When you think about the life of an accountant, what you are envisioning most likely falls under the category of public accounting. This broad type of accounting role offers plenty of potential for employment, advancement and earnings. You need a college education to work in the field of public accounting. A bachelor’s degree in accounting can help you achieve many of your career objectives, though for some public accountants, graduate school can be a valuable step toward realizing more ambitious goals.
What Is Public Accounting?
The two biggest differences between public accounting and its opposite – private or managerial accounting – are the scope of the accountant’s work and his or her employer. Public accounting refers to the reporting of financial data that a person or organization is legally required to disclose, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is in contrast to private accounting, in which the accountant produces financial reports meant for internal use by an organization’s managers.
The documents produced by public accountants can vary widely, as can the scope of their job duties. A public accountant may prepare tax forms for an individual, create the balance sheet statements corporations must provide to their investors and, with the right credentials, file annual and quarterly reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission on behalf of publicly traded companies. Some public accountants specialize in matters such as tax preparation, tax advising, auditing, forensic accounting or business consulting, the BLS reported.
Generally, public accountants are not employees of the companies and individuals for whom they prepare financial documents. Rather, these people and organizations are their clients. Public accountants may work for accounting firms or the government. Some public accountants – and about seven percent of all accountants, according to the BLS – are self-employed. Work as a public accountant may include a good deal of overtime, especially during tax season or near the end of the fiscal year, and it often involves frequent travel.
One type of public accountant is a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA. CPAs are highly educated licensed accounting professionals who have the authority to submit reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, along with performing other accounting duties.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Accounting
The entry-level education needed to become an accountant is a bachelor’s degree, and staff accountants with only an undergraduate degree can take on more challenging roles and responsibilities as they gain experience. There are different bachelor’s degree programs in the field of accounting. Bachelor of Accountancy and Bachelor of Accounting (BAC) degrees emphasize the foundations of accounting theory and practice. Bachelor of Science in Accounting (BSACC) programs tend to focus on the technical skills of financial reporting and analysis. Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) or Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BSBA) programs with a concentration in accounting tend to focus less on accounting courses in favor of providing students with a broader background in general business.
When you study accounting at the bachelor’s degree level, you will complete coursework in a variety of specialties within the field of accounting. You will start with introductory courses such as principles of accounting or foundations of accounting. Most bachelor’s degree programs in accounting include courses such as financial accounting, cost accounting and auditing. Some accounting schools allow students to choose an area of concentration, such as auditing or forensic accounting. Accounting degree programs may even offer a public accounting path or specialization for students who know they want to work in a public accounting firm.
It’s not unusual for accountants to work in both public and private accounting at different points in their careers, so it is important for bachelor’s degree programs in accounting to cover the concepts and principles used in both types of accounting.
The Education Needed for a CPA
Technically speaking, the only degree required to become a CPA is a bachelor’s degree. That degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in accounting, although most states require a minimum number of semester hours in accounting or business courses. However, a second educational requirement may motivate you to pursue a graduate degree. Most states in the U.S. require CPA candidates to complete at least 150 semester hours of college study, or an additional 30 credits beyond what’s required to earn a traditional bachelor’s degree. To complete these extra credits, you will have to spend another year in school, studying full-time.
Since the 150-semester hour requirement does not specify that these additional 30 credits be taken at the graduate level, students can keep studying at the undergraduate level. Some aspiring CPAs use the extra time to double major or choose community college courses rather than further studies at a university to keep the cost down. However, using your extra year of study to work toward a master’s degree can be valuable in many respects. For one thing, many graduate programs are tailored toward CPA candidates and focus on preparing students for the challenging CPA exam. In graduate level courses, you also learn advanced accounting concepts and practices. Many master’s degree programs are specialized, allowing you to develop expertise in a focus area such as taxation or internal auditing. Finally, having an advanced degree, along with your CPA license, can help you move into management roles and give you a pay boost. Accounting is one field in which there is a “wage premium” for going to graduate school, the BLS reported.
Due to the demand for the CPA credential, many accounting schools now offer five-year accelerated programs that allow students to attain both their graduate and undergraduate degrees – and meet the 150-semester hour requirement – in just five years, according to the BLS.