A degree will prepare you for a number of accounting jobs or to sit for the prestigious CPA license.
Accounting certifications are available to help you gain experience to practice in your chosen specialty.
As an accountant you’ll play a huge part in your company’s–or client’s–financial success and security.
When you think of an accountant do you automatically start to stifle a yawn? Well, you might just want to rethink your stereotyping about accountants. Gone are the days of paper cluttered, dusty offices with adding machines being tended by rows of automatons in visors. In fact, as you ponder your education options for a career in accounting you’ll find the field has become a vibrant and exciting frontier, with many unique paths available to you.
From the investigative analysis of forensic accounting to the world of high finance, what you choose to do as an accountant largely depends upon where your interests lie. But even if you’re already certain about what your calling may be, you might have questions about how to achieve your goals. Let us help you find the right accounting degree program to best utilize your talents and interests. If you’re ready to get started, read on.
What should I expect from accounting training?
Since an accountant provides accurate and secure information to clients or employers by researching and analyzing financial data, you’ll learn to perform these types of tasks:
- Prepare and examine financial records
- Perform audits of financial operations
- Ensure that records are accurate
- Prepare taxes on a timely basis
- Improve business efficiency
Can I take online accounting classes?
Yes. Online accounting courses are available from accredited schools throughout the country. You can earn certificates and almost every degree type, from associate’s degree through your postgraduate Master of Accounting (MAcc), MBA and PhD. Online programs are perfect for accountants who are already working in the field and want to become certified in any number of types of accountancy. They’re also a great fit if you need to balance classwork with family and work obligations.
Which degree do I need?
Though you can find entry-level careers with an associate’s degree, most employers will require at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting. If you want to move past clerking and assistant roles, you should investigate a 4-year bachelor’s program, where you will receive a solid education in several accounting subjects and begin working toward the requirements needed for your chosen area of specialization.
BEST ONLINE ACCOUNTING SCHOOLS FOR WORKING ADULTS
You know how important it is to choose the best school for your accounting degree, especially when it comes to online schools. You’ll want to make sure that your time and money are well spent and that your school is of good quality. We’ve assembled a ranking of the 40 best accounting schools for working adults to help you make the right decision.
POTENTIAL ACCOUNTING CAREERS
Your career choices are wide as an accountant and will depend upon the area of finance or business you’d like to enter. Here are some of the most common types of accountants:
Forensic Accountant: You’ll analyze and interpret financial evidence in fraud and capital crime cases, and more often than not, you’ll appear in court to testify upon your findings and act as an expert witness.
Internal Auditor: You’ll work within a business or company to assess risk, and you’ll find ways to minimize waste and fraud and increase efficiency.
Public Accountant: You’ll provide a wide range of duties across the accounting spectrum for companies, government agencies and individual clients.
Management (or Cost) Accountant: You’ll analyze financial information of clients your company works for and provide it for internal use within your company. This data will not be public.
Government Accountant: You’ll work within government agencies and examine and audit businesses and individuals who are subject to government taxes and regulations.
Tax Accountant: You’ll report to taxation authorities at all levels of local and federal government and offer professional advice regarding the tax impact of strategies devised by corporations. You’ll need to stay abreast of ever-changing tax laws and ensure that your clients are aware of changes, from tax rates to timelines.
Financial Advisor: As an advisor to your clients, you’ll develop personalized investment plans to help them achieve their long-term financial goals.
HOW TO BECOME AN ACCOUNTANT
Earn a Degree
Before you can start your career, you’ll need to understand what accounting degrees are available to you. Here are brief descriptions of the programs you can pursue either in a traditional or online setting:
Certificates can mean several things in accounting. You can earn a basic accounting certificate, which will prepare you to take the first steps toward a degree, or you can earn a professional certification after you’ve graduated, which is designed to provide specialized expertise and authority in your chosen field of accounting. Depending upon the accounting career field you would like to enter, there are certification courses available for several designations of accountants. The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is the most common certification, and each state board of accountancy has unique requirements. The CPA prepares you to perform a wide range of accounting services to your clients. Some other certification programs include Certified Internal Auditor, Certified Payroll Professional, Certified Management Accountant and Chartered Financial Analyst. Certifications are fast becoming requested by employers and are proof that you are competent in your chosen area of expertise.
In an associate’s degree program, you’ll take two years of coursework designed to get you into the field quickly. The upside is your courses will focus solely on accounting topics such as payroll, financial statement analysis, taxation and basic accounting principles. The downside is you won’t get the benefit of liberal arts courses that can help you expand outside of entry level accounting careers. Jobs you may be able to pursue with an associate’s include billing clerk, bookkeeper, payroll clerk or accounts receivable clerk.
The 4-year bachelor’s is generally the go-to degree for accountants, and is a gateway to advanced degree programs. You’ll study management, taxation and auditing and all levels of accounting. You’ll be prepared to become a staff accountant at a large firm or corporation, or get ready to open your own practice, though the self-employment path may require more education and other types of business management coursework.
A master’s degree in accounting—usually the 2-year Master of Accounting (MAcc) program—prepares you to sit for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exams. MAcc programs will ready you to advance your career and they cover subjects such as business valuation, cost management, policy, consulting and managerial accounting. You’ll be set to enter higher level executive positions or manage a team of junior accountants with this degree.
Also a 2-year program, the MBA with a focus in accounting teaches business strategy and will ready you for more of a business management career rather than strictly focusing on accounting principles and practices. This is a broader based business degree than the MAcc.
Doctorate level programs generally prepare students for research or academic roles. You may find yourself acting as an independent consultant to a large corporation, or teaching business accounting to college students. These are 4–7 year programs that require rigorous study and coursework to complete, so you’ll need to be prepared to make a significant commitment to your education.
UNITING GLOBALIZED BUSINESS
The continued globalization of business may lead to increased demand for accounting expertise and services related to international trade and international mergers and acquisitions.
–U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
In order to earn the respected designation of Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you’ll need to not only have a high level of skill and commitment to the field of accounting but have the mandatory level of education to sit for the CPA exam. As CPAs are strategic business advisors, and may act as consultants or help individuals and organizations meet financial goals, the road to becoming a CPA is a rigorous process. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), you’ll need to meet the 150-hour education requirement by one of the following methods:
- Combine an undergraduate accounting degree with a master’s degree at the same or different school.
- Combine an undergraduate degree in another discipline with a master’s in accounting or an MBA with a concentration in accounting.
- Enroll in a 5-year professional accounting school leading to a master’s degree in accounting.
CPA designation requirements can vary by state, so you’ll need to check the state in which you intend to practice to learn what you’ll need to do.
Besides the CPA credential, there are many other certifications that also require study and the passing of an exam to earn. Some accountants work in more than one area and are credentialed in several specialties. It’s important to note that every state also has different requirements for certifications other than the CPA. Here are examples of some professional certifications available for other types of accountancy:
- CFE – Certified Fraud Examiner
- CISA – Certified Information Systems Auditor
- CFA – Chartered Financial Analyst
- CIA – Certified Internal Auditor
- CMA – Certified Management Accountant
- CPP – Certified Payroll Professional
- EA – Enrolled Agent
- CGFM – Certified Government Financial Manager
- CFP – Certified Financial Planner
Accountant salaries can vary depending upon the education, experience and geographical location of the accountant. All of these factors will contribute to what you can earn. That said, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook cites the median annual salary for accountants and auditors at $65,940, while financial specialists earned $66,220 annually. Here are some median annual wages by the field in which the accountant worked:
Median Annual Salary
Financial and insurance
Bookkeeping, tax and payroll services
With more education and experience, accountants can rise to the cream at the top, and, says the BLS, earn as much as $115,950 a year.
SKILLS OF ACCOUNTANTS
As an accountant or auditor, you’re entrusted with sensitive personal and financial data and your ethics must be of the highest standard. No matter if your client if an individual or a corporation, a large part of your job is earning—and keeping—the trust. But what other skills and traits make the best accountants?
Organization skills: You’ll be crunching and compiling data, dealing with minutiae and analyzing numbers and results. Being organized is a key factor to success and presenting your findings to people who may not have the same ability to comprehend dense data as you do.
Time Management: The ability to stay calm and think through an issue generally results in the best time managers. You’ll need to juggle a lot of moving parts so being organized and time management go hand-in-hand.
Problem solving skills: You won’t just be adding columns of numbers, you’ll be solving puzzles at times, and making critical decisions that can influence the financial security of a client or employer. You’ll not only be an accountant but an investigative detective and reporter with your findings.
Strong Ethics: Loyalty to client and company are essential to the best accountants and you’ll conduct yourself as a professional in your dealings with both, and in your work.
Communication skills: Can you stand in front of a room full of executives and explain compliance reporting to them in detail? The ability to speak clearly and effectively is a gift, and making laymen understand the intricate processes of your research and recommendations for the business is a skill that will help you go far.
Detail-oriented: You’ll need to keep detailed records and notes as you deal with people and issues, so attention to detail is mandatory for a successful accountant. You’ll also need to translate your notes into action items, so they’ll need to be comprehensive and complete.
Good Listener: People will be coming to you with plans for their financial future, or for the fiscal health of their company, so you’ll need to hear exactly what they’re saying. There’s little room for assumption in your role as an accountant.
Innovation: Much of what you’ll do on a day to day basis is repetitive, but there will be opportunities to suggest ways to improve systems and enact new efficiencies. Having the ability to come up with new processes is a highly valuable skill.
Technical skills: Face it—pivot tables, spreadsheets and accounting software will be your new best friends. Becoming proficient in all of the new—and established—tools of the trade will benefit you prior to going into your first job.
FINDING ACCREDITED PROGRAMS IN ACCOUNTING
You probably know that accreditation is key when considering any college program, but how do you know if your accounting degree makes the grade? First of all, accreditation is essential, as it ensures that your school has passed a rigorous evaluation and peer review process. For a field like accounting you can bet potential future employers will choose to hire someone who has attended a quality school rather than one that does not have accredited status.
Here are the things to look for when you consider your accounting school program:
- The two types of accreditation for schools includes regional and professional; regional accreditation is granted by one of six regional accrediting organizations. Depending upon where your school is, check to see if it has earned regional accreditation from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) organization.
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is the premiere professional accreditation agency for the body of business schools. Getting more granular, the AACSB grants an accounting accreditation, which focuses specifically on the quality of a school’s accounting programs. Schools that make the grade are granted initial accreditation but undergo continuous review by the accrediting body, which is comprised of a peer group committee. This is called the continuous improvement review, and schools are re-evaluated every five years.
You can find out if your school is accredited simply by asking an admissions officer or visiting the school’s website. Most schools proudly post their accreditation status.
OTHER ACCOUNTING JOBS
Becoming a CFP: A Certified Financial Planner—or CFP—must pass an extensive exam schedule in areas that include financial planning, taxes, insurance, estate planning and retirement planning. These individuals must also complete continuing education units to keep their certified status, and must stay abreast of changes in a continually evolving and intensely scrutinized field. Learn more about CFP education and careers.
Becoming an Internal Auditor: Internal auditors are the risk managers of the accounting world. They study and evaluate a company’s financial state and make suggestions about potential investments or financial deals. These are the people who work to identify the ways a company can eliminate waste internally or investigate potential fraud and how to eliminate it as well. Learn more about Internal Auditor education and careers.
Becoming a CFE: The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners says CFEs have “proven expertise in fraud prevention.” To become a Certified Fraud Examiner, you’ll need to pass a test on the field’s four major disciplines:
- Fraud prevention
- Fraud schemes and financial transactions
- Investigating fraud
- The laws surrounding fraud
You’ll also be required to take continuing education courses to stay on top of your game. These highly sought after examiners are unique in that they combine their knowledge of finances and financial transactions with how they relate to the law. CFEs also are experts in resolving alleged fraud cases. Learn more about CFE education and careers.
Becoming an Enrolled Agent: An enrolled agent is basically a tax expert. But these are the only federally licensed tax professionals who can represent taxpayers at all administrative levels in front of the IRS. Enrolled agents must earn their license in one of two ways:
- Pass a rigorous exam that covers all aspects of America’s tax code
- Must have worked for the IRS for at least five years in a position which consistently applied and interpreted tax code and all of the code’s regulations
Enrolled agents must also stay current on ever-changing tax codes and laws and must take continuing education units which they must report in three year intervals. Any person who decides to enter the field is also subjected to a thorough background check by the IRS. Enrolled Agents who are members of the National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA) are highly ethical, and are bound by a strict code of conduct. Learn more about Enrolled Agent education and careers.
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