An accountant is a common career choice for those with an analytical mindset and a desire to work with business or personal financial data. An accountant primarily provides in-depth analysis and accurate reporting on financial records, most often completed as a supporting role to a chief financial officer (CFO) or a company's finance department. Accountants also work directly with individuals to review financial records for tax filing. An individual trained as an accountant has the opportunity to work in a small, medium or large company in either the public or private sector, as an independent in his own firm or as a consultant or contractor to companies or nonprofit organizations.
An accountant utilizes education or experience in the realm of business, finance or accounting to examine the accuracy of financial statements. Accountants ensure all financial records and statements, such as the balance sheet, income and loss statement, cash-flow statement and tax return, are in line with federal laws and regulations and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Accountants also compile the information needed to prepare entries to company accounts, such as the general ledger, and they document business financial transactions over time. This information is used to prepare weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual closing statements and cost accounting reports. Accountants must also resolve any discrepancies or irregularities they find in records, statements or documented transactions. They typically observe established accounting control procedures through an accounting system or software program.
Accountants are often assigned other finance-related tasks in addition to analyzing financial records and statements. Ancillary job duties include monitoring the efficiency of accounting control procedures or software programs to ensure they are up to date with federal and state regulations. Accountants are also tasked with making recommendations to various departments or C-suite staff regarding the efficient use of company resources and procedures. These recommendations are meant to provide solutions to potentially costly business financial concerns or problems. In some instances, accountants are also tasked with preparing and reviewing invoices for customers and vendors to assist with timely payment on outstanding balances. Reconciliation of payroll, verification of contracts and orders, construction of a company budget, and the development of financial models or projections may also be part of an accountant's regular responsibilities.
In addition to these duties, accountants prepare and file taxes for companies and individuals. They analyze all company assets, income earned and paid, or anticipated expenses and liabilities to reach a total tax obligation for the year. With both company and individual tax preparation and filing, accountants are expected to provide a detailed analysis of tax efficiency or inefficiency and make recommendations on how to reduce total tax liabilities in the future.
Education and Training
While the field of accounting is vast, most employers require a bachelor's degree in accounting or business with a focus on accounting coursework. There are some entry-level accounting job opportunities that are less stringent, requiring only an associate degree to begin working. A graduate-level degree is beneficial to obtain a mid-to-senior level position in a large company.
In addition to formal education requirements, individuals in the accounting field pursue advanced accounting certifications to position themselves as experts in the field. The public accounting practice requires passing the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification exam and meeting continuing education credit guidelines for the state in which the accountant is licensed. The CPA exam is comprised of four distinct sections that include business law and professional responsibilities, auditing, accounting and tax reporting, managerial accounting, accounting for government and not-for-profit organizations, and financial accounting and reporting for business enterprises. While the exam is the same in each jurisdiction, it may require additional educational requirements or job experience.
Accountants looking to advance their careers may also pursue other voluntary certifications, such as the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) or the Certified Public Bookkeeper (CPB) certifications. Each designation has various prerequisite requirements, including past education and career experience. Additionally, these certifications have continuing education requirements that must be met every few years.
A successful career as an accountant is not solely based on education or designation achievements. Accounting positions are best suited to individuals who process information in a deeply analytical manner. Additionally, high attention to detail is necessary to review financial statements and records, and it is beneficial to be proficient with accounting software, such as QuickBooks, and spreadsheet programs, such as Excel. Because accountants are required to share their analysis and to report with other nonfinancial departments and high-level executives in their companies, strong communication, and interpersonal skills can help maintain a successful career.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average annual salary for an individual in an accountant position is $63,550, or $30.55 per hour. Accountants with minimal experience or in an entry-level position begin closer to $31,000, while experienced accountants can earn over $100,000 per year. Individuals who work for medium to large companies do not generally earn bonuses or commissions. They may, however, have access to employee benefits such as retirement plan contributions, group health insurance or reimbursement for childcare that increases total earnings each year. Additionally, large companies tend to provide financial assistance or reimbursement for expenses associated with earning job-specific certifications. Accountants who work independently or as consultants may increase their annual incomes by taking on additional clients under a commission or fee-based model, but the fringe benefits associated with larger companies may be unavailable.