Accounting careers and fields
Are you interested in a career in accounting or finance? If so, you may be wondering about the types of jobs available, where people in these professions work (hint: everywhere), and the educational requirements and experience required to work in this sector.
In this article, we answer these questions by taking a detailed look at the jobs available in this rewarding and often lucrative field.
Job types in accounting
Within a company’s accounting department, there are 2 broad categories of positions, and a third that would more properly be classified under finance but with overlapping responsibilities. The structure of each department can vary, depending on the size of the organization and the industry.
The structure below shows how a finance department might be organized.
This area is a company’s engine room, managing the core, essential day-to-day operations that keep the money flowing. The core functions within financial operations are accounts payable and accounts receivable, reconciliation of ledgers, payments and invoicing, and payroll.
Responsible for ensuring the numbers presented in company reports and ledgers are accurate and can withstand scrutiny from an external audit. Financial control focuses on what has happened in the company’s past, through to the present day.
Financial controllers and their teams need to know standard accounting practices, legal reporting requirements, and the expectations of external auditors, ensuring the company’s books pass muster and accurately reflect financial performance.
Financial control focuses on what has happened in the company’s past, through to the present day.
Financial control areas and roles include cash flow management, cost management, tax strategy and preparation, internal audit, statutory accounts, external audit management, closing the ledger, and due diligence management.
Financial planning and analysis
If financial operations manages the day-to-day nuts and bolts, and financial control makes sure that the numbers in the books are correct, then financial planning and analysis evaluates the present state of affairs and looks to the future.
Financial planning and analysis professionals use the numbers in the financial statements to determine future strategies. They work closely with business units and senior leadership to decide how to allocate resources, check whether strategies are appropriate, and develop better methods to financially manage and measure strategic decisions.
Positions in this area include budget planning, forecasting and reforecasting, mergers and acquisitions, investor relations (for public companies), and raising capital. Some of these positions overlap, and the various departments and finance professionals frequently work together.
Where do accounting professionals work?
Every organization needs staff to manage the financial side of their operation. Below we look at how various business entities handle careers in accounting.
Businesses and companies
Depending on the size and industry, a business may have people in all 3 of the above-mentioned accounting and finance areas. Alternatively, employees can fulfil multiple roles, or a hybrid model can be used, with some positions managed internally and others outsourced.
Today, many companies outsource the majority of their financial operations. A lot of functions are becoming automated: cloud-based services that manage payroll, accounts payable and accounts receivable require minimal need for internal staff. In the future, as more sophisticated financial technologies are developed and specialist firms choose to locate to more tax- and resource-efficient states or countries, even more specialized or advanced financial control roles might be outsourced.
Some specialized functions of financial planning and analysis almost always call for external investment bank consultants.
Financial planning and analysis functions are likely to remain in-house due to the sensitive nature of the information, the need for these professionals to be very close to the business, and their strategic role in planning for a company’s future.
Some specialized functions of financial planning and analysis almost always call for external investment bank consultants. This is the case, for instance, when deciding on benchmarks and appropriate pricing if a company wants to go public, when trying to drum up institutional support for a flotation, or when determining appropriate pricing and managing the process during mergers and acquisitions.
Business consulting and accounting firms hire numerous accountants and finance professionals. These firms assist companies with many different business services to drive efficiency, save money, and identify areas for growth.
Consulting firms have benefitted greatly from the increasing trend of companies to outsource their core accounting functions.
Today, the so-called ‘big 4’ of consulting and accounting firms remain the major players. They have large international reach, which can be of massive benefit to companies unsure of how to enter or operate in foreign markets. Therefore, the big 4 are often the beneficiaries of outsourced accounting tasks.
The companies that make up the big 4 are:
- Ernst & Young
- PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)
Investment bankers work with individuals, corporations, governments, educational endowments, and others, to create capital. If you would like to make copious money and don’t mind working the legendary 90-hour work weeks for much of your 20s, this may be the role for you.
They assist with the organization of financing and guide companies—operationally and strategically—with their stock market listing approach.
Investment banks also help clients generate wealth by managing large, complex projects, including mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations, and component trades. They assist with the organization of financing and guide companies—operationally and strategically—with their stock market listing approach. Senior financial planning and analysis professionals often cross over to work in the investment banking side of the company.
Like private and public companies, federal, state, and local governments also need financial professionals. Many accountants go to work for the Internal Revenue Service to manage tax issues, or enter policy positions for various government agencies
Career development in finance and accounting
The path you take depends on the qualifications you hold, the area of finance you plan to work in, and your career goals. Below are some general suggestions:
These are good entry-level positions that provide enviable job stability and pay. Talented young accountants frequently start out in financial ops as they work towards earning their CPA. This is an excellent way to gain the experience required for certification. They can study the necessary materials to pass the exam whilst accruing the requisite experience in the field at the same time. Typically, a financial ops role requires at least an associate degree.
In most firms, anything but the most entry-level control position requires a CPA. These positions are often filled by ambitious accountants, who may move into lucrative managerial roles in financial control or financial planning and analysis.
Financial planning and analysis
Professionals in these positions bridge the gap between accounting and business, making them natural candidates for senior leadership roles, such as a chief financial officer or chief executive officer. Those with financial planning and analysis experience often move into senior investment banking positions, too. You can go either the CPA or MBA route to get into senior financial planning positions; some have both, there are likely a smaller number that have neither.
Other career paths include:
These positions help companies understand the risks—internal and external— of decisions made about the company’s future. These assessments are made based on analysis of the company’s past financial performance and knowledge of the industry, market, and competition.
Those who decide upon this career path frequently become internal or external auditors. A forensic accountant deals with exposing tax evasion and other types of financial fraud in various organizations. If you want flexibility and a little less stress, the IRS may be for you.
Colleges and universities need talented professionals to teach future generations the skills they need for careers in these fields. Students might be studying at various course levels, from associate degree to doctorate.
Degree paths in accounting and finance
The academic path you pursue depends on what you want to do professionally. The good news is that you can always continue your education to advance into higher roles.
Below are some popular academic degree paths.
Associate degree in accounting
An associate degree is an entry-level program that can help secure a job in financial ops. It represents a less expensive, shorter path than earning a bachelor’s degree.
The 3 most common associate degrees in accounting are: associate of arts (A.A.), associate of science (A.S.), and associate of applied science (AAS). The first 2 are somewhat interchangeable. Therefore, the program you choose may depend on the school you wish to attend.
Depending on the school and state, some degrees may make it easier than others to transfer credits for a bachelor’s degree.
Generally speaking, the A.A. is designed for those looking to go on to complete a bachelor’s degree, while the A.S. is for those who either want to do a bachelor’s degree or are ready to enter the workforce. The A.A. usually requires more electives in the humanities or social sciences, while the A.S. requires more courses in math or science. Depending on the school and state, some degrees may make it easier than others to transfer credits for a bachelor’s degree.
An AAS emphasizes the professional side, and those who enroll in this program usually plan to go straight into work upon completion. An AAS in accounting will teach you to collect, report and analyze financial information, and prepare you for entry-level accounting jobs, especially in financial operations.
Bachelor’s degree in finance, accounting, or economics
All 3 of these degrees deal with numbers, but they contain subtle differences.
Finance focuses on the larger operational and organizational issues of finance fields. This degree is designed for students who want to progress quickly and perhaps aspire to become CFOs one day.
Accounting degrees can position students for leadership roles throughout finance departments, such as chief accounting officers, controllers, and auditors.
Accounting involves a deeper dive into the practical work needed by accountants and other finance professionals. These students are true number-crunchers who like working with large amounts of data. Accounting degrees can position students for leadership roles throughout finance departments, such as chief accounting officers, controllers, and auditors.
Economics is a more theoretical, conceptual approach to how systems, governments, and policy shapes finance. This degree focuses far less on the specific skills required to create and analyze balance sheets, or day-to-day operations. It’s an intellectually focused major, ideal for future MBAs or college professors.
Despite the above-mentioned distinctions, there is very little difference in the starting salaries of those with finance-related bachelor’s degrees by major.
In fact, the earnings data, compiled by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, shows that salary performance right out of school is very similar:
The most important thing is to choose the subject matter that appeals to you. All of these finance-related majors provide a solid educational foundation and leave you with multiple options. For example, after your bachelor’s you might like to pursue an MBA or CPA.
Should I pursue a CPA or MBA?
Whether to pursue a CPA or an MBA depends on several factors. If you want to focus on the strategic side of business and be involved in growing, building or starting your own company, or have C-suite position aspirations, then an MBA is a smart choice. For those who want to lead a team of accountants within an accounting firm or business, or work as a freelance accountant, the CPA may be the better option.
The CPA is considered the gold standard in many finance and accounting fields. A CPA has knowledge in a broad range of finance areas, including auditing, compliance, forensic accounting, and risk management. The CPA exam is extensive and has 4 levels. Studying for it often takes a year.
The CPA is ideal for individuals who enjoy numbers and want to work for an accounting firm. You do not need an MBA to get a CPA. Many individuals study for the CPA while obtaining entry-level experience at the same time. Once you pass the CPA exam, jobs in financial control tend to open up, and some firms want their chief financial officer to have a CPA.
An MBA degree involves the study of case studies and a focus on business operations issues, giving students extensive foundational knowledge of multiple business areas.
The MBA provides rigorous training in business management and is a good way to prepare for roles in financial planning and analysis. MBAs are usually 2-year programs offered at universities around the world. An MBA degree involves the study of case studies and a focus on business operations issues, giving students extensive foundational knowledge of multiple business areas.
MBAs often come with concentrations in fields that include: entrepreneurship, finance, human resources, marketing, international business, healthcare, and information technology. An MBA requires a bachelor’s degree. It may be pursued directly out of undergraduate studies, or after several years of employment.
There are other master’s programs you can study for after completing your bachelor’s. The programs on offer include:
M.S. in finance
Unlike the MBA, this degree is less focused on management and business strategy, being more geared towards preparing for a career in banking. It usually requires about a year of coursework. The program prepares students for careers in financial strategy, financial analysis, trading, or investment management. It can be pursued directly after earning a bachelor’s, and is an excellent choice for those looking for an alternative to an MBA or a CPA.
M.S. in accounting
This degree can help to distinguish you from other candidates in the financial sector. Along with some determination and hard work, it can also be the first step on the path to management positions within financial control. An M.S. in accounting can be pursued directly after earning a bachelor’s degree. The undergraduate degree doesn’t need to be in accounting. Many programs require some work experience for admittance. Graduates tend to work as business consultants, controllers, chief financial officers, or auditors. This qualification can go hand-in-hand with a CPA to add more weight to your resume.
An advanced degree is generally pursued by aspiring academics, but can also lead to a career within business as a CFO. Other career options include working in accounting or finance research, or as a consultant.
A doctorate typically requires at least a bachelor’s degree or, in some cases, a master’s degree. These programs take multiple years to complete, and require teaching undergraduate or graduate courses and writing a dissertation to demonstrate mastery in a particular subject.
Certifications for careers in finance
There are many different certifications you can obtain to advance your career in finance. In some cases, employers are looking for candidates who already have these credentials—often the CPA.
Many colleges and universities offer certification programs. In addition, professional organizations may also provide certification opportunities.
With certification, you become more attractive to potential employers and more valuable to your current company.
A certification gives you access to more job opportunities by demonstrating specialized expertise in a particular component of finance and showing your commitment to that area. With certification, you become more attractive to potential employers and more valuable to your current company.
To maintain the certification you may have to complete continuing professional education, the requirements for which can vary from state to state and by certification.
Below we look at some of the most common finance certifications.
Certified management accountant
A certified management accountant has knowledge of analysis, financial planning, financial controls, and strategic financial management. In the United States, the Institute of Management Accountants offers the CMA certification, which requires a rigorous 2-part exam. To be a CMA, you must hold a bachelor’s degree and possess 2 years of relevant work experience.
Certified Internal Auditor
The Institute of Internal Auditors of North America offers the CIA exam in 12 languages. It’s the only certification accepted internationally for internal audit. Typically, candidates study for about 150 hours before taking the exam. CIAs can hold wide-ranging positions, either in internal audit roles, or as a director, vice president, or chief audit director. Applicants require a bachelor’s degree and 2 years of internal audit work experience (a master’s degree can be substituted for 1 of these years).
Certified Information Systems Auditor
Technology is now commonplace in all types of business, therefore, roles such as a Certified Information System Auditor (CISA) are becoming more common. These positions blend the financial side with the technical expertise needed to understand complex information technology (IT) systems. The ISACA administers the CISA exam, which consists of 150 questions in 5 areas:
- IS audit processes
- IT governance and management
- IS acquisition, development and implementation
- IS operations, maintenance and service management
- protection of information assets
To apply, candidates must hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and have work experience in the field.
Certified fraud examiner
Certified fraud examiners identify and prevent fraud within organizations or government agencies. This is a subfield of forensic accounting and requires expertise in 4 areas:
- financial transactions and fraud schemes
- investigation and fraud prevention
It’s a useful certification for those wanting to work in anti-fraud for public or private companies. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners manages the program. To be eligible, you must hold a bachelor’s degree and be a member of the association.
There are also accreditations and certifications available in specific roles within finance, including accounts payable and receivable, business analysis, compliance and ethics, government auditing, payroll, and regulatory affairs.
There are many opportunities for those who wish to build a successful career in accounting. The career path you choose—and the academic path you take to get there—largely depends on which role you believe suits you best. For those right out of college, getting experience in financial operations is a great first step while studying for the CPA exam. If you are lucky you can slot into more lucrative accounting positions within a few years. From there multiple options are available, with ambitious accountants moving up the seniority ladder into management positions, or perhaps getting an MBA and moving over into financial strategy and executive leadership.
A large and diverse community of accountants, who aim to help shape the future of accounting.
With over 430,000 members across 130 countries, the AICPA provides educational advice for accountants. It also grades the uniform CPA examination.
An academic organization which aims to promote knowledge about financial economics.