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A Career in Accounting

Updated Sept. 13, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Note: Because of an editing error, this page was originally published with an incorrect name.
The page has been updated.
If you want to be an accountant, it's no big surprise that you should have a knack for numbers. As
a certified public accountant, or CPA, you'll be charged with reviewing and analyzing the
financial information of client companies for auditing, taxpaying, or advisory purposes.
And as an accountant or controller for a company or private accounting firm, you could be
consulting with your company's executives about financial strategy, or advising businesses or
individuals about anything from expansion to retirement.
But in reality, it's not all calculators and number crunching, particularly because advances in
accounting software mean that technology takes care of the basic bookkeeping. The important
thing, say both recruiters and employees in the field, is to be an excellent communicator and
problem solver, since you'll likely be working in a group with other accountants or managers,
and maybe even a company's chief financial officer.

"What we really need are people who can understand our clients, talk to them, and understand
what is happening with their businesses," says Dan Black, the director of campus recruiting for
North and South America at public accounting firm Ernst & Young. "You're not put in the corner
just to plug away at the calculator. You're going to be interacting with our clients right away."
In order to become a CPA, you do need to earn additional accounting credits beyond your
bachelor's degree and pass the four-part CPA exam. The average starting salary for a CPA is
about $40,500, and it's around $39,700 for a tax accountant. But with a little more experience,
you can earn an average starting salary $67,400 as a financial controller and a starting salary of
$84,400 as a tax manager, according to data from PayScale.com.

She'll be hiring 3. accountants will always be called upon to help businesses and government agencies solve their financial puzzles. Common Majors: Accounting. a partner at a private accounting firm in Colorado Springs. campus recruiting leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.000 people this year. potentially adopting the International Financial Reporting Rules.com survey said the degree was important or very important to advancing their careers." So while jobs dried up during the economic crisis. . it's not surprising that 75% of those in the field who answered our PayScale. if you decide you don't like the field." says Philip Erickson. Business and Finance Personality Fit for Accounting: Those who are analytical and enjoy solving problems.S. "A lot of people don't think accounting is a glamorous field—and it's not. public or private—needs to keep track of its finances. graduates with an interest in international affairs could develop an expertise and seek experience abroad. and cutbacks have created a need for more hiring as the economy recovers. And the versatility of accounting skills means that. and it's not going away. the U. up from 2. you've gained valuable experience that's easily transferable to other careers in finance or business.S. "But it's a stable field. WHAT PROFESSIONALS IN THE FIELD SAY: When it comes to the skill sets learned by earning an undergraduate degree in accounting. Colo. hiring in accounting wasn't hit as hard. meaning that someone with diverse interests can use accounting skills to work across many industries. and are highly organized will do well in the accounting field. 60% of respondents said they'd recommend or strongly recommend majoring in accounting.600 last year. And whether it's the new financial regulations pushed through Congress or an infusion of cash for a green energy startup. working with others. says Amy Thompson. And with the U.The beauty of the accounting field is that every company and organization—whether large or small.

who start as associates. Either way. Getting Started: Most big public accounting firms expect new hires to be ready to sit for the CPA exam. After all. recruiters say you'll need to develop the ability to look at the bigger picture when it .Your Accounting Career: Recruiters say the majority of their new accounting hires. "What's one more year of school? Go and get that master's and differentiate yourself among your peers. you'll need to hit the ground running as an associate. Typically. depending on your state's regulations. though. As an accountant in industry. so would-be accountants are increasingly earning those extra hours in the form of a one-year master's degree in accounting. you can take the exam after you've been hired and tackle the four exam parts separately—or even all at once. In industry. work for them as summer interns between their junior and senior years in college. and are sent to a client engagement with other associates and managers. not unlike a consultant. to work your way up the ladder." But colleges have also started arranging ways for students to earn the requisite credits in an extra semester. if you can stomach it. Get on the Fast Track: After you've received extensive training on business etiquette. you'd be working in-house in for a company's accounting department. and branch out from there. you might get your start as an assistant or staff accountant in a company's accounting department. the ins and outs of audits or tax procedures. and the necessary software for doing your job. there you're likely to be sent out on client projects with a team. on the other hand. the national director of university recruiting for Grant Thornton. or for a private accounting firm. The career trajectory in accounting can differ depending on whether you go public by working at one of the big accounting firms like KPMG or Deloitte & Touche. says Nina Guthrie. Either way. which requires completion of 150 credit hours in accounting. recent graduates start at one of the big public firms. It's a great way for the firm to test how you'll think on your feet in the field and work with a team. But a bachelor's degree only gives you 120 credit hours. and some firms will hire recent bachelor's graduates and put them to work on more junior tasks while they earn the extra credits in a part-time master's program. who will show you the ropes.

you'll then become a manager. you might lead the associates charged with helping you conduct a client's year-end audit. which the managers and partner above you must ultimately approve. who heads up Take Scott Anstrom.comes to a client's priorities. For example. merger or acquisition. or taking on an IPO. where you'll manage even more associates and will lead increasingly complex projects. If you really have a knack for leading others. . N. While he has only been in the accounting field for six years. in which you'd advise company executives about business strategy and financial operationsor even become a chief financial officer. you could be named partner at your public or private firm. such as examining company's risk portfolio. Phase Three: With several more years of success. and to analyze increasingly complex financial problems beyond just checking and rechecking the financial records. particularly in the busy January to April tax season. Take Scott Anstrom. The trajectory in private accounting is a different animal. where you'll interact more with higher-ups and spend more time directing associates and interns as they assist you in client engagements. But management experience at a firm can be a jumping off point to becoming a company's controller. Next Up: In public accounting. and you can potentially move up the ladder more quickly than at a large corporation. You'd be billing lots of hours. after a few years. you'll become a senior associate. and would be responsible for signing off on each client engagement after conferring with the managers and senior managers who report to you.C. and then a senior manager.-based manufacturer of home theater installation products. he sits on the company's board and guides the chief executive and chief operating officer on the company's financial performance—though he does admit his trajectory is atypical. depending on what kind of organization you work for and the experience you accrue. who heads up the accounting department of a 40-employee Charlotte.

Write to Marisa Taylor at careerpath@wsj.com .