths by Level
Entry-Level Accounting Careers
Generally, an accounting career begins with the following roles:
- Cost accountant
- Junior internal auditor
- Junior staff accountant
- Payroll administrator
- Audit associate
- Accounting trainee
Mid-Level Accounting Careers
Mid-level accounting careers typically entail some leadership responsibility, such as being a supervisor or manager. Other job titles include:
- Budget director
- Financial data analyst
- Income tax accountant
- Internal auditor
Senior-Level Accounting Careers
Many top executives in C-suite roles have experience in accounting, financial, or internal auditing. Senior-level accounting careers in the public accounting sector can include partner, and on the private accounting side, job titles include:
- VP of Finance
- Chief Financial Officer
- Chief Cost Accountant
- Certified Public Accountant
- Director of Accounting Operations
Accounting Education Requirements
Although most accountants and auditors must have a least a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s degree, there are a wide variety of options for accountant and auditor positions for all levels of education.
AA in Accounting
An AA in Accounting equips professionals to prepare financial presentations that comply with accounting standards, incorporate cost accounting fundamentals into daily work, and estimate the value of liabilities and equities. Many of the fundamentals gained with an AA in Accounting equip professionals with skills immediately applicable in the workplace to take on entry-level roles like junior staff accountant, financial data analyst, or audit associate. In addition, an AA in Accounting can provide a solid foundation to continued education in accounting.
BA in Accounting
Professionals with a BA in Accounting study Cost Accounting, Auditing, Individual Federal Income Taxes, and Finance for Managers, earning a degree that equips them to enter an array of career paths, which includes accountant, financial procedures analyst, controller, technical accounting, manager, tax associate, budget analyst, or internal auditor.
MBA in Accounting
While earning an MBA in Accounting, students hone their understanding of real-world business scenarios, refining how to apply key business concepts and develop and apply specialized skills as they develop a fully integrated business plan. They must also be able to conduct cost allocation, understand absorption cost systems, and use decision and control models. An MBA in Accounting provides a springboard for additional professional certifications, including the CPA exam. With an advanced degree, professionals are equipped for mid to senior-level positions, including Senior Budget Analyst, Director of Accounting Operations, or Certified Public Accountant.
In many cases, earning an accounting certification can boost job prospects and provide candidates with a competitive edge. In some cases, these are mandatory. For example, any accountant who files a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission by law must be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).
In order to become a CPA, professionals must pass a national exam and meet other state-specific requirements, which almost always require candidates to have 150 semester hours of college coursework completed. While a master’s degree isn’t required, the hours requirement is 30 hours beyond a typical 4-year degree.
Even professionals who aren’t legally obligated to become CPAs will elect to do so to help win clients or improve job prospects, and in many cases, employers will pay for the costs associated with the exam.
Other common certifications include:
- The Certified Management Accountant (CMA), which is available to applicants who have completed a bachelor’s degree. Earning this certification from the Institute of Management Accounts requires two years of work experience, plus a two-part exam, a commitment to continuing education, and compliance with a professional code of conduct.
- The Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) exam is available to graduates who have worked for at least 2 years as internal auditors and have passed a four-part exam.
- For candidates who have five years of experience auditing information systems, the ISACA offers the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CSA) for passing an exam. In some cases, college credit can be substituted for years of experience.
The median annual salary for accountants and auditors was $70,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics1, with the top 10% earning more than $122,840.
Other accounting salaries according to Robert Half’s 2020 Salary Guide2 include the following:
|Job Title||Median Annual Salary|
|General Accountant Manager||$95,250|
|Tax Services Manager||$106,500|
|Mid-Level Internal Auditor||$90,500|
|Chief Financial Officer||$202,750|