Becoming a CPA: Job Description & Salary Info

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A Certified Public Accountant's (CPA) median annual salary is around $65,000, but is it worth the education and licensure requirements? Get the truth about the job description and career outlook to decide if it's the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of Being a CPA

CPAs are certified public accountants who have passed the national CPA exam administered by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). Check out the pros and cons before making a career decision.

Pros of Being a CPA
Pays well ($65,940 median salary in 2014)*
Good job opportunities (13% growth between 2012-2022)*
Variety of specialization options*
Pleasant working conditions*

Cons of Being a CPA
Must pass CPA exam*
Requires 150 hours of college credit**
Meet state licensure requirements*
May work long hours*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Institute of CPAs.

Career Information

Job Description

CPAs handle the accounting, taxes, consulting and auditing processes for governments, corporations and individuals. As a CPA, you deal with documents that your clients are required to disclose, such as the reports corporations must give to potential investors. These accountants may also fill out tax returns and advise clients on income tax matters.

CPAs may have their own business or work for accounting firms. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 20% of accountants worked more than 40 hours per week on average. The job can be especially grueling during income tax season and at the close of the fiscal year.

Career Prospects

The BLS predicted that employment for accountants of all types, including CPAs, would grow by about 13% from 2012-2022. Corporate financial scandals have led to an increased emphasis in accounting, the BLS noted. The BLS also wrote that individuals with a master's degree in accounting or business (with a concentration in accounting) should have the best job prospects. Competition for jobs with top firms will remain fierce.

Salary Information

The median salary for an accountant was about $65,940 as of May 2014, the BLS reported. Accountants in the middle 50% earned a salary from $51,130-$87,530 during that same year. Accountants who worked in the accounting and tax preparation industry earned about $77,000, while securities and commodities accountants earned about $95,000 or more per year.

What Are the Requirements?

You'll need at least a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field, along with some additional coursework, to become a CPA. However, most states now require a 150 hours of college credit, which means about 30 credit hours on top of a bachelor's degree, in order to sit the CPA exam.

Any accountant who files returns with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must pass the CPA exam as well as meet other state requirements. Other accountants often take the exam in order to demonstrate their expertise. After you earn CPA status, you have to complete continuing education courses from approved providers to maintain your license.

Many schools have accommodated the change in the credit hour rules by combining a bachelor's/master's program or offering a Master of Accountancy specifically for students who intend to take the CPA exam. Colleges often help students obtain internships in order to meet the experience requirements for the CPA exam.

Useful Skills

CPAs must have excellent analytical ability and an eye for detail. Here are some additional qualities the AICPA says a good CPA must possess:

  • Leadership ability
  • Computer skills
  • Communications skills
  • Business savvy

What Employers Are Seeking

A glance at job postings shows that CPAs work in many types of enterprises, from health care to the aerospace industry. Employers are looking for CPAs with at least a year of experience and knowledge of accounting software. Here is a sampling of job postings from real employers in April 2012:

  • An aerospace corporation in Florida was looking for a CPA with at least 10 years of experience in the aerospace industry. Candidates should be knowledgeable about the financial aspects of acquisitions, understand government contract accounting and be experienced in Sarbanes-Oxley 404 compliance.
  • In New York, a small accounting firm was seeking an experienced accountant who was a CPA or who had enough courses to sit the CPA exam. The individual should be proficient in accounting software, primarily QuickBooks, and knowledgeable in Excel and Word.
  • A firm in California needed a CPA who could speak English and Japanese. This person should have auditing experience with an accounting firm and be a self-starter.
  • In Texas, an accounting firm was looking for an experienced CPA to prepare and review tax returns for businesses. The person hired should have demonstrated knowledge of tax law and accounting.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Earn Certifications

CPAs can demonstrate their knowledge in specialized areas of accounting and auditing by earning certification from the AICPA. CPAs who successfully complete a written exam and meet education and experience guidelines can earn the Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) credential. If you specialize in financial planning and meet education and experience requirements, you can take the exam for the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) designation. CPAs who are experts in information technology and its application in accounting can become Certified Information Technology Professionals (CITP) by meeting education and experience criteria and passing an examination.

Get Involved

Becoming involved in the accounting industry and networking with other CPAs is one way to stand out in this field. AICPA sponsors a Young CPA Network that offers seminars, awards and conferences to individuals just getting started in the field. AICPA also sponsors conferences and programs for experienced CPAs, where they can share information and update their knowledge. There are also state and local associations of CPAs all around the country that can support you in furthering your career through education, conferences and publications.

Alternative Career Paths

Internal Auditor

If you like accounting work, but don't want the stress and extra educational requirements that come with taking the CPA exam, you can work as an internal auditor. Internal auditors ensure that a business does not mismanage their finances or waste funds. While not required, the Institute of Internal Auditors offers the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) designation. According to the BLS, accountants and auditors who worked for state governments earned a mean annual wage of $56,000, while those working in the management of companies made $70,200 in 2011.

Financial Manager

Another career option is as a financial manager. These managers oversee an organization's financial health, and the BLS reports that the median salary was about $107,000 in May 2011. You'll produce reports, supervise investments and help create a financial plan. To work in this field, you'll need a bachelor's degree, preferably a master's, and at least five years of experience in some area of finance.

Accounting Clerk

For a career working with numbers that doesn't require a 4-year degree, you can consider becoming an accounting clerk. You might get a job with a high school diploma, but employers prefer someone with an associate's degree or at least some post-secondary coursework. Accounting clerks may post transactions, calculate interest or monitor loans. According to the BLS, the median salary for an accounting clerk was around $35,000 in May 2011.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Strayer University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • M.S. in Accounting: Corporate Accounting
      • M.S. in Accounting: International Accounting
      • Master of Business Admin: Accounting Concentration
      • M.S. in Accounting: Public Accounting Concentration
      • Master of Business Admin: The Jack Welch MBA
      • M.S. in Accounting: Forensic Accounting
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Business Admin: Accounting
      • B.S. in Accounting
      • Bachelor of Business Admin: Finance Concentration
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    Associate's
      • Associate in Arts in Accounting
      • Associate in Arts in Business Admin
    Certificate
      • Diploma in Acquisition and Contract Management
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master - Accounting
      • MS in Accounting- Tax Specialization
      • MS in Accounting - Audit Specialization
      • MS in Accounting - Government Specialization
      • MS in Accounting - Finance Specialization
      • MBA: Finance
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Accounting
      • Bachelor: Managerial Accountancy
      • Bachelor: Tax Accountancy
      • Bachelor: Auditing-Forensic Accountancy
      • BSBA - Investment
      • Bachelor: Public-General Accountancy
    Associate's
      • Associate: Accounting
      • Associate: Business Admin.
      • Associate: Business Admin. - Office Mgmt
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Capella University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD: Accounting (ACBSP-accredited)
      • DBA in Accounting
      • DBA in Finance
      • PhD in Finance (ACBSP-accredited)
      • PhD in Business Management (ACBSP-accredited)
    Master's
      • MBA: Accounting (ACBSP-accredited)
      • MBA - Accounting CPA Pathway
      • MBA: Finance (ACBSP-accredited)
      • MBA in Business Admin
      • MBA MSN-to-MBA Business Administration
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Accounting (ACBSP-accredited)
      • BS - Accounting CPA Pathway
      • Bachelor: Finance (ACBSP-accredited)
      • Bachelor: Business Admin (ACBSP-accredited)
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA in Accounting
      • MS in Accounting
      • MS in Accounting - Management Accounting
      • MS in Accounting - Taxation
      • MBA in Forensic Accounting
      • MS in Accounting - Forensic Accounting
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Accounting
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      • BS Finance
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    Associate's
      • AS in Accounting
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  • Online Programs Available
    5. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Accounting and Public Safety Leadership
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      • MBA Dual Concentration: Business Management and Public Safety Leadership
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Accounting & Healthcare Mgmt.
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Accounting
      • B.S. - Business Management: Business Admin Concentration
      • B.S. - Business Management With No Concentration
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Accounting
      • Associate of Science - Business Studies
      • Associate of Science - Business Management
    Certificate
      • Diploma: Bookkeeping and Payroll Accounting
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Ashford University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MA-Accountancy
      • MA/Accountancy - Accounting
      • MBA - Finance
      • MBA - Media Management
      • MBA - Business Economics
      • MBA
    Bachelor's
      • B.A. - Accounting
      • BA/Sports and Recreation Management - Finance
      • B.A. - Business Admin
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  • Online Programs Available
    7. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Professional Accounting
      • Master of Finance
      • MS - Management
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Accounting
      • BS - Business Management
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • B.A. - Accounting
      • B.A. - Business Admin: Finance
    Associate's
      • Associate of Arts - Accounting
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Business Administration - Personal Financial Planning
      • Master of Business Administration - Executive Management (Virtual Format)
      • Master of Business Administration - No Specialization
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. Accounting
      • B.S. Business Administration - Personal Financial Planning
      • B.S. Business Administration - No Specialization
      • B.S. General Studies - Business
    Associate's
      • A.S. Accounting
      • A.S. Business
      • A.S. General Studies - Business
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Business Admin: Accounting
      • Master: Accounting
      • Master of Business Admin: Finance
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    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Accounting
      • Bachelor of Science in Business Administration - Finance
      • Bachelor of Science in Business Administration - Organizational Behavior
      • Bachelor of Science in Business Administration - Business Development
      • Bachelor of Science in Business Administration - General

Featured Schools

Strayer University

  • M.S. in Accounting: Corporate Accounting
  • Bachelor of Business Admin: Accounting
  • Associate in Arts in Accounting
  • Diploma in Acquisition and Contract Management

What is your highest level of education completed?

Kaplan University

  • Master - Accounting
  • Bachelor: Accounting
  • Associate: Accounting

Which subject are you interested in?

Capella University

  • PhD: Accounting (ACBSP-accredited)
  • MBA: Accounting (ACBSP-accredited)
  • Bachelor: Accounting (ACBSP-accredited)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Southern New Hampshire University

  • MBA in Accounting
  • BS in Accounting
  • AS in Accounting

What is your highest level of education?

Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Accounting and Public Safety Leadership
  • Bachelor: Accounting
  • Associate of Science - Accounting
  • Diploma: Bookkeeping and Payroll Accounting

What is your highest level of education?

Ashford University

  • MA-Accountancy
  • MA/Accountancy - Accounting
  • B.A. - Accounting
  • BA/Sports and Recreation Management - Finance

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado State University Global

  • Master of Professional Accounting
  • Master of Finance
  • BS - Accounting
  • BS - Business Management

What is your highest level of education?

Keiser University

  • B.A. - Accounting
  • B.A. - Business Admin: Finance
  • Associate of Arts - Accounting

What is your highest level of education?