Accountant Career Path and Qualifications

Accounting is a broad profession in which an array of personality types and skill sets can achieve success. Accountants are often pigeonholed as introverted number crunchers, but this view is as myopic and inaccurate as claiming all used car salesmen have slicked-back hair and look to fleece their customers. Many people who gravitate to accounting are indeed math whizzes who might never thrive in sales careers, but equally as many are dynamic extroverts who use their accounting degrees as springboards to people-centric careers such as management consulting.

Whether you prefer to sit in a cubicle poring over financial statements and imputing complex formulas into spreadsheets, or analyze companies' management practices from the top down and present to the CEO a list of areas where efficiency could be improved, you can find a career path that suits your goals within the field of accounting.

Career Path of an Accountant

Accounting features three broad career types: public accounting, industry accounting, and government accounting. Within each of these sectors, you can find hundreds of unique positions and career paths.

Public accountants work for third-party companies that perform a variety of services for their clients, such as auditing financial statements, preparing taxes, and working with management in a consulting role to improve efficiency and streamline operations.

Public companies, meaning those owned by public shareholders and traded on stock exchanges, are required by the government to undergo a third-party audit once per year to verify financial statements accurately reflect the current state of affairs. Accountants who work for public accounting firms conduct these audits. Young employees right out of college most often start working for audit teams; as they gain experience and prove themselves, the natural progression is to become a team leader and then department leader.

Auditing is not the only service performed by public accountants. The ones who love numbers often gravitate to the tax side, where they help clients navigate the morass of complex tax laws and, hopefully, minimize tax liability. Highly extroverted public accountants frequently end up in management consulting; these professionals audit clients' business operations but for an entirely different reason than compliance. They are looking for ways to cut costs, increase efficiency, and create channels for new growth.

Most public accountants start as members of teams that conduct audits, prepare taxes, or analyze clients' management structure. For the ones who thrive, upward mobility is nearly unlimited as they progress into leadership roles with increasing responsibility.

Industry accountants perform auditing and tax preparation services for their employers rather than for outside clients. Most start as entry-level auditors or tax preparers. As they gain experience, they are given more responsibility and are often put in charge of others. Government accountants ensure that businesses and individuals are doing what they are supposed to: paying taxes, making required disclosures, and releasing accurate financial statements. The most common starting place for a government accountant is as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).


Educational requirements for accountants depend on the specific nature of the job and the company doing the hiring. Plenty of entry-level staff accountants have only bachelor's degrees, and a few have even less. High-end management consultants tend to have a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Accountancy degrees. Almost without exception, public accounting firms want new hires to have passed the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, or at the very least, be eligible to take it. This requires 150 semester hours of postsecondary education, which is more than a bachelor's degree but can be obtained without completing a master's degree. The majority of new public accountants obtain MBA or MAcc degrees since the difference between stopping at 150 hours and going ahead and finishing the degree is usually minimal.

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  1. American Institute of CPAs. "150 Hour Requirement for Obtaining a CPA License."

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