Career Advice Aug 08 2011

Accounting Careers

By Marisa Taylor

If you want to be an accountant, it's no big surprise that you should have a knack for numbers. As a certified public accountant, or CPA, you'll be charged with reviewing and analyzing the financial information of client companies for auditing, taxpaying, or advisory purposes.

And as an accountant or controller for a company or private accounting firm, you could be consulting with your company's executives about financial strategy, or advising businesses or individuals about anything from expansion to retirement.

But in reality, it's not all calculators and number crunching, particularly because advances in accounting software mean that technology takes care of the basic bookkeeping. The important thing, say both recruiters and employees in the field, is to be an excellent communicator and problem solver, since you'll likely be working in a group with other accountants or managers, and maybe even a company's chief financial officer.

"What we really need are people who can understand our clients, talk to them, and understand what is happening with their businesses," says Dan Black, the director of campus recruiting for North and South America at public accounting firm Ernst & Young. "You're not put in the corner just to plug away at the calculator. You're going to be interacting with our clients right away."

In order to become a CPA, you do need to earn additional accounting credits beyond your bachelor's degree and pass the four-part CPA exam. The average starting salary for a CPA is about $40,500, and it's around $39,700 for a tax accountant. But with a little more experience, you can earn an average starting salary $67,400 as a financial controller and a starting salary of $84,400 as a tax manager, according to data from PayScale.com.

The beauty of the accounting field is that every company and organization—whether large or small, public or private—needs to keep track of its finances, meaning that someone with diverse interests can use accounting skills to work across many industries. And with the U.S. potentially adopting the International Financial Reporting Rules, graduates with an interest in international affairs could develop an expertise and seek experience abroad.

"A lot of people don't think accounting is a glamorous field—and it's not," says Philip Erickson, a partner at a private accounting firm in Colorado Springs, Colo. "But it's a stable field, and it's not going away."

So while jobs dried up during the economic crisis, hiring in accounting wasn't hit as hard, and cutbacks have created a need for more hiring as the economy recovers, says Amy Thompson, the U.S. campus recruiting leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She'll be hiring 3,000 people this year, up from 2,600 last year.

And whether it's the new financial regulations pushed through Congress or an infusion of cash for a green energy startup, accountants will always be called upon to help businesses and government agencies solve their financial puzzles. And the versatility of accounting skills means that, if you decide you don't like the field, you've gained valuable experience that's easily transferable to other careers in finance or business.

Common Majors: Accounting, Business and Finance

Personality Fit for Accounting: Those who are analytical and enjoy solving problems, working with others, and are highly organized will do well in the accounting field.

Your Accounting Career: Recruiters say the majority of their new accounting hires, who start as associates, work for them as summer interns between their junior and senior years in college. It's a great way for the firm to test how you'll think on your feet in the field and work with a team.

The career trajectory in accounting can differ depending on whether you go public by working at one of the big accounting firms like KPMG or Deloitte & Touche; there you're likely to be sent out on client projects with a team, not unlike a consultant. As an accountant in industry, on the other hand, you'd be working in-house in for a company's accounting department, or for a private accounting firm. Typically, though, recent graduates start at one of the big public firms, and branch out from there.

Getting Started: Most big public accounting firms expect new hires to be ready to sit for the CPA exam, which requires completion of 150 credit hours in accounting, depending on your state's regulations. But a bachelor's degree only gives you 120 credit hours, so would-be accountants are increasingly earning those extra hours in the form of a one-year master's degree in accounting. After all, says Nina Guthrie, the national director of university recruiting for Grant Thornton, "What's one more year of school? Go and get that master's and differentiate yourself among your peers."

But colleges have also started arranging ways for students to earn the requisite credits in an extra semester, and some firms will hire recent bachelor's graduates and put them to work on more junior tasks while they earn the extra credits in a part-time master's program. Either way, you can take the exam after you've been hired and tackle the four exam parts separately—or even all at once, if you can stomach it.

Get on the Fast Track: After you've received extensive training on business etiquette, the ins and outs of audits or tax procedures, and the necessary software for doing your job, you'll need to hit the ground running as an associate, and are sent to a client engagement with other associates and managers, who will show you the ropes. In industry, you might get your start as an assistant or staff accountant in a company's accounting department. Either way, to work your way up the ladder, recruiters say you'll need to develop the ability to look at the bigger picture when it comes to a client's priorities, and to analyze increasingly complex financial problems beyond just checking and rechecking the financial records.

Next Up: In public accounting, after a few years, you'll become a senior associate, where you'll interact more with higher-ups and spend more time directing associates and interns as they assist you in client engagements. For example, you might lead the associates charged with helping you conduct a client's year-end audit, which the managers and partner above you must ultimately approve. If you really have a knack for leading others, you'll then become a manager, and then a senior manager, where you'll manage even more associates and will lead increasingly complex projects, such as examining company's risk portfolio, or taking on an IPO, merger or acquisition.

The trajectory in private accounting is a different animal, depending on what kind of organization you work for and the experience you accrue, and you can potentially move up the ladder more quickly than at a large corporation. Take Scott Anstrom, who heads up the accounting department of a 40-employee Charlotte, N.C.-based manufacturer of home theater installation products. While he has only been in the accounting field for six years, he sits on the company's board and guides the chief executive and chief operating officer on the company's financial performance—though he does admit his trajectory is atypical.

Phase Three: With several more years of success, you could be named partner at your public or private firm. You'd be billing lots of hours, particularly in the busy January to April tax season, and would be responsible for signing off on each client engagement after conferring with the managers and senior managers who report to you. But management experience at a firm can be a jumping off point to becoming a company's controller, in which you'd advise company executives about business strategy and financial operations, or even become a chief financial officer.

Write to Marisa Taylor at careerpath@wsj.com




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