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General Introduction

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) help people with a range of financial needs, from the taxation and audit of private persons, to the collection and forensic investigation of governmental organizations and public corporations. With laws and statutes that govern the financial responsibilities of private citizens, companies, and public organizations in a constant state of flux, today’s CPA needs to have a keen sense of the need to adapt to an ever-changing profession. This is especially true when economic and tax reform are being discussed at the highest levels of governance. In times like these, Certified Public Accountants will be in high demand, because they are some of the most qualified professionals to not only ensure that their clients comply with changes to the old system, but also to advise the movers, shakers, and decision-makers developing a new one.

So the future is bright for anyone who aspires to become a Certified Public Accountant, a career path for which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 11% job growth between 2014-2024. Jobs await them in literally every industry, because every industry has companies and organizations, and every organization or company has costs that a CPA can work to reduce or improve. And because the work of a CPA is never finished—that is, because their work is highly specialized and personalized, not to mention dependant upon human variables such as client needs and financial laws that change regularly —it is unlikely the profession will be hurt badly by automation, something which is an unfortunate possibility for accounting jobs that don’t require as much specialization or human interaction as the CPA.

Salary Information

The median salary for those who go on to earn their Certified Public Accounting (CPA) license is $73,800, according to a leading authority for helping CPAs pass their qualifying exam. Other leading authorities, such as PayScale stake the median salary of their CPAs at $62,660, a number based on 3,646 individuals reporting throughout the United States. Still others, like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, report a median salary of $68,150, but specifically for CPAs with the job title of Accountant or Auditor. As with all professions, the amount an individual with the requisite qualifications will make is contingent upon a number of variables, location, experience, and job title chief among them. However, it should be noted that on the high end of all CPA salary reports (i.e., the top 25%), most salaries reported are well-above the $100,000 mark.

Skillsets

In order to perform their jobs on a most basic level, Certified Public Accountants need to have mastered the essential skillsets of mathematics, organization, planning, and personal and public finance. Because CPAs work within the service industry known as “assurance services,” they generally have the goal of providing specialized financial information to key decision-makers in order to assure they make the most informed decisions regarding their finances. That also means CPAs should have good people skills, since they will very likely be interacting with the clients whom they serve on a regular basis.

On a more technical level, CPAs should also be comfortable with the most common accounting software used in the industry, such as QuickBooks and Sage, as well as be aware of new paperless technology trends in the profession, such as cloud-based accounting, providing online forms to clients, and asking for e-signatures. In other words, instead of worrying about being replaced by technology, today’s CPA should be working to master it.

And now for the intangibles. There are certain character traits a CPA should have that are difficult to find and replace, such as the ability to keep a secret under any circumstances in order to protect client confidentiality, as well as the desire to learn something new every day to remain both certified and in compliance with the law. CPAs should also have a high degree of patience for sifting through clients’ sometimes poorly kept financial records, as well as for dealing with the often lengthy process of submitting and receiving approval from various governmental bureaus.

Job Description

The job description of a Certified Public Accountant will vary depending on area of finance in which they’d like to specialize. Some of the most common areas of specialization for CPAs are tax accounting, audit accounting, and forensic accounting, areas which, if chosen during a degree program that is ultimately completed, can earn them public sector jobs with governmental organizations such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). But most CPAs also work more generally and in the private sector as consultants and corporate executives, such as Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and Chief Financial Planners (CFPs).

But speaking in the broadest possible terms, every CPA will be expected to carry out the responsibility of ensuring that the organization or individual for which they work is avoiding bankruptcy, complying with the laws that govern its finances, maximizing revenue from all its sources of income, and filing reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Necessary Education and Experience

In order to become a CPA who can file reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, prospective accounting professionals should strive to accomplish the following three goals:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree and 150 credit hours (or the equivalent) from an accredited institution of higher education.
  • Sit for and pass the Uniform CPA Exam in the state you’d like to be licensed.
  • Gain work experience as a certified accountant

Most states ask the accountants they certify to have two years’ work experience in order to be considered licensed after they pass the Uniform CPA Exam. This work experience should also be verified by someone who is already a licensed CPA. Certified Public Accountants should also plan to take part in and complete continuing professional education courses on a regular basis in order to maintain their licensure.

Helpful Resources

You can start your journey to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) through a number of bachelor’s degree programs, all of which offer preparation to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam. There are also a number of associate’s degree programs, whose extra credit hours will help to better situate the prospective CPA as they work to satisfy all 150 hours they need to sit for the exam.

For an overall perspective of accounting, as well as your educational path to success in this field, see our Accounting FAQ Section. On our homepage, you’ll also find features and infographics on fraud and tax scams, tax loopholes, and other topics relevant to CPAs and the accounting profession.

If you want to go all the way to ensure you get your CPA license, see our ranking of the best master’s degrees in accounting to maximize your likelihood of both sitting for and passing the Uniform CPA Exam.

Below, you’ll find a list of the most important professional organizations for CPAs to become familiar with, as well as a directory to find the degree program that best suits your accounting career goals:

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