How to Become an Accountant or Auditor
Most accountants and auditors need at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field.
Accountants and auditors typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field to enter the occupation. Completing certification in a specific field of accounting, such as becoming a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA), may improve job prospects.
Accountants and auditors typically need a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field, such as business. Some employers prefer to hire applicants who have a master’s degree, either in accounting or in business administration with a concentration in accounting.
Some universities and colleges offer specialized programs for a bachelor’s or master’s degree, such as in accounting, forensic accounting, internal auditing, or tax accounting. In some cases, those with an associate’s degree, as well as bookkeepers, accounting, and auditing clerks who meet the education and experience requirements set by their employers, may get junior accounting positions and advance by showing their accounting skills on the job.
Students may gain practical experience through internships with public accounting or business firms.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Any accountant who files a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is required to be a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Other accountants choose to become a CPA to enhance their job prospects or to gain clients. Employers may pay the costs associated with the CPA exam.
CPAs are licensed by their state’s Board of Accountancy. Becoming a CPA requires passing a national exam and meeting other state requirements. All states require CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college coursework to be licensed, which is 30 hours more than the usual 4-year bachelor’s degree. Many schools offer a 5-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree to meet the 150-hour requirement, but a master’s degree is not required.
A few states allow a number of years of public accounting experience to substitute for a college degree.
All states use the four-part Uniform CPA Examination from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Candidates do not have to pass all four parts at once, but most states require that candidates pass all four parts within 18 months of passing their first part.
All states require CPAs to take continuing education courses, including ethics, to maintain their license.
Certification provides an advantage in the job market because it shows professional competence in a specialized field of accounting and auditing. Accountants and auditors seek certifications from a variety of professional societies. Some of the most common certifications are listed below:
The AICPA offers several designations. For accountants with a CPA, the AICPA offers the Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV), Certified Financial Forensics (CFF), Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP), and Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) certifications. All of these credentials require experience in the related area, continuing education, and passing an exam.
AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) developed the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation as an internationally recognized professional credential. Candidates must complete a program, pass an exam, and meet a requirement for work experience.
The Association of Government Accountants (AGA) offers the Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM) credential to accountants or auditors working with federal, state, or local government. To earn this certification, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, pass examinations, and have professional-level experience in government financial management. To keep the certification, CGFMs must complete continuing professional education.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) offers the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) credential to graduates from accredited colleges and universities who have work experience as internal auditors and have passed an exam. The IIA also offers the Certified in Control Self-Assessment (CCSA), Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA), and Certification in Risk Management Assurance (CRMA) to those who pass the exams and meet educational and experience requirements.
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) offers the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) to applicants who complete a bachelor’s degree. Applicants must have work experience in management accounting, pass an exam, agree to meet continuing education requirements, and comply with standards of professional conduct.
ISACA offers the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) to candidates who pass an exam and have work experience auditing information systems. Information systems experience, financial or operational auditing experience, or related college credit hours may be substituted for some of the experience required in information systems auditing, control, or security.
Some top executives and financial managers have a background in accounting, internal auditing, or finance.
Entry-level public accountants may advance to senior positions as they gain experience and take on more responsibility. Those who excel may become supervisors, managers, or partners; open their own public accounting firm; or transfer to executive positions in management accounting or internal auditing in private firms.
Management accountants often start as cost accountants, junior internal auditors, or trainees for other accounting positions. As they rise through the organization, they may advance to become accounting managers, budget directors, chief cost accountants, or managers of internal auditing. Some become controllers, treasurers, financial vice presidents, chief financial officers, or corporation presidents.
Public accountants, management accountants, and internal auditors may move from one type of accounting and auditing to another. Public accountants often move into management accounting or internal auditing. Management accountants may become internal auditors, and internal auditors may become management accountants. However, it is less common for management accountants or internal auditors to move into public accounting.
Analytical and critical-thinking skills. Accountants and auditors must be able to critically evaluate data, identify issues in documentation, and suggest solutions. For example, internal auditors might detect fraudulent use of funds, and public accountants may work to minimize tax liability.
Communication skills. Accountants and auditors must be able to listen to and discuss facts and concerns from clients, managers, and other stakeholders. They must also be able to discuss the results of their work both in meetings and in written reports.
Detail oriented. Accountants and auditors must pay attention to detail when compiling and examining documents.
Math skills. Accountants and auditors must be able to analyze, compare, and interpret facts and figures. They may use advanced math skills, such as calculus and statistical analysis, for these tasks.
Organizational skills. Strong organizational skills are important for accountants and auditors, who often work with a range of financial documents for a variety of clients.