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Careers in Accounting


Many career opportunities are available in accounting. The importance of the accounting function continues to be enhanced in a complex, global business community. Increased scrutiny of company financial reporting and new regulations, such as those implemented with the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, have resulted in intense need for qualified, highly technical accounting staffs in corporations, accounting firms, and governmental agencies.

Accounting positions range from bookkeeping clerks who maintain financial data in computer and paper form to chief financial officers who are responsible for providing leadership in the design and operations of a total accounting information system and the financial statements it produces. Opportunities for employment are present for those with basic accounting/computer skills acquired in secondary schools or community colleges as well as for those with college degrees and postgraduate degrees.


The U.S. Department of Labor identifies accounting essentially at two levels. At the "executive, administrative, and managerial" occupational level, accountants and auditors are included. Under "bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks," positions are available to those who have completed secondary school or community college programs and have some training and interest in working with financial records.

Persons employed in accounting are generally expected to have strong computer, analytical, interpersonal, and communications skills in addition to sound knowledge in accounting related to the level of the position.

In general, according to Department of Labor projection, the rate of growth of employment for accountants with college degrees or master's degrees was expected to be about the same as the average for all other occupations through the year 2012.

The impact of computer technology will continue to change the nature of demand for employees in accounting who have less than college preparation. The projection of the Department of Labor for this category of accounting and bookkeeping workers was that growth would be slower than average in overall employment, but job opportunities were expected to be numerous because of high turnover of individuals in this category.

Accounting is a field that is appealing to individuals who enjoy working with figures and who appreciate the need for impeccable accuracy and careful adherence to policies and schedules. Accountants must be computer-savvy. Thus, individuals who enjoy the challenge of the continuing need to learn new software and new work procedures find the field of interest. Those who become certified must continue to be learners, since renewal of licenses requires continuing professional education. Accountants who are not certified also enroll in a range of in-company and other types of programs to upgrade their skills and knowledge to be able to handle emerging responsibilities.

Accountants must be individuals of high integrity so that the financial information they prepare is viewed as trustworthy by the users of the information. Accountants who are certified are expected to adhere to professional codes of ethics. These codes impose rules and regulations that are meant to encourage behavior in relation to their work that maintains the credibility of financial reporting, both within and outside the organization.


Professional accounting positions that require at least an undergraduate college degree and certification are certified public accountant (CPA), certified management accountant, certified internal auditor, and the certified government financial manager.

Accountants in Public Accounting Firms

Accountants who plan to complete the CPA examination and meet certification requirements, as well as those who hold the CPA certificate, are likely to begin employment in a public accounting firm as a staff accountant. Some states in the United States require experience in auditing for certification. While public accounting firms hire recent graduates of college programs for beginning positions, such firms expect new employees to have taken the examination or be planning to sit for it. While many CPAs leave public accounting to enter other positions in all types of organizations, some remain in public accounting.

The promotional opportunities in public accounting for CPAs are related to level of responsibility. Successful staff accountants become seniors; seniors become managers; a limited number of managers become partners. In many public accounting firms, there are additional levels for all of these categories.

In addition to accounting and auditing, public accounting firms provide other services, such as tax advisement and management consulting. Some CPAs choose to move to other services after they gain experience in accounting and auditing. Others decide to establish their own firms; in 2002, for example, 10 percent of accountants were self-employed. Many choose to work in other types of positions after gaining certification and experience. Many accept positions in corporations, not-for-profit entities, and government agencies, where promotional opportunities include both accounting and nonaccounting responsibilities. Some accountants become chief executive officers in corporations or other types of organizations.

Accountants in Organizations

The range of positions for accountants in organizations is extensive. Accountants are employed in corporate reporting, in controllers' offices, and in budget and strategic planning departments. Certification is provided for management accountants through the Institute of Management Accountants. To be a certified management accountant (CMA), a candidate must successfully complete a comprehensive examination that includes accounting and related topics relevant to the broad responsibilities assumed by management accountants. Work experience in some aspect of management accounting before a candidate is certified is required. CMAs have many promotional opportunities in organizations. They are identified for leadership positions, in much the same way as CPAs, at executive levels of their own and other organizations.

Accountants as Internal Auditors

Some accountants choose to work as internal auditors. The Institute of Internal Auditors provides a certification program for candidates who seek to be certified internal auditors (CIA). Certification requires experience as an internal auditor. In many organizations, especially large ones, there is a separate department of internal audit that provides valuable oversight of the total organization. Internal auditors who are certified are expected to adhere to the professional standards as they perform their responsibilities. CIAs have promotional opportunities in internal auditing through moving into managerial positions within the department or moving to operational units where they assume supervisory and executive responsibilities.

Government Accountants

The most common certification for government accountants is that provided by the Association of Government Accountants. An examination and relevant experience are required. The designation achieved by a successful candidate is certified government financial manager. Government accountants are employed throughout the public sector, at federal, state, and local levels.


There are more accountants in the United States who are not certified than there are those who are certified. Of the 1.1 million workers classified as accountants and auditors in the United States in 2002, it was estimated that fewer than half were certified. Individuals who have studied accounting at the community college, business college, or university level are employed in beginning accounting positions. Through on-the-job training and experience, many of these individuals move into higher-level positions.

Many individuals who study in accounting programs in universities choose not to be certified. Others study some accounting as an elective program and then enter a beginning accounting position, such as staff accountant.

Many promotional opportunities are available to accountants. Technical skills and managerial skills are both important if an individual aspires to higher-level positions. Employees who are knowledgeable about accounting and continue to learn as new accounting rules and interpretations are introduced by professional bodies are invaluable to employers. Such knowledge, however, must be accompanied by strong organizational and inter-personal skills if promotional opportunities are to be realized. Some commonly identified positions for persons who have studied accounting at the college level are listed in Table 1.


The basic education requirements for those who aspire to be CPAs have been increased in most U.S. jurisdictions (the 50 states, Guam, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands). As of the end of 2003, there

Illustrative jobs which generally require college studies in accounting
Note: In some instances, persons with less than a college diploma have sufficient experience to be hired for some of these positions.
  • Accountant
  • Accounting manager
  • Accounting specialist
  • Accounting supervisor
  • Accounts Payable Manager
  • Accounts Receivable Manager
  • Budget analyst
  • Chief financial officer
  • Controller
  • Cost accountant
  • Cost accounting manager
  • Director of accounting
  • Director of financial reporting
  • Division controller
  • Financial analysts
  • Government accountant
  • Government auditor
  • Internal auditors
  • Management accountant
  • Management analyst
  • Personal financial advisor
  • Project and government account analysts
  • Public auditor (partner/manager/senior staff)
  • SEC accounting associate
  • Senior public accounting specialist
  • Tax accountant
  • Tax examiner

were forty-four states and the District of Columbia that required CPA candidates to complete 150 semester credits of college coursework. This requirement adds thirty credits to the usual four-year college program in accounting. Many of the remaining jurisdictions were considering adopting legislation requiring 150 credits, to be effective no later than August 2009. There are many significant differences among the jurisdictions related to both education and experience. The Web sites of the accountancy boards of each jurisdiction provide useful information about requirements.

Knowledge of accounting and auditing continues to be critical to handling job responsibilities. Such knowledge alone, however, is not sufficient. Accountants are expected to have advanced competencies in handling a variety of accounting and auditing software and in designing accounting information systems. Furthermore, accountants and auditors are expected to strategically analyze, interpret, and assess the information from the systems they develop and implement.

Jobs which generally do not require college studies in accounting
  • Accounting assistant
  • Accounting clerk
  • Accounts Payable assistant
  • Accounts Payable clerk
  • Accounts Receivable assistant
  • Accounts Receivabel clerk
  • Bookkeeper
  • Cost Accounting clerk
  • Payroll clerk

Because of the growing complexity of business, specializations have been established within accounting and auditing. For example, auditors who have studied and gained considerable experience in financial services, or in a critical aspect, such as acquisitions and mergers or pensions, are in demand in service firms that provide consulting services. Specializations in the accounting for industries, such as retailing, entertainment, insurance, gas and oil, or consumer products, often provide promotional opportunities.


As noted before, there are positions in accounting that are identified by the U.S. Department of Labor as requiring less than a college degree. A variety of positions identified by the Labor Department as financial clerks, including those classified as bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks, are needed in all types of organizations; in 2002 there were 3.7 million such clerks. The outlook for employment (to 2012) is that virtually all job openings will be related to replacement of individuals who have left positions. There is high turnover in this category of workers as workers move to other types of positions, including ones that represent promotions. Therefore, there are opportunities for those wishing to enter such positions.

Most positions require a high school diploma and exist in virtually every industry in the United States. Such workers are expected to know basic computer software programs. Most U.S. comprehensive and career-technical high schools offer courses in accounting and in computer software applications. Also, proprietary business colleges as well as junior and community colleges have programs that prepare students with the basic knowledge and skills needed in many beginning accounting positions. Many employers provide training on the job for the specific applications that new employees need to understand and use. Many employers provide training when there are software or system changes in the accounting information system. All levels of government, from local to federal, have many opportunities in the field of accounting for individuals who have earned a secondary education diploma.

The key task of accounting-related clerks is to maintain financial records. Such workers compute, classify, process, and verify numerical data. In large as well as mid-size businesses, for example, there are departments that handle accounts payable, accounts receivable, and cash. For such departments, companies seek employees who have a basic understanding of accounting principles, possess an organized style of work, and can handle communications with vendors (in accounts payable), customers (in accounts receivable), or personnel in human resources (benefits, pensions). Ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines is also important in some positions. Entry-level workers are generally responsible for handling the details of transactions and for preparing schedules that show the results of processing transactions. The activities for which entry-level employees are responsible, if done with thought and attention, provide a means of learning a great deal about the organization's activities and about proper work habits.

Promotional opportunities are available in many organizations. Individuals who continue their education on a part-time basis and who display maturity and wisdom in their associations with coworkers are considered good candidates for supervisory positions. Responsible, dependable managers often began as clerks but were willing to continue to learn not only all aspects of their jobs but also the total work of the organization in relation to the accounting function. Some common job titles for positions available to persons without college study of accounting are shown in Table 2.


University programs that lead to doctoral degrees in accounting produce graduates who find employment in college teaching and in technical positions in public accounting firms, professional standard-setting organizations, and other organizations in which high-level expertise is in demand. Some such specializations in this area include accounting theory, accounting systems design, and accounting policy.

Opportunities for accountants with doctorates reflect the need for accountants to have leading-edge vision in a rapidly changing global business environment. Advanced studies leading to a doctorate will provide individuals with theoretical understanding so that they can devise new principles to ensure the relevance of financial information that is reported to shareholders and others. Advanced studies will also train individuals who will be able to design the effective and efficient accounting information systems needed in business and government.


The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants provides specialized certificates in accredited in business valuation and for the positions of information technology professional and personal financial specialist. These certificate programs require that individuals have CPA certificates.

Other initiatives in the United States relate to environmental accounting, forensic accounting, international accounting, and fraud accounting. Organizations with missions related to a specialization are active in establishing standards to guide practitioners who choose to participate in the field.


Accounting is often referred to as "the language of business." That language has wide application. Many occupations are open to those who have both a background in accounting and analytical skills. Among occupations in which accounting training is perceived to be valuable are budget officers, lending officials in banks, securities advisers, financial analysts, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, and financial managers in not-for-profit entities.

see also Accounting


American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Association of Government Accountants.

Institute of Internal Auditors.

Institute of Management Accountants.

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy.

U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational outlook handbook, 200405.

Bernard H. Newman

Mary Ellen Oliverio

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