At least a couple of times a week, I get a message from someone on LinkedIn or someone who read a post on my blog looking for advice on going into accounting. Sometimes the questions focus on education path, and sometimes they focus on the job or career you can have once you obtain the CPA designation. I’ve gotten enough questions and had enough conversations now to notice some themes I think are worth while to address in long form.
1) When should I take the CPA exam?
You should take the CPA exam as soon as possible, but you shouldn’t take it before you’re ready. A lot of the old timers might disagree with me on this, but the CPA exam is harder now than it’s ever been. Computerizing the exam increased the breadth of what the accounting powers that be can test and the variation in how they test those concepts. As a result, computerized testing makes studying more difficult, but on the flip side, you can take each section one at a time, unlike the old days.
2) What class should I take to study for the CPA exam?
There are many good courses out there, but I was a student of the Becker program. I did self-study via cd-rom so I could skip things I knew already and could work ahead when I had extra time or slow down if things got busy at work. I DO NOT recommend this for everyone. If you know you need a little more oversight to get things done, you should try a CPA prep course with online milestones to keep you on track or the in-class option if you need more structure than that.
3) From career-changers: I decided I now want to be an accountant because I like numbers. What should I do?
Well, first you need to understand not all accounting positions are created equal. You basically have two paths you can take, industry or client service. If you want to go the industry accounting path, this means you work for a company like Pepsi or Coke or McDonald’s and are part of the accounting team. If you go the client service route, you can either go into assurance (audit), tax, or advisory (consulting). Second, prepare yourself to go back to school. You’ll need at least an accounting or business-related degree but if you want to want to set yourself up for maximum potential you need to set your sights on the CPA exam, especially if you intend to go the client service route. Some might argue industry accountants don’t need to be certified, but I’d counter if you’re going to do it, do it all the way.
4) Do I need a Masters Degree in Accounting?
Not really, but considering most states require 150 educational hours to obtain a CPA license, it may be the most convenient way to meet that requirement. Many people also like the idea of having something to show for the extra education. The truth is I didn’t have my MBA when I was looking to get licensed. I got to 150 hours by overloading on courses in undergrad, doing summer study to earn extra credit, and taking online courses at community colleges to cover the gap. You can usually find online courses that are much more affordable than going back to a Masters program. If you go through the trouble of getting your Masters in Accounting but don’t get your CPA, you wasted your time….
5) I didn’t go to a big name school. Can I still go into accounting?
The short answer is yes, but this question comes in a few different flavors: 1) If you’re looking to go into a big 4 accounting firm, school becomes more relevant than a small regional firm 2) Having a CPA matters more than going to a school with name recognition, especially as a career-changer. Many schools have great, long-established relationships with companies in the local area and act as feeders for accounting talent.
6) What advice do you have for people going into accounting?
Uh, can you be more specific? If we’re talking about going into industry accounting, make sure you understand there is a certain cadence and repetitiveness associated with that. You close the books every month – book your journal entries and reconcile your accounts. Other things come up, but you more or less know what you’re going to be doing. Another point worth noting on this is there are two tracks for the industry accounting folks, those who enjoy the retrospective reporting aspect, and those who prefer the more forward looking financial planning and analysis role. You don’t have to decide which one you want to be right away but this type if mobility could drive what company you’d like to grace with your services. If you find yourself consulting in finance, the work varies more on a day-to-day basis which means you learn things at an accelerated pace but it also means elevated stress. Oh, and people in client service tend to travel. A lot. Individual circumstance and personal preference have to determine which makes the most sense for you. Speaking from my own experience, the routine of monthly close got old, but now that I have young kids, I have to consider the option to have a stable personal life to see them grow up.
Bottom Line/Bonus Tip
As an aspiring accountant or business person, you can’t go wrong with the CPA but more important than anything I’ve mentioned above is making sure you build authentic relationships. I say it all the time – you have to connect with peers, mentors, customers, bosses, and office staff (you might be surprised at the importance of getting to know the right office support staff). Your ability to communicate and develop a rapport with all of these groups will make you indispensable to any company and ensure you’re always gainfully employed.