If you’re interested in how businesses work and you have an aptitude for numbers, then becoming an accountant could be a wise career move. It’s a rewarding one, too: there’s a wide scope for advancement and promotion, abundant travel opportunities, and you’ll never be short of work – if money is changing hands, then there needs to be someone qualified to calculate the bottom line, after all.
So, if the glamorous world of corporate finance work sounds like it could be your thing, then read on: this is how to become an accountant.
1. Research the Profession
As with any career choice, it’s essential to do your research before you come to any decision. This will enable you to weigh up both the pros and the cons of the role and ascertain whether it’s a good fit for you.
Modern accounting is a varied profession that involves many areas of specialization but, ultimately, an accountant is responsible for the management of a company’s (or a private individual’s) finances. Accounting jobs typically involve auditing existing accounts, offering projections and analysis and generally providing overall insight into the financial health of an organization. They have a strong knowledge and understanding of accounting principles and must adhere at all times to complex financial laws and regulations.
Accountants can work alone or as a representative of a particular firm, while their clients include businesses of all sizes, public sector organizations (including governments) and high-net-worth individuals. As a result, the work can be varied and flexible, and many accountants tend to focus their commercial awareness on a particular industry or sector.
Although they may vary depending on the individual demands of the role, some of the typical responsibilities of an accountant include:
- liaising with clients (individuals or businesses) to provide financial advice and guidance
- preparing financial statements (such as balance sheets and cash flows) on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis
- maintaining and preparing accounts and management information for small businesses
- undertaking external financial audits (an independent check of an organization's financial position)
- producing reports and recommendations following internal audits or public sector audits
- arranging financial management reports, including in-depth financial analysis, planning and forecasting
- advising clients on tax planning and legislation
- advising clients on business transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions
- counselling clients on areas of business improvement or dealing with insolvency and administration
- detecting and preventing fraud and other illegal activities, such as money laundering
- assisting in the investigation of financial criminal activity (and providing evidence in court if necessary).
As mentioned, there are many specialisms of accounting, with many professionals choosing to move around in their careers. Some examples include:
- internal audit
- external audit
- risk assurance
- strategy and management consulting
- deals (mergers and acquisitions)
- business recovery
- forensic services
- corporate finance
- corporate tax
- tax reporting and strategy.
Essential Skills and Qualities
Accounting requires a very deliberate set of skills; some of the traits you’ll need include:
- Numerical skills. By its very nature, accounting requires a numerically-inclined brain; you will likely undergo a series of mathematics assessments when you apply for an entry-level role, so make sure your number-crunching skills are up to scratch.
- Time management skills. Accounting can be very busy work, and you’ll likely be juggling your workload – especially during busy season. Being able to manage your time effectively is an important tool.
- Communication skills. Often, you will be required to work with clients from different industries or team members that you’ve not met before. Being able to communicate with everyone and let others know where you’re at on a project is vitally important in such a fast-paced environment.
- Microsoft Excel skills. Accountants use a variety of tools to carry out their work, but the spreadsheet is still king. Accounting spreadsheets can be complex monsters, so knowing your way around the software will make your life a lot easier.
- Commercial awareness. It’s impossible to succeed in accounting if you don’t understand your clients’ industries. Make sure you stay on top of trends and developments and have a working understanding of how things work.
- Attention to detail. Naturally, accountants have to be meticulous; one mistyped digit can skewer an entire projection model, while an overlooked zero might result in a fraud charge.
- Programming skills. As modern accounting firms start merging traditional accounting principles with the potential of technology, there is an increased demand for accountants who are comfortable working with programming languages such as Python and SQL, particularly when it comes to analysing data.
Working Hours and Conditions
Technically, accountants are usually contracted to work standard office hours of 35–40 hours a week; in reality, however, this is rarely the case. It’s no secret that accounting is a high-pressure, deadline-driven field, and it’s likely that you will spend a lot of hours on the job (and maybe even the odd weekend) when a certain deadline is approaching. In areas such as tax, where there are government deadlines for submitting tax returns, it’s not uncommon for professionals to be exceeding 70–80 hours during busy season.
As a result, accounting – and professional services work in general – can be highly stressful, although some firms are attempting to tackle this issue by implementing wellness programmes and offering flexible working.
Depending on your service area, there could be some travel involved to client sites, but the majority of your time will likely be spent in your office; if you work for a larger firm, you may get the opportunity to get seconded abroad, too.
In the UK, trainee and apprentice accountants can expect to start on between £16,000 and £22,000 (depending on location), while graduates can expect to earn slightly more. Once chartered, this rises significantly, with an average salary of around £55,000 with five years’ experience. With more experience and promotion to senior manager or director level, chartered accountants can earn over £90,000 per year, with considerable bonus incentives depending on their performance.
In the US, the average salary for a trainee is around $47,000; a certified public accountant (CPA) can earn around $67,000. This increases significantly with experience, with those at director level looking at $130,000-plus a year.
Accounting’s reputation as a ‘stable’ profession has a strong element of truth to it; for instance, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), it is projected to grow at a ‘faster than average’ rate over the next seven years.
2. Get the Qualifications
Although many accountants are graduates, there are actually several ways into the profession – and an accounting university education isn’t necessarily one of them.
To become an accountant, you can pursue one of the following streams:
In the UK, there’s a series of exams that you need to pass in order to become an ACCA chartered accountant; luckily, many of them are included in your university course (provided it is accredited). Once you finish university, many firms have specialist graduate schemes where you can choose a business area that interests you.
There is a similar system in the US, where students can attend an accredited college before choosing whether they want to become an accountant or a CPA.
School Leaver/Trainee Programmes
Many of the bigger firms operate school leaver schemes, which are effectively apprenticeships. You will work and study at the same time, which is a preferable option for many young people; it means that you are getting paid a salary while you study and incurring no student debt.
On the downside, you need to be a very quick learner (in the UK, for example, three years of full-time learning is condensed into two years of part-time) – plus you also miss out on the university experience.
Transferring Previous Experience
If you are working as an accounting technician or a bookkeeper, then it’s possible to undertake your own study and convert your qualifications into an accredited and recognised accounting certificate (such as the ICAEW CFAB).
In order to then become chartered (in the UK) or certified (in the US), you would need to log a minimum amount of project hours at an accounting firm before being eligible to sit the necessary exams. If you work for a small firm, your boss might be willing to arrange this for you.
In any case, once you have been hired by an accounting firm, you will need to log a minimum amount of project hours and pass the CPA exam in the US or the ACCA exams in the UK; then you can declare yourself certified or chartered.
3. Land Your First Job
As previously mentioned, most of the top accounting firms employ school leaver and graduate entry schemes, so it’s worth keeping an eye out on job boards (like our very own CareerAddict Jobs) and individual company websites for programme information and cut-off dates. Most of the major firms, such as PwC, Deloitte and KPMG spend heavily on recruitment, too, and are often a visible presence at job fairs and university employment events.
In most cases, you will apply online and undertake a series of numerical and psychological tests, before attending an assessment day; this is usually followed by an interview to test your industry knowledge and motivations. It goes without saying that you should prepare thoroughly for this process, and utilise the guidance and information that you’re given; make sure you brush up on your interview techniques, too, especially if you’ve never experienced a formal interview before.
Also worth mentioning is crafting a well-written accountant résumé that will stand out from the sea of applicants. Make sure you tailor it to the role you’re applying for, it follows a clear and logical structure, and that it’s accompanied by a cover letter. If you’re having trouble writing your résumé, meanwhile, check out our résumé services and downloads to see how we can help you!
4. Develop Your Career
For the first few years of your career, it’s likely that much of your focus will be spent on passing your remaining exams, gaining experience on live projects and developing your commercial awareness skills. Once chartered or certified, though, you can start to shape your career how you see fit.
At larger firms, there is a more transparent promotion pathway, so your career progress is easier to define. Some accountants choose to work their way up the ladder from associate to senior management and eventually to director/partner level, while others prefer to diversify within different business departments (and, indeed, with different employers). There is a lot of flexibility in accounting, and it’s entirely possible to build your career in your own image.
You don’t need to spend your entire career in corporate finance, either; many private and public sector organisations prefer to employ their own internal accountants, while many Big Four accountants get seconded to major industry clients. Of course, once you have enough experience (and, ideally, a large contacts list), there is also the possibility of setting up your own practice; in the modern gig economy, many accountants are now exploring the possibilities of freelancing or going solo.
As you can see, accounting – while potentially stressful – is also hugely flexible, with a sense of career freedom that is rare in other professions; it is also one of the few roles where you can practise anywhere in the world.
As a result, it is a hugely popular profession to go into, with an attractive salary scale and a solid sense of job security; if you think you’ve got what it takes, then why not get involved?
Are you an accountant? What other tips would you give? Let us know in the comments section below!