Careers in Accounting
Professional accountants of today have careers that use e a wide variety of skills applicable to highly specialized roles. When the editors of the Journal of Accountancy wrote in 1912 that an accountant is beginning to be “looked upon as a business physician,” they could not have envisioned the dynamic array of practice areas that would exist 100 years later.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between 2016 and 2026, the number of jobs for accountants and auditors in the United States is expected to increase by 10%. Changes in tax laws and the regulatory environment, as well as the expansion of global commercial business and increased financial controls continue to drive the demand for skilled accountants in the public and private sectors.
While the foundation of accounting is based on uniform accounting practices, there are many different ways for accountants to apply these principles.
Government and Non Profit accounting jobs:
Public Accounting Jobs:
- Cost Estimator
- Enrolled Agent
- Forensic Accountant
- Real Estate Appraiser
- Tax Accountant
- Tax Attorney
- Tax Preparer
Private Accounting Jobs:
- Accounting Clerk
- Accounts Payable/Receivable Clerk
- Accounting Information System Specialist
- Actuarial Accountant/Insurance Accountant
- Budget Analyst
- Capital Accountant
- Comptroller/Financial Controller
- Cost Accountant
- Environmental Accountant/Sustainability Measurement
- Payroll Accountant
What is an Accountant and What Do They Do?
Accountants work with individuals, small businesses, large corporations, non-profits and government agencies to prepare and organize financial and tax documents.
Accounting is defined as an organized way to keep records of business and financial transactions, summarize those transactions, and analyze, verify, and report financial results. Another way to look at accounting is that it’s an information system designed to identify, measure, record, and communicate reliable, relevant, and consistent information about the economic activities of an organization.
Accounting involves only transactions that can be expressed in monetary terms. Some people call accounting “the language of business,” and its purpose is to help users of accounting information make better decisions
These are among the many tasks that accountants perform for their clients:
- Organizing and maintaining financial records
- Evaluating financial operations and making recommendations to management about best financial practices
- Examining account books and accounting systems to make sure they are efficient and conform to accepted standards and accounting procedures
- Preparing tax returns and related tasks
- Examining financial statements to make sure they are accurate and meet legal requirements
- Suggesting ways to increase revenue, reduce costs, and improve profits
Accountants in the United States have the option of becoming Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). CPAs have met licensing requirements for the state in which they practice. State licensing qualifications vary but typically require 150 hours of education (30 hours beyond the typical 120-hour bachelor’s degree in accounting). Licensing requirements also always include some documented experience and achieving a passing score on the Uniform CPA Examination.
The key task that CPAs can perform – and that non-CPAs cannot – is the preparation of audited and reviewed financial statements for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Careers in Different Areas of Accounting
It is often said that one of the biggest career decisions accountants make takes place very early on when deciding which general area of accounting to specialize in. This is because the entire career path with regard to the types of clients an accountant works with, the type of education and professional certification they’ll need, the level of education they’ll complete, and the very nature of the work they perform will be dictated by this decision.
Although it is a weighty decision to be faced with, it is one that comes without too much duress for most. This is because the decision is heavily influenced by a number of important factors that help determine which path is best for the individual, such as their personal inclination to work closely with or removed from clients, their desire to work in the private or public sector, and their interest in a career spent working for an organization, or independently.
Although there are many other specialties, the four major areas of accounting are:
- Public accounting
- Management accounting
- Governmental accounting
- Internal auditing
Public accounting covers a wide range of services, including preparing and issuing the public financial reports for a company, providing business consulting services or personal financial planning services, and preparing tax returns.
Public accounting includes several types of accounting:
- Financial accounting involves preparing a company’s public financial statements.
- Forensic accounting involves examining financial records looking for fraud and other illegal activities or reconstructing missing financial records.
- Tax accounting focuses on individual and business taxes, typically with the intent of limiting the tax obligation as much as possible.
- External auditing involves the review of financial statements to determine that they were prepared correctly.
New accountants who go to work for a public accounting firm may serve as staff auditors who analyze and verify activities in specific assigned client accounts. This is sometimes considered the “grunt work” of auditing, and it doesn’t usually involve any interaction with clients.
Similarly, tax staff accountants with accounting firms do most of the tax return preparation and research without interacting with clients.
Experienced accountants can move into senior positions, taking on more responsibility, and eventually move into management positions if a firm thinks the accountant has partner potential.
Management positions include Audit Manager, Tax Manager, and Management Services/Consulting Manager. Only about two percent of accountants in a public accounting firm eventually become a partner, according to the American Institute of CPAs.
With experience, public accountants may go on to work in areas like personal financial planning, sometimes starting their own practice. Some accountants take on roles in forensic accounting, specializing in detecting and preventing fraud.
Management accounting is also called managerial, cost, corporate, industrial, or private accounting. Management accountants have an internal business role that supports business managers in making business decisions. Management accountants prepare detailed reports and forecasts for managers inside the company. These reports are not intended for public review.
Management accountants track and analyze internal financial information by designing, implementing, and managing internal financial management systems that assist with performance management, strategic management, and risk management.
Within management accounting are different approaches. For example, project accounting (or job cost accounting) tracks finances by project and prepares financial reports specific to these projects. Resource consumption accounting is a new approach to management accounting developed in Germany in 2000. This approach is principle-based and not tied to a specific method, according to the Resource Consumption Accounting Institute.
New accountants who take jobs in corporations often begin as junior internal auditors or as staff accountants in areas such as financial accounting and reporting, management accounting, or tax accounting.
Junior internal auditors make sure the company has accurate records and adequate controls to protect against fraud and waste by examining and evaluating financial and information systems, internal controls, and management procedures.
Financial accounting and reporting staff accountants typically have responsibilities in an assigned area, such as payroll, receivables, payables, general ledger, treasury management, asset management, or financial statements.
Management staff accountants collect detailed cost data and may prepare preliminary cost analyses and reports that are then presented to management and executive leadership.
Junior tax accounting staff members prepare tax returns or related schedules for review, keeping information current and tax deductions maximized throughout the tax year.
As accountants gain experience, they can move into senior positions in any of the areas, taking on more responsibility and more complicated tasks. Accountants may eventually move into management positions as Financial Accounting & Reporting Managers, Management Accounting Managers, Tax Managers, or Internal Audit Managers.
Other types of accounting jobs within corporations include the Assistant Controller, who assists in supervising the day-to-day collection and interpretation of accounting data, and the Controller, who is the chief accounting executive.
An accountant could also become the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) who advises the President or CEO in matters related to financial strategy and financial reporting.
The umbrella term governmental accounting refers to any type of accounting use to keep and examine the financial records of government agencies and to audit private businesses and individuals who engage in activities subject to government regulations or taxation. Thus, governmental accounting may include the methods of financial accounting, tax accounting, or other types of accounting.
Government agencies sometimes use fund accounting, which is a way to separate resources into categories in order to track the source and use of these funds. Fund accounting is used as a way for a government agency or division to be transparent and responsible in their management of the tax dollars used to fund the agency or division. Fund accounting is also often used by non-profit organizations.
Entry-level jobs are also available with the federal government, as well as for state and municipal government agencies. New accounting hires may serve as junior auditors or staff accountants, tax examiners who review filed tax returns for accuracy and adherence to law, or revenue agents who review complex business income, sales, and excise tax returns. Experienced accountants can move into senior and management positions in similar roles.
Internal auditors provide an independent, objective examination of an organization’s finances. Internal auditors mainly identify financial mismanagement or fraud or identify ways to improve financial management and reduce waste.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires all publicly traded companies to regularly conduct internal audits. Audits are used to provide investors with an accurate financial picture of publicly traded companies. Corporate and retail investors use the information revealed through internal audits to decide which securities are worth purchasing.
Other Types of Accounting Jobs
Accountants can become educators at the post-secondary level for community colleges, schools of business, and universities. Earning a PhD is usually required for college-level professorships in accounting.
Professionals with backgrounds in accounting can also serve as consultants in any accounting/financial capacity for which they are qualified, or work in non-profit organizations in jobs that are similar to those found in the corporate world.
Tax accounting involves keeping records for paying taxes and making decisions that comply with tax laws. Large multinationals, small business, non-profits and individuals alike, all may have occasion to use tax accounting. Regardless of tax status or obligation, all persons and organizations that generate revenue, receive pay, or accept funding may benefit from the services of tax accounting professionals.
Financial Accounting vs. Management Accounting
Financial accounting is done for the purpose of producing external financial statements for external decision-makers, such as investors and creditors, and is required by law for all publically traded companies. Financial accounting must adhere to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), with an emphasis on providing reliable, general-purpose, high-level information about the past performance of an organization.
Management (or managerial) accounting is for internal reporting and decision-making purposes and includes designing information systems that create many detailed reports for specific internal users to monitor and control an organization’s activities. It looks to the future, rather than at the past, and can include subjective, detailed estimates and predictions of future events and transactions.
GAAP doesn’t apply in management accounting and organizations are mostly free to develop their own management accounting systems and measurement rules, most of which are proprietary. However, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 did establish minimum standards for the internal reporting systems used by publically traded companies.
The Big Four Accounting and CPA Firms
Large public accounting firms generally perform the audits of companies traded on public stock exchanges. Major publicly traded corporations, as well as large private organizations, generally retain one of the four largest public accounting firms. These firms are collectively known as “The Big 4.”
These firms enjoy a great deal of respect and prestige and are considered the pinnacle of the public accounting profession. At the same time, it is universally agreed that these firms, and the public accounting profession in general, owe a debt to the public trust. While they work directly for the companies that hire them, they also provide invaluable services to the community at large.
Who are the Big Four?
The Big 4 accounting firms provide a wide range of accounting and consulting services, but are perhaps best known for the auditing services they perform for companies that offer publicly traded securities.
The Big Four are:
- Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (headquartered in the U.S.)
- PricewaterhouseCoopers (headquartered in the United Kingdom)
- Ernst & Young (headquartered in the United Kingdom)
- KPMG (headquartered in The Netherlands)
Each firm is actually a network of member firms with offices in many cities worldwide. Each of the Big Four has approximately 100 offices located throughout the U.S. alone.
There are also hundreds of small to medium-sized professional accounting and CPA firms in cities across the country, most of which practice within one state or within a targeted region.
The Formation of the Big Four
For the better part of the 20th century, the largest international accounting firms were known as the “Big Eight,” but by 2002 a series of mergers, as well as a well-publicized scandal, reduced this list to the “Big Four.”
One need only recall the Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals of 2001 and 2002 to understand the damage that can be done when public accounting professionals fail to fulfill their duties to their clients and to the public. As a result of accounting fraud committed by Enron and WorldCom, both major publicly traded organizations went bankrupt, employees lost their jobs and their pensions, and investors sustained massive losses on the stock market.
In addition, the reputation of the major accounting firm Arthur Andersen LLP was tarnished because of its role in auditing Enron and WorldCom, and, consequently, it was dissolved.
Writing Your Accounting Resume
Writing an accounting resume has no hard and fast rules. The most important thing is to focus on presenting your skills, certifications, areas of expertise, and specific accomplishments in an appealing and easy-to-read format. However, following some best practices for resume writing can help in creating a concise, easily scanned resume that potential employers are sure to respond to.
Although traditional wisdom says to keep a resume to one page, a two-page resume is fine if you have lots of experience. Just don’t pad the resume by including anything that isn’t highly relevant. A resume is a marketing document, and it needs to be well-formatted, proofread, consistent, and informative to make a good impression on hiring managers.
Objective Statements are Out
Putting an objective statement on a resume is old-school and discouraged by most resume-writing experts. The problem is that objective statements can be too general to be useful, too specific and limiting, or too focused on the job seeker’s needs, rather than the company’s needs.
When initially scanning a resume, managers are looking for factual information that helps them decide whether to weed you out or contact you. Stick to the facts and skip the fluff.
Summary of Experience or Professional Profile
The first item on your accounting resume, after your name and contact information, should be a paragraph that summarizes experience and presents key qualifications.
A reverse chronological order resume starts with the most recent employer, listing basic job responsibilities and quantifiable accomplishments for each employer. Professional experience can also include any volunteer work you’ve done, if it’s relevant
Potential employers want to see results of work, not just a description of what was done. For example: Increased cash flow by $5 million by reducing outstanding receivables from 51 to 16 days would present very well on an accounting resume.
You know what you’ve done – be honest, but make it shine.
Skills Summary or Core Competencies or Areas of Expertise
The purpose of the Skills Summary, Core Competencies, or Areas of Expertise section is to highlight your specific knowledge and skills. This section contains a list of keywords that describes your experience. A bulleted list works well.
Because so many employers and staffing agencies enter resumes into a database and then search for keywords when looking to fill a specific job, choosing the best keywords is very important. A few examples of keywords that would work well on an accounting or CPA resume are as follows:
- Accounting standards
- Auditing and compliance
- Budget development and management
- Business valuations
- CPA, CFA, and any other industry certifications and licenses as applicable
- Crystal Reports
- Merger and acquisition negotiations
- P&L management
- Strategic financial planning
List relevant education. This doesn’t just include undergraduate or graduate work that you may have completed, but can also include any continuing professional education (CPE) you completed in the course of satisfying requirements for CPA licensure and maintenance.
It is wise to highlight any CPE completed that is particularly relevant to the job being pursued. Calling attention to CPE you’ve completed in ethics and business would present well to any employer, for any job.
In the case of CPE being completed for specialty certification such as Certified Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA) or Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), it is best to present the courses, workshops or seminars that were most closely related to the field of practice.
What to Leave Off
Avoid including personal information, such as marital status or hobbies, unless a hobby pertains directly to the type of job you’re applying for. If a hobby is relevant to a specific job, it can be mentioned in the cover letter.
It is also wise to avoid providing a rundown of your salary history, as this can come off as presumptive to hiring managers. It could also give hiring managers too much information that could potentially undercut the salary you might have been offered otherwise.
Also, avoid including references, or even the statement “References available upon request”–wait for a potential employer to ask for references. This will help you to present yourself confidently on your own merits, rather than showing that you rely on the “the people you know.”
The History of Accounting
It is believed that the very origins of writing itself may have developed out of early marks used to keep account of goods at ancient warehouses more than 5,300 years ago. The notion that pre-numerical counting systems pre-dated even written language didn’t come as a surprise to many historians and archeologists who have long since recognized that the history of human civilization is largely indistinguishable from the history of commerce.
The story of the origins of monetary systems and commerce help provide a historical account of the origins and progression of accountancy, as commerce and accounting have run parallel to each other since their respective beginnings. For this reason, the history of accounting is often seen as indistinguishable from the history of finance and business.
Ancient Accountants of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome
Ancient Egyptian bookkeepers kept meticulous records of the inventory of goods kept in royal storehouses. The accuracy of these records was assured by the swift and severe penalty that came if mistakes were ever discovered.
Archeologist Dr. Gunter Dreyer of the German Institute of Archaeology discovered 5,300-year-old bone labels inscribed with marks and attached to bags of oil and linen in the Abydos, Egyptian tomb of King Scorpion I.
Describing inventory owners, amounts, and suppliers, these labels of antiquity are known to be the ancient origin of the counting systems that would eventually develop into the sophisticated accounting methods we’re familiar with today.
Other ancient societies also used accounting methods, including scribes in Mesopotamia who kept records of commerce on clay tablets. In ancient Greece, the account books of bankers show that they changed and loaned money and helped people make cash transfers through affiliate banks in other cities. In ancient Rome, government and banking accounts grew out of records kept by the heads of families.
14th Century – Double-Entry Bookkeeping
The most important event in accounting history is generally considered to be the dissemination of double-entry bookkeeping by Luca Pacioli in 14th century Italy. Pacioli was much revered in his day, and was a friend and contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci.
In fact, the Italians of the 14th to 16th centuries are widely acknowledged as the fathers of modern accounting and were the first to commonly use Arabic, rather than Roman, numerals for tracking business accounts.
Pacioli described double-entry bookkeeping, and other commerce-related concepts, in his book De Computis et Scripturis – translated in English to Of Reckonings and Writings.
The book was translated into five languages within a century of initial publication. The fundamentals of bookkeeping methods used today have actually changed little since the days of Pacioli.
19th Century – The Beginnings of Modern Accounting in Europe and America
The modern, formal accounting profession emerged in Scotland in 1854 when Queen Victoria granted a royal charter to the Institute of Accountants in Glasgow, creating the profession of chartered accountant (CA). Today, the longest standing societies of public accountants are found in Scotland.
In the late 1800s, chartered accountants from Scotland and Britain came to the U.S. to audit British investments. Some of these accountants stayed in the U.S., setting up accounting practices and becoming the origins of several U.S. accounting firms.
The first national U.S. accounting society was set up in 1887. The American Association of Public Accountants was the forerunner to the current American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
20th Century – The Development of Modern Accounting Standards
The accounting profession in the 20th century developed around, at first, state requirements for financial statement audits, and then around Federal requirements created by securities acts passed in 1933 and 1934 (which created the Securities and Exchange Commission), according to a July 1999 article in The CPA Journal.
In the 1970s, Congress and SEC demands for more reliable and comparable financial reporting led to the founding of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) in 1973. The FASB and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) are now two of the main organizations responsible for establishing generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) in the U.S.
21st Century – Accounting Regulation in Modern Commerce
Beyond the industry’s self-regulation, the government also sets accounting standards, through agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and laws such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, passed after the Enron and WorldComm accounting scandals.
The 21st century also saw the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act after the recession of 2008. The act contains 16 major areas of reform, including creation of the Financial Stability Oversight Council and the Volcker Rule that restricts banks from owning, investing, or sponsoring hedge funds, private equity funds, or any other type of proprietary trading operations that result in their own profit.
Looking to the Future
Accountants looking to the future have recognized that existing accounting principals in place in the United States known as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principals (GAAP), are likely to go the way of the dinosaurs at some point in the not too distant future.
The global standard outside of the US is the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
As global commerce continues to grow, efforts are underway to create consistent accounting standards across borders through the widespread adoption of IFRS by American businesses and accounting firms who wish to continue to participate in the global economy.