Few certifications are as challenging to obtain as the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation. If the prospect of having to undertake the CPA exam fills you with anxiety, you should know that your career isn’t doomed if you can’t – or just choose not to – earn this credential. Certain benefits accompany the CPA professional credential, including more career opportunities and higher earning potential, but not having this credential won’t keep you from having a fulfilling and profitable career in accounting.
Do I Need a CPA to Be an Accountant?
Some prospective accountants fear that they can only get a job in this profession if they do earn their CPA. In fact, that’s not true at all. Not only are there plenty of accounting roles for which a CPA designation is not required, but you generally need at least some work experience as an accountant before you can become a CPA. In most jurisdictions, candidates for CPA certification need a minimum of two years of work experience in public accounting, according to the American Institute of CPAs. Given that requirement, it’s clear that there must be accounting roles available for professionals without the CPA credential; otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible to acquire the necessary experience to be eligible for certification.
So, what do you need to be an accountant? Generally, a college degree and accounting coursework are sufficient to get started on this career path. Accountants typically have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some accountants choose to earn a master’s degree, often as part of meeting the educational requirements for CPA certification.
Baccalaureate degrees in accounting can be Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) programs. No one program is necessarily a better choice for career preparation in accounting, but BBA programs with a concentration in accounting tend to have a broader business focus than BS or BA programs.
What to Expect From an Accounting Degree Without CPA
A common misconception is that CPAs take different accounting courses or programs than non-CPAs. Prospective CPAs don’t need to follow a different curriculum than students without this ambition. They should earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting or in an area of business that includes considerable accounting coursework. In a typical bachelor’s degree program in accounting, students will learn about the general concepts and practices for intermediate through advanced accounting work, as well as studying in more depth areas of accounting practice such as tax accounting, cost accounting, auditing and accounting information systems. Accounting students often complete coursework in other areas of business, as well, so they can put their accounting knowledge in context.
One difference in accounting education that is important for students to know is the increased number of credits required for CPA certification. Officially, you need only a bachelor’s degree to be eligible to sit for the CPA exam, but you must have 150 semester hours of college education. That’s 30 more credit hours, or an additional year of full-time study, compared to the 120 credit hours traditionally required for a bachelor’s degree. You don’t necessarily need more accounting courses or more advanced or specializing accounting courses than an accounting professional who isn’t seeking CPA certification, but you do need more college credits overall to be eligible for this credential. CPA candidates can meet this requirement in different ways, including by taking additional coursework at the undergraduate level or taking graduate classes that may, in some instances, culminate in a master’s degree.
Can you get a job in accounting without an accounting degree or a similar education? Technically, yes, you can still work of some kind in the accounting field without a degree – but as limited as your career options may be without your CPA, they get even fewer without a degree. If you want to attempt to work in the accounting field without a degree, you’re most likely going to be looking at roles like bookkeeping clerk, accounts payable clerk, administrative assistant and tax preparer. If you build enough experience in one of these roles, you’ll increase your chances of eventually landing a job as an accountant. Some more creative-minded companies may even prefer that breadth of experience to a bean-counter with a degree but no experience.
Of course, certain schools emphasize preparation for the CPA exam more than others, as evidenced by their CPA exam pass rates. Prospective students who have plans to become CPAs might weigh these exam pass rates, as well as educational options like five-year dual-degree programs, in their college search, while students not planning to seek their CPA may focus more on other factors.
Jobs for Accounting Majors Without CPA Designation
Most accountants pursue one of two paths: public accounting or private accounting. Not having a CPA credential is much less likely to hold you back in your career if you wind up working in private accounting compared to public accounting professions.
Private accounting means that the accountant is privately employed by one employer for whom they perform accounting services. Generally, accountants who work in private firms or for private companies do not need the CPA certification. If anything, they might consider pursuing credentials like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA), Certified Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) designation.
What will your job in private accounting entail? Companies might require knowledgeable accounting professionals to work in roles like accounts payable and accounts receivable specialists, in which you would keep track of invoices to be paid and incoming payments. Another position you might work in is management accountant. As a management accountant in a private company, your job duties might include preparing company-wide and departmental budgets, as well as fulfilling asset management functions. Moving up the ranks in the world of private accounting might encompass working in positions such as senior staff accountant of a private company or, ultimately, a chief executive role like chief financial officer or chief accounting officer.
As you can see, even without your CPA in accounting, many options exist that you can take to enter the field. Private accountants working in management accounting roles often need to prove their competency in the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), a set of accounting methods established by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). However, GAAP only refers to the accounting standards themselves, not to any sort of professional certification. You can learn the GAAP standards and how to create financial statements and documents that are in compliance with these standards without having to go through the rigorous certification process that CPAs undertake.
The curricula of accredited accounting programs often align with the generally accepted accounting principles, especially once you get into advanced coursework.
Do You Need a CPA to Be an Accountant in Public Accounting?
Since the “P” in the CPA credential stands for public accounting, you might wonder if not having this credential will hinder your professional development more if you decide to work in public accounting. Not all public accountants are Certified Public Accountants. In fact, the education requirements in most states mean that the only way to become a CPA is to first have experience working in public accounting, specifically.
Public accounting encompasses accounting services that are offered to the public—meaning that these professional services are provided for a fee to individuals, private companies and even nonprofit organizations. Instead of working in-house for any one corporation or organization, public accountants provide their services to multiple clients and act in an external consulting capacity. Public accountants work in accounting firms, tax preparation services and bookkeeping and payroll services, and some are self-employed and offer their services as independent contractors and consultants.
There are plenty of job duties in public accounting roles in which you don’t need CPA certification. For example, preparing balance sheets for the potential investors of your corporate clients is a job duty you can fulfill when you’re not a CPA.
When Do You Need a CPA?
There is one instance in which having the CPA designation is absolutely necessary: when you are the person in charge of filing reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This federal government agency enforces laws and regulates investment markets to prevent manipulation of those markets.
Only CPAs are legally able to file these reports with the SEC, according to the BLS. Without this credential, you will never be able to hold a professional role which includes filing these reports.
Realistically, how much will this limitation affect your career? It depends on where you want to work. Most small businesses may never need to file SEC-audited or reviewed financial statements, so your job prospects in small business environments can still be excellent even without the CPA credential. However, public companies must produce audited statements by law—hence the name Certified Public Accountant. So, while you do not need your CPA to get a job, you can do more if you do have your certification.
CPAs and private accountants work hand-in-hand. Often, a company’s private accountants are the ones who put together financial reports that a CPA then reviews and files with the SEC.
What Are the Benefits of CPA Certification?
Of course, just because you can work in the field of accounting without acquiring CPA certification doesn’t mean that having this professional credential isn’t worthwhile. Generally, CPAs enjoy considerably more job opportunities than non-CPAs, including careers with government agencies, public corporations and private accounting firms. This abundance of opportunities also improves your opportunities for career advancement compared to accountants without the CPA credential. Naturally, if you legally cannot perform a certain task, like filing reports with the SEC, then you can’t advance to a role that would require you to perform that task.
Even though the CPA credential may not be necessary for roles that don’t involve filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, employers may still prefer to hire candidates with a CPA because having attained the credential demonstrates their commitment to and knowledge of the field of accounting. As such, CPAs often enjoy better job security, even in job roles where the credential isn’t necessary.
One major reason the CPA certification is so popular is because it significantly improves an accountant’s earning potential. Generally, CPAs can expect to earn 10 to 15 percent more than their peers without certification, according to the American Institute of CPAs.
Finding Success Without Your CPA
If CPA certification is not in the cards for you at the moment – regardless of whether that choice is voluntary or forced by the financial costs of seeking certification or other life circumstances – you can still have a successful career. Fresh out of college, you can use your accounting degree to find entry-level work as a junior accountant, auditor, budget analyst or estimator. At this point in your career, you won’t even be behind your peers who do intend to become CPAs, since they are still gaining the experience to be eligible for the credential.
Can you advance professionally without a CPA? Absolutely, although doing so may require you to be more creative in your career path. You might opt to make your resume stand out in other ways, such as by going back to school to earn a specialized graduate certificate in accounting or a master’s degree. If you have your sights set on managerial roles that don’t directly involve the highly regulated work that only CPAs can do, then you might choose instead to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree that can help you prepare for leadership roles. Alternatively, you could pursue a different kind of professional credential. While advanced educational qualifications and professional credentials can boost your odds of advancement, your work also speaks for itself. If you cultivate just the right reputation at the office, you could advance within the company based on the work you do and your reputation.
In addition to getting a job with a bachelor’s degree, if you’d like to build experience while in school, you can find a job as a bookkeeper or clerk. This sort of early career experience can help you get your first job out of college and advance your career more quickly.