Depending on the size of the business, the type of business, and certainly the financial needs of the business, accountants may handle a wide array of financial tasks and oversee any number of monetary responsibilities.
In general, accountants verify the accuracy of all financial transactions. They may also issue financial reports, compile and complete tax-related documents, and assist members of the executive or management team when making decisions related to the allocation of financial resources. Their precise record keeping allows company management to assess the financial health of the company at any time.
In larger business operations, accountants often perform internal audits, which ensure that the financial records of the company are complete and accurate. Accountants analyze profits and losses, provide information to investors and business owners, and prepare valuable financial information, all of which is used to evaluate the success of the company over time.
And it’s not just the multi-million-dollar corporations who seek the services of accountants; small, family-owned businesses rely on their expertise to ensure that all finances adhere to tax laws and other regulations. Rather than staffing a full time accountant, smaller businesses may contract accounting services through an established accounting firm.
General Job Description
Just a few of the accounting jobs that are most in demand include:
- Anti-money laundering specialists
- Business analysts
- Financial analysts
- Risk and compliance professionals
- Internal auditors
- Staff accountants
- Senior accountants
The daily responsibilities of these accountants may include:
- Analyzing and reviewing budgets and expenditures
- Analyzing revenue and expenditure trends and recommending appropriate budget levels and expenditure control
- Compiling and analyzing financial information and documenting business transactions
- Developing and maintaining financial databases and computer software systems
- Establishing and coordinating accounting control procedures
- Explaining billing, invoices, and accounting policies to vendors, staff, and clients
- Interacting with internal and external auditors when completing audits
- Overseeing the input of financial data and reports for a company’s financial systems
- Preparing and reviewing budgets, revenue, payroll, expenses, and other accounting documents
- Preparing profit and loss statements and monthly closing and cost accounting reports
- Resolving accounting discrepancies
For a comprehensive list, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Post-Secondary Institutions and Programs.
The Different Career Paths Available to Accountants
There are a number of general career paths in accounting – academia, public accounting, government accounting, corporate accounting and nonprofit accounting. Experienced accountants generally recommend that aspiring accountants make an informed decision about which path they want to pursue even before going to school. Entering an accounting program with a clear picture of the general career path that lies ahead allows students to customize their education and choose the most relevant courses based on specific career goals.
The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) recognizes the following types of accounting:
Accountants in public accounting serve as objective advisors, usually on a contractual basis. These accounting professionals may work for small, neighborhood accounting practices that serve small businesses within a community, or for one of the Big Four international CPA firms – Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Earnst & Young and KPMG.
According to the AICPA, there are more than 46,000 accounting firms in the United States.
Public accountants may perform a wide range of accounting services, including auditing, tax, and consulting activities.
Accounting educators serve as faculty members of colleges of business administration, professional schools of accountancy, and graduate schools of businesses. These accounting professionals instruct students in a wide array of areas, including:
- Financial accounting
- Cost and managerial accounting
Accountants working in business and industry may work for small, family-owned companies or major multinationals. Corporate accountants work as company employees, often serving as strategic business partners within the organization.
Corporate accountants (also referred to as management accountants, industrial accounts, and private accountants) may be responsible for any number of activities, including: budgeting, performance evaluation, cost management, and asset management.
In larger corporations, corporate accountants may be numerous, with each possessing a different specialty. Just a few of the job titles that corporate accountants hold include:
- Staff accountant
- Tax accountant
- Internal auditor
- Financial accounting and reporting manager
- Chief accounting executive
- Chief financial officer
Government accountants have many of the same responsibilities as corporate and public accountants, as they oversee auditing, financial reporting, and management accounting. However, these accounting professionals also often evaluate the efficiency of government departments and agencies at local, state, and federal levels.
At the federal level, accountants may work for the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of the Treasury, and the General Accounting Office, while at the state and local levels they may work for a school district, a prison system, or a state agency that oversees the worker’s compensation system.
Accountants in the nonprofit sector have a set of unique responsibilities outside of typical accounting duties, as they must be able to determine that the benefits and services provided by the organization do not exceed grants and other revenue.
Whether as an employee or as an advisor, accountants working for nonprofit organizations often assist with tax issues, budget resources, and fundraising record keeping.
Specialized Areas of Focus in Accounting
A large number of accounting specialties exist outside the realm of general accounting. In a corporate accounting setting, accountants may focus their careers on auditing, tax, and/or management consulting, while in business and industry, accountants may work in financial accounting and reporting, management accounting, financial analysis, and treasury/cash management, just to name a few.
Thanks to a diverse business climate, many of today’s accountants delve into specialized areas of accounting, such as:
Financial Forensics: Forensic accountants provide litigation support and investigative accounting services to uncover financial fraud. Employers of these accounting specialists include public accounting firms, consulting firms specializing in risk consulting and forensic accounting services, law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, and government organizations.
Business Valuation: Accountants specializing in business valuation determine the value of a business’ tangible and intangible assets. These professionals make an objective determination of the value of a business entity by studying a number of different standards of value, including fair market, judicial, intrinsic, and investment values.
Personal Financial Planning: Financial planners provide personal financial planning advice to the clients they service. Services may include income tax, estate, retirement, investment, or insurance planning.
Entertainment accounting: Entertainment accountants oversee television and movie production budgets.
Environmental accounting: Environmental accountants work with corporations to implement eco-friendly standards and comply with government regulations while maintaining profitability.
The Path to Becoming an Accountant and Earning a CPA License
Although accountants without the CPA designation may perform a variety of accounting duties, including examining accounts and preparing financial reports, CPAs have a broader range of allowable duties, including representing clients before the IRS, preparing audited financial statements, and filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
There are no hard and fast rules on becoming an accountant. In fact, some accountants possess as little as an associate’s degree in accounting. However, the path to becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) is one that is clear and straightforward.
The CPA credential is a guarantee that the accountant has met a rigorous level of competence and experience. This makes the designation highly valued among employers in the areas of business and finance.
CPAs are regulated and licensed in the jurisdiction in which they practice. This means qualifications and requirements vary somewhat from one state to the next.
In all cases, however, the path to becoming a CPA involves the successful completion of the following (often called the three Es):
- Education: Education involves completing at least 150 semester hours of education, which consists of completing a bachelor’s degree and additional graduate-level coursework or a master’s degree. Specific course requirements, however, vary by state.
- Experience: Experience involves the completion of at least one year of public accounting experience. In some states the requirement is for as many as three years of supervised experience.
- Examination: The Uniform CPA Examination is the standard competency evaluation for CPA licensure nationwide. Some jurisdictions allow candidates for CPA licensure to sit for this examination before the completion of their experience requirements.
A few states also require a fourth E – a demonstration of competence in ethics. The ethics component is usually satisfied by completing the AICPA Professional Ethics Examination or a state-specific ethical conduct examination.