Deciding to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a great choice in career opportunity. The designation is not only an incredibly valuable credential for accountants wanting to advance their careers, but it provides you with a wide variety of career choices. And, the credential also showcases your confidence and qualifications to successfully reach difficult goals to your future employer.
CPA Career Overview
CPA Job Description
So, what would you do as a CPA? The overall job of a CPA consists of helping companies, private citizens, and organizations make sense of financial data. Specific job duties include:
- Creating financial statements
- Reducing tax obligations
- Estate planning
- Filing and preparing state, local, and federal tax returns
- Identifying risks and issues with clients
- Acting as an expert witness for legal cases
A CPA’s abilities go beyond those of standard accountants. CPAs have the authority to conduct special taxation and auditing services.
Education, Training, and Certifications
Before becoming a CPA, you must complete a bachelor’s program, where you can expect to take courses on business ethics, finance, and economics. Depending on your state and CPA program, you may need to take additional courses after graduating to accumulate the 150 semester hours required to sit for the CPA exam. If you prefer, you can earn a master’s degree to meet the semester hour requirement. It’s a good idea to look for schools that offer a special five-year program where you can earn both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in finance or accounting.
To prepare for your license, you must undergo training focused on spreadsheets, accounting software, and auditing practices. Expect to work as an accountant to gain the experience you need to sit for the CPA license exam.
Once you are ready to take the CPA Exam, you must pass all four sections within 18 months. Exam subjects, which you can take in any order you prefer, include Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Regulation (REG) and Business Environment and Concepts (BEC). You may also live in a state that requires you to pass an ethics exam after passing the standard CPA exam.
After you apply to your state board for your license, which requires a fee, you must complete yearly continued education to maintain your license. Joining a professional accounting organization may make it easier to keep up with this requirement.
After Passing the CPA Exam
While earning a CPA license is an exciting accomplishment – a goal set by thousands of professionals every year – sometimes we forget that passing the final exam is only the beginning of the journey.
One of the most valuable benefits of becoming a CPA is the opportunities it presents once it’s time to put your training to use. From academia to international advising and more, the accounting field offers a diverse set of career paths that’s sure to match your personal ambitions and tastes.
Thinking About CPA Career Opportunities
You may want an area of specialization during your CPA career. You can become an internal auditor who studies and reports on a company’s operations and financial records. In this role, you also concentrate on risk management, control processes, and financial data. Financial analyst is another specialization area, one where you look over financial data to help businesses grow. Expect to utilize data, create reports, and aid company managers in making well-informed financial decisions.
Are you a tech aficionado? If so, you may like the idea of becoming an IT auditor. In this role, you’ll study a company’s tech infrastructure, ensure systems are secure, and make sure companies remain compliant with the latest industry regulations.
The Big 4
Many CPAs come from and aspire to the four largest professional services firms in the world: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. These four firms dominate the audit landscape, partnering with 99 of the Fortune 100 companies.
Working with the biggest clients in the world provides a potential fast track through the industry if you’re a top performer. While the pay is generally higher in these roles than at smaller firms, the hours are longer, the pressure is higher, and the competition is more fierce. If you thrive in those conditions, having one of the Big 4 on your resume could be a ticket to senior positions or a specialized role at a smaller firm.
Working for a Big 4 firm isn’t for everyone. Local accounting firms also offer valuable experience for aspiring CPAs. These firms tend to work at a more comfortable pace than a Big 4 firm, allowing employees to learn the nuances of the profession at their own speed. That means relatively lower pay, but local CPAs enjoy a healthier work-life balance and fewer hours than CPAs at the Big 4.
While working at a local firm can lead to a healthier lifestyle, it could take longer to climb the professional ladder. You might not be able to wow employers with your resume, but your extensive experience could be just what they’re looking for.
Nearly every business or organization requires accounting expertise. That opens up a wealth of opportunities for CPAs who have personal passions or intricate knowledge of a subject or industry.
For those looking to travel, consider becoming an international accountant specializing in the accounting standards of specific parts of the world. If you’re passionate about preserving our living world, a role as an environmental accountant would allow you to explore environment-friendly business practices that also save your employer money.
The pay and lifestyle vary based on the industry, but if it’s something you’re passionate about, it’s likely to be a good fit. The options are endless.
Many CPAs can point to a class or a teacher that sparked their interest in entering the accounting world and would like to pass along that inspiration. Whether it’s secondary education or entering university academia, CPAs can become educators that help students or even develop new theories of accounting.
Secondary educators make a modest living but are rewarded through seeing their students overcome challenges and succeed. This is a valuable career path for CPAs who are invested in their communities and want to showcase the practice to a new generation of students.
Academia is a more rigorous educational avenue, requiring entry into a PhD program. After extensive research and teaching, assistant professors can apply for tenure. Once tenure is secured, assistant professors progress to associate professors before becoming a full professor – a process that can take more than 15 years but comes with higher pay and prestige.
CPA Career Path Quiz
While the decision to become a CPA can be pretty straightforward, what often isn’t is the career paths that you can pursue once you have your designation.
So if you’re not sure as to which career path is the right one for you, take our quiz below to find out which field best suits your personality based on your preferred work style, culture, and environment.
CPA Career Paths
Forensic Accountant/FBI AgentIf the idea of solving mysteries or being involved with legal investigations sounds appealing to you, then becoming a Forensic Accountant might be the right path. Forensic accountants testify in court cases, solve business crimes like corporate fraud or write reports for legal teams to report in court. Forensic accountants work in challenging and exciting environments to solve complex cases.
Corporate Entertainment AccountantDoes living in LA or Hollywood and working in the movie industry sound exciting to you? As a corporate Entertainment Accountant, you can work for a production company or studio to oversee production costs of movies, television shows or manage entertainment budgets.
Sports AccountantIf you live and breathe sports, then working in the sports industry might be for you. Sports Accountants can work for sports teams, organizations, sports broadcasting companies or sports manufacturers. Additionally, this area allows you to work with monthly budgets for a sports team, handle expenses for high-profile sports celebrities or oversee the payroll for an entire sports team. If you love sports, but want to be a little lower profile, then you might consider working for a sports equipment manufacturing company.
Environmental AccountantIs Earth Day one of your favorite holidays? Do you spend your free time thinking of how to make our world a better place to live? Consider a career as an Environmental Accountant. In this position you would typically work for a larger corporation and spend your time finding new ways to save the company money through environmentally friendly changes within their business model.
IT AuditorIf you’re a high-tech geek or really love all-things technical, working as an IT auditor might be a perfect career choice for you. Daily tasks might include working with computer networks to make sure data is secure and numbers generated for your reports are accurate.
Accounting ConsultantMany CPAs like the idea of working as consultants from their home office and creating their own schedules. Consultants perform a wide range of duties that are tailored to an individual or business client.
International AccountantIf you love to travel, then becoming an International Accountant is the career choice for you! As the global economy expands, this field is expanding accordingly. You would be required to know accounting standards for different countries, which includes International Financial Reporting Standards or IFRS.
Accounting ProfessorIf you enjoy teaching accounting, auditing and taxation, then becoming an Accounting Professor would be a great fit for you while allowing you to remain in an academic setting. At present, the demand for professors is at an all-time high.
CPA Career Path Infographic
Still want more information about the CPA Career Path? You can also download our infographic below to learn more about the different opportunities the designation offers such as types of positions within the field, how you can expect to advance, and the average yearly income for each level.
Do you find it difficult to study for the CPA Exam while working and trying to maintain a personal life? Find out how one CPA Candidate is able find the balance while working towards her CPA goals.