Is an Accounting Degree Worth It?

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Earning a degree in accounting is a way to enter a world of financial responsibilities, perform an essential role, and reap the rewards that come along with it. It’s important for prospective accounting students to recognize that there is no one way to be an accountant.

Indeed, there are multiple paths within the accounting field. Some professionals seek public accountant roles, assisting individual or business clients with taxes, audits, and other day-to-day financial matters. Others seek private accounting positions, becoming essential parts of companies’ finance departments.

An accountant performs calculations

Whichever path a prospective accounting student is most interested in, one important question remains: Will the rewards for the job justify the time and money invested in seeking the degree? Making that distinction means determining the types of roles that come with an accounting degree, projecting the trajectory of those positions, and figuring out just what it takes to earn a Master of Science in Accounting.

Accounting Roles and Duties: Private and Public

Saying a person is an accountant is only the beginning of narrowing down what that individual does in their day to day. Degrees in accounting are more versatile credentials than they may appear at first glance, with distinctions such as public vs. private being instructive.

Private Accountant Roles and Duties

While the first images that spring to mind at the word “accounting” are of public accountants, individuals with degrees in the field may also find rewarding work as private accountants. Today’s companies need to keep their finances in order, combining strict legal compliance with effective governance and intelligent management of all expenditures. An internal team of private accountants is therefore essential.

As the American Institute of CPAs points out, the actual duties of these internal employees may differ widely, from tax accounting to auditing. At the entry level, accountants will serve as junior members of their teams, overseeing matters such as payroll, financial statements, cost analysis, and more. Individuals who acquire many years of experience in such roles can enter managerial positions and secure their place as influential members of the finance department.

Public Accountant Roles and Duties

A public accountant is an independent professional or member of an accounting firm rather than a corporate financial department employee. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers a few examples of the duties expected of these workers and indicated that just as with private accountants, there is room for specialization. While some accountants will be experts at filing clients’ taxes or advising corporate clients on taxation, others will perform forensic accounting to search for evidence of financial crimes.

A public accountant and a certified public accountant (CPA) are not the same thing. Many public accountant positions go to applicants with CPA credentials, as the standardized certification is a widely recognized industry benchmark. It should also be noted that people who have become CPAs also often take jobs as private accountants, putting their knowledge to work in a corporate setting.

Accounting Degree Prospects and Salary

Are accounting roles set for solid growth? Fortunately for people considering further education, BLS projects 6% growth in the number of accounting and auditing roles between 2018 and 2028. That figure is modestly higher than the 5% growth projection for all jobs in the country.

On the subject of salary, the BLS reports accountants and auditors earn a median of $70,500 a year. The agency points out that full-time roles as accountants often involve seasonal overtime, due to the increased urgency during tax filing season.

PayScale adds that accountants may take several career paths after spending time in entry-level roles, with the most common progression involving a promotion to a senior accountant position. From there, professionals may seek work as accounting managers or, in corporate settings, as financial controllers.

Earning a Boost from CPA Credentials

One of the most significant reasons to pursue an education in accounting may be the fact that these programs prepare graduates to sit for the CPA exam. While not all accounting positions are only open to CPAs, having the credential can impress hiring managers. As the AICPA notes, employers use CPA status as a measure of an individual’s knowledge in matters such as both technical skill and ethical background. Since CPA credentials must be reaffirmed through periodic testing, companies also know that individuals with CPA status have up-to-date knowledge.

The Process of Earning an Accounting Degree

Accounting degree programs exist at multiple levels, with the appropriate choice depending on how much higher education experience a student has coming in. Both bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees are available in 100% online models, allowing busy professionals to continue in their current roles and take on these new courses of study on schedules that make sense to them.

For prospective students who have bachelor’s degrees in fields other than accounting, there are ways to begin the master’s program without first seeking the related bachelor’s degree. The accounting bridge program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business, for instance, equips learners with the accounting skills they need to thrive in the higher-level courses that make up the master’s curriculum.

Earning a master’s degree can take as few as five semesters, allowing graduates to move into the next steps in their accounting careers, such as sitting for the CPA exam and applying for related positions. For individuals who want to make this transformation in their own career trajectories, this is where earning an accounting degree becomes worth it.

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Accounting on the program page.

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AICPA – Positions in Business and Industry Accounting BKD CPAs & Advisors – Private Company Reporting

Accounting Jobs Today – Public Accounting vs Private Accounting

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Accountants and Auditors

PayScale – Average Accountant Salary