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Career Options for a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

As a college student, I always associated the CPA credentials with working in public accounting. My chats with classmates about career prospects in the field of accounting always revolved around working for a CPA firm. It is rather odd but I don’t recollect any of my accounting professors ever providing an overview of the different career avenues available to a Certified Public Accountant or CPA. Although I am applying for admission to graduate school because I wish to develop expertise in fraud examination and business advisory services, I nevertheless did some research to find out what other career options will be available to me once I become a Certified Public Accountant or CPA. I have to say that I was rather pleased with the results of my findings. Well without further ado, let’s go over them:

  • Public Accounting: This one was obvious. As a CPA working in public accounting, your assignments will be focused on conducting financial statements audits, performing tax returns, providing tax advice, and providing financial planning. You will need to be ready to log a lot of work hours your first three to five years. Once you reach the manager level at your firm, then you start truly reaping unparalleled professional and financial rewards. You also have the option to branch out and start your own CPA firm.
  • Education: For CPAs who can’t handle the often hectic workload that characterizes public accounting, you can return spend a few more years in the universities’ hallways to obtain a PhD in Accounting. With the growing popularity of the accounting major among undergraduate business students, professors of accounting are in higher demand. The pay is not too bad, a tenured faculty member can earn upward $90,000  year at most universities. This is indeed not that bad of an option at all.
  • Industry: Most CPAs working in industry have spent a few years in public accounting before they made the switch. The most recurrent reason CPAs leave the worlds of public accounting to work in industry is the need for a better work life balance. In industry, CPAs get to work in the accounting and finance department of a private company. Some familiar job titles in industry are: Management Accountant, Budget Analyst, Financial Analyst, Internal Auditor, Finance Manager, Comptroller, VP of Finance, and Chief Financial Officer (CFO).
  • Government: CPAs are needed in both federal and state agencies. For instance at the federal level, the FBI employes quite a number of CPAs in their white collar crime unit. CPAs do a lot of auditing work on behalf of both the federal and state governments to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is properly managed by the many agencies. Working for the government might not be as financially rewarding as the other options but you get to enjoy better employee benefits, a more relaxed work environment, and a higher level of job security overtime.
  • Non-profit: Don’t worry, this is no pro bono work. Most non profit agencies seek out the expertise of a CPA to help them efficiently allocate their fund’s dollars. Nobody in his/her right mind would want to support a non-profit organization that lacks fiscal discipline. Contrary to what most of you may believe, the pay in non-profit for CPAs is often competitive. Beyond the money, you also do get a self gratification for being part of an organization that aims to improve lives.

As you might have realized by now, CPAs have great career options. This might be the reason why you hardly ever hear about a CPA that has been out of a job for an extended period of time. Fresh out college, it is often easy to be dead set on working for a CPA firm.  It is however crucial that you approach the planning of your career in accounting with a wide open mind.  Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we would expect them to. If you are having a hard time finding work in one specific area, check the other ones and you will be more likely to find employment. When I was in college, I had a hard time landing an internship with an accounting firm. Although doors kept being shut, I knew that any accounting related gig would give a punch to my resume. Consequently, I redirected my search to industry. It didn’t take too long for my revised strategy to pay off. The morality here is it pays to be flexible in your job search strategy.

5 Comments

  1. Comment by Brian Huber:

    Thank you for providing this clear summary of career options for CPAs. I meet so many young accountants who are unhappy with their jobs. They expected the accounting field to deliver job stability but then fail to explore work choices that are most conducive to their individual interests and personal lifestyles.

  2. Comment by Aniket:

    Hi Narcisse,

    Thanks for the article, it was indeed very informative and it will certainly help a lot of aspiring CPA's to shape their careers really well. Further to the options provided by you, i feel an additional Law degree with specialisation in TAX, will be very useful, as it will always give an upperhand over a person who is either a CPA only or who's only a TAX lawyer. A combination of both these, will result in a person having an in and out knowledge of Tax and it's implications on both, i.e individuals and corporations. Your thoughts on this?

    • Comment by Narcisse:

      @Aniket:

      Thank you for taking the time to visit this blog and also for offering your comment.

      You are absolutely right, CPAs can always go to law school and obtain an LLM in Taxation. It is also true that having both credentials enables an individual to expand his/her sphere of competence to many other areas of taxation related matters such as negotiation on behalf of clients with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), M&A advisory, and estate planning.

  3. Comment by SREYASHI GHOSH.:

    This article has provided me with vital information about CPAs and how to go about it. For CPAs not only the pay scale but career options are also widely available in so many sectors. Only one thing I would like to clarify is that , do we necessarily need to have a PH.D in ACCOUNTING or any other eqivalent degree can also work?

    • Comment by Narcisse:

      @ Sreyahi Ghosh

      Thank you for taking the time to visit this blog and also for being kind enough to submit a comment. I am glad you found the information on this post helpful. If you wish to teach accounting at the university level, you will most likely need a Ph.D. in addition to the CPA designation. There are instructors of accounting who only hold a Masters Degree but they teach elementary accounting courses such as: Principles of Accounting, Managerial Accounting, Individual Taxation, and Accounting Information Systems. If you are attracted by the great income possibilities within academia, you ought to get a Ph.D. in accounting. I hope this helps answer your question.

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