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What does an accountant do? Job description and required skills

At a glance

  • Accountants analyze finances and provide financial forecasting and risk analysis. They can work for individuals, companies, organizations or  government sectors.
  • An accountant can specialize in a variety of areas, like forensic, government, management and corporate accounting. Or, with additional certification, they can become certified public accountants.
  • Accountants should be good at basic math, proficient with necessary software tools and highly detail oriented.
  • University of Phoenix offers a variety of online business programs, including a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, which can prepare graduates for roles like accountant, accounting manager, tax examiner and auditor.

What is an accountant?

Accountants are professionals responsible for maintaining and analyzing financial records. They also can provide financial forecasting, risk analysis assessments and advice on how to improve overall financial health. They might work for an individual, company, organization, government entity or third-party service provider.

Some accountants work in specialized areas. For example, public accountants work on financial reports required to comply with regulations. They may perform audits to verify compliance or engage in investigations of suspected financial wrongdoing. Other accountants might analyze financial performance and help decision-makers plan budgets, create strategies and make improvements.

The analysis, reporting and compliance aspects of an accountant position make it different from bookkeeping, which focuses on recording financial transactions, and account management, which concentrates on client relationships.

Here is a closer look at the details of an accounting career.

Interested in accounting? A degree from University of Phoenix is a great place to start!

Responsibilities of accountants

Most accounting professionals have multiple job responsibilities, and the duties can vary depending on the employer, industry and size of the company or organization.

Preparing financial statements

Accountants can prepare financial statements for internal or external use. Financial statements help measure performance and ensure bookkeeping accuracy within a company. They offer essential information to stakeholders and lenders and, in some cases, help a company comply with reporting laws. For example, publicly traded companies are required by law to file certain statements and reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Essential statements for companies include an income statement, balance sheet, cash flow statement and statement of changes in shareholder equity. Accountants use their employer’s or client’s financial data to compile these documents.

During this process, accountants take specific steps, known as generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), to ensure the accuracy and proper presentation of the statements.

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Providing tax advice

Accountants are qualified to provide tax advice and help individuals and companies prepare tax returns.

In addition to preparing forms and compiling documentation to file along with tax returns, accountants might offer guidance to help clients or their employers lower their tax burden. For example, an accountant can suggest specific investments or account types that provide tax advantages, such as lowering taxable income or helping clients qualify for a lower tax bracket.

Auditing financial records

Auditing is an important responsibility for many accountants. An audit is an examination of a company’s or organization’s financial records and reports to ensure accuracy.

Accountants can perform internal audits, which are meant to provide insights to a company on its accounting and record-keeping practices and to verify the accuracy of financial statements. Staff accountants or auditors, or outside consulting accountants, can perform these checks.

Outside accountants perform external audits, which use a separate set of auditing standards from the company. They provide an independent and unbiased view of the accuracy of financial records and statements. External audits are necessary for compliance with SEC regulations for public companies.

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Analyzing financial data

Accountants analyze financial data to assess performance and find areas where employers or clients can save money, increase revenue or adjust spending practices.

Accountants might use data analytics tools and techniques to find patterns and anomalies and assess performance based on predetermined indicators. They might compile reports or offer insights to help decision-makers with strategic planning and budgeting.

Types of accountants

Accountants often specialize in a specific area. Though responsibilities may overlap in these different areas, each requires unique knowledge and specific qualifications.

Certified public accountants (CPAs)

Certified public accountants are accountants who pass the Uniform CPA Examination and meet all other relevant qualification requirements, including state-specific licensing requirements.

While requirements for CPA licensure vary by state, some qualifications are universal. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), CPA candidates need a total of 150 semester hours of college coursework, which is about 30 hours more than a typical bachelor’s degree program.

That means most bachelor’s degree holders need additional credit hours before sitting for the Uniform CPA Examination, which covers regulations, accounting practices, auditing and reporting.

Many employers and potential clients see CPAs as more qualified accountants, and there are some tasks, such as preparing an audited financial statement, that require a CPA designation.

Management accountants and corporate accountants

The Institute of Management Accountants estimates that 75% of financial professionals work in business as management accountants. These jobs are often in a corporate setting.

Rather than focusing on reporting and auditing, management and corporate accountants analyze finances to aid in company decision-making and guide internal improvements.

Government accountants

Government accountants perform many of the same tasks as accountants in the private sector. However, they use a different set of practices and standards set by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.

The focus of these standards is transparency and recording how governments and their agencies use public funds.

Forensic accountants

Forensic accountants audit financial records as part of criminal investigations or civil disputes. They provide evidence in cases related to fraud, embezzlement, money laundering or other financial crimes. They often provide testimony in court as expert witnesses.

Forensic accountants can work as independent consultants or for companies, organizations, law firms or law enforcement agencies.

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Skills needed to become an accountant

Accountants need math and technical abilities for their careers, but soft skills are also important.

Math and analytical skills

Accountants need math skills to ensure accurate record-keeping. They typically use basic formulas and get assistance from computer programs. Accountants and auditors also frequently check the calculations of employee expense reports to verify accuracy.

Today’s accountants also perform analytics, and they need technical abilities to cull useful insights from large financial data sets.

Communication skills

Accountants are not simply number crunchers. Many positions require interacting with clients or staff members regularly. Management accountants, for example, often present findings and defend their analyses in front of company executives, and auditors need to glean information from different departments within a company.

High attention to detail

Accountants must confirm the figures in financial statements, records and analyses. In most cases, accountants are charged with ensuring the accuracy of other employees’ work.

The focus on accuracy means that accountants need to be able to concentrate on minute details and find errors in lengthy financial records or reports.

Computer and technology proficiency

Accountants are experienced in accounting and bookkeeping software. Even if others handle the day-to-day bookkeeping tasks, accountants must navigate accounting platforms, like QuickBooks or Oracle NetSuite.

Accountants also need to know how to use auditing software and financial analysis platforms. These specialized tools are necessary for auditors and management accountants, respectively.

Salary and job outlook for accountants

Accounting can be a financially rewarding career path. As of May 2022, the annual salary for accountants ranged between $48,560 and $132,690, according to BLS, with pay depending on the size of the company, industry, experience, education and certifications.

BLS projects a 6% growth in demand for accountants from 2021 to 2031. This expansion is slightly higher than that of all professions.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2021-2031 is published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data reflects BLS’ projections of national (not local) conditions. These data points are not specific to University of Phoenix students or graduates.

Accounting requirements and qualifications

In addition to developing both hard and soft skills, those pursuing an accounting career need to meet specific educational requirements, accreditations and experience.

Education requirements

Most accounting positions require at least a bachelor’s degree. Postgraduate accounting studies, like industry certificates or certifications, can also offer enhanced knowledge and career opportunities, depending on the specialization.

To become a CPA, you’ll need at least 150 credit hours. Online accounting courses can help students meet those required hours after they complete a bachelor’s degree. They also empower students to hone specific skills necessary for their specialization.

An accounting degree can help prepare you for an accounting career, but a business degree might also be useful for some positions. Students might also consider a finance degree, which focuses more on analytics and economics than accounting.

Licensing and certification requirements

According to BLS, there are several possible certifications that can help with career enhancements:

  • CPAs need to have experience, a degree and pass a four-part exam to earn certification.
  • The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and Institute of Management Accountants both offer certification for those who want to work as management or corporate accountants.
  • The Certified Government Financial Manager certification is available for government accountants and auditors.
  • The American Board of Forensic Accounting offers certification options for those interested in investigative accounting.

These certifications might make an accountant more attractive to employers, but they are not necessarily required. Some employers may require them.

Professional experience

Professional experience is essential. Even those with the necessary educational requirements need two years of work experience before sitting for the CPA exam. Internships and entry-level jobs are ways to gain an understanding of how to apply accounting principles in the real world.

Specializations

Experience, continuing education, undergraduate course choices and certification can also help with specialties like forensic accounting, tax preparation, financial analysis or external auditing.

With carefully planned education and career choices, you can find an area of accounting that matches your skills and interests.

Accounting programs at University of Phoenix

If learning the fundamentals of accounting interests you, University of Phoenix offers two online bachelor’s degree programs in accounting, which are designed to be flexible enough to fit into a working adult’s busy life. The University’s fixed-tuition policy ensures there are no financial surprises!

The Bachelor of Science in Accounting prepares students with the financial skills they need to help organizations run efficiently. Develop specialized skills in managerial accounting, estate taxation, accounting research and more.

If you’re interested in both accounting and business fundamentals, then consider the Bachelor of Science in Accounting with an Associate of Arts with a concentration in Business Fundamentals program. This degree covers auditing, taxation, accounting technology, accounting law and international financial reporting standards.

If you already have your bachelor’s degree and are looking to gain additional credits to meet your 150 hours, consider taking courses for the Graduate Accounting Certificate. This certificate offers courses in managerial accounting and legal aspects of business, accounting theory and research, financial reporting, auditing and more.

University of Phoenix also offers a selection of individual courses that accountants and aspiring accountants can take to meet their credit hour requirements to sit for the CPA exam or to simply enhance their accounting knowledge.

As noted, University of Phoenix offers online accounting programs if you’re looking to get started on your path to become an accountant. However, it’s important to keep in mind the following information:

Each state sets forth standards required to be eligible to take the CPA exam and apply for licensure or certification as a CPA. While the University of Phoenix program was designed with consideration for the standards proposed by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA®), University of Phoenix cannot, and will not, provide any assurance that completion of this program will allow a successful student to qualify within the student’s specific jurisdiction.

Potential applicants should check with the appropriate organization within their jurisdiction to determine if this program, combined with their undergraduate degree and any other specific criteria, meets the requirements to qualify for examination in that specific jurisdiction. States frequently change their requirements for examination. There is no assurance that at the time of degree completion the specific jurisdiction’s requirements will be consistent with the requirements at the time of admission.

From corporate roles to CPAs, accounting offers a variety of opportunities to detail-oriented, financially minded professionals. Discover how University of Phoenix can help you explore potential pathways for your career!

Michael Feder

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

 

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