There are plenty of jobs in the business world for those who love analytics and numbers. Two of the most prominent careers are as accountants and financial analysts. There is some overlap between the accountant/analyst disciplines. Certain companies even create positions titled "Senior Financial Analyst/Accountant" or something similar, but these two jobs focus on different areas of business money management.
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. Accountants are much more interested in the specific and exacting details, day-to-day operations, financial accuracy and taxes.
An accountant describes the present reality of a company's finances. A financial analyst looks to past and current trends to help achieve a future reality. Though this is a bit of an oversimplification, it generally describes the difference in focus between these two professions. In fact, many financial analysts use reports generated by accountants to make recommendations about how to best use company resources.
Education and Skills
Credentials are extremely important to career analysts and accountants. Entry-level 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. Likewise, a degree in finance is probably most beneficial for aspiring financial analysts, although mathematics or economics could also suffice. A Master of Business Administration, or MBA, may help, particularly for a financial analyst, but it is not always required.
Each career choice has one dominant professional certification. For accountants, it is the title of Certified Public Accountant, or 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.
Financial analysts generally choose the Chartered Financial Analyst, or 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 abbreviation is necessary for those serious about pursuing one of these careers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, the median annual salary for an accountant in 2016 was $68,150. The top 10% of U.S. accountants earned an average of $120,910, while those in the bottom 10% earned $42,140 on average. There are a surprising number of different kinds of accounting jobs, so salary largely depends on the area of focus.
Financial analysts earned a higher median annual salary of $81,760 in 2016. Top earners brought home $165,100, low earners $50,350. 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.
Financial analysts and accountants do not usually deal with the 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% growth rate for financial analyst jobs between 2016 and 2026, while the number of accounting jobs is projected to grow 10% during that time. This compares to an average growth rate for all occupations of 7%.
Increased regulations and market complexity are driving the growth for financial analysts, particularly among larger firms with a lot of assets to manage. Accountants are a major part of the business community, whether on the public compliance side or the internal auditing side.
Which One to Choose
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.