should I get an accounting degree?

This question came up on a forum I visit, and I thought my answer was detailed enough to turn into a post. Should you get an accounting degree? I know once you’re within a field it seems obvious that everyone should understand the various specialties and their pros and cons, but if you’re outside a field you might not be aware of the possible variations at all.  I don’t know much about the marketing field, for example, but I’m sure you can specialize in many ways.  It’s hard to say exactly, since “accounting” is a rather broad field with a number of career paths and specializations.  Off the top of my head:

1. Accounting within a large company’s accounting department: intense hours at month, quarter and year end; generally low pay and non-portable skills (each company’s systems and procedures can be quite different) and usually high stress to achieve 100% accuracy.
2.  Accounting as a bookkeeper, independently or for small companies: Don’t need to be a CPA, probably don’t even need a 4-year accounting degree.  This, however, is a much more portable skill; you can learn one of the two or three ‘big’ small business accounting systems (QuickBooks, for example) and you have the possibility of self-employment, while corporate accounting skills don’t really transfer.
3.  Auditing: This is my specialty.  Generally auditing is broken down into two broad subcategories:
a.  External audit: This is when you work for a firm (there are 4 big ones that make up most of the market – Deloitte, E&Y, PwC and KPMG) and audit other companies’ financials.  Horrendous hours, high pay on an annual basis but horrible on a per-hour basis, extreme “up or out” pressure to get promoted, and stress, stress, stress.  On the positive side:  early in your career you’ll get access to high-level people at clients, so you’ll get experience dealing with very successful types, you probably can travel widely on the company dime (I had business trips to places as far-flung as Indonesia, Russia, Malta and Armenia, as well as domestic travel in the US), and if you can grit your teeth and make partner you’ll be well compensated.  Getting a CPA is a must; you will not be promoted far without one. A great site to read about the profession is Re: The Auditors.
b.  Internal audit: Currently I am an independent consultant doing internal audit work.  This means you work for a company and audit them, from the inside so to speak.  Generally easier hours, slightly better pay and lower pressure; travel can still be quite exotic (I’ve done internal work in Argentina, England, Germany, France, Portugal, Turkey, etc. plus again tons of domestic travel).  But the “end game” is less clear – generally it’s a quite specialized field, and similar to a corporate accountant you can become an expert in your company’s system, management, etc. and that skill is not very transferable to other jobs.  The CPA is helpful although the industry has a less-well known “Certified Internal Auditor” or CIA designation that’s helpful.  I’m an active member of the Institute of Internal Auditors – ask me if you have questions about that.
4.  Tax: Obviously you can also go down the tax route as a corporate tax type or a tax/bookkeeper type, similar to 1 and 2 above.  I have avoided taxes like a house on fire my whole career, but it’s probably the best route if you dream of having your own profitable CPA practice someday; and yes, if you are a tax specialist the CPA is a must.
5. Finance: It’s a bit tougher to get on this path, but with an accounting degree you could probably ease yourself over to finance with some effort in a corporate environment.  The difference, simply, is that accounting records the transactions and finance decides HOW to record the transactions – i.e. finance does the high-level work and accounting records the results.

I’m sure there are dozens or hundreds of other career paths within accounting, but those are the four biggest and the four I’m most familiar with, having spent half my career in external audit and internal audit and working daily with corporate accountants, finance and tax people as clients now that I consult.  Is an accounting degree for you?  If you’re not sure, send me an email and I’ll be happy to give you my cynical opinion.

  • http://singlemomrichmom.com jacq

    I wish less people would get into accounting – thinking it’s a stable, well-paying job. In the 25 years I’ve been in the biz, the quality has suffered from people getting into it that don’t have natural talents in the area.

  • http://www.providentplan.com/ Paul Williams

    I wouldn’t say the CPA is a must for a tax specialist. You could go for the Enrolled Agent (EA) designation instead (which is what I’m doing, so maybe I’m biased). Based on what I know about the CPA license, the only difference is in the ability to do “public accounting” which I understand to be audits for publicly traded companies. Is that accurate, Steve?

    • http://www.bripblap.com Steve

      Paul – good point. Yes, anyone can prepare taxes, actually – it’s not like every preparer at H&R Block is a CPA. And you’re also correct that the ONLY thing you must have a CPA for is to issue an audit opinion. I guess I meant more that if you want to have a solo tax practice the CPA is quite valuable because most people wanting a tax specialist – as opposed to just a tax preparer – would probably seek out a CPA. But no, good catch, it’s not required by law or anything.

  • http://wallstreetchalkboard.com/ Jeff

    Steve,
    I find this article very interesting because as I type I am trying to decide to major in Finance and Accounting or Finance and Business Economics. I realize that the accounting field is taking a major change direction as America is switching to the International Financial Reporting Standards. I suppose this will increase the demand for accountants in America. Also, I was told that the most demanded accounting position is an international tax accountant these days. Do you agree?

  • http://www.lenagott.com Lena

    Great list! I would like to add that you could consider non-traditional, yet related employment options. I was a tax accountant at PwC and in a corporate setting for many years before deciding I wanted to do something else. I tried my hand as an accounting & finance recruiter, and an online college instructor. My favorite related job is writing about personal finance and tax law for websites like Suite101.com and HubPages.com. Like you, I also run a blog. This is much more fun than grueling the day away behind a desk! :)

  • http://www.bripblap.com Steve

    A lot of people do enter accounting without the natural aptitude for it, simply because nobody’s worried about accounting’s “life cycle” – it’s not like being, say, a factory worker where you can be afraid your job will be outsourced, or a programmer, etc. I do always point out that no job is, strictly speaking, stable any more, though.

    But the point you and Jacq make, Sarah, is completely true: it’s not a good field to enter if you don’t like numbers and don’t “get” double entry accounting – and I saw a lot of people who didn’t REALLY get it struggle.