Accountants keep track of payments, financial positions, and transfers of capital or income for individual or institutional clients. Some are responsible for examining the tax implications of those actions. Accountants must be comfortable with numbers, but must also spend a considerable amount of time reviewing other people’s work and, in particular, delivering bad news. As a “financial physician” (a term that cropped up more than once in our surveys), you’ll be the bearer of unpleasantness more often than blessings, and can expect to be greeted, at times, in a less-than-friendly fashion. People who enter accounting mention this stigma as the most unanticipated downside of the profession. “I didn’t know how many people just don’t pay attention to their own numbers,” wrote one frustrated internal auditor, “and how defensive people are when they’re wrong.” An average internal auditor spends a surprisingly small (35) percent of her time on paperwork, document review, and (usually computerized) accounting procedures, while the remainder is spent either on the phone, traveling to different locations, or meeting with executives, clients, representatives, and other divisional auditors.
Tax accountants face a somewhat different lifestyle from auditors and general accountants. Personal income tax accountants, mostly employed at small firms (80 percent of all income tax firms employ five or fewer people) or self-employed, are responsible for tracking clients’ income, making any quarterly payments due to federal or state agencies, then managing the crush of activity preparing and submitting all required paperwork to the federal and state governments on April 15. Corporate tax accountants, however, are involved throughout the year in corporate decision-making, analyzing the tax effects of corporate investment policy, and advising other company managers on tax-planning issues. Corporate tax accountants face a seasonal surge in April similar to the one personal tax accountants face, although to a significantly lesser degree.
The level of satisfaction in the profession is high. Since the bulk of what a professional accountant does is well-covered in school, those who don’t find accounting enjoyable in school tend not to enter the professional accounting world.
Most in the industry enjoy the straightforward path to becoming an accountant. Nearly all firms require at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or a related discipline. Many employers look favorably on students with significant computer proficiency or work experience in number-intensive jobs, and some job candidates enhance their profiles by earning a master’s degree in business, accounting, or finance. The most common certification accountants are asked to complete soon after hire is the state-licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam. This rigorous four-part exam is rapidly replacing the Public Accountant (PA), Registered Public Accountant (RPA), and the Accounting Practitioner’s (AP) exams as the working degree of choice. Different states have different licensing requirements, so write to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy to find out the requirements for your state. Many boards are currently considering requiring an additional thirty hours of postgraduate accounting.
Accounting degrees are often paired with law, marketing or advertising degrees as a means of specialization, but by no means are these the only careers associated with auditing and accounting. Accountants move to positions in bank operations, budgeting offices, financial analysis, management consulting, the FBI (where accountants track, analyze, and report on illegal interstate money transfers and hidden asset recovery-FBI accountants even brought down Al Capone), and full-service brokerage firms. It is not unusual to see an accountants become entrepreneurs and use their expertise to begin, manage, and nurture a start-up company as its financial officer.