Starting an accounting career takes you down a road with multiple lanes and forks in the road. Each of those things represents a choice you make along the way, because you have many options as an accountant, from how you'll become one to the type of work you do. You can work your way down the slow lane, gaining experience and education along the way, take the fast lane through a bachelor's degree into a staff accounting position or keep traveling toward certification as a CPA.
You can start a career working as an accounting clerk with just a high school diploma, but you'll need to gain at least an associate degree in accounting before moving into a position as a junior accountant. Take advantage of any tuition reimbursement programs your company may have. A bachelor's degree is required for most of the more responsible accounting positions, such as cost accountant or staff auditor. A degree in business with plenty of accounting coursework can get you in the door, or you can just major in accounting.
If you want to be a certified public accountant, most states require education beyond a bachelor's, typically an extra year that many colleges offer to students who plan to become a CPA. A master's degree isn't necessary, but some employers like to see one. After school, you need to pass the national examination and gain certification from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. If you don't want to be a CPA, you can gain certification as an auditor or management accountant. All certifications require work experience in your field before you apply.
With an associate degree and some work experience you can start out as a junior staff accountant, handling such things as processing payroll, making general ledger entries and preparing billings. Staff accountants with bachelor's degrees work on more complex issues, such as job costing, account reconciliations, running trial balances and preparing financial reports. If you have a bachelor's degree and plan to pursue a CPA certification, you can get a job as an internal auditor for a large company, which positions you nicely for working as an auditor for a CPA firm down the road. Other entry level jobs with a bachelor's degree include revenue agent with the Internal Revenue Service or a state agency, and accountant for a nonprofit organization.
The average annual wage for accountants was $71,040 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bottom 10 percent of earners averaged $39,930 per year, which is closer to where you'll start out than the average salary of the top 10 percent, which was $111,510. The BLS projects a growth rate of 16 percent for accountants and auditors through 2020, and notes that job prospects will be best for CPAs and accountants with certifications.