Accounting and Finance 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 and finance; 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 and finance salaries, job growth projections, typical work conditions, and educational and training requirements for some of the most popular advanced accounting careers and advanced finance 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
- Finance Careers
- Corporate Finance Careers
- Commercial and Investment Banking Careers
- Insurance Careers
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Additional Resources
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 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
- 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, 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 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.
-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
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 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.
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
-Julianne Molek, EA, is the Treasurer of the Wisconsin Society of Enrolled Agents
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.
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.
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 finance organization in a big enterprise is usually the Chief Financial Officer. 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.
- 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
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 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 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
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.
- Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) Careers: Learn about and search for careers with the SEC.
- Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA): Search for and browse open jobs all over the country at SIMFA.
- T.RowePrice Careers: Search for jobs in investments, corporate, technology, sales/marketing, and client services at T. Rowe Price.
- United States Mint Careers: Learn about careers at the US Mint and search for jobs, internship opportunities, and veterans’ employment.
- US Department of Commerce Job Opportunities: Search for available job openings and internships at the US Department of Commerce.
- Vanguard Careers: Search for jobs in the US using Vanguard’s career center.
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 degree programs 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 jobs such as budget analysts, financial managers, loan underwriters, investment bankers, or portfolio analysts.
Below are some of the more popular finance careers that may require a master’s in finance.
Corporate Finance Careers
Cash managers are in charge of tracking the cash flow for an enterprise and making future projections to determine when and where capital is needed for business operations or investments. They frequently play a strategic role, planning investments and collections and projecting trends. Cash managers also typically supervise other finance professionals, such as cost accountants. The BLS reported that financial managers (a category that includes cash managers) earned a median salary of $127,990 in 2018.3
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. Credit managers may also be responsible for setting policies for when to extend or decline credit. Compensation for credit managers is similar to that of other financial managers, who make an average of $127,990 per year.3
“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. Financial analysts use a variety of tactics to provide investment advice, including forecasting trends, evaluating financial data, and assessing a company or investment vehicle’s competitiveness. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median salary for financial analysts at $85,660 as of May 2018.5 A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to become a financial analyst, but most jobs require a master’s in finance degree.5
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. Investment managers are typically paid in line with financial managers, who average $127,990 per year.3
Investor Relations Manager
Investor relations managers are responsible for enabling effective communication between the company for whom they work and the stockholders or investors that the company serves. An investor relations manager spends much of their time updating and distributing reports concerning a company’s publicly available financial information. Many investor relations manager positions require a master’s in finance or related degree.
The payroll manager is responsible for the management of employee compensation including weekly, biweekly, or monthly wages, along with bonuses. They also manage employee 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. Payroll managers may also be involved in forecasting in order to ensure that payroll accounts are kept up-to-date and sufficient funds are available on-hand to cover payroll obligations.
Commercial and Investment Banking Careers
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 managers can earn millions in a single year, but that salary is not typical.8
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 personal financial advisors was $88,890 per year as of 2018.2
A private banker is a personal financial advisor who manages the client portfolios of 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. Private bankers usually earn salaries in line with those of personal financial advisors, who earn an average of $88,890 per year.2
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. However, risk managers don’t just assess the risks of financial decisions. They evaluate the likelihood and potential impacts of personnel decisions and changes, environmental and political risks, and risks related to potential litigation.
A trust manager, or a professional trustee, oversees a corporate, municipal, or individual 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 may also work with personal trusts, especially trusts for high net worth individuals. Trust managers typically receive between 0.25% and 2% of the trust assets in a given year.12 In this way, their compensation is directly tied to the trust’s financial performance.
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 of 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.
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. At least 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 that require a significant amount of preparation. According to the BLS, as of 2018 actuaries earned a median wage of $102,880 and the top-paid 10% earned $186,110 or more per year.10
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.
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 earned a median annual salary of $69,380 as of May 2018 according to the BLS.9
- Expert Advice for Getting Hired in Accounting: We interviewed current accounting professionals in industry and academia to find out their best advice for getting hired for an accounting position.
- IRS.gov: The IRS is continually recruiting accounting graduates to join their team in roles such as internal revenue agent, tax specialist, and tax examiner.
- The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE): An interactive resource for students to find out the going rate of pay, local trends, conferences, and professional development opportunities.
- Top 50 Accountants on Twitter: Follow these leaders in the accounting community for insights into the accounting field.
- The American Accounting Association (AAA): The AAA offers research findings, education opportunities, and networking for its over 7,000 members in over 75 countries.
- The Association for Financial Professionals (AFP): Membership in the AFP includes access to a community of like-minded professionals, as well as helpful tools and access to publications and research in the field.
- The American Finance Association (AFA): Besides being the publishers of “The Journal of Finance,” the AFA hosts an annual meeting and other events for people in the field of finance.
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 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 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.
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/