How to Become an Accountant

The key to success in accounting and finance is a solid knowledge base gained through a well-planned education. Historically, the study of mathematics and accounting practices had always met the basic requirements for earning accounting degrees, but the technical nature of today’s accounting information systems also requires some understanding of computer science and information technology.

More than ever, it is important to get exposure to a well-balanced curriculum that supports your career goals in any specialty you choose, while at the same time providing a solid foundation of business courses.

Today’s accounting programs support the concept that accountants should learn how their work affects business decisions, rather than strictly being taught accounting practices. Today’s professional accountants practice critical thinking, make presentations, apply research to practice, and understand the many facets of business management.

Career Paths and Jobs in Accounting

The four general career paths in accounting each offer a unique series of career possibilities and specializations to consider. Many choose to serve in their primary role as accountants, while others are drawn to the world of business and finance where opportunities for further specialization could lead to positions in management. Others prefer to perform auditing functions, either as employees of accounting firms providing external audit services to business clients, or serving as business employees performing internal audits that serve their employers directly. Government and non-profit work gives accountants the unique opportunity to manage funds with respect to accountability to taxpayers and grantors.

The decision to pursue the field of accounting is generally made in tandem with the decision to follow one of these general career paths.

Public Accounting

Accountants often choose to becomes sole-proprietors, join partnerships, or accept employment with accounting firms that already have a long list of clients they serve, either within the local business community or in other parts of the world. Public accountants who have chosen to specialize in taxation obtain the Enrolled Agent (EA) designation through the Internal Revenue Service. This allows them as tax practitioners to represent their clients before the IRS.

Public Accountants are hired for a wide variety of services that include, but are certainly not limited to, the following:

  • Preparation and analysis of accounting records and financial statements
  • Auditing of financial records and reports for accuracy and conformity to standards
  • Preparation of tax returns and monitoring of payment compliance
  • Analysis of business operations, including costs, revenue, and financial obligations
  • Development and analysis of budgets
  • Design of computerized record-keeping and accounting systems
  • Analysis and development of compensation programs
  • Development of long-range tax and estate plans
  • Preparation of records for bankruptcy filings and financial litigation cases

Private / Management Accounting

Accountants are hired to manage the financial services of large multinational firms in industries like banking, finance and business consultation, insurance, real estate, energy and healthcare. The list of industries served by accountants is virtually endless. Accountants with some basic knowledge or interest in one specific industry can decide to specialize. For example, there are accountants who have spent their entire careers in healthcare, energy, or nonprofit agencies. This type of experience leads to a higher level of financial expertise in a specific industry and can lead to additional opportunities in consulting, writing, or policy-making.

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Management accountants need to be familiar with the principles and controls of management information systems (MIS). In combination with other information systems, MIS are used to answer specific business questions involving issues such as product or service costs, marketing strategies, and revenue trends. Management accountants could work within any business department that requires strategic planning, the development of a new product or service, or internal re-engineering. Due to the nature of inter-departmental evaluation and planning, it is crucial that management accountants work as part of a team with the same ultimate objective in mind.

Corporate accounting positions often require mastery in several different areas of responsibility. In the corporate setting, specialized accountants work in such capacities as computer systems evaluation, operations, quality improvement, marketing or research. Other accountants in the private sector might practice their craft by working in performance analysis, corporate acquisitions, public stock offerings, or investment analysis.

Internal and External Auditing

Financial auditing can be performed on an internal or external basis. The responsibilities of each are similar, but the goals of an internal audit usually focus on improving the organization’s operational efficiency and reducing risk, while the external audit is intended to attest to the validity of a company’s financial practices and records.

Internal auditors evaluate company financial records and internal controls to identify waste, mismanagement, or misrepresentation. During an audit, every department within an organization could be examined, including off-site or contracted operations or computing facilities. The auditor is expected to provide an objective opinion regarding existing controls and data, as well as recommendations that could improve efficiency or integrity. Internal auditors typically report to executive-level management and the Board of Directors to keep them apprised of the reliability of financial reporting, data accuracy, regulatory compliance, and the security of company assets. Their work is aimed at maintaining a competitive and dynamic business environment, so auditors, unlike management accountants, don’t have responsibilities involving the day-to-day management of financial matters related to business operations.

The services of an external auditor are contracted by an organization to gain an independent opinion on the validity and accuracy of that organization’s financial records. This provides support for the company’s integrity and helps to assess compliance with regulations and generally accepted accounting principles. The external auditor must provide an objective evaluation of the financial entity being audited and follow a moral imperative to report errors and irregularities in financial reporting and accounting methods.

Government Accounting

In government, accountants have unique opportunities and challenges since government agencies often have complex financial relationships with other units of government, corporations, creditors, and citizens. Accountants that specialize in government accounting either work in government offices as federal, state, and municipal employees, or in the public sector as liaisons to government agencies where they serve corporate employers whose business activities are regulated by the government.

Accountants work in almost every government office; examples include the Internal Revenue Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the General Accounting Office, Department of Agriculture, Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as state and municipal offices.

The accounting principles used in government finance are set by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), which is controlled by a nonprofit organization, the Financial Accounting Foundation (FAF). Accountants working in government understand how the principals and practices of accrual methods, fund accounting and budgetary accounting differ from the GAAP basis used in other areas of accounting. The work can involve complicated accounting issues that merge government accounting with other systems. Accountants working in government have a unique knowledge of government contract regulations and the complexities of long-term debt services.

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