Becoming a Certified Accountant

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When the dust settles over our economic turmoil, it is a certainty that increased government regulation will be confronting the banking and securities firms in this country.  That’s going to require expanded oversight from government auditors and reams of additional reporting from banks, investment houses and brokers.  Both of those functions will be performed by accountants.

If you are interested in an accounting career, fate has brought about an ideal time to pursue your dream.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, just 21% of the 1.3 million accountants in this country were employed in public accounting firms. Another 10% were self employed and the balance could be found in corporations or in government agencies. 

If you are interested in being an accountant or an auditor working in a corporate or government office, or even if simply being the neighborhood public accountant appeals to you here are some steps toward your goal.

You’re going to need a degree.  Accountants today generally have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, or finance, or in business with a concentration on finance. All of these are acceptable accounting degrees.  Accountants that want to move into a management or administrative role outside of a small agency are going to need a master’s degree at some point; it’s a worthwhile goal because managerial accounting is at the crux of most business operations.

Decide what you want to do.  The faculty at your school can talk with you about which academic options lead to your targeted career.  Auditing is a fact finder’s job; you may want to take some courses in forensic accounting.  This particular corner of the accounting profession is growing rapidly, as criminal activity increasingly involves offshore bank accounts, laundered money and financial trickery.

In accounting, certification can be important.  Many public accountants – the  professionals that handle tax returns, payroll accounts, and other retail financial services – function through an entire career without certification.  However many become Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), which provides an added patina of credibility and which allows you to file documents with the SEC. 

Understand your State’s certification requirements.  States certify CPA applicants.  Most states require an additional 150 credit hours of class time over and above a bachelor’s degree in order to qualify for CPA status.  Many schools have a program for providing those additional study requirements, that results in a master’s degree.  All states use the Uniform CPA Examination prepared by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA); less than half of all applicants pass on the first try, so those additional study hours are important.

There are several certification options.  At least ten certifications are offered by an assortment of professional organizations.  You can become an Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA), a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), or a Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP).  For further information on these and other forms of accounting certification, consult the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Handbook.

Bob Hartzell is a freelance writer who covers careers for GetDegrees.com. You can find a comprehensive list of schools that offer accounting degrees on the site. An accounting degree can take you from entry level bookkeeping into a management position in many businesses today.