By DeVry University
February 7, 2023
10 min read
If you’ve thought about pursuing a career in accounting, you’ve most likely considered all the different roles and responsibilities involved in an accounting career and wondered about the differences between an accountant and a CPA. The terms accountant and CPA are often used interchangeably, but a CPA vs. accountant side-by-side comparison reveals some important differences.
What Is an Accountant?
As defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Accountants and auditors are business professionals who help for-profit businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations run efficiently by examining financial records and making sure those records are accurate, assessing an organization’s financial operations and making sure taxes are paid properly.
What Is a CPA?
According to Becker Professional Education, while all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs. While they both perform essential functions in business, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accounting professional who has met state licensing requirements to earn the CPA designation by gaining education, training and experience, as well as passing the CPA Exam. An important first step in answering the accountant vs. CPA question is understanding that CPA is not a job title or career path, but is rather a professional designation that may allow accounting professionals more flexibility and mobility in their careers.
How Are They Different?
In the following sections, we’ll examine and clarify the differences between accountants and CPAs in several key areas, including education, requirements, licensing/certification, responsibilities and job opportunities.
According to the BLS, a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field is typically needed to pursue career opportunities as an accountant or auditor. If you have earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting or business, you may be able to pursue career opportunities as an accountant. For this reason, you can prepare to pursue a career in accounting by earning a bachelor’s degree. But after gaining some experience in the field, you may want to pursue further opportunities, such as CPA certification or earning a graduate certificate or master’s degree in accounting.
What additional commitment to education is required for CPA certification? The BLS notes that all states require CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college coursework to be licensed. Given that this is more credit hours than you may earn in a typical bachelor’s degree program, many CPA candidates opt to pursue a master’s degree before taking the CPA exam.
At DeVry, we offer several online accounting degree programs designed with your career path – and your busy life – in mind. Taught by knowledgeable faculty with real-world experience in their field, each of them can help you prepare for your future as a CPA:
- Bachelor’s in Accounting
- Bachelor’s in Business with an Accounting Specialization
- Bachelor’s in Business with a Finance Specialization
- Master’s in Accounting
- Master’s in Accounting & Financial Management
- MBA with a Specialization in Accounting
- MBA with a Specialization in Finance
To maintain licensing and certification, CPAs must make a commitment to staying up to date on their education and any new industry developments, which is known as continuing professional education (CPE). The amount of CPE you must complete will vary based on the state in which you are licensed.
The skills required to pursue a career as an accountant are similar to those needed by a CPA, and encompass more than just being good with numbers. According to the BLS, along with education and experience, accountants should have the following soft skills:
- Analytical and critical-thinking skills: Accountants must be able to evaluate data, identify any issues in documentation and come up with solutions. For example, public accountants may analyze changes in the IRS tax code in their efforts to minimize clients’ tax liability.
- Attention to detail: Accountants must be detail oriented, paying attention to the smallest details when compiling and examining financial documents.
- Communication skills: In most accounting roles, good communication skills are more important than you might think. Accountants must be able to listen to and discuss facts and concerns from clients, managers and other stakeholders, and must also be able to discuss the results of their findings in meetings and written reports.
- Organizational skills: Strong organizational skills are important for accountants, who often work with a range of financial documents for a variety of clients.
- Math skills: Did we mention you should be good with numbers? You should have strong math skills to analyze, compare, and interpret facts and figures, and may have to use advanced math skills such as calculus and statistical analysis.
According to Indeed, certification is not required to work as an accountant in all instances, but if you plan to pursue private accounting roles such as internal auditor or managerial accountant, certifications may make you a more attractive job candidate.
Some of these industry certifications include:
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
- Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
To become a CPA, you must meet strict licensing and certification requirements. CPA licensure is overseen by each state’s Board of Accountancy. To meet the CPA licensure requirements set forth by your state’s Board, you will need to study for, and pass, the CPA Exam. All states require CPA candidates to complete 150 semester hours of college coursework to be licensed and successfully pass the 4-part Uniform CPA Examination from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Candidates sit for each of the 4 parts separately, and most states require candidates to pass all 4 parts within 18 months of passing the first part.
An accountant’s specific duties will vary depending upon the type and size of organization they work for and their specific role. The responsibilities of unlicensed accountants are similar to those of CPAs, but limited in some areas by comparison. To work as an external auditor, for example, an accountant must be a CPA, but internal auditors handling a company’s internal accounting may not have to be CPAs. Another distinction is that accountants who are not CPAs would not be able to represent their clients in matters relating to IRS audits.
The BLS describes an accountant’s typical duties as:
- Examining an organization or client’s financial statements to ensure they are accurate and in compliance with laws and regulations.
- Calculating taxes owed by individuals or organizations, preparing tax returns and making sure the taxes are paid on time to avoid penalties.
- Inspecting account books and accounting systems to be sure they have been prepared using generally accepted accounting procedures (GAAP), looking for ways to improve efficiency and identifying potential risks for fraud.
- Managing an organization’s financial records by organizing, analyzing and maintaining them.
- Making suggestions to management as to how an organization can reduce costs, enhance revenues and improve profitability.
In some instances, accountants also function as financial advisors, taking on the role of fiduciaries to make financial decisions on behalf of clients.
The CPA vs. accountant contrast becomes clearer when you begin to explore job opportunities.
Careers for unlicensed accountants, according to Indeed, are found mostly in the area of private accounting. In these careers, the accountant works internally for a single employer, such as a public or private corporation.
- Accounting Manager: Accounting managers use their education and skills in accounting to plan, implement and supervise a company’s financial strategy. This may include supervising the company’s bookkeeper and managing the company’s financial accounts, payrolls, budget, cash receipts and financial assets. The accounting manager may also perform the company’s internal financial audits, monitor and analyze financial accounting data and create reports based on these analyses.
- Financial Analyst: Financial analysts gather data for the purpose of revealing and understanding trends that affect products or industries. Working at banks, corporations or consulting firms, they are responsible for analyzing financial data and providing forecasting, recommending individual investments or portfolios and preparing reports and projections based on financial data. Financial analysts may also be involved with business valuation.
- Internal Auditor: Using their aptitude for both project management and organization, internal auditors work within businesses such as large, for-profit corporations, to evaluate their organization’s financial documentation and look for areas of risk or non-compliance with financial or tax regulations. They also look for opportunities to improve record-keeping processes, cut costs and improve profitability, then present their findings to senior-level management.
- Risk Analyst: Risk analysts, sometimes called risk assessors, analyze and evaluate financial data to calculate the risk associated with business decisions. In reporting this information to business executives or investors, they may also make recommendations to reduce financial risk. Their recommendations may be related to currency exchanges or investment portfolios.
An accounting professional who has earned the CPA designation can take on a broader range of career paths than someone who is not a CPA. In some public accounting career roles, that of an external auditor for example, the certification is required.
CPAs and potential CPAs can pursue a variety of career paths, including:
- Certified Public Accountant: Combining knowledge of data management, economics, tax law and financial planning, certified public accountants may work as self-employed professionals or in large accounting firms or a corporate setting. Their duties can include balancing financial records, auditing individual accounts, preparing tax returns and publishing audited financial statements. They also advise clients on personal financial matters.
- Tax Accountant: Tax accountants help individuals and organizations file their annual tax returns and remain compliant with the IRS Code. They also consult with clients to help them understand the implications of changes in the tax code and how to avoid certain tax burdens.
- External Auditor: External auditing is conducted by certified public accountants. External auditors step in to provide a third-party perspective in examining an organization’s financial statements and provide financial documentation. Audits may be conducted on behalf of financial institutions, the treasury or as part of a fraud investigation.
CPAs Make a Deeper Professional Commitment
After reading the information above, it’s apparent that there are several key differences when it comes to a CPA vs. accountant. Primarily, CPAs may have the opportunity to take on more responsibility than their non-CPA counterparts. By earning and maintaining their licensure, CPAs demonstrate a high level of proficiency in their field. They can also represent clients before the Internal Revenue Service, provide attestation services and submit financial reports of publicly traded companies to the SEC.
It's important to note, however, that CPAs must work to maintain their licensure. Meeting ongoing continuing professional education requirements and abiding by the AICPA’s Code of Professional Conduct are two key commitments that they must fulfill.
Is Becoming a CPA Better?
Whether it is better for you to pursue CPA certification and licensure is a question that only you can answer. That’s because it depends upon what career opportunities you’re interested in pursuing. If you want to pursue a career in public accounting, such as working for a large accounting firm, then you may have to become a CPA to pursue your goals. If you plan to work as an accountant within a private company, such as a small or medium sized corporation, becoming a CPA may not be a job requirement.
Researching potential employers and career opportunities in your area is a great place to start. Gaining an understanding the day-to-day responsibilities, career potential, job requirements and earning potential for the roles that interest you might help you determine the right path for your future.
Pursue Your Accounting Degree at DeVry
Whether you decide to pursue your CPA certification or work as an uncertified accountant, we can help get you started. Our online Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting can teach you the fundamentals of accounting and build skills you can apply in finance, management, forensic accounting and more. If you’ve already earned your bachelor’s degree, we offer several master’s and graduate certificate paths for you to choose from, some of which offer Becker Professional Education’s industry-leading CPA Exam prep, so you can begin preparing for the CPA exam while you’re learning.1
Classes start every 8 weeks.
1Most state boards of accountancy require 150 credit hours of post-secondary education in order to sit for the CPA exam. As this program is less than 150 credit hours, this program alone does not meet the minimum coursework requirements to sit for the CPA exam. Students interested in sitting for the CPA exam should check their state’s requirements. Credits and degrees earned from this institution do not automatically qualify the holder to participate in professional licensing exams to practice certain professions. Persons interested in practicing a regulated profession must contact the appropriate state regulatory agency for their field of interest. DeVry is not able to recommend graduates for professional licensure in any state. New York students should contact the NYSED Office of Professions regarding professional licensure.