Potential Careers in Accounting for Graduate Students

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Around the world, across all industries, in good times and bad, people and businesses need accountants to take care of tax preparation, auditing, and financial planning. Among the many jobs that fall under the umbrella of accounting, a wide variety of job seekers can find positions that match their skills and interests.

An accountant studies figures with a calculator.

Graduates who have bachelor’s degrees in accounting may access some of the opportunities in the field, but those with master’s degrees can find a greater variety of roles open to them. The knowledge and skills built in master’s-level accountancy courses can also help professionals thrive and advance in roles with related subject matter.

Careers in Accounting: 8 Potential Destinations

The perception of an accountant as a tax preparer isn’t wrong — this is one side of accountancy — but it is limiting. In truth, there are plenty of ways to put accounting skills to use.

From public-sector work enforcing the tax code to corporate auditing roles, forensic positions and certified public accounting opportunities, accounting jobs are surprisingly varied. The following eight options are just a sampling of some of the worthwhile roles master’s graduates can pursue.

1. Forensic accountant

Forensic accounting is a type of financial work for individuals with sharp investigative minds who can delve into financial records and find signs of wrongdoing or other irregularities. Whether they’re dealing with financial crimes or the money trails of other offenses, forensic accountants are professionals who combine law and order with accountancy.

The skills required to be a forensic accountant include broad knowledge of legal concepts, as well as pattern recognition and analytical skill. A strong grasp of professional ethics is also essential. Because these accountants don’t work in isolation — investigating potential crimes is a team effort sometimes including both private and public sector teams — they must also be skilled communicators and collaborators.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics explained that the crimes and infractions detected by forensic accounting may include embezzlement and securities fraud. Accountants can also settle contract disputes or detect irregularities with bankruptcy filings. At a trial, a law firm or law enforcement agency may call a forensic accountant as an expert witness.

According to June 2021 data from PayScale, the average salary for a forensic accountant role is $71,195. When broken down by region, forensic accountants in Washington, D.C., earn the most, relative to the national numbers — an average of 33.4% more. New York and Chicago are also good markets in terms of salary. Upward mobility for forensic accountants can take several forms, depending on whether professionals want to focus on their accounting, financial analysis, or professional services skills.

2. Auditor

There are two kinds of auditors, each working on similar duties from a different angle. The BLS specified that while both groups check financial statements to find inefficiencies, irregularities, and noncompliance, internal auditors work for the businesses in question while external auditors come from outside. Correct and reliable financial statements are indispensable, and auditors have the responsibility of both verifying the information and finding valuable takeaways within it.

As with forensic accountants, auditors should have strong professional ethics and an eye for detail, allowing them to spot patterns and warning signs in troves of financial data. The main difference between auditors and forensic accountants is that the former inspect financial records that aren’t necessarily expected to show wrongdoing, while the latter are called in as part of an investigation.

Problems an auditor discovers in corporate financial statements may range from slight inefficiencies or cybersecurity gaps to signs of crimes including fraud. According to the BLS, internal auditors check financial statements to make sure their employers are operating optimally, while external auditors review the information on behalf of regulators, investors, or government agencies, ensuring the company is performing good governance.

PayScale’s salary data shows that as of June 2021, auditors made an average of $58,004, while internal auditors earned an average of $59,650. Advancement opportunities include taking on senior positions in the auditing department or branching back into more generalized accounting. It’s possible for professionals to move up from senior auditor into roles such as financial controller.

3. Financial analyst

Financial analysts’ duties are all about helping their employers or clients make sound financial decisions. By crunching numbers, both real time and historical, these professionals develop strategies for investment and spending. The BLS noted that a financial analyst’s central objective is to determine whether opportunities to generate profit will be successful and to make recommendations.

As there are many kinds of investment opportunities, there is specialization within the financial analyst field. Some individuals will take on portfolio management roles, leading a corporate investment strategy. Others will analyze risks and prepare reports on investment threats. Still others, the BLS added, will specialize in certain financial products such as securities. Aspiring analysts can choose from these tracks and more when plotting out their career paths.

The variety of investment options available today, coupled with the differences between global financial markets, have created a complex landscape for financial analysts to work in. These professionals need to be experts in performing analytics, and they have to couple that expertise with a deep knowledge of established and emerging investment products.

PayScale reported that the average financial analyst salary is $61,870, as of June 2021. The highest-paying region for financial analysts is the metro Seattle area, followed by New York, home of the stock exchange. The average salary in both of those cities is more than 12% higher than the nationwide figure. Houston is another strong destination for financial analyst candidates, at 9% higher than overall average pay. Financial analysts can seek promotion to senior roles, or split off to pursue opportunities as financial controllers or finance managers.

4. Certified public accountant

Serving in a public accountant role means doing the work most commonly associated with accountants, namely tax preparation, auditing, and consulting for clients. In many cases, these positions go to individuals who have completed the Certified Public Accountant exam and met the related requirements. The BLS noted that since CPAs must achieve recognized performance levels and take continuing education to maintain their licenses, certification is a major sign of an individual’s aptitude.

The national and state requirements to sit for the CPA exam include numerous semester hours of college coursework. Applicants typically accumulate this experience while earning bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees in accounting. The exact requirements regarding becoming licensed and maintaining that status differ by state, so aspiring CPAs will have to verify with local authorities that they are meeting the standards.

While public accounting is a broad field — after all, forensic accounting is a form of public accounting — there are a few especially common related roles for CPAs. Public accountants can advise individuals or companies on tax accounting, insurance, and investment decisions. Some accountants are mostly concerned with effective tax preparation. The BLS explained that publicly traded companies need to have all filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission signed by a CPA.

PayScale reported that, as of June 2021, the average CPA salary in the U.S. was $68,491. Top-earning cities for CPAs include Boston, at 18.4% higher than the national average, followed by New York and Los Angeles. Aspiring CPAs able to cope with the cost of city living can find financial opportunities in those metropolises.

5. Certified management accountant

The BLS reports that management accountants can be called by many names. These professionals are sometimes known as corporate accountants, private accountants, or one of numerous other synonyms. By delving into financial data, management accountants provide decision-making recommendations, performance evaluations, and more. These accountants work hand in hand with financial managers to help companies select investments.

As with CPAs, there are widely used management accounting certification systems. Professionals can complete the requirements set out by the Institute of Management Accountants to become certified management accountants. CMA status includes a continuing education requirement and is open only to applicants with a bachelor’s degree-level education or higher. The BLS added that other programs include the Chartered Global Management Accountant exam, which offers an internationally used credential.

Management accountants should be skilled users of data — and not just financial records. Because these professionals are deeply ingrained in their employers’ corporate decision-making processes, they should be able to collate a wide variety of information sources and come to educated conclusions. Communication ability is critical, as the presentations prepared by CMAs will have to influence corporate leaders and C-suite members who may not come from financial backgrounds.

June 2021 PayScale data revealed that the average salary for CMA roles is $75,000. PayScale added that while employers do frequently look for industry certifications and credentials when choosing candidates for these roles, it’s not common for these professionals to need to be CPAs in addition to completing their management-focused programs. Longer-tenured CMAs may be asked to take on team leadership duties, acting as coaches to the next group of management accountants hired.

6. Tax examiner

While many accounting jobs are private sector roles, there is another side to the profession. These are the federal, state, and local government accounting employees who ensure taxes are being assessed and collected accurately and on time. The BLS explained that tax examiner, collector, and revenue agent roles are varied, with some employees performing office work and others going out into the field to perform tax audits and investigations.

The role of tax examiner, as opposed to revenue agent or tax collector, is largely associated with inspecting tax returns to ensure taxpayers are operating within the law. If an individual has made an error or committed fraud regarding deductions or credits, it may be a tax examiner who discovers the issue. The BLS explained that while tax examiners typically deal with personal taxes, they can also audit small businesses that do not claim numerous deductions.

While tax examiners’ work is largely concerned with performing deep dives into financial figures, they may also be the ones who reach out to taxpayers to resolve irregularities or mistakes. This means tax examiners should combine an encyclopedic knowledge of the tax code and attention to detail with the ability to communicate clearly and diplomatically.

Employment as a tax examiner is different from many other accounting roles due to its public sector nature. Being a government employee may come with standards regarding benefits, raises, and more. According to PayScale’s data, as of June 2021 the average tax examiner, collector, or revenue agent earns $51,148. The highest-paying locales for these workers include smaller cities than for private-sector accounting roles, such as Hartford, Connecticut and Ogden, Utah.

7. Cost accountant

A specialized type of private accountant, a cost accountant is an analytics-focused professional. As the name implies, this role is concerned with a company’s costs and expense structure. PayScale explained that the objective of a cost accountant is to devise strategies that will optimize corporate spending. When these accountants are operating at a high level, a business will get the most from every dollar spent.

As with other accounting positions inside major corporations, cost accountants have to be good communicators. This helps them have their suggestions taken up by leadership and other departments. They should also be adept at performing a wide variety of analysis operations, as they can’t limit their calculations to a single department or type of expenditure. Offering up accurate findings on new and ongoing spending can be critical to protecting the bottom line.

PayScale reported that the top skills among cost accountants are inventory control, product costing, and the ability to use specialized accounting and enterprise resource planning software. Creating advanced strategies to set the correct amount of inventory can determine the difference between an optimized budget and one with significant waste. Without skilled cost accountants, wasteful spending may go unnoticed.

Cost accountants earn an average salary of $57,281, according to PayScale data collated in June 2021. Promotion paths for these professionals lead through senior cost accountant roles to financial controller or assistant controller positions. Cost accountants can also transfer to other types of accounting positions if those opportunities are more promising in their organizations or regions.

8. Budget analyst

Budget analysts are strategically aligned with the work cost accountants do — both roles are about making sure organizations are using their money in the most effective and impactful way possible. Instead of focusing so closely on cost structures and spending, however, budget analysts are the ones who lead financial planning efforts, reviewing proposed budgets throughout the company to make sure they are compliant, accurate, and suitable.

The BLS reported that cost-benefit analysis is one of the techniques used by budget analysts to determine whether a proposed initiative is a good idea for an organization. They can also look beyond the current budget, examining both past performance information and overall market factors to create ideal plans for the organization. Once programs are underway, budget analysts can be the ones to assess their success relative to spending.

There are a few types of knowledge that every budget analyst will have to draw from. According to the BLS, these professionals have to divide their attention between performing analysis and communicating the results of those deep dives through clear and effective presentations. These reports may be especially important in the public sector, where budgets are sometimes set via committee. They must also understand compliance and governance matters to ensure there are no mistakes in project planning.

Budget analysts earn an average salary of $62,500 according to PayScale data as of June 2021. Budget analyst career paths can include a move up to senior budget analyst roles, potentially leading to finance directorships. Professionals can also move into financial analyst jobs.

Earning Your MAc Degree

No matter the specific corner of the accounting and finance world that interests them most, professionals can deepen their knowledge of and engagement with these roles by studying for the online Master of Accounting degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business.

Whether their main concern is earning credit to sit for the CPA exam, branching into new areas of accountancy, or deepening and updating general accounting knowledge, the all-online MAc program can be an ideal stop along a participant’s career path.

Online learning is flexible and fits into professionals’ daily schedules, even if they continue working full time at their present positions. While the online MAc program builds upon the concepts learned while earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, applicants with other degrees can take the Accounting Bridge Program to get up to speed.

The accounting field is wide-ranging, with many promising opportunities. Getting more deeply involved with any of these roles can represent an exciting career decision. The online MAc program at the Collat School of Business exists to help professionals enhance their knowledge of numerous relevant concepts, guided by a committed and experienced faculty. Getting started is simple — visit the program page to learn the details.

 

Recommended Readings:

The Benefits of Getting Your Master of Accounting Degree Online

Top skills you need to pursue a career in accounting

 

Sources:

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — Accountants and Auditors

PayScale — Average Forensic Accountant Salary

PayScale — Average Internal Auditor Salary

PayScale — Average Auditor Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — Financial Analysts

PayScale — Average Financial Analyst Salary

PayScale — Average Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — Tax Examiners, Collectors and Revenue Agents

PayScale — Average Certified Management Accountant Salary

PayScale — Average Tax Examiner, Collector or Revenue Agent

PayScale — Average Cost Accountant Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — Budget Analysts

PayScale — Average Budget Analyst Salary