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Accounting Careers

With a gross domestic product of $20.89 trillion in 2018, the US economy has an extensive and growing need for accountants and financial professionals. From small organizations to the largest national governments and multinational corporations, keeping appropriate track of money flows is critical and made even more complicated by changes to federal and state tax codes and renegotiation of trade treaties. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were a reported 1.4 million accountants and auditors working in the US as of May 2018.1 In addition to accountants and auditors, there are numerous other career opportunities in accounting; in the major categories of actuaries, insurance underwriters, financial analysts, budget analysts, financial managers, and personal financial advisors together, the BLS estimated a further 1.4 million professionals employed in the US.2-10

On this page, you will find in-depth information about accounting salaries, job growth projections, typical work conditions, and educational and training requirements for some of the most popular advanced accounting careers.

Table of Contents:
Accounting Careers
Public Accounting Careers
Corporate Accounting Careers
Job Outlook for Accountants
The Four Largest Accounting Firms in the World
More Accounting Job Resources
Commercial and Investment Banking Careers
Insurance Careers
Frequently Asked Questions
Additional Resources

Accounting Careers

Accountants who earn a graduate accounting degree and pass the CPA exam will likely find the greatest range of career options. People who pursue advanced career paths in accounting typically have some combination of the following:

  • An advanced degree such as a master’s in accounting or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in accounting
  • One or more professional certifications such as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
  • Experience and advancement based on time and experience in the profession

A CPA credential is required when filing tax returns for corporations, but not when filing for individuals. In most states, obtaining the CPA credential requires a rigorous combination of education and experience, along with passing a challenging exam. Once obtained, CPA holders must maintain their license with required ongoing education. The CPA designation can help you stand out when applying for a competitive position or help you get promoted into a management position. Many CPAs have opened their own accounting firms. Some have even advanced in corporations to positions such as chief financial officer (CFO), controller, chief operating officer (COO), or chief executive officer (CEO). There are also opportunities to work for the FBI or other law enforcement agencies investigating fraud, tax evasion, and different financial crimes. Following are some of the top careers in accounting for master’s in accounting graduates:

Public Accounting Careers

A Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, is the title of an accountant who has passed the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination. As explained above, to obtain a CPA, most states require candidates to have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in accounting and one to two years of experience before taking the exam. To maintain CPA status, continuing education is usually required; 40 hours of continuing professional education per year is a common state-level requirement. Public accountants prepare financial statements, file taxes, and complete a host of other financial and business planning services for their clients.

“Get good grades, as many firms have GPA cut-offs. Use an internship as an entry to a firm as well as a skill builder.”
-Donald P. Danner, CPA, CGMA, is the Assistant Professor of Accounting at Dunham School of Business at Aurora University and Chair of the Missouri Society of Certified Public Accountants

Auditor

An auditor is a type of public accountant who examines financial statements and processes with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) in mind. They look for potential errors and fraud as they verify data. Auditors work for outside accounting and audit firms or in internal audit departments of large, complex companies. Auditors may occupy entry-level through senior roles. A bachelor’s in accounting is typically the minimum education required to become an auditor, but typically a master’s degree in business or accounting is needed for senior roles. Many auditors have taken and passed the exam to be a CPA. The BLS reports the median 2018 pay for auditors at $70,500 per year, with the highest-paid 10% earning $122,840 or more.1

Enrolled Agent

Enrolled agents are federally-licensed tax professionals with expertise in tax matters. To become an enrolled agent, you must either be an IRS agent for at least five years or pass a comprehensive Special Enrollment Exam. Once licensed, enrolled agents must maintain their credentials with continuing education courses (72 hours every three years, with a minimum of 16 hours per year). Only enrolled agents, attorneys, and CPAs have unlimited rights to represent taxpayers with the IRS. The National Association of Enrolled Agents estimates there are approximately 53,000 enrolled agents in the US.

Forensic and Investigative Accountant

Greed, criminal activity, poor management, and poorly-conceived incentive schemes are factors that can contribute to financial fraud. For example, some corrupt lenders at financial institutions preceding the Great Recession manipulated their fiduciary responsibilities for personal gains, approving unqualified borrowers for loans too large to pay off. Other financial criminals launder and embezzle money. Forensic accountants investigate possible acts of fraud such as these. They conduct investigations of routine financial situations such as bankruptcies and protect elderly individuals at risk of being taken advantage of for control of their trust and estates. To prove financial fraud and misdealing, a study of transactions can be conducted by a forensic accountant to uncover discrepancies as part of a larger effort to identify misdeeds and criminal activities. This effort is often undertaken in conjunction with lawyers or law enforcement. Compensation for forensic accountants is similar to that of other types of accountants.

Corporate Accounting Careers

Accounts Payable/Accounts Receivable Manager

Accounts payable and accounts receivable managers are staff accountants placed in charge of tracking and managing payments due to the company (accounts receivable) and payments owed to vendors (accounts payable). These managers fulfill the important role of reporting on the company’s cash flow to ensure that the company has the funds it needs to operate. They will often work in conjunction with senior staff on tactical issues (e.g., slow payments and non-payment on key accounts) and strategic issues (e.g., the need for credit lines to avoid cash crunches). The salary for accounts payable/accounts receivable managers is similar to other accountants noted above.

Budget Analyst

A budget analyst is tasked with monitoring and reporting on a company’s financial budget. They may be involved in reviewing budget proposals, monitoring company spending, and making budget recommendations. A budget analyst may work in a business setting, at a university, or in government. Their duties include preparing annual reports, analyzing financial data, and using cost-benefit analyses. Budget analysts must be effective communicators, able to clearly relay their recommendations to management. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median salary of $76,220 per year for budget analysts as of 2018.4 The top-paid 10% of budget analysts earned $116,300 or more, while the lowest-paid 10% made $49,860 or less.4

“I would also advise students to study and pass the Enrolled Agents exam. The advantage is that accountants are state-licensed and enrolled agents are federally licensed. In other words, when my clients move to another state I not only can continue to prepare their taxes if they wish but I can also continue to represent them before all levels of the IRS. Accountants can only do so within the state in which they are licensed.”
-Julianne Molek, EA, is the Treasurer of the Wisconsin Society of Enrolled Agents

Controller

A controller, or a comptroller, is the financial manager of a company who oversees its accounting procedures, reporting, accounts payable, accounts receivable, compliance, payroll, and budgeting. A controller may also be known as a chief accounting officer. Most controllers started off as accountants and became managers after gaining experience in the field. As controllers, they may manage other accountants and ensure all operations in that department run smoothly. In smaller organizations, the controller may also handle risk management and cash management. A bachelor’s degree plus a master’s degree in accounting or a related field is usually required to be a controller, along with substantial experience in accounting.

Cost Accountant

A cost accountant uses managerial accounting to play an important role within an organization by providing cost information to managers to help them develop product and business strategies, evaluate processes, and measure progress towards meeting goals and objectives. For example, it can be incredibly difficult and analytically challenging to estimate product costs in complex operations such as automotive manufacturing because fixed and variable expenses must be evaluated and properly allocated. A cost accountant considers plant energy costs, headcount, units produced, and other factors to estimate these costs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median salary of $70,500 for accountants and auditors, in which cost accountants are included, in 2018.1 While a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to become a cost accountant, advancement to senior positions will be helped by a master’s degree in accounting and a growing number of employers seek candidates with at least a master’s degree.

Financial Manager

A financial manager’s role varies by the type and size of the organization for which they work, which can include small to large businesses and financial institutions. A financial manager might hold the role of controller, handling credit analysis, risk analysis, and cash management. Other tasks include overseeing budget development, reporting, compliance, collection, and strategic planning. The head of the financial department of a big enterprise is usually the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). According to the BLS, in 2018 the median salary for financial managers was $127,990 per year with the highest-paid 10% of financial managers earning $208,000 or more and the lowest-paid 10% earning $67,620 or less.3 Financial managers typically have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (with many employers requiring at least a master’s) plus five or more years of experience in a related profession, such as accountant, financial analyst, or securities sales agent.

“Tips for becoming an accountant:

  • Don’t be afraid of hard work.
  • Be passionate about your CPA career.
  • Learn to demonstrate your value.
  • Join and become active in your state CPA Society.
  • Separate yourself from the crowd: become a CPA, the Gold Standard.”


-J. Michael Kirkland, CPA, CGM New York State Society of CPAs

Tax Planner

A tax planner, sometimes called a tax advisor or tax manager, helps individuals and/or companies develop tax strategies that take advantage of tax-saving opportunities while minimizing tax risks. This work can extend into trust and estate planning matters in the cases of individuals. Most tax planners have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in business, accounting, or economics, and have ample experience in tax or a related field. Those candidates with a master’s degree may be more qualified for competitive positions and may also command higher salaries. Salary information is unavailable from the BLS but may be comparable to other accounting positions mentioned on this page.

Job Outlook for Accountants

The BLS projects that there will be 1,514,700 accountants and auditors employed in the US by 2028, an overall jobs increase of 6%.1 This is slightly above the overall growth projection across all job categories in the US during the same time period, at 5%.1 In addition to positions due to added jobs, employers will be hiring accountants and auditors for replacement positions. Overall, the outlook for careers in accounting is better than average, showing accounting is an expanding field with many opportunities for new graduates as well as experienced professionals.

The Four Largest Accounting Firms in the World

The four largest public accounting and professional services networks in the world are Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. Colloquially referred to as the Big Four, these firms employed an estimated one million professionals in 2017, with average revenues in excess of $31 billion.14 Due to the firms’ prestigious reputations and notable training programs, many aspiring accounting and auditing professionals compete for internships and entry-level jobs with these companies each year. Starting salaries at the Big Four range from $40,000 to $68,000.15

  1. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited
  2. PricewaterhouseCoopers
  3. Ernst & Young
  4. KPMG

More Accounting Job Resources

The following resources can help you research careers in accounting and auditing in public, private, and government organizations. Be sure to also check out our accounting jobs board for available opportunities.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I start a career in accounting?

The first step to starting an accounting career is to pursue a bachelor’s degree. You may get an undergraduate degree in accounting, business, or another field related to accounting. For those prospective accountants who are especially motivated, pursuing a master’s in accounting degree will offer the most opportunities and make you a more competitive candidate for potential job openings.

What kind of salary can I expect with an accounting career?

Salaries vary widely in the broad range of accounting careers. Salary also depends on variables such as geographic location, location type (rural versus city), years of experience, and degree. Jobs such as hedge fund manager can command millions per year (though not typical), while jobs such as budget analysts may command as little as $48,300.4,8

What types of jobs are offered in accounting?

The fields of accounting are broad and offer plenty of job opportunities for those with a degree, experience, and/or interest in the field. You can read more about specific accounting jobs on this page. From forensic accounting to auditing to investing to advising, you are sure to find a job that suits you in this extensive field.

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Accountants and Auditors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Accountants-and-auditors.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Personal Financial Advisors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/personal-financial-advisors.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Financial Managers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/financial-managers.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Budget Analysts: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/budget-analysts.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Financial Analysts: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/financial-analysts.htm
6. Travers, Frank J. Investment Manager Analysis. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
7. Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/
8. Vault Editors. The MBA Career Bible. New York: Vault Inc, 2006.
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Insurance Underwriters: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/insurance-underwriters.htm
10. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Actuaries: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/math/actuaries.htm
11. Economia, “Deloitte takes over PwC as world’s largest firm:” https://economia.icaew.com/en/news/february-2017/deloitte-overtakes-pwc-as-worlds-largest-firm
12. Investopedia, Trust Company: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/trustcompany.asp
13. Mergers & Inquisitions, A Week in the Life of an Investment Banking Analyst: https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-analyst-job/
14. Investopedia, The Big Four: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bigfour.asp
15. Crush the CPA Exam, Salary Breakdown of the Big Four Accounting Firms: https://crushthecpaexam.com/salary-breakdown-of-the-big-4-accounting-firms/