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Accounting and Finance Careers

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were a reported 1,332,700 accountants and auditors in working in the US in May 2014.1 By 2024, the BLS projects that there will be 1,475,100 accountants and auditors employed, an increase of 11%, which outpaces the overall growth projection across all job categories in the US.1 Adding to this positive trend, many will retire by 2024, as 544,200 openings will come from replacement hiring.1 That replacement rate is significantly higher than the overall US average projected for the same period, which bodes well for those entering and advancing in this field. Accounting is a better-than-average, expanding field with a wave of projected retirements pending that will combine to see an estimated 142,400 new hires by 2024.1

This page covers advanced accounting careers and advanced finance careers. People who pursue these advanced career paths in accounting and finance 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 or Finance
  • Certification such as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
  • Experience and advancement based on time in the profession

Accounting Careers

Accountants who earn a graduate accounting degree and pass the CPA exam will likely find a greater range of career options. 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, as well as 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 or master’s degree in accounting and one to two years of experience before taking the exam. To maintain CPA status, ongoing tests such as ethics training, and other state-level requirements are usually required, typically including 40 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) credits. 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 information. 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 2016 pay for auditors at $68,150, with the top 10% earning $120,910.1

Enrolled Agent

Enrolled agents are special 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 credential 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 48,000 enrolled agents.

Forensic and Investigative Accountant

Greed, criminal activity, poor management, and poorly-conceived incentive schemes are factors that can contribute to financial fraud. Some corrupt lenders at financial institutions preceding the Great Recession manipulated their fiduciary responsibilities for their own benefit and that of the bank, approving unqualified borrowers for loans too large to pay off. Other financial criminals launder and embezzle money. Forensic accountants investigate possible fraud such as these, to stop crime at the financial level. They also may 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 done in conjunction with lawyers or law enforcement. Depending on the situation, an accountant or someone with an appropriate financial degree or certification is required. Compensation for forensic accountants is similar to that of other types of accountants.

Corporate Accounting Careers

Accounts Payable/Accounts Receivable Manager

These staff accountants are 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 fuel it needs to operate. They will 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 already.

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 $73,840 for budget analysts in 2016.4 The top-paid budget analysts earned $111,460, while the lowest-paid made $48,300.4

“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 in accounting or a related field is usually required to be a controller, along with substantial experience in accounting.

Cost Accountant

A cost accountant plays 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 $68,150 for accountants and auditors in 2015.1 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.

Financial Manager

A financial manager’s role varies on the type and size of an organization, which can include small to large businesses and/or 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 finance organization in a big enterprise is usually the Chief Financial Officer. According to the BLS, in 2016, the median salary for financial managers was $121,750 with the highest 10% of financial managers earning $208,000 and the lowest 10% earning $65,000.3 Financial managers typically have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree 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 a tax strategy that takes 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 finance, 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 Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that US jobs for accountants and auditors will grow by 11% between 2014-2024.1 As mentioned earlier on this page, the replacement rate for accounting positions is significantly higher than the US average and there will be 142,400 new hires by 2024.1 Accounting is a vital job function to both businesses and government agencies, large and small. The vitality of accounting means that there is a near constant demand for accounting professionals throughout the country.

The Four Largest Accounting Firms in the World

  1. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited
  2. PricewaterhouseCoopers
  3. Ernst & Young
  4. KPMG11

More Accounting Job Resources

Finance Careers

A master’s degree in finance can open many doors and differentiate you from other candidates for the most competitive of jobs. Graduates of finance master’s degrees work in various areas of the industry, including asset management, investment banking, portfolio analysis, commercial banking, corporate finance, venture capital, private equity, hedge funds, and commercial real estate. Organizations that hire Master of Science in Finance (MSF) grads include government agencies, banks, mortgage companies, and corporations. Graduates of these degrees may hold job titles such as budget analyst, financial manager, loan underwriter, investment banker, and portfolio analyst.

Below are some of the more popular finance careers that may require a master’s in finance:

Corporate Finance Careers

Cash Manager

Cash managers are in charge of tracking the cash flow for an enterprise and making future projections to determine if capital is needed for business operations or investments. The BLS reported that financial managers (a category that includes cash managers) earned a median salary of $121,750 in 2016.3

Credit Manager

The credit manager is responsible for managing the credit that is extended from a business to its customers, which can involve setting credit limits and examining past credit history to determining creditworthiness. Compensation for credit managers is similar to that of other financial managers.

Financial Analyst

“Financial analyst” is a broad term that includes several finance careers focused on providing investment recommendations, including fund managers, rating analysts, junior investment bankers, and portfolio managers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median salary for financial analysts at $81,760 in May 2016.5 A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to become a financial analyst, but most jobs require a master’s in finance degree.5

Investment Manager

An investment manager oversees a portfolio of securities and assets with the goal of meeting investment goals. Some investment managers work at large investment firms with thousands of employees and over $100 million in assets under their management.6 Others work with fewer clients and manage less money in their portfolio. While a bachelor’s degree may be adequate to start in a career as an investment manager, a master’s degree in finance or a related field will likely increase your hiring and earnings potential.

Investor Relations Manager

Investor relations managers are responsible for raising shareholder capital and enabling effective communication between the company for whom they work and the financial community in which they invest. Most investor relations manager positions require a master’s in finance or related degree.

Payroll Manager

The payroll manager is responsible for the management of employee compensation including weekly, biweekly, or monthly wages, along with bonuses. They also manage employment payroll records that are required by the federal government and ensure the records are kept safe and confidential. Some payroll managers are responsible for onboarding new employees by ensuring the appropriate paperwork is completed and kept up to date.

Commercial and Investment Banking Careers

Commercial Lender

A commercial lender analyzes applications for business loans and makes recommendations for their approval or rejection based on his or her findings. As part of their analysis, commercial lenders also verify financial documents, bank statements, and debt-to-income ratios to determine the ability of a given company to repay a loan. If the loan is too large, these lenders may work with multiple banks to put together a package of loans that will satisfy the borrower’s needs.

Hedge Fund Manager

Hedge fund managers oversee a private investment pool and execute investment strategies to earn a positive return. They are often the founder and the key person in charge of the fund, which can range in size from $1 million to $10 billion.7 Salaries of hedge fund managers can be extremely high and are based on the performance of the fund. The most successful hedge fund manager can earn $4 billion in a single year, but that salary is not typical.8

Investment Banker

Investment bankers assist clients with high-level financial activities like taking a company public, running a private auction, issuing bonds, recapitalizing, and corporate mergers. 80-hour weeks can be typical for some investment bankers, especially for interns and new investment bankers, but the long hours can pay off with very high compensation if successful.13 Most investment bankers have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in finance or a related field, but the most competitive ones will have a master’s degree in finance or a related field.

Personal Financial Advisor

People who are personal financial advisors (PFAs), also known as personal financial planners, advise clients on financial decisions including how to effectively invest their money, how to save for retirement and college funds, and estate planning. Personal financial advisors meet with their clients, listen to their investment goals, and help them plan for the future. Financial planners help clients plan for life changes and unforeseen costs like emergencies or illnesses. They specialize in risk management and should understand the type of investor each of their clients is so that they can advise accordingly. According to the BLS, people who are interested in becoming a personal financial planner should have a bachelor’s degree to become a personal financial advisor, though a master’s degree and certification may improve earnings and prospects for employment. In addition to a degree, many prospective financial advisors seek certification through the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which offers CFP certification for financial planners via the CFP Certification Examination. The BLS notes that the median pay for PFAs was $90,530 as of 2016.2

Private Banker

A private banker is a personal financial advisor who manages the client portfolios of typically high-net-worth professionals. They often consult financial analysts and accountants at banks to develop complex and profitable investment strategies. Private bankers usually need a minimum of an undergraduate degree in a related field, but bankers with master’s degrees in accounting, business, finance, or a related field, may have more job opportunities and receive higher salaries.

Risk Manager

A risk manager uses investment strategies to minimize the chances of financial loss, especially due to currency and commodity price fluctuations. A master’s in finance degree is usually preferred for this job.

Trust Manager

A trust manager, or a professional trustee, oversees a corporate or municipal trust. A corporate trust can be established with the goal of issuing corporate bonds to the public. A trust manager ensures the trust money is invested in a profitable way, that records are maintained, taxes are paid on time and correctly allocated, and that correct and timely payments are made to the trust beneficiaries. Trust managers typically receive between 0.75% and 2.5% of the trust assets in a given year.12

Venture Capitalist

Venture capitalists (VCs) typically work at venture capital firms where they evaluate early-stage companies that are seeking support from investors. They review business plans and financial information provided by the businesses (often startups) to predict which companies will provide the highest returns for their clients or identify companies that may be poised to become the next Google or Facebook. It is often said that for every ten investments made by a VC firm, they hope for one star, count on a couple moderate successes, and expect seven failures. Some firms, known as private equity firms (also described as financial sponsors), invest in companies with some early success and they often leverage up to buy these firms with the hope of seeing their investment multiply over time. Some private equity firms specialize in turnarounds and may be the firms tagged as “vulture capitalists” by media.

Insurance Careers

Actuary

Actuaries analyze risk using math and financial theory to help a company make pricing or financial decisions. They ensure prices for insurance are set to a level that will cover all claims and still return a profit. An undergraduate degree is typically required to become an actuary, usually in mathematics, statistics, or actuarial science, but advancement in this career is dependent on passing a series of actuarial exams which require a significant amount of preparation. The BLS reported in May 2016 that actuaries earned a median wage of $100,610 and the top 10% earned more than $186,250 per year.10

Claims Analyst

Claims analysts review liability or insurance claims to determine if they are eligible for reimbursement. They collect information on submitted claims and review the policy to determine eligibility. Claims analysts also negotiate claim payments and ensure payment accuracy. Bachelor’s degrees are normally the minimum requirement for this position, but master’s degree holders may command higher salaries.

Underwriting Agent

Insurance underwriters review insurance applications to determine whether or not to offer insurance to an applicant, along with the price to charge for coverage. They may analyze data such as the value of the property, vehicle, or person to be insured and evaluate the associated risk. They try to strike a balance between risk and caution in order to protect the insurance company for whom they work, but also to earn money for the company through insurance premiums. Insurance underwriters earn a median annual salary of $67,680 as of May 2016 according to the BLS.9

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, finance, 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 or a finance career?

Salaries vary widely in the broad range of accounting and finance 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 billions per year (though not typical), while jobs such as budget analysts may command as little as $48,300.8,4

What types of jobs are offered in accounting and finance?

The fields of accounting and finance 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 and finance 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.

Additional Resources

Top Accounting Blogs

Our list of top accounting blogs provides insights into the work of current accounting professionals as well as news on the latest changes and issues in the accounting field.

References:
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Accountants and Auditors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Accountants-and-auditors.htm
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Personal Financial Advisors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/personal-financial-advisors.htm
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Financial Managers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/financial-managers.htm
4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Budget Analysts: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/budget-analysts.htm
5. US 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: http://www.businessinsider.com/r-best-paid-us-hedge-fund-managers-take-home-13-billion–2016-5
8. Vault Editors. The MBA Career Bible. New York: Vault Inc, 2006.
9. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Insurance Underwriters: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/insurance-underwriters.htm
10. US 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:” http://economia.icaew.com/en/news/february-2017/deloitte-overtakes-pwc-as-worlds-largest-firm
12. Time Money, How to Pick a Trustworthy Manager for Your Trust: http://time.com/money/3394289/how-to-manage-trust-fund/
13. Mergers & Inquisitions, A Week in the Life of an Investment Banking Analyst: https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/week-in-life-investment-banking-analyst-sunday-monday/