Introduction: Careers in Accounting
Accountants are needed by just about every organization with complex finances and considerable cash flow as well as almost all reasonably wealthy families and individuals. Accountants provide detailed analysis and accurate reporting on financial records for individuals and organizations, including verification and updating of existing records and the creation of new ones.
Accounting work also touches tax filings, so accountants either work closely with tax specialists or are themselves tax specialists.
As with other business support professions, accountants may be employed directly by the company they serve, may work as independent consultants, or they may work as part of a much larger accounting firm with many clients. Though the core skill set remains the same, different personality types will do better in different work environments.
Breaking Into the Accounting Industry: Career Paths & Qualifications
Accounting is a broad industry and many accountants find their responsibilities and skill sets overlapping with other financial professionals, particularly financial managers, actuaries, and tax advisors.
Nonetheless, all successful accounts will share outstanding mathematical ability, an analytical mindset, and an interest in working with complex financial data sets. They must also show proficiency in commonly used accounting software suites such as Excel and QuickBooks, and must demonstrate their ability to quickly learn the preferred platforms of their potential employers.
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient to secure an entry level job as an accountant; but specific coursework is required — either a degree in accounting or else a business degree with a clearly demonstrated concentration in accounting. Students with graduate degrees in accounting will be able to secure more advanced roles upon graduation.
Certifications are particularly important for accountants. The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification should be considered a requirement for any competitive candidate.
Completing the first stages of this examination early — even before applying to for your first full-time job — will put you way ahead of other candidates. At very least, you should demonstrate to potential employers that you are energetically working toward your CPA.
Certifications for Accountants:
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA) http://www.aicpa.org/BecomeACPA/Pages/default.aspx
- Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) http://www.cgma.org/
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA) https://www.imanet.org/cma-certification?ssopc=1
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) https://www.cfainstitute.org/pages/index.aspx
Many accountants will specialize based on the size of the firm employing them, including whether they work at a dedicated accounting firm or as an in-house accountant for a specific company. Accountants at smaller firms will be responsible for the full suite of accounting tasks, though each task will be smaller and simpler. Conversely, accountants and large firms may focus on one particular task.
There are also accountants who specialize in unique sub-fields that stand apart from the general business of accounting. Below are two positions an accountant might hold — one a generalist role, and one specialist role:
Generalist Role — Small Business Accountant
Small and medium sized companies will directly employee or maintain contracts with one or two accountants who are responsible for all aspects of the firm’s finances, including day-to-day record keeping, tax preparation, and even consultation on major business decisions that are closely connected to the company’s finances.
These accountants work closely with the firm’s financial records, weekly, monthly, and quarterly closing statements, balance sheets, income and loss statements, cash-flow statements, and tax returns.
They ensure that these documents are in line with ‘generally accepted accounting principles’ (GAAP), and that they adhere to all relevant laws and regulations.
Generalist accountants at smaller firms may also be given other finance-related responsibilities, such as maintaining the company’s accounting software, analyzing financial records, preparing and reviewing invoices to and from customers and vendors, and paying outstanding balances.
In small firms without a dedicated human resources department, a staff accountant may also be responsible for payroll.
In addition of these mundane tasks, accountants at small firms may serve as advisors to C-level staff. They know the firm’s finances better than anyone, and smart business owners will turn to their accountants for advice from time to time.
And the best accountants will always be on watch for places where money is being spent unwisely and where valuable company assets are being used less than efficiently.
Accountants fresh out of college can expect salaries around $30,000 per year. Experienced accountants can make more than $100,000 each year.
Specialist Role — Forensic Accountant
The term ‘forensic’ refers to anything that can be used in court. Forensic accountants may act as criminal/civil investigators, using their accounting skills to investigate financial discrepancies, inaccuracies, and irregularities that may be the result of fraud, professional negligence, or other illegitimate activities. It may turn out that discrepancies are the result of simple reporting errors. However, when it turns out that assets have been lost or stolen, forensic accountants are also tasked with locating and recovering the missing assets if possible.
Many large firms also employ forensic accountants either directly or through accounting firms to work on preventative measures, making their firms’ finances more robust against fraud or negligence. All of the largest accounting firms have dedicated forensic accounting departments. And many government agencies, banks, insurance companies, and police departments keep forensic accountants on staff to deal with ongoing investigations.
While all accountants are expected to be both accurate and meticulous in their documentation, the bar is especially high for forensic accountants, who often serve as trusted expert witnesses and whose work must hold up in court. While errors in business documents may be identified and corrected before serious damage is done, errors in evidentiary court documents can lead to evidence being thrown out, doing potentially irreversible damage a criminal or civil cases and wasting months or years of legal work.
Salaries for forensic accountants can vary wildly, especially since positions are more widely distributed between the public and private sectors. Generally, a new forensic accountant can expect to earn around $30,000 per year. After a few years of experience, this can rise to between $50,000 and $70,000 each year.
Accounting: Industry Outlook
The accounting industry is growing on par with the economy as a whole. And this growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Rising global uncertainty and the lingering effects of the 2008 global financial crash are major drivers of growth in accounting. Many governments have cracked down on financial institutions. Meanwhile major media outlets and the much of the public view banks and financial institutions with suspicion, demanding greater accountability from both public and private institutions. Due to this, the subfield of forensic accounting has seen particularly robust growth is recent years. Regulatory agencies and even media outlets have devoted more resources to investigating financial malfeasance. And corporations and accounting consultancies have brought on teams of forensic accountants to ensure that their books are in order.
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