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Mention accounting, and certain stereotypes come immediately to mind. People may think accountants are trapped at a desk looking at spreadsheets all day and absorbed in complex equations that no one else can understand. In reality, most accountants would say their jobs are anything but dull, because their work behind the scenes affords them a view of how an organization functions. Accountants have an array of areas in which they can specialize, and opportunities for accounting associates are likewise varied. If you're good with numbers and are looking to build a career in business, a job in the accounting profession could be right for you.
What do accountants do on a daily basis? Accountants are responsible for the financial records of a department or organization. They compile, analyze and verify financial data to ensure efficiency and compliance with the law. Accountants use their findings to prepare written reports to share with clients or an organization's management. They also use their findings to suggest different ways to streamline operations, reduce costs and improve profits. Accountants are needed in virtually every industry, including large corporations, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations such as academic institutions and foundations.
When planning a career in accounting, here are some specialty options to consider:
This is not a specialty field but is often a starting point for a career in accounting. Accounting associates provide assistance to accountants and auditors by preparing some of the documents needed for accounting procedures. They must have bookkeeping and other basic accounting skills. Assistants process, record and pay invoices and similar transactions. If necessary, they resolve matters of outstanding payments with customers, clients and vendors.
Auditing and Assurance Services
Auditors can work for a company or a government agency (internal auditors) or for an independent firm or agency. Their job is to examine financial records to ensure proper fiscal conduct. They also can advise on measures to cut costs and improve profits.
Actuaries usually work for insurance companies or large corporations. Their specialty is risk management. Most actuaries have accounting degrees and have passed a series of exams to become actuaries, although increasingly, colleges and universities are offering degrees in actuarial science.
Cost accountants analyze business expenses to help a company improve its processes and save money. These accountants look at the costs associated with every aspect of a business, such as administration, labor, materials, production and shipping, and compile the information for decision-making by the business leaders.
Forensic accountants , also known as forensic or investigative auditors, specialize in uncovering embezzlement, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. Think of them as the detectives of the accounting industry. Some even serve as expert witnesses in a court of law.
Government accounting involves the records of taxpayers and government organizations. The Department of Treasury (DOT) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are the two largest federal agencies employing accountants. Governments at the state, county and municipal levels employ accountants to oversee finances and manage budgets.
Investment accountants work for brokerage houses and asset management firms. They are highly knowledgeable about stocks and bonds, currencies, precious metals and other types of investments. They manage their clients' investments and ensure compliance with the regulations of the state in which they practice.
Managerial accountants prepare financial information for use within an organization, usually a private corporation. They analyze financial data for budgeting and planning purposes. A Certified Management Accountant (CMA) has attained a nationally recognized credential denoting a high level of competency in the profession.
This is the largest of the accounting specialties in terms of broad range of duties and number of practitioners. Public accountants can serve individuals, small businesses and corporations. If you want to have taxes prepared professionally rather than do them yourself, a public accountant is usually the person you'll see. Public accountants sometimes work as financial planners or financial advisors.
A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) holds a minimum of a bachelor's degree in accounting and has passed the rigorous Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination.The CPA is a nationally recognized credential.
Staff accountants are generalists, and thus duties vary according to the employer. Those working for a large company may have supervisory duties, while those employed by small companies have a greater role in bookkeeping and day-to-day transactions.
If you want to get started in the accounting field but don't want to spend a lot of time in school, consider a one-year diploma or two-year certificate program from a community college. Either of these programs will prepare you for most jobs in data entry or bookkeeping. You may also be able to get a job as an accountant's assistant. There will not be opportunities for advancement without further formal education, but it's a good introduction to the field. You can earn money while deciding if a career in accounting is the right choice for your future.
To get a job as an accountant, you'll need a minimum of a bachelor's degree. U.S. News and World Report ranks the top schools to study accounting. At the top of the list are the University of Texas at Austin, Brigham Young University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and University of Pennsylvania. In all, there are 67 schools ranked on the U.S. News list. Many more accredited programs in accounting are available, including online degree programs. Costs for a bachelor's degree can range from around $10,000 to $15,000 per year for in-state tuition at a public university to $55,000 per year or more for a private university.
Depending on the program, a major in accounting culminates in a Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Accountancy (BAC). A bachelor's degree usually requires four years of full-time study. Most schools require that you complete 120 credit hours of coursework that includes accounting, business and general education. You'll need longer to complete your degree if you're attending day or evening classes on a part-time basis.
Accountants seeking to advance their careers into management can earn a master's degree in accounting or finance. A bachelor's degree is usually not required for admissions to a master's program, although if you have a degree outside of business, you will likely have to fill a number of prerequisites. These courses could including accounting, precalculus and statistics. Depending on the graduate program, there may be specific admissions requirements with respect to undergraduate grade point average and score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Sometimes, experience in the field is also required before admission to a graduate program.
A master's program typically requires two years of full-time study. Coursework includes advanced accounting topics, methods and theory. Students can take electives depending on their area of interest. Some schools are offering 4+1 programs that allow students to complete the master's in one year after the bachelor's degree. Most graduate programs require selection of a specialty area.
Graduate programs are available in residency and online. As with any educational program, do your research before you enroll. Make sure the school and the accounting program are accredited. Find out how much you'll spend for tuition, books and fees. Ask about graduation rates and employment rates of students who have graduated.
Accountants and accounting associates usually work in an office, although some accountants, particularly those who are self-employed, work from home. Typically, accountants and associates work during regular business hours, Monday through Friday, but may be required to work extra hours during tax season or at the end of a company's fiscal year. Some accountants and associates may travel to work at a client's place of business. In general, accountants report a high level of job satisfaction.
The world of accounting has changed rapidly in recent years because of the availability and affordability of quality accounting software. Whereas accountants once had to use calculators, or even adding machines, to crunch numbers, there are now software programs that allow accountants to manipulate numbers faster and in a variety of more complex ways. This results in more accurate and detailed data that individuals and corporations can use to make better financial decisions.
U.S. News and World Report ranks accounting as third best among jobs in business. To determine rankings, the magazine assigns scores to various factors including growth potential of the occupation, opportunities for advancement, stress and work/life balance.
Salary and Job Outlook for the Accounting Profession
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data on all civilian jobs. The bureau projects 10 percent job growth in accounting through 2026, considered better than average when compared to all other occupations.
Salaries for accountants and associates vary according to education, certifications, employer and geographic location. Years of experience alone do not have a great impact on salary. Accounting associates earn a reported median salary of $44,483 per year, with a range of $33,568 to $60,120. The median salary for an accountant is $49,749 per year, with an average range between $37,049 and $70,571. Of accountants surveyed, 73 percent reported that they receive medical benefits. Among the same group, 57 percent reported they also receive dental benefits.
Skills that enhance pay and job opportunities include budget management, financial applications, analysis, and reporting and general ledger analysis.
Busting the Myths About Accountants
Myth: An accountant has to be a mathematical genius.
Reality: The math skills required for accounting are pretty elementary: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The most important skills an accountant needs are analytical skills and proficient professional writing and communications skills. Accountants need to be accurate and have strong attention to detail.
Myth: Accounting is a profession for men.
Reality: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that women are earning 52 percent of the bachelor's degrees in accounting and 53 percent of the master's degrees. Over the past 20 years, women have comprised half the membership of the ranks of new certified public accountants (CPAs).
Myth: Accountants work in isolation, crunching numbers at a desk all day.
Reality: Most accountants work in fast-paced, time sensitive environments and regularly meet with other team members to complete reports and special projects.
Myth: Every accountant is a tax expert.
Reality: Just as every physician does not perform surgery or set broken bones, not all accountants are knowledgeable enough about tax codes to prepare taxes or give tax advice.
Myth: Accountants are boring people.
Reality: Accountants are like professionals in any other occupation. They have families, interests and lives outside their work. Former World Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell, saxophonist Kenny G and Superbowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco all graduated with a degree in accounting. Most people would agree that there's nothing boring about these accountants!
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- Rasmussen College: What Do Accountants Do? Life Behind the Ledger
- The Accounting Degree Review: How to Become an Accountant
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Accountants and Auditors
- PayScale: Accounting Associate
- Accounting.com: Bachelor's Degree in Accounting
- Masters in Accounting Info: Masters in Accounting
- PayScale: Accountant
- Financial Career Options: 6 Myths About Being an Accountant