What Does an Accountant Do?

woman in glasses looking to her right smiling at camera with elbow rested on desk with arm raised up towards her chin with hand in fist position

If you’re a detail-oriented team player who enjoys thinking analytically and working with numbers, you may be well suited for a rewarding career in accounting. Contrary to the widely-held misconception that accountants do nothing but deal with tax documents, there’s a diverse range of career paths that students can pursue after they earn a degree in accounting, from forensics and fraud prevention to investing and financial management.

These are just a few examples of the career options we’ll cover in this overview of the accounting industry, which will also answer questions like:

  • What is an accountant?
  • What does an accountant do daily?
  • How do you become an accountant?
  • Do accountants make good money, and what are the average salary expectations for different types of accounting careers?

If you’ve ever considered a career in accounting — or, even if you haven’t — continue reading to learn more about this profession and whether it could make a good fit for your skills and interests. You may be surprised to discover how many unique job opportunities a bachelor’s or master’s degree in accounting could help you qualify for.

What is an Accountant?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (whose salary and job growth data we’ll examine later), accountants “assess financial operations and work to help ensure that organizations run efficiently.” However, as we’ll see in the next section, the more accurate answer to the question is that it depends on what type of accountant you’re referring to.

For instance, the typical day-to-day duties of a forensic accountant, who investigates digital records for evidence of fraud, are likely to differ substantially from the daily tasks of a staff accountant, who is responsible for creating and maintaining financial records like invoices and ledgers. Depending on which type of accountant you decide to become — a process that’s explained in detail toward the end of this guide — you may find yourself preparing tax returns and related documents for businesses, advising organizations on how they can minimize their costs, tracking and issuing invoices, analyzing profitability and how it could be enhanced, or even serving as a witness in cases involving fraud or tax litigation.

With these sorts of variations in mind, there are certain fundamental roles that accountants tend to fill regardless of what sort of field or environment they work in. For example, most accountants are responsible for reviewing and/or preparing financial records on behalf of individuals or organizations, such as balance sheets and financial statements, to ensure that they are accurate and timely. In addition to preparing and reviewing documents, accountants also work to ensure that their clients are in compliance with financial regulations and are mitigating their risks and losses efficiently.

Let’s take a closer look at the specific job duties for different types of accountants, such as forensic and investment accountants, so that you can get a clearer idea of which professional niche or niches you’re most interested in exploring. Keep in mind that job duties and salaries will vary across employers and geographic regions, and will also be impacted by your level of expertise — one of the reasons why it’s so important to obtain your degree and acquire relevant work experience. The more experience you obtain, and the further you advance your accounting education, the higher-paid positions you’ll be eligible to fill.

Woman posing in office building by cubicles

What Are The Different Types of Accountants?

There are many different types of accountants — and consequently, many potential career paths that you can explore once you’ve earned your degree. Below, we’ve highlighted six of the top accounting careers for 2022 and beyond, including staff accounting, forensic accounting, investment accounting, certified public accounting, and certified management accounting, along with accounting careers as an Enrolled Agent (EA). We’ll discuss the roles and duties associated with each of these positions, along with data about average earnings.

For example, the BLS reports that accountants earn a median salary of $77,250, with the highest median earnings reported in the finance and insurance industry ($79,310). While the BLS does not provide salary data for specific types of accountants, we have compiled this information from employment websites such as Salary.com and ZipRecruiter.com.

The following is not an exhaustive list, so we encourage you to continue exploring additional careers in accounting after reviewing the job descriptions below.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

The role of a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, is to act as a financial consultant or advisor to individuals and businesses on issues like tax compliance and business planning. Examples of a CPA’s typical job duties include, but are not limited to, tasks such as investigating fraud, assisting individuals and entities with strategic financial management, generating and reviewing financial documents for accuracy, and filing and preparing tax returns and related forms. Many CPAs choose to specialize in a niche area of accounting, such as taxation, financial planning, or forensic accounting — a career path that we’ll discuss further in just a few moments.

According to ZipRecruiter.com, the top five highest-paying states for CPAs are Washington (average salary over $87,200), New York (over $81,800), California (over $78,700), Idaho (over $78,400), and New Hampshire (over $77,000). The national average salary for a CPA is approximately $75,200, slightly lower than in the top five states.

CPAs should not be confused with CMAs, a different type of accounting career we’ll explore further down our list.

Forensic Accountant

Forensic accountants have the critical task of analyzing financial records to assist with fraud investigations and help interpret financial evidence for organizations like banks, police departments, and government agencies. As a forensic accountant, your job duties might include tasks such as auditing financial records, determining the losses resulting from issues like breaches of contract, and working to forecast (and prevent) financial fraud. That means you’ll need to be intensely detail-oriented — ideally, with a passion for learning about financial laws and white-collar crime.

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) points out that forensic accountants work for a wide range of employers, including public accounting firms, consulting firms, insurance companies, financial institutions, and law enforcement agencies. According to Salary.com, “The average Forensic Accountant salary is $73,470 as of… 2022, but the salary range typically falls between $65,228 and $83,720.”

Think a career in this field might be right for you? Learn more about how to become a forensic accountant, or get in touch with our enrollment counselors for additional information about our accounting programs.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

While most people are familiar with the title of CPA, the CMA certification is less well known — yet potentially associated with higher earning potential. A CMA, or Certified Management Accountant, performs tasks such as analyzing budgets and helping entities meet their financial planning objectives, performing profitability analyses, analyzing the risk level of various investment strategies, and potentially acting in a supervisory role over less experienced accountants.

The average salary for a Certified Management Accountant is approximately $113,700, according to SalaryExpert.com. “In addition,” SalaryExpert points out, “they earn an average bonus of $5,640,” bringing the average total earnings to over $119,000. Other sources, such as the CMA exam prep company Gleim, report annual salary averages closer to $105,000.

Staff Accountant

Staff accountants are responsible for tasks such as generating and maintaining financial records. However, this job role should not be confused with that of a bookkeeper. While bookkeeping professionals are responsible for recording and documenting financial records and transactions, such as receipts from payments, staff accountants play a more analytical role, providing their clients with insights about the best ways to manage their finances and ensure they comply with regulations. In your role as a staff accountant, you may be responsible for tasks such as coding invoices, reconciling accounts, preparing balance sheets, and maintaining ledgers.

According to Salary.com, staff accountants earn an average salary of approximately $59,550, “but the salary range typically falls between $54,245 and $65,608.” As with any career, your earning potential depends on factors like geographic location, your level of experience, and the sort of degrees and certifications you’ve obtained.

Investment Accountant

An investment accountant, or financial accountant, typically works for employers like brokerage firms and portfolio managers. Investment accountants track and analyze investment activities and opportunities, empowering businesses to manage stocks, bonds, and other investments more effectively.

Data on Salary.com indicates that the national average salary for an investment accountant is approximately $65,380 as of September 2022. However, reported annual salaries ranged anywhere from around $54,090 to $77,980.

Enrolled Agent (EA)

The IRS defines an Enrolled Agent, or EA, as a tax professional who “represent[s] taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service by either passing a three-part comprehensive IRS test covering individual and business tax returns or through experience as a former IRS employee.” If you’re fascinated by the ins and outs of tax law, or if you want to pursue a career at the IRS, a career as an Enrolled Agent may be the ideal path for you.

Review the IRS’ step-by-step instructions for how to become an EA, or learn more by exploring these FAQs about the continuing education (CE) requirements for EAs, which include “72 hours of continuing education every three years,” to be administered only by an IRS-approved CE provider.

According to Salary.com, “The [national] average Enrolled Agent salary is $51,526 as of… 2022, but the salary range typically falls between $43,310 and $60,374.”

How to Become an Accountant

While requirements vary by employer, you will generally need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to qualify for a position as an accountant. According to the CPA Exam prep company Becker, “All 50 states require a bachelor’s degree with at least 150 credit hours of coursework to become a licensed CPA. Some states will let you sit for the CPA Exam with 120 hours of study, though you still must complete 150 hours before you can apply for a license.” It’s also important to keep in mind that some employers may prefer or even require job applicants to possess a master’s degree.

In addition to earning your graduate or undergraduate degree in accounting, you should also consider earning your professional certification in a specialty area of accounting. For example, after comparing the job overviews above, you may be thinking about becoming licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Management Accountant (CMA). As the BLS points out, earning these or related certifications can “improve [your] job prospects” and enhance your marketability. Depending on what sorts of professional exams your career goals require you to sit for, you may need a degree to test your skills and obtain your license.

Bachelor of Science Degree in Accounting

The Bachelor of Science in Accounting at National University is an accredited undergraduate degree program that offers a convenient online learning experience while challenging students to prepare for professional exams and meet rigorous industry standards. Students graduate from our B.S. in Accounting ready to sit for the CPA Exam, utilize state-of-the-art accounting and financial industry software and technology, and pursue careers with employers like the FBI and IRS. Undergraduate accounting students at NU also have the option to take advantage of our unique B.S. in Accounting to MBA Transition Program, which you can learn more about by contacting our enrollment counselors.

Coursework in the undergraduate accounting program at National University covers topics such as business finance, intermediate and advanced accounting, business and individual taxation, data analytics, auditing, and more. Students must complete a minimum of 180 quarter units to graduate, equivalent to 45 standard course units.

Master of Accounting (MAcc)

If you’ve already earned your undergraduate degree and are ready to level up your qualifications — and your career — acquiring your master’s degree may be the perfect next step to help you reach your goals. Earn your graduate degree on campus or online by enrolling in the Master of Accounting (MAcc) degree program at National University, which is designed to prepare students with the skills and expertise needed to pursue positions in state and local government agencies, such as the IRS, FBI, CIA, and Franchise Tax Board (FTB).

The MAcc at NU features two pathways toward completion depending on whether you already have an academic background in accounting. Coursework in the MAcc program covers topics like forensic accounting, legal issues in accounting, accounting for government entities, data analytics, and accounting ethics. Students complete a rigorous curriculum based on industry specifications and graduate from the program prepared for the CPA and CMA Exams.

Passing the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Exam

If your goal is to become a Certified Public Accountant, you must pass the CPA Exam, in addition to meeting the basic educational requirements we discussed earlier. As the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) explains, “To become a licensed CPA, you must pass the CPA Exam, a four-section, 16-hour assessment.” These four sections are as follows:

  1. Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  2. Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  3. Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  4. Regulation (REG)

To qualify to take the CPA Exam, you’ll need to complete a minimum of anywhere from 120 to 150 hours of study, including a minimum number of hours of accounting-specific studies, depending on your geographic location. For instance, Becker highlights California (along with Maine) as a state with particularly “detailed accounting coursework requirements, including minimum total hours in upper-level accounting and business courses.” As CalCPA explains on its website, the California Board of Accountancy’s requirements include, but are not limited to, the following criteria:

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • 24 semester units in accounting-related subjects
  • 24 semester units in business-related subjects
  • Passing the Uniform CPA Exam

Learn more about the California Board of Accountancy’s educational requirements, explore CalCPA’s information resources, or read more about California requirements for becoming a CPA.

Finding Your Niche in Accounting

It’s important to be aware that additional exams and/or professional certifications may be required to specialize within a certain field. For instance, while this list touched on several popular accounting certifications like the CPA and CMA, you may be more interested in exploring alternative accounting certifications, such as Certified Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), or Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA). Another possibility specific to forensic accountants is the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential, which, according to the ACFE, can increase your earning power by up to 17%. To earn these or other certifications, you may need to sit for and pass additional exams, such as the CFA Exam (known as the CFA Program).

You may also be interested in joining professional organizations, which can help you network and connect with peers and resources. Some examples to consider include the American Association of Finance and Accounting (AAFA), the Professional Association of Small Business Accountants (PASBA), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), and the AICPA’s Young CPA Network.

Minor in Accounting Program Page

Are Accountants in Demand?

Individuals and organizations will always need to comply with financial regulations — and manage their finances as effectively as possible. And as tax and banking regulations continue to grow more complex, the demand for accountants with specialized skills is likely to keep pace.

So what do the numbers say about the job outlook for accountants over the coming decade? The Bureau of Labor Statistics again provides us with a useful source of data. The BLS reports that, as of 2021, there are approximately 1.4 million accountants in the United States, with close to 82,000 accounting jobs expected to be added during the coming decade. According to the BLS, “The average growth rate for all occupations is 5%” — but the projected growth rate for accounting and auditing professions is 6% from 2021 to 2031, making it slightly faster than average.

Ready to Start Your Journey in Becoming an Accountant?

Challenge yourself to excel professionally and discover a rewarding career in accounting. Learn more about the accredited accounting degree programs offered by National University, including onsite and 100% online options for graduates and undergraduates.

Contact our admissions office to request information about the Bachelor of Science in Accounting at NU, our Master of Accountancy degree, or related programs like the Minor in Accounting and Master of Business Administration (MBA). When you’re ready to take the next step, review our admission requirements and start your application online.

FAQs About Becoming an Accountant

Mathematical skills are important for a career in accounting — but they aren’t the only skill you’ll need to possess. While it’s true that you’ll need to perform some basic math, you’ll also need a solid grasp of the fundamentals of business, along with exceptional analytical skills, attention to detail, technological aptitude, and both written and verbal communication skills.

The BLS reported that accountants in the finance and insurance industry had the highest median earnings ($79,310), surpassing accountants in management ($78,540); government ($77,290); and general accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services ($77,080). Some of the highest-paying accounting careers include CMA and CPA.

Accountants are responsible for managing and analyzing large quantities of complex, sensitive financial data, which means they need to be extremely detail-oriented with well-developed organizational skills. To thrive in the field, accountants also need to possess qualities like being a team player, having a strong work ethic, and placing a strong personal emphasis on trustworthiness, time management, and reliability.

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