Professionals who become accountants have numerous options regarding the direction of their careers. The accounting profession consists of varied and specialized roles, some focused on functions such as tax preparation for individuals and companies and others working on in-depth financial investigation within corporate structures.
Individuals interested in taking the latter path, and searching for an involved and challenging career opportunity, can become forensic accountants. These professionals detect and prevent white-collar crime, delving into financial statements and other corporate data in search of malfeasance.
The role’s combination of investigation and finance makes it a good fit for professionals who have strong analytical skills. Individuals currently serving in corporate accounting or related positions can seek out graduate-level education to deepen their familiarity with accounting best practices and enhance their resumes before applying for forensic accounting positions.
What Is Forensic Accounting?
The Forensic CPA Society, a group that certifies the investigative expertise of accountants, explains the key differentiating factor that marks forensic accountants: These professionals regularly engage in investigations that may have to be resolved through criminal trials. This means the standard of proof is great. Forensic accountants must ensure the evidence they collect on financial misconduct is clear and accurate enough to stand up in court.
To be an accomplished forensic accountant, a professional has to be unafraid to look deeply into the work of others to detect negligence or ill intent. A forensic accountant must be a skilled investigator, able to reconstruct after the fact what actions took place, working from financial records to determine what went wrong and who is responsible. They accomplish this goal by combining encyclopedic business law knowledge with keen analysis.
What Are Forensic Accountants’ Roles Like?
The day-to-day duties of a forensic accountant fall into two categories, according to the Forensic CPA Society. These professionals have to present financial information to support litigation, whether the matter is settled out of court or through a trial. In matters that go before a judge or jury, forensic accountants are often called as expert witnesses. They also need to investigate data to determine where fraud or other financial crimes have occurred.
There are a few types of roles forensic accountants may be called on to fulfill, each calling for a unique approach. For instance, Investopedia notes that insurers sometimes bring in these financial professionals to establish the correct amount of damages owed in a claim. In other cases, an accountant might be consulted on whether securities fraud has taken place. A company may also hire a forensic accountant to determine whether employees have been stealing funds or to detect issues with financial statements. Individuals may even hire forensic accountants to discover hidden assets in high-profile divorces.
Even when forensic accountants are not working directly for law enforcement agencies, they can expect to interact often with police and investigators, as well as lawyers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics specifies that forensic accountants of all kinds will need to have a strong knowledge of the law, so they can determine which transactions and other financial activities are violations that need to be reported and prosecuted.
How Does Forensic Accounting Differ from Auditing?
Auditors are similar in their duties to forensic accountants, in that both professions focus on detecting irregularities with financial records. The Forensic CPA Society explains that the difference centers on when the investigation takes place. Auditors perform checks before there is a presumption that something is wrong. Forensic accountants are hired in cases where suspicion of wrongdoing already exists.
How Do You Become a Forensic Accountant?
Forensic accountant roles exist within many kinds of companies, and professionals interested in taking on this kind of work can find many opportunities that may fit their preferences. Investopedia notes that public accountant firms employ forensic specialists, as do government agencies, banks, insurers, and police departments.
White-collar crime and fraud investigations may be initiated by companies hoping to root out bad actors within their own corporate structures, or by law enforcement agencies acting on evidence. From tracing the paths of illicit fund transfers to identifying and recovering money that has been moved illegally, there are plenty of roles for forensic accountants to fill.
People seeking these specialized and demanding forensic accounting positions should focus on adding to their professional education and certifications. The Forensic Certified Public Accountant designation, for example, is an industry-specific title conferred upon individuals who pass a certification course and test. People who enter this program must be Certified Public Accountants or Chartered Accountants.
Having CPA status is an important distinguishing factor for accountants in general. CPA credentials are widely used to determine if individuals are well-versed in multiple elements of accounting and financial work. To take the CPA examination, individuals have to meet education requirements. This highlights the importance of master’s-level degree programs such as the Master of Accounting.
Master of Accounting programs are designed to prepare students for the questions they’ll face in the CPA exam, as well as the challenges they’ll deal with in a variety of accounting roles. Studying for such a degree is therefore a potentially valuable undertaking for financial professionals seeking to expand into specialized accounting roles such as forensic work.
What Should Accountants Expect for Salary and Job Growth?
The BLS does not break down median salaries and job openings within the accounting and auditing field by job duties. It places forensic accountant work among the more general category of public accountants, alongside individuals focusing on other areas of tax filing and financial disclosure.
The BLS estimates 6% job growth across all accounting roles from 2018 to 2028, which is marginally better than the 5% expansion predicted for all roles and on par with more general financial specialist job growth. The median salary for accountant and auditor roles is $70,500. The highest-earning 10% of accountants make $122,840 a year, and the finance and insurance sector is the best-paying industry for these professionals, the BLS reports.
Accounting candidates looking for more advanced and lucrative positions within the field, potentially including specialized forensic duties, can boost their prospects by earning CPA status or a related master’s degree, according to the BLS. It indicates that there is a potential advantage for applicants with a Master of Accounting degree or a Master of Business Administration.
Hiring managers who see that an individual has undertaken the extensive coursework needed to achieve an accounting master’s degree will know the candidate has experience with important financial concepts. From the rules governing banking institutions to the day-to-day best practices of tax filing and financial reporting, courses at accredited colleges and universities deal directly with the unique responsibilities of accounting and auditing.
What Do Students Learn in a Master of Accounting Degree Program?
When individuals are considering ways to either advance within the accounting field or enter this profession, online MAc degree programs provide clarity about how to proceed. The Online Master of Accounting program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business, for example, prepares students for the CPA exam while imparting in-depth information about the more complex duties they’ll have to carry out in professional accounting roles, such as forensic investigations.
Prospective participants who studied fields other than accounting when earning their undergraduate degrees can still work toward a MAc, entering through the accounting bridge program. These courses bring students up to the level of specific knowledge held by their peers who have bachelor’s degrees in accounting and allow them to begin on a path that can lead to CPA certification.
The specific elements of accounting included in MAc coursework cover a wide range of potential roles and duties, and many are directly relevant to the day-to-day work of forensic accountants. For instance, a core class is dedicated to business law, exposing students to the rules that dictate the way organizations are established, set up, and managed. Another course deals with performing advanced audits. Such an education may be relevant to auditors and forensic accountants.
Considering that forensic accountants may have to deliver authoritative evidence in courtroom settings, it’s important for these professionals to learn the state of the financial sector and the cases that have shaped the status quo. They get this experience in the Current Topics in Financial Accounting course, which is dedicated to the latest rulings from governing bodies, along with examples of how these policies have been applied in practice.
Perhaps the most relevant course for aspiring forensic accountants is Corporate Governance, dedicated to the leadership structures that keep businesses compliant with industry rules. This class allows participants to see where the criminal justice system and high-level finance connect.
No matter which of the many pathways within the forensic accounting field a professional takes — from spearheading FBI investigations to appearing as an expert witness at trials to searching for individual hidden assets — an encyclopedic knowledge of relevant laws is integral.
Why Study Online for a MAc Degree?
For professionals interested in forensic accounting, degree programs such as the MAc are primary ways to work toward industry credentials. However, these participants will typically have full-time work duties. Online learning options such as the UAB Online MAc are accessible to financial professionals with busy schedules, using asynchronous teaching methods to enable students to access coursework and lectures when they have time.
The faculty associated with the program are experts in the accounting profession, with deep professional connections and long experience dealing with relevant institutions. Students can network with professors and fellow classmates without ever having to physically visit the campus.
Students have control over the speed at which they take courses and complete the Online MAc program. The 30 credit hours associated with the core curriculum can be completed in as few as five semesters. Students from other bachelor’s degree backgrounds who take the bridge program will have to spend slightly longer completing those extra courses.
The ability to receive a top-quality MAc education on such a flexible remote model opens many possibilities for individuals who may be considering a move into a specialized field, such as forensic accounting, but who are wondering how to get started. The focus on relevant, up-to-date industry concepts and preparation for CPA certification are potentially valuable parts of such programs, and the ability to take the accounting bridge program means participants from outside the field have a way in.
Considering the advanced nature of forensic accounting, alongside the fact that master’s degrees and professional certifications may represent important additions to accountancy applicants’ resumes, the potential path through the Online MAc to a forensic accounting role comes into focus. By the time students graduate, they’ll have extensive exposure to topics that may help them excel in demanding and rewarding forensic accounting roles.
To find out more about the Online MAc program and the possibilities that come with entry into the accounting field, visit the program page.