What is Accounting?
Accounting is one of the largest professions in business today, with more than 100,000 accounting firms in the United States alone. As an accountant, you would be responsible for compiling, analyzing, verifying, and preparing financial records for an individual or an organization. Accountants typically work in one of the following areas (though most will work in more than one throughout their career):
- Public Accounting
- Corporate Accounting
- Government Accounting
- Nonprofit Accounting
Graduates usually begin their careers with public accounting firms. Over 20,000 accountants join public accounting firms in entry-level positions each year. Accounting firms have a reputation for offering high pay, great benefits, continuing education programs, and flexible work programs that promote work/life balance.
WhaT skills do employers look for in accountants?
Traditionally, accountants must have the following technical skills:
- Business management
- Reading comprehension
- Computer skills (Excel, Peachtree, accounting information systems)
- Analytical skills, particularly the ability numerical data
As well as soft skills:
- Active listening
Changes in technology have led to the automation of basic accounting tasks, and accounting roles are now expanding to include more duties, such as management consulting, mergers and acquisitions, litigation, and business development.
In what sectors of the economy do accountants work?
The descriptions below come from the Vault’s Industries and Professions guide on accounting. Get the whole guide, and much more (you must create an account), from the Vault Career Insider.
1. Public Accounting
Experience in the public accounting sector can provide a strong foundation for your career. Core services provided by public accounting firms include accounting, audit, assurance, tax, and advisory/consulting services. The four largest U.S. accounting firms are known as the "Big Four" and include Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC. There are tens of thousands of firms in addition to the “Big Four." See the top 100 firms here.
Becoming a Certified Public Accountant. Many accountants working for a public accounting firm are certified public accountants (CPAs), meaning they have taken and passed the CPA exam. In order to become a CPA almost all states require that you meet educational, experience and ethical requirements and pass the Uniform CPA Examination. Only then will a state grant you a license to practice. Keep in mind that all CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs.
Learn more about becoming a CPA:
2. Corporate Accounting
Corporate accounting is also referred to as cost, managerial, industrial, corporate, or private accounting. Large companies, especially those in the Fortune 500, may have their own accounting departments. These departments prepare financial information (both tax and audit) for public accountants, track company performance for internal evaluation, and work with management on issues related to acquisitions, international transactions, and other operational issues. Many medium- and smaller-sized businesses have one or more accountants on staff as well.
Learn more about corporate accounting:
- The Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business
- Chartered Institute of Management Accountants
View a list of private accounting firms.
3. Government Accounting
Accountants work at all levels of government: federal, state, and local. Many government organizations have large accounting departments to analyze the performance and allocation of their funds. The Department of Defense, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) hire large numbers of accountants for services and evaluations. Accountants at the IRS typically review individual and corporate tax returns and offer guidance when new laws (such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act) are passed. The SEC hires experienced accountants to evaluate filings made by public companies to ensure that the companies are complying with federal regulations. In addition to these agencies, accountants can find great jobs in many other government agencies. At the federal level, for example, accountants work for the FBI, the CIA, NASA, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture, to name just a few.
4. Nonprofit Accounting
Accounting for nonprofits is similar to for-profit accounting; they both follow generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and sometimes International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). In addition to understanding GAAP and IFRS, nonprofit accountants must understand the Financial Accounting Standards Board standards written specifically for these organizations as well as the tax regulations specific to those organizations. Nonprofit organizations, for example, are usually exempt from federal taxation. The accounting departments in these organizations are often smaller than in for-profit companies, so an employee may be responsible for more than one area of accounting (e.g., both financial statements and tax issues).
Many people with backgrounds in accounting decide to teach at the high school, college and university levels. There is a strong demand for instructors in business and accounting departments throughout the country.
Many accountants go into business for themselves. To be a self-employed accountant requires you to generate your own business, which can be difficult. But self-employment also offers the benefits of a high degree of independence and, potentially, high financial rewards.
Deciding between corporate versus public accounting? Learn more about the advantages of each.
Need help understanding the difference between public vs private?
Professional Associations and Additional Resources
Professional associations offer insights into the inner-workings of an industry and how to navigate the field, and gives you connections to people in the industry. Here are some additional benefits of professional associations:
- Access to job postings
- Mentoring by more experiences educators
- Professional development through courses, workshops, publications, and more
- Networking opportunities through conferences, meetups, job fairs
- Below are some examples of professional associations to explore:
American Institute of CPAs
American Accounting Association
National Association of State Boards of Accountancy
Institute of Internal Auditors
Association of Government Accountants
Institute of Management Accountants
National Association of Black Accountants
Career resources and scholarships for Latinos
Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance
Additional resources to aid in your research:
Journal of Accountancy
Financial Accounting Standards Board
Vault (you must log in and create an account)
For information on accreditation and testing, visit the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation.
Employment for accountants and auditors is expected to grow by 13 percent through 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Below are a few websites to you search for opportunities in the field of accounting.
Where are GU Accounting Majors Now?
- Staff Auditor
- Tax Manager
- Compliance Analyst
- Equity Research Analyst
- Account Executive
- Finance Research Associate
- Financial Accounting Reporter
- Management Accountant
- Tax Accountant
- Internal Auditor
- Merchandise Manager
- Financial Planner
- Tax Consultant
- Treasury Operations Analyst
- Chief Financial Officer
- Financial Analyst
Learn about the different types of positions in accounting by reading position descriptions here.