The definitive guide to your accounting career

10 min read

Whether you’ve chosen an accounting major and want to know what the future holds or are considering a shift to a more satisfying, stable career, you’re now exploring accounting careers. We know there’s a lot of information in many different places, and you probably find it confusing and overwhelming to try and get all the information you need. To cut through the confusion, we wanted to provide one space to give you an overview of the information, plus additional links to explore areas of particular interest. Use the table of contents below to skip to a specific topic or start reading for comprehensive insights into careers in accounting.

Table of contents

  1. What does an accountant do?
  2. Why choose an accounting career?
  3. How to start an accounting career? 
  4. Types of accounting
  5. Finding careers in accounting
  6. Accounting career salaries
  7. Why become a CPA?
  8. Designations to advance your accounting career
  9. Accounting career FAQs


What does an accountant do?

At the most basic definition, accountants are financial professionals with the specialized training to prepare, manage and analyze financial records, ensure accuracy and compliance with tax and financial reporting laws and regulations and offer advice or guidance related to tax and financial matters. They may provide their services, skills and insight to individuals, businesses and corporations, organizations and government entities.

A more accurate definition of what an accountant does depends on the type of accountant they are or their specialization, so this can include anything from a staff accountant preparing balance sheets to an investment accountant analyzing investment activities and advising businesses on stock and bond options. Regardless of their role or specialization, an accountant’s attention to detail, analytical skills and understanding of financial principles make them indispensable assets in ensuring individuals’ and organizations’ financial stability and success.

Why choose an accounting career

Job security

Accountants are continually in high demand as businesses, government agencies, and individuals all rely on their skills to manage financial records, ensure compliance with regulations, and provide strategic financial guidance, so this role is generally in high demand. Currently, the accountant unemployment rate is at record lows. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment of accountants and auditors will grow four percent (approximately 126,000 job openings per year) from 2022 to 20321. Other sources forecast higher growth due to the retirement rate of current accountants plus the need for more specialized accountants.

The demand, coupled with a shortage of qualified professionals, means that careers in accounting offer greater job security and a lower risk of unemployment compared to many other professions.



Salary potential

While we’ll provide a bit more information below (jump to Salary), an accounting career tends to have a higher average rate of pay than many professions. The profession also offers a variety of opportunities to increase your income potential through earning credentials or choosing an in-demand specialization.

Diverse career opportunities

The idea of who an accountant is or what they do is often fairly narrow, but the reality is that there are dozens of different accounting careers and paths you can take many of which require different skills and deal in a variety of topics.



Accounting CareersDescriptionKey tasks
Financial analystAssesses financial data and trends to give insights and recommendations to help their clients or company with investment decisions, budgeting, and financial planningAnalyzing financial statements, creating financial models, evaluating investment opportunities, and preparing reports for stakeholders
Tax consultantOffers advice to individuals or companies on tax planning, compliance, and strategies to reduce tax liabilitiesPreparing and reviewing tax returns, providing insight into tax-efficient structures, interpreting tax laws, and representing clients in tax audits
Internal auditorEvaluates an organization's internal controls, processes, and financial systems to ensure compliance with regulations and identify areas for improvementConducting objective examinations and reviews of an organization's internal controls, processes, and financial systems to ensure compliance with regulations and identify areas for improvement
Financial controllerOversees the accounting department, manages financial reporting processes, and ensures compliance with regulatory standardsAnalyzing financial reporting, overseeing accounting operations, managing internal controls, coordinating audits, and providing financial guidance to the management
Investment bankerFacilitates raising capital, mergers and acquisitions, and other large financial transactions for corporations and other entitiesAdvising their clients or shareholders on corporate finance strategies, structuring deals, conducting due diligence, and negotiating transactions
Financial plannerHelps individuals, families, and smaller businesses achieve their financial goals by providing comprehensive advice on investment, retirement, estate planning, and risk managementAssessing financial goals and risk tolerance, developing personalized financial plans, recommending investment strategies, and monitoring progress
Nonprofit accountantManages financial operations for nonprofit organizations, ensures compliance with regulatory requirements and donor restrictions while maximizing the organization's impactFund accounting, grant management, budgeting for programs and services, financial reporting for donors and stakeholders, and compliance with nonprofit accounting standards 


Careers in accounting offer a wide variety of options, and there is something that can appeal to every personality type or preference, whether you love to dig into details of reports and find opportunities or you want to connect with other people and help them succeed. Accountants who grow in their careers can step into higher-level roles, such as controller or even chief financial officer (CFO).

Intellectually stimulating

Again, we understand that accounting is often thought of as “boring,” but it can be interesting and intellectually stimulating. The complexity of work you encounter generally depends on your role and your skills, so while running payroll and settling accounts payable may not be exciting, you may find forensic accounting much more engaging.

Similarly, most accounting roles require problem-solving, taking on various tasks, and digging into other skills related to economics, law and technology, which can keep you engaged and interested in the work. It ultimately depends on your interests, preferences and the particular accounting career path or role you take on.

Want to learn more? Check out the video below from Becker National Instructor Mike Potenza on why becoming a CPA is a great option! 

How to start an accounting career

To start an accounting career, you should hold a bachelor’s degree or higher with a concentration or major in accounting (though some accountants may have degrees in general business, finance, or economics). During college or after you graduate, you can apply for internships to gain valuable, hands-on experience and boost your resume, or you can apply for entry-level roles, like a staff accountant at a firm or business.


Top 10 accounting schools2 in the United States
SchoolLocationIn-state tuitionOut-of-state tuitionAcceptance rate
University of TexasAustin, TX$11,698$41,07031%
University of Illinois Urbana-ChampaignChampaign, IL$17,572$36,06845%
Brigham Young UniversityProvo, UT$6,496$6,49667%
Indiana UniversityBloomington, IN$11,790$40,48282%
University of MichiganAnn Arbor, MI$17,786$57,27318%
University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphia$66,104$66,1047%
Ohio State UniversityColumbus, OH$12,485$36,72253%
University of Southern CaliforniaLos Angeles, CA$68,237$68,23712%
New York UniversityNew York, New York$60,438$60,43812%
Boston CollegeChestnut Hill, MA$67,680$67,68017%


You may also choose to continue your education to earn your master’s degree, CPA license or other credentials that will allow you to develop a specialty and take on higher-level roles. Once you have your bachelor’s degree, you’ll have a much better idea of what you want your accounting career to look like and what steps you’ll need to take to get there.

Take a closer look: Is an accounting degree worth it?


In addition to the skills you’ll learn in college, to succeed in a career in accounting, you’ll also want to develop your “soft skills,” or the traits people have that support how they work and interact with others. As mentioned above, there’s much more to the job than preparing tax returns and reconciling statements, so you should also develop your communication, writing, and emotional intelligence.


Take a closer look: 7 essential soft skills for accountants


Types of accounting

Now that you know what an accountant does, the benefits of an accounting career, and how to start it, let’s look more specifically at the more common types of accounting to help you better consider which option may be best for a fulfilling career.

Tax accounting

Of all the careers in accounting, tax is one of the more common. Tax accountants help businesses and organizations remain compliant with the federal, state and local tax laws while reducing their clients’ financial payments. This type of accounting usually involves preparing annual tax returns, developing tax strategies to minimize future tax burdens and analyzing strategies and decisions related to tax issues, such as how to take advantage of a tax break or where to build a property for the lowest tax burden.

Average salary: $60,6453


Managerial accounting

Managerial accounting is the process of analyzing financial information and other relevant data through budgeting, forecasting and strategic planning to help an organization make informed decisions about operations, performance and strategy. Whereas financial accounting focuses on external reporting to the organization’s investors and regulators, management accounting focuses more on providing internal stakeholders with the information they need to plan, control and optimize resources and strategy. 

Average salary: $71,0314 


Cost accounting 

Cost accounting is a form of managerial accounting centered around a company’s production cost structures, specifically, what the company spends to sell its goods or services, such as materials, overhead and labor. Someone working in cost accounting will analyze the company’s historical data around these costs, which the company can use to create budgets, reduce costs and set prices. 

Average salary: $64,0805

Take a closer look: Cost Accounting vs. Financial Accounting


Public accounting

While private accounting refers to working internally for a single business, corporation, or non-profit, public accounting refers to providing accounting services, including bookkeeping, tax, audit and consulting to a variety of different clients, including individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations. To pursue a public accounting career, you can work in a public accounting firm, such as one of the “Big 4 firms,” but you will be limited in what you can do. To file reports and act on behalf of clients, you will need to earn a CPA license. 

Average salary: $76,6396 


Take a closer look: Pros and cons of working in private industry vs. public accounting


Forensic accounting

Forensic accounting deals with the legal side of accounting and focuses on analyzing financial records to look for evidence or information that can be used in a legal proceeding. An accountant in this role may use their skills in auditing, accounting and analysis to find evidence of fraud, embezzlement or financial irregularities. Their findings are often used to support internal investigations and provide litigation support or they may be required to provide expert testimony in criminal, family and civil cases. 

Average salary: $76,1407 


Take a closer look: Career spotlight: forensic accountant 


Governmental accounting 

Governmental accounting involves the financial management and reporting practices specific to federal, state and local governments as well as government agencies and public organizations. Accountants in this role must follow Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) rules to record, track and report revenue, expenditures, assets and liabilities. Government accountants must also ensure transparency, accountability, and compliance with budgetary constraints and public financial policies with the goal of facilitating effective decision-making and fiscal responsibility within the public sector. 

Average salary: $53,5008


Sustainability accounting 

Sustainability accounting focuses on measuring, monitoring and reporting an organization’s economic, environmental and social impacts. Reports may include quantifying and disclosing information related to carbon emissions, water usage, social programs or diversity and inclusion initiatives. The goal is to provide stakeholders and the public with clear, comprehensive information about an organization’s sustainability performance in order to promote responsible business practices while helping to inform decision-making. 

Average salary: $81,0009



Auditing is a bit different from accounting. An auditor follows specific processes and procedures to examine and verify an organization’s financial records, transactions and internal controls and ensure they are in compliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) standards and other laws and regulations while looking for potential errors or even instances of fraud. 

The primary objective of auditing is to assure stakeholders regarding the accuracy, reliability, and fairness of the organization’s financial statements. An organization may have accountants on their staff to provide internal auditing while an external audit is performed by a third party. 

Average salary: $63,53210


Take a closer look: Audit vs tax: how to choose your career


Finding careers in accounting 



Not only are there several types of accounting, but accounting careers are available across nearly every type of business and sector. You may end up working for a trucking company depreciating vehicles or a small business balancing their books and preparing tax returns or you could end up teaching at the college level. When looking at careers in accounting, consider these types of organizations and businesses with the best opportunities. 

Public accounting firm 

Almost every student considering careers in accounting looks at joining one of the Big Four accounting firms: KPMG, Deloitte, PwC, and Ernst & Young. These firms are high-profile and can boost your resume or advance your accounting career path. However, these aren’t the only public accounting firms. There are public accounting firms all over the country, both small and large. 

Consulting firm 

CPA careers and accounting positions in consulting firms vary. Although accountants are used as if they are working in public accounting firms, their roles are slightly different. These firms handle forecasts, proposals and other financial issues that help guide companies in the right strategic direction. Consulting firms also consult organizations on projections and evaluate whether or not their company has the viability to acquire or merge with another organization. 

Corporate accounting 

Accounting careers are found in small, medium and large companies or in major corporations. These companies usually have an entire department devoted to the accounting team. Corporations can be privately owned or publicly held. It is not unheard of for an accountant to work for a Fortune 500 company, but they can also be found in smaller corporations that are growing and thriving. 


Most people think of accountants in government as working solely with the IRS, General Accounting Office (GAO) or in state or local tax departments. However, accountants are needed in a variety of agencies and government departments. Academia You will find accounting careers in a number of roles in the academic setting. While some are needed in the classroom, teaching the next generation of accountants, you will also find them in the accounting office, financial aid department, the comptroller’s office and auditing. These accountants may also have private practices to supplement their income and experience.


Bank accountants are necessary to provide accurate and reliable information and reports to ensure transparency and compliance with state and federal laws. In addition to just reporting and compliance, they also have a variety of responsibilities that a traditional accountant may not see, such as navigating digital assets, ESG reporting, staying up-to-date and informed of governmental regulatory bodies, major acts and policies, tax changes and regulatory trends and analyzing more complicated financial statements and key performance indicators. 

Take a closer look: Banking accounting 


Medical and pharmaceutical 

Working in pharmaceutical accounting goes beyond the traditional work of filing tax returns, examining financial statements and creating forecasts to include factors specific to the medical and pharmaceutical industry. This can include factoring in frequent changes to laws and regulations, supply chain costs and compliance with the Food and Drug Administration. While it’s a more complicated industry, it can also be incredibly interesting and fulfilling to be a part of bringing a medication to market. 


Take a closer look: Pharmaceutical accounting 


Nonprofit accounting 

Charities, schools, churches and other nonprofit organizations need accountants for many of the same reasons a business does. Nonprofit accountants prepare and analyze financial statements, budget and forecast revenue and expenses, establish internal controls, prepare audits and present financial reports to the stakeholders. 

However, nonprofit accountants also need to manage donations, funds and grants, many of which have stipulations and guidelines in place regarding how they are used, adding some complexity to the role. Also, accountants must be compliant with specific regulator requirements, such as Form 990, as well as GAAP and FASB guidelines.

Accounting Career Salaries

The median income for accountants the same year was just over $78,00011. However, this only shows a fraction of the earning potential of an accountant. Your income as an accountant will depend on the following factors:

  • Experience: the longer you’re in the profession, the more you are likely to earn 
  • Location: Accountants in high-cost living areas, such as Washington D.C. or Boston, tend to have higher average salaries. 
  • Specialization: An accountant in a more in-demand or specialized field, such as financial advisory, is more likely to earn more than a staff accountant whose job is primarily to record financial transactions, reconcile bank statements and balance the ledger 
  • Credentials: Earning a certification or license on top of an accounting degree will often lead to a higher income due to the presence of in-demand skills and knowledge



For example, the average certified public accountant (CPA) salary in 2023 was $96,7525, while the average salary for a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) was $91,723612. Regardless of the path you choose, accountancy typically offers a higher-than-average salary, plus additional opportunities for advancement and growth that can also lead to increasing your income. 

Take a closer look: CPA salaries


Why becoming a CPA opens doors to careers in accounting 

Accounting careers make up a key part of small and large corporations, government entities and nonprofit organizations, as well as serving the general public. While you can become an accountant and have a successful career with only a bachelor’s degree, an accounting degree alone only allows you to practice private accounting. Earning a CPA license offers more opportunities, can significantly impact your earning potential, and is highly sought-after, making it the most common and arguably most useful credential an accountant can earn.

 Becoming a CPA allows you to practice both private and public accounting, including preparing and submitting financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), representing your firm before the IRS and moving into senior roles and specializations. A CPA license also shows employers and the public that you have more advanced accounting competencies, which improves your likelihood of being hired and can increase your income. 

How to become a CPA 

While every state has different requirements to become a CPA, they all include: 

  • Passing the CPA Exam, which is a four-part exam consisting of three Core sections all candidates must take and one Discipline you can choose from three options. Your Discipline provides more specialized knowledge and can support your career. 
  • Earning 150 semester hours (225 quarter hours) of college credit. All states have different requirements regarding how many and what types of accounting courses you need. 
  • Having verified accounting work experience. Again, the amount and type of experience does depend on your state or jurisdiction. 
Take a closer look: CPA requirements by state 
Take a closer look: How Becker helps you pass the CPA Exam 


Once you earn your CPA license, you can move more easily into a variety of accounting careers:

  • Owning your own CPA firm 
  • Internal and external auditing, including for the IRS and other government agencies
  • Financial consulting 
  • Tax analyst, planner or consultant 
  • Corporate accounting, including controller or CFO 
Take a closer look: Choosing a CPA Exam discipline for your career path 


Other designations to advance your accounting career 

In addition to earning your CPA license, there are other designations that can help you move into other specializations that better align with your interests and goals. 

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) 

A CFA is a professional designation from the CFA Institute for Investment Management and Financial Analysis. Accountants who hold this designation are considered experts in investment analysis. To obtain a CFA charter, you must pass three levels of exams related to ethics, investment tools, asset valuation, portfolio management and economics. Also, candidates must have four years of qualified work experience in investment decision-making roles and adhere to the CFA Institute’s code of ethics and standards of professional conduct. 

Top careers for CFAs: 

  • Investment banker 
  • Chief investment officer (CIO) 
  • Portfolio manager 
  • Consultant 
Take a closer look: CFA vs CPA 


Certified Management Accountant (CMA) 

The CMA certification is a designation regarded as the “gold standard” of management accounting. Awarded by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), this certification shows that you have more advanced knowledge in areas related to financial strategy, analytics and risk mitigation. 

To earn your CMA certification, you need to have an active membership with the IMA, a bachelor’s degree with two years of professional experience in management accounting or financial accounting and you must also pass the two-part CMA Exam

Certified management accountants are prepared to work in the following roles, depending on their other experience and qualifications: 

  • Financial analyst 
  • Cost accountant 
  • Managerial accountant 
  • Corporate accountant (including controller or CFO) 
Take a closer look: CMA vs CPA 


Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) 

A Certified Internal Auditor is a professional certification offered by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and demonstrates expertise and knowledge in internal auditing, risk management, governance and internal control. 

To become a CIA, you must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and apply to the IIA program. From there, you must pass the three-section CIA Exam within the program’s eligibility period and have at least one year of experience in internal audit, external audit, quality assurance, risk management, compliance and internal control. 

Once you hold this designation, you will have a focused career path in internal audit, often culminating in a senior, supervisory or executive position. 


Take a closer look: What Does an Auditor Do? 


Enrolled agent (EA) 

An EA is a tax professional who is authorized by the United States Department of the Treasury to represent taxpayers (both individuals and organizations) before the Internal Revenue Service. An EA is often required to provide tax advisory services, prepare tax returns, and represent clients during audits, appeals and collections. 

To become an enrolled agent, you don’t necessarily need a college degree, but you do need a very thorough understanding of tax laws and regulations. You will also need at least two years of tax experience and to pass the Special Enrollment Examination, a three-part exam related to individual taxes, business taxes and how to represent clients. 


Take a closer look: What is an enrolled agent?


Careers in accounting start with the CPA Exam

Having your CPA license can lead to more opportunities, improved job security, and a higher income potential. Even though the CPA Exam is difficult, Becker's comprehensive CPA Exam review makes sure you have the knowledge and skills you need to pass with confidence! 

Learn more about how to become a CPA and how Becker helps you get Exam Day Readysm

Download our FREE CPA Exam ebook 

What's inside? 

  • An overview of the CPA Exam
  • Comprehensive details of each section, including the exam format, section times, scoring details, and key content areas
  • Choosing your Discipline
  • Do's and don'ts to get ready for the CPA Exam
  • Exam study tips
  • Multiple-choice practice questions

Download it here



Accounting Careers: FAQs

What degree is best for a career in accounting?

While an associates degree may allow you to work as a bookkeeper or accounting clerk, a bachelor’s degree with a major or concentration in accounting will provide you with the foundation you need for a career in accounting. However, you can also earn a bachelor’s degree in a different field and earn a master’s in accounting.

How important is a certification or license to an accounting career?

Earning your CPA license is necessary to act on behalf of clients through public accounting. Plus this or other certifications show that you have specialized knowledge and skills in specific areas and this can offer increased career opportunities, enhance your credibility with clients and help you stand out from other accountants.

Can accountants work from home?

While the opportunity to work remotely is specific to your employer, accounting is one of the best careers for remote work.


Take a closer look: Accounting and remote work


What is the difference between accounting and finance?

Accounting typically focuses on the past fiscal transactions to prepare tax returns, record and interpret transactions and provide insight for decision-making and compliance. Finance is the broader term for how assets and liabilities are managed and how future growth is planned. However, in management accounting and other areas, there is significant overlap in the two roles.

How is technology changing the accounting profession?

Emerging and existing technologies are playing a significant role in the future of accounting. Automation can reduce the more tedious tasks related to completing payroll, balancing ledgers and even completing audits. At the same time, machine learning programs can assist with forecasting, budgeting and data analytics. While technology is certainly not endangering accounting careers, it is helping accountants use their time more efficiently and effectively.

Are accountants in demand?

Yes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a four percent increase in demand for accountants, creating over 135,000 new jobs by 2032. In addition to this, 75 percent of accountants are at retirement age, and fewer students are choosing accounting as a major13. These factors all work together to make accounting careers highly in demand.


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