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Following The Accounting Career Path To The Top

Jan 27, 2020

If you enjoy working with numbers and have an eye for detail, an accounting career path might add up nicely for you. Many people think that certified public accountants (CPAs) are the only professionals in this field, but accounting offers a wide range of positions, from entry-level roles all the way up to executive-level leadership positions.

If you like to solve puzzles, for instance, you could spend your time poring over figures and looking for discrepancies as an auditor or helping solve financial crimes as a forensic accountant. If you enjoy traveling, you could circle the globe working for multiple clients as a partner at a large accounting firm.

No matter where you end up on the accounting ladder, you're bound to have a rewarding career and a solid salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the average salary for accountants is $70,500 and projects 6 percent employment growth by 2028. The accounting industry offers plenty of opportunities for advancement—and with the right training and experience, you could be comfortably making a six-figure salary within a few years.

Further Reading: How to become an accountant.

Here's a look at how you might advance along an accounting career path from an entry-level role to an executive position.

Entry-level accounting careers.

When you're just starting your accounting career, you can expect to find the following positions:

  • Junior or staff accountant: These employees work under the supervision of their organization's more senior accountants. They often examine financial statements for accuracy and completeness, reconcile data, and prepare simple reports, among other tasks.
  • Audit associate: These professionals help with auditing and compliance activities. Some work at an organization, while others are employed by outside auditors who review companies' ledgers to make sure they're abiding by proper accounting practices.
  • Tax associate: Prepares and files tax returns.

To land your first accounting position, you'll need a bachelor's degree. In an accounting program, you'll learn the fundamentals of accounting, including how to maintain and organize ledgers, identify liabilities for individuals and businesses, and understand principles of finance. Western Governors University's accounting program specifically trains you to follow the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and earns you semester-hour credits that can be put toward your CPA exam.

If you want to be a private accountant for a single business or organization, a bachelor's degree is a sufficient entry point for your career. But if you want to work as a CPA for a public accounting firm that represents multiple clients, you'll need a CPA certification. In most states, this means you'll need 150 credit hours of education, which is more than the 120 hours covered in a bachelor's degree. Earning a master's degree in accounting degree will help you meet the 150 credit hours required to sit for the CPA exam and propel you into a mid-level position.

Mid-level accounting careers.

In a mid-level accounting role, you can expect to take on more responsibility, which could include taking the lead on tax preparation or financial record-keeping initiatives, leading teams of junior accountants, or making strategic financial recommendations for individuals or businesses. Mid-level accounting careers include the following:

  • Certified public accountant: CPAs help individuals and businesses prepare taxes, navigate legal and financial regulations, and maintain financial records. Many CPAs specialize in a particular kind of accounting, such as tax preparation, consulting, assurance, or corporate finance.
  • Accounting manager or senior accountant: These professionals oversee the day-to-day operations of their organization's accounting department. They analyze financial data, produce reports and statements, and establish and enforce proper accounting practices.
  • Audit manager: These employees implement and oversee internal operating controls and manage audits. They identify potential financial risks and make recommendations on how to avoid them.
  • Tax manager: Tax managers oversee the tax compliance process for a company or work for a public accounting firm that serves a variety of individual and corporate clients.
  • Financial manager: Financial managers produce reports, direct investment activities and develop strategies to meet their organization's long-term financial goals.

While nearly every accounting job pays well, mid-level careers are a big step up from entry-level positions. The average salary for financial managers, for example, is around $128,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After a few years learning the ropes and proving yourself in an entry-level accounting job, you'll be eligible to advance to a mid-level or managerial position. Earning a master's degree in accounting could accelerate your career advancement, though, by preparing you not only for the CPA exam but for other professional exams, such as the Certified Management Accounting exam and the Certified Internal Auditor exam.

Executive-level accounting careers.

After obtaining the right certifications, credentials, and experience (likely 10 or more years in mid-level roles), you could be eligible for one of the top positions in the industry. Executive careers involve more managerial and strategic responsibilities, as these professionals are often tasked with running entire accounting departments or firms. Executive roles include the following:

  • Financial controller: A controller is the head of an organization's accounting department. They manage accounting staff and maintain the general ledger or chart of accounts. They collect financial data, prepare budgetary reports, and advise the organization's C-suite on financial decisions.
  • Partner: This is typically the highest role in a public accounting firm. Partners generally buy equity in their firm and share in all profits and are, therefore, largely responsible for the health of the firm.
  • Chief financial officer: For private accountants, chief financial officer (CFO) is usually the top of the career ladder. Whereas a controller is responsible for compliance and record keeping (tactics), a CFO is concerned with planning and future performance (strategy).

Executive-level salaries typically reflect their roles' significant responsibilities. Controllers, for example, make an average salary of around $197,000, according to, while CFOs make an impressive average salary of around $377,000.

Take the first step.

There are many accounting career paths you can follow on your journey, which could culminate in an executive-level position if you work hard and excel. With the right education and career experience, you can chart your path to the very top of the profession. Start your journey today by earning a bachelor's degree in accounting—then watch your career path unfold.

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