How to Become an Accountant

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If you’re thinking of a career in business, it is worth investigating the many possibilities a degree in accountancy can open for you. Different specializations in accounting have varying professional requirements. As you are starting out, it is helpful to get an overview of what you’ll need to study and what steps you’ll need to take to launch a successful career.

Accounting is a field that is steadily climbing in demand because of the effects of globalization, economic growth, an increase in companies going public, and the complexity of taxes and regulations. Although aspects of accounting are becoming automated, this is good rather than bad news for prospective accountants: it means additional time will be available to focus on their more substantive skills, which include advising, analysis, and ensuring the integrity of the business environment.

Choosing an Accounting Specialization

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While job seekers can enter the accounting profession with only a small number of accounting courses, accounting careers with higher levels of responsibility and pay tend to require at least a bachelor’s or master of accountancy. How you become an accountant depends on your specific goals.

“You often hear accounting referenced as the language of business,” says Dr. Sharon Lightner, Head of the Department of Accounting in the School of Business and Management at National University. “So I would say an accountant is a storyteller both of the past and future.” The narrative you construct as an accountant has a past (transactional records), a present (current financial outlook), and a future (forecasting), and the audience differs depending on the accounting specialization or career you pursue.

Each accounting specialization serves different purposes and has its own certification exams and licensing requirements. Three common accounting specializations are CPA, CMA, and CIA.

A certified public accountant (CPA) often provides assurances to external parties about a company’s financial information and health. Often employed by a public accounting firm, a CPA examines a company’s financial statements and attests to their integrity. “If your corporation is public and listed on the stock exchange — any stock exchange — you must have a CPA audit your financial records, and you must make those available to the shareholders,” says Thomas Francl, an accounting professor at National University. Francl adds that many students strive to earn their CPA certification because of its wide range of applicability. Lightner agrees that CPAs have a powerful role in protecting shareholders, but they have other functions. “If you have a company that needs a loan, the bank might require audited statements,” she explains. “Only CPAs can sign an audit.”

CPAs also prepare and file taxes for companies and individuals. They often also hold high-level positions within corporations and government organizations.

A certified management accountant (CMA) normally works within a company, helping guide its financial decisions. A CMA will analyze profits and losses and make recommendations for the internal use of financial information. A certified internal auditor (CIA) is often also employed within a company, and it is this person’s job to ensure compliance with regulations and laws and to assess and minimize financial risks.

Steps to Career Success

There are three key steps to becoming a professional accountant qualified to hold high-level positions: learn the content, obtain certification by passing the exam, and get a professional license.

The accounting program at National University is designed to provide step one — the content — so students are prepared to accomplish steps two and three, certification and licensing. As Lightner puts it, “What we’re doing is assuring the curriculum provides the content people need to get through the exams. Our focus is on education that leads to professional certification.”

The exams are the same across the nation, but specific educational and work experience requirements for licensing differ from state to state. For example, one state may require more semester units of ethics than another. All states require a total number of 150 semester credit hours, which exceeds the traditional number of credit hours for bachelor’s degrees. States also require periodic continuing education courses to maintain a license.

For students planning their careers, it’s helpful to know these state distinctions early on, says Dr. Joyce Ellis, a National University accounting professor. “I always ask a student, ‘What state are you getting your license in?’ I advise them to immediately check on what the state requirements are.”

Since most states require work experience, you might wonder how to get that entry-level experience before getting the license. Lightner assures that this is not a worry. “Most entry-level positions do not require certification to start. But if you obtain certification, then you’re going to move into a more advanced and higher paying role.”

Your Partner on the Path

National University offers several options for students seeking accounting degree coursework leading to certification. Lightner explains that, “To sit for the CPA exam, you have to have a bachelor’s degree. Interestingly the degree doesn’t have to be in accounting, but you have to have 24 units of accounting and 24 units of business. So the most helpful degree would be a degree in accountancy.”

NU’s Bachelor of Science Degree in Accounting is the most direct route to the range of exams. The Master of Science Degree in Accounting at NU is designed for students who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, but who have decided to pursue an accounting career. “If they already have a bachelor’s degree, they should not go back and get another bachelor’s degree, they should get a master’s degree in accounting,” Lightner says. She adds that the master’s program in accountancy is currently being enhanced with additional accounting specializations and will soon function as an option for students with a BS in accountancy to further their learning.

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Students who are considering accounting careers but aren’t quite sure yet might opt for a minor in accounting, or an undergraduate or graduate certificate in accounting. “We basically use these options to encourage students to get a complete degree,” says Lightner. “Students that are in the certificate programs are sitting in the same classrooms as the matriculated students — same courses, same professors, same expectations — and if they do not want to complete a full degree we’ve still given them a start and access to an accounting career.”

Dr. Consolacion Fajardo, an accounting professor at NU, adds, “A minor in accountancy is similar to a BA with a concentration in accountancy.” In this scenario, an accounting career is still a potential outcome. “You can get a good job,” says Fajardo. “Maybe you’ll be a clerk, do tables, receivables, things like that. Then eventually maybe you will become a CPA.”

Flexible and Fast

NU’s accounting degree programs are designed for students to matriculate easily and finish quickly. NU’s articulation agreement with more than 110 community colleges helps ensure your general education credits will be accepted, so you can focus solely on your accounting degree courses. For California community college transfer students, NU offers a scholarship that puts its tuition on a par with state universities.

Classes at NU are offered one at a time in a one-month format, with multiple start times and an option to attend year-round. This means students can obtain the bachelor’s degree and be ready for any certification exam in just 20 months (or 17 if transferring with an associate’s degree in business). This contrasts with several years of study required at traditional universities.

NU’s accounting degree courses have both online and face-to-face options. Online courses are asynchronous (log on any time you want), but also include a synchronous option, where you interact directly with your instructors and classmates. The content for classes remains available to the student for review throughout the enrollment period.

National University’s bachelor’s degree in accountancy is one of approximately 70 programs worldwide endorsed by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), and it was ranked by Best Colleges in 2018 as the 12th best online bachelor’s program in accounting.

If you love the language of business, an accounting degree program could be a strong opening chapter for the next story of your career. To learn more about our accountancy programs and certificates, please visit the Accounting programs page on our website.

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