By DeVry University
February 7, 2023
8 min read
If you’ve ever considered a career in accounting, you’ve most likely thought about what accountants do and where they work. You also may have considered the different types of accountants working in both the public and private sector, the various specialties within the profession and where you might make your mark in the field.
When we talk about those who’ve chosen a career in accounting, we often speak of Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). You don’t have to be a CPA to work in the accounting profession, but a career path in accounting does involve varying educational, certification and licensure requirements. In this article, we’ll take a close look at what accountants do, where they work, different accounting careers and options for continuing education.
What Do Accountants Do?
Accountants and auditors are business professionals who help for-profit businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations run efficiently by examining financial records, ensuring those records are accurate, assessing an organization’s financial operations and making sure taxes are paid properly.
The accounting professional’s specific duties may involve financial management and risk management, and will vary depending upon the type and size of organization they work for and their specific role, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), their typical duties include:
- Examining financial statements to ensure their accuracy and compliance with laws and regulations.
- Computing taxes owed by individuals or organizations, preparing tax returns and ensuring that taxes are paid on time.
- Inspecting account books and accounting systems for efficiency and the use of generally accepted accounting procedures (GAAP) and identifying potential risks for fraud.
- Organizing, analyzing and maintaining financial records.
- Suggesting ways to reduce costs, enhance revenues and improve profitability.
Where Do Accountants Work?
According to BLS data, accountants and auditors held approximately 1.4 million jobs in the United States in 2021. Who were their largest employers? The BLS breaks it down this way:
- 24% worked for accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services
- 8% worked in finance and insurance
- 8% worked in government
- 7% worked in management of companies and enterprise
- 4% were self-employed
The work environment for accountants will vary according to the type of work they do. Most accountants work in an office environment, but some work from home and others may travel to visit clients.
Possible Career Fields in Accounting
Typically concerned with the accurate reporting of financial transactions that have already occurred, this career in accounting generally involves working with revenues and disbursements, which includes managing or participating in general ledger accounting, accounts payable and receivable, payroll, grant management and fixed assets. Financial accounting is primarily concerned with the process of compiling financial information for external reporting (to tax authorities, investors and other parties) using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
There are a few different types of auditors, and each may hold certain industry-recognized certifications.
- External Auditors: External auditors provide financial documentation to third parties for feedback. In this case, the third party is a reliable source in describing if a company’s financial statement is a representation of GAAP. External auditing is conducted by a Certified Public Accountant.
- Internal Auditors: Internal auditors determine the effectiveness of internal accounting processes and identify ways to improve processes for identifying and eliminating waste, fraud and other liabilities. Internal auditors can review employee departmental responsibilities, management policies and approval procedures and provide useful feedback that can help a company improve profitability or efficiency. Some public companies or government agencies may require their internal auditors to hold the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification.
- IT Auditors: Information technology (IT) auditors keep tabs on controls for their organizations’ IT systems to make sure that all financial and non-financial data come from reliable sources.
Public vs Private Positions
Another thing you may have considered when planning for a career in accounting is the difference between public and private accounting and their respective roles and job duties. While both public and private accountants help organizations operate efficiently, according to Indeed there are some notable differences:
- Public Accounting: As the title of this role implies, a public accountant is someone who works with the public – individuals or organizations – as an independent third party who prepares financial documents, reviews clients’ financial reports, prepares and files tax returns and may provide audits, consulting services and tax advising. As stated earlier, this type of accountant is likely to hold the CPA certification.
- Private Accounting: In contrast to their public counterparts, private accountants are typically employed by a single company and work internally. Private accountants analyze and prepare their company’s financial reports, and may also deal with accounts payable, accounts receivable and payroll. Their main objective is to set up internal systems to record transactions, which will then help inform the company’s financial statements.
Continuing Education Options
Whether to maintain licensing or certification or to pursue careers that require more advanced skills, a commitment to continuing professional education (CPE) is required for anyone choosing a career path in accounting. Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree and begun to work in the industry, you will want to consider continuing education options that will allow you to become more knowledgeable and improve your skills.
These might include the CPA certification or a graduate degree, such as a master’s degree or a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Certification is not required for every career in accounting, but the CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) and CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certifications may be helpful in making you a more qualified job candidate.
There are certain jobs in the accounting field that only a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, can do. For example, if you plan to work with companies that are publicly traded on one of the stock exchanges, the SEC requires you to be a CPA to file their documents. To obtain the CPA credential you must study for and pass the Uniform CPA Examination. The exam is administered by the Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and has 4 sections:
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
Each exam section is taken separately and, once you’ve passed all 4 sections, you may be required to take an additional ethics examination required by your state before applying for your state-issued CPA license.
According to BLS, all states require CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college coursework to be licensed and to take continuing education courses, including ethics courses, to maintain licensure. Furthermore, to retain your certification and AICPA membership, you must meet certain CPE requirements.
If you’re already employed in the accounting field with a bachelor’s degree and feel you’re ready to explore new career opportunities, consider earning a master’s degree.
According to BLS, some employers prefer to hire applicants who have a master’s degree, either in accounting or in business administration with an accounting concentration. At DeVry, we offer 4 master’s degree programs in accounting, including 2 MBA degrees that are available in 100% online or hybrid formats, allowing you to pursue your degree while maintaining a full-time job and a busy personal life.
Coursework in our Master’s Degree in Accounting program covers accounting theory and practices, material needed to pursue professional licensure, advanced accounting studies, accounting regulations and standards and accounting research. It can help you prepare to pursue careers such as:
- Accounting Manager
- Budget Analyst or Budget Director
- Controller †
- Credit Analyst
- Director of Financial Planning †
- Director of Taxation †
- Financial Analyst
- Forensic Accountant Fraud Investigator †
- Merger and Acquisitions Analyst
† Employment in this occupation may require years of relevant experience.
Another option for accounting professionals with a bachelor’s degree and some accounting industry experience is a Master of Business Administration, or MBA degree. The curriculum of an MBA with a specialization in accounting in particular may help as you work to build an understanding of managerial theory and financial accounting in a business environment. Graduates of our MBA with a Specialization in Accounting may consider careers such as:
- Environmental Green Accountant
- Financial Manager
- Financial Planner
- Internal Auditor
- Management Accountant
- Payroll Staff Manager
- Public Accountant †
† Employment in this occupation may require years of relevant experience.
Take the Next Step Toward a Career in Accounting
If you’re pursuing a career path in accounting, our online accounting degree and certificate programs here at DeVry are built with your professional goals in mind. Coursework in financial accounting, managerial accounting, auditing, taxation, accounting research and accounting information systems is taught by skilled faculty with real-world experience in their field. From bachelor’s degrees to CPA exam preparation, 100% online learning enables you to balance your commitment to education with work, family and other obligations in your busy life.
Classes start every 8 weeks.