CPA - Accountant: Career Summary, Job Outlook, and Educational Requirements

Research what it takes to become a certified public accountant. Learn about job duties, job outlook, and education requirements to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Accounting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Do Certified Public Accountants Do?

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) are licensed professionals who provide accounting, auditing and tax services to individual clients or companies. Many CPAs review clients' financial records in order to prepare and file tax returns, while others handle legal documents associated with clients' finances. Some CPAs may work as forensic accountants, reviewing potentially illegal financial actions and situations, such as breached contracts, embezzlement and fraud.

The table below outlines the general requirements to become a certified public accountant.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Accounting
Key Skills Analytical skills, communication skills, detail oriented, math skills, organization
Certification Required Must pass CPA exam from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
Job Growth (2014-2024) 11% (for all accountants and auditors)*
Mean Annual Salary (2015) $75,280 (for all accountants and auditors)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Are the Duties of a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)?

Your duties as a CPA will vary somewhat depending on your employer. If you work for an accounting firm or directly for a company, your main duty will be to prepare and maintain numerically accurate accounting reports from financial statements, transaction records and other sources of information. You'll also analyze a business organization's revenue and costs, identify trends, project future profitability, present comprehensive reports on your findings to administrators, and offer advice on tax planning and employee compensation.

At an independent accounting firm or as a self-employed consultant, you might conduct independent audits or assist with the development, implementation or modification of an organization's accounting system. With a law enforcement agency, your work could take on a forensic dimension, wherein you'd investigate embezzlement, bankruptcies and securities fraud. In this capacity, you have to testify in court as an expert witness.

Where Do Professionals Work?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over 1.2 million people worked as accountants and auditors in 2015 (www.bls.gov). The majority worked for accounting, bookkeeping, payroll and tax preparation services. Lesser but significant numbers worked for local and state governments and insurance carriers. Around nine percent were self-employed. Together, these represent your most likely employment options. The BLS projects employment will increase 11% to over 1.47 million between 2014-2024. Growth in the total number of business organizations and the needs of businesses to manage their finances and comply with disclosure laws will drive the demand for accountants.

What Education do CPA Accountants Need?

Most accountants need a bachelor's degree in accounting or a bachelor's in business administration with a concentration in accounting. With some employers, you might need a master's degree. Bachelor's degree programs aim to instill technical knowledge of accounting practices and develop your capacity to analyze and interpret a business' financial transactions. You learn to prepare records for review by external auditors and for internal use by managers and administrators to make business decisions. Master's degree programs provide opportunities to enhance your leadership skills and acquire hands-on experience with domestic and international organizations.

Schools offer 4- and 5-year bachelor's degree programs. Some offer 5-year joint bachelor's and master's degree programs. If you want to become a CPA, most states require you to complete 150 semester hours of college courses, which is more than the typical 120 semester hours needed to complete a bachelor's degree program. All states require certified public accountants to pass the Uniform CPA Examination offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (www.aicpa.org). To keep the CPA certificate, you must complete continuing education courses throughout your career.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Related fields for accountants include many areas in finance and budgeting. Bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks do not require degrees, but some postsecondary education, particularly in accounting and math, is required. Analysts in finance, budgeting and management need at least a bachelor's degree and spend a lot of time in the private or public sector preparing reports, assessing budgets and advising to increase profits. Those with accounting degrees may decide to work within tax services either as examiners, tax collectors or agents with the Internal Revenue Service.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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