How to Become a Forensic Accountant

Some of the tools you’ll use when you learn how to become a forensic accountant

Accounting is a career that offers both stability and growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs in the field are projected to grow by 10% by 2026, significantly higher than the cross-industry average of 7%.

Forensic accounting is a particularly fascinating branch of the profession. Its primary focus is collecting and leveraging data for litigation: "forensic" literally means "suitable for use in a court of law." Thus, accountants in this field are often tasked with investigating fraud in complicated financial transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies and contract disputes. Forensic accountants are also indispensable in the task of catching white collar criminals and bringing them to justice.

Forensic Accounting Salary and Job Requirements

Most accounting positions will require that you have a bachelor's degree in accounting or a similar field and some companies prefer candidates with a master's degree. In addition, if you are in a position in which you will need to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, you will be required to be a Certified Public Accountant. CPAs are licensed by their state accounting board, have completed 150 hours of college coursework and pass an exam, according to BLS.

BLS also offers a series of skills that ideal forensic accountants excel in. They include:

  • Analytical Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Attention to Detail
  • Math Skills
  • Organizational Skills

BLS doesn't track data for forensic accountants specifically, but reports that accountants and auditors made a median salary of $68,150 in 2016.

If you love data and find complex challenges appealing, this might just be the right field for you. Here's how to become a forensic accountant:

Step 1: Exploring Your Options

Every degree program is slightly different, so it's important to research different institutions and find the one that best meets your needs. For many busy professionals, an online degree course provides the flexibility required to take the next step toward becoming a forensic accountant.

If this applies to you, consider applying an online Bachelor of Science in Accounting with a concentration in Forensic Accounting and Fraud Examination. If you've previously attended college, you may be able to transfer as many as 90 undergraduate credits and be closer to your goal than you imagined.

Step 2: Undergraduate Education

During this degree program, you'll be taught the basic tenets of how to become a forensic accountant. Keep in mind, however, that state requirements to vary on what it takes to become an accountant and you should always check within your own state to ensure you are on track with requirements specific to your own location.

The framework begins with learning the concepts and practices used in the recording, classification and reporting of cost data, along with issues particular to this discipline. You'll then go through financial accounting practices, and gain a deeper understanding of the standards that are used to evaluate them. Once that groundwork has been laid, students are able to begin the conversation regarding liabilities, including recording and disclosure requirements. As part of this endeavor, you'll also gain insight into CPA simulation questions and the usage of the FARS database.

A large part of the job of a forensic accountant is being able to accurately identify fraud. An online program should teach you how to spot its symptoms, including accounting fraud, stock fraud, employee theft and embezzlement. Coursework also includes a deeper look into the ways fraud impacts the presentation of financial information, and how to review and analyze financial statements for evidence of wrongdoing. You will be given the tools necessary to judge the financial health of a company, and determine whether it is right for merger or acquisition.

Fraud changes as fast as technology does, so any thorough education in forensic accounting must cover computer crimes. Course material includes locations of digital evidence, fundamentals of working with data and how to present findings. You'll learn about identity theft and other cyber crimes, and how to follow best practices in a fast-changing digital landscape. You'll also learn what happens after fraud has been potentially uncovered, such as what the relevant legislation to the situation is, how to interview the people involved and what legal proceedings may arise when fraud is suspected.

Step 3: Beyond the Bachelor's

If you wish to enhance your knowledge of how to become a forensic accountant beyond the courses offered in the undergraduate program, you have two options: pursuing a Master of Science in Accounting with a concentration in Forensic Accounting or a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Forensic Accounting. While the former offers a strong accounting foundation with a specialized focus in forensic accounting, the MBA provides a graduate business degree that positions candidates across broad industries in many roles, yet has an extra emphasis on forensic accounting as well.

The benefits are clear: those with master's degrees earn 20% more on average than those with just a bachelor's, and enjoy much greater job security, according to BLS.

Not only will you gain a more in-depth understanding of the principles of forensic accounting while earning your master's degree, you'll also get professional business training and the tools required to improve job prospects and earning potential.

Step 4: Networking and Career Assistance

Enrolling in a college also allows you to boost your professional network simply by being taught by long-time professionals in the field. You'll be encouraged to attend networking events and socialize with others in the field. Searching a list of accounting associations, and joining the one most relevant to your goals, is a strong first step to creating the lasting industry connections that lead to career opportunities.

In addition, you'll have access to a full range of critical career services available to you, as a student and post-graduation as well. From networking advice and opportunities to resume and cover letter review and assistance, mock interviews, salary negotiation advice and so much more, you'll have someone on your side, supporting your success, every step of the way.

Melissa Page is a higher education marketing professional and instructor. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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