There are plenty of jobs in the business world for those who love analytics and numbers, and two of the most prominent careers are as accountants and financial analysts. There is some overlap between the accountant and analyst disciplines, and certain companies even create positions such as "Senior Financial Analyst/Accountant." But these two jobs focus on different areas of money management, and it's important to know the differences when considering a career in either field.

A financial analyst looks to past and current trends to help achieve a future reality, while an accountant may review a company's financial data on a day-to-day basis. Many financial analysts use reports generated by accountants to make recommendations about how best to use company resources.

Financial Analyst

Financial analysts tend to work with the overall picture. They review financial decisions based on current market trends, stated business objectives, and possible investment options.

A degree in finance is probably most beneficial for aspiring financial analysts, although mathematics or economics could also suffice. A Master of Business Administration (MBA) may help for a financial analyst, but it is not always required.

Financial analysts generally choose the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) title. Unlike the CPA, which is focused on a professional understanding of public accounting standards in the United States, the CFA is focused on those who actively make investment decisions on behalf of clients or an employer. This test is administered and overseen by the CFA Institute.

Many financial analysts are also CPAs, and many accountants have a CFA designation. Having both titles is considered a major advantage for nearly any career in the business world and requires a significant mastery of business accounting and investment knowledge.

Each test takes months to prepare for and is administered in several parts at specific points during the year. It is not uncommon for a test-taker to study 20 to 30 hours a week for four to six months prior to passing. It is a rigorous process, but the right credentials are necessary for those serious about pursuing one of these careers.

Financial analysts earned a median annual salary of $84,300 in 2017, the most recent figures as of February 2019. Top earners brought home nearly $115,000 and the lower rung made approximately $64,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Financial analysts tend to earn the most in large financial hubs, such as New York City or San Francisco. Bridgeport, Connecticut is also a lucrative destination for analysts. Increased regulations and market complexity are driving the growth for financial analysts, particularly among larger firms with a lot of assets to manage.

Accountant

Accountants are much more interested in the specific and exacting details, day-to-day operations, financial accuracy, and taxes. For example, an accountant describes the present reality of a company or an individual's finances.

Credentials are extremely important to accountants and financial analysts. Entry-level accounting jobs may require a recognized professional title, but advancement certainly depends on it. Pursuing a degree in accounting is the most obvious undergraduate course of action for a future accountant.

Each career choice has one dominant professional certification. For accountants, it is the title of Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which is bestowed by the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination and established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. This is probably the most widely known and recognized professional designation in the financial industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for an accountant in 2017 (most recent figures as of February 2019) was $69,350. The top 10 percent of U.S. accountants earned over $122,220, while those in the bottom 10 percent earned less than $43,020. There is a surprising number of different kinds of accounting jobs, so salary largely depends on the area of focus.

Financial Analyst vs. Accountant Example

Financial accountant and financial analyst careers likely appeal to a similar subset of data-crunching, detail-oriented, and analytical individuals. The major differences boil down to whether you enjoy gathering data to ensure accuracy, such as in accounting, or gathering data to make recommendations, such as in analysis.

Individuals who prefer economics generally like financial analyst roles, since economic trends and market movements do not tend to make as large an impact on an accountant's day-to-day activity.

Accounting is a better field for the investigative mindset, where auditing and the review of financial statements comprise a large portion of the job. It is a little bit easier to break into the accounting field for two reasons. The first and biggest reason is there are many times more accounting jobs than financial analyst jobs. The second reason is accounting requires less real-world experience, meaning students who understand accounting rules can more easily step into an entry-level accounting position.

Special Considerations

Financial analysts and accountants do not usually deal with extreme stress or long hours of an investment banker or a private equity associate. There is one exception, however, as tax accountants often spend February, March, and April working six-plus days a week and 10-plus hours a day as tax season kicks into full gear.

Many accountants and financial analysts work typical 40- to 50-hour weeks, receive time off, and do not normally have to pull shifts on the weekend. Some financial analysts remain available after normal office hours via email or phone, but the job is not as demanding as many other professions in the industry.

Travel may be a recurring part of either job. Financial analysts travel to meet with clients, and accountants travel to perform audits or attend seminars and conventions. For financial analysts who work for major investment banks, travel could be a significant characteristic of the job.

According to the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, there is an expected 11 percent growth rate for financial analyst jobs between 2016 and 2026, while the number of accounting jobs is projected to grow 10 percent during that time. This compares to an average growth rate for all occupations of 7 percent.

Key Takeaways

  • Financial analysts tend to work with the overall picture of economic trends and market movements in order to forecast future financial situations.
  • A career in accounting is great for people who enjoy and excel at examining data, and auditing and reviewing financial statements.
  • Tax accountants often spend February, March, and April working six-plus days a week and 10-plus hours a day as tax season kicks into full gear.
  • Financial analysts may make more money on average than accountants.