If you think accountants are just number crunchers, think again.
What does an accountant do? Accountants are the puzzle masters, the problem solvers, the solution creators at an organization. They ask questions. "What happened here and why?" "How can we fix this?" They're truly responsible for the "financial health" of an organization, said Mona Stephens, accounting faculty lead at Southern New Hampshire University.
So, what is accounting? Bryan Bouchard, assistant professor and co-chair of the accountancy and taxation department on SNHU's campus, offered his definition of accounting:
"Accounting is the process of identifying, recording and communicating financial information to interested users. Accounting is a systematic way of collecting transactions and processing the information to communicate it to those users who might have an interest. There are internal and external users. Internal users might be a manager who wants to know how his or her division is doing. An external user might be a stockholder who has invested in the company and wants to see how the company is performing."
So, what does an accountant do exactly? Stephens said that it all depends on what type of accountant you are:
- Financial accountants record transactions, prepare financial statements for outside users (investors, creditors, regulatory agencies, etc.) and interpret an organization's financial health.
- Management accountants record and financial information for internal users (managers, etc.), make recommendations for operational efficiencies, and can assist in capital planning, pricing and budgeting.
- Tax accountants do personal and/or corporate taxes, interpret tax law and help with tax planning.
- Auditors/forensic accountants examine financial records for fraud/misstatement, issue audit reports, and ensure compliance with various laws and regulations.
- Government accountants record transactions, prepare financial statements and interpret the financial health of governments.
There's also a difference between private and public accounting, Bouchard said.
"A private accountant will work for a single organization and they do various tasks such as recording transactions, preparing financial statements, budgets, etc.," he said. "Those who work on public accounting are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), whereas those who work in private accounting do not necessarily have this designation - although they can. In fact, sometimes those in public accounting leave to work in private accounting for a specific company. Some accountants can be Certified Management Accountants. They are focused on private accounting."
Accounting is an ideal field to enter if you're great with numbers. "You have to have analytical skills and be comfortable with numbers," Bouchard said. "A good accountant is someone who pays close attention to detail."
Stephens also emphasized the context behind the numbers. "You need to understand what the numbers mean - not just know the math," she said. The numbers all relate to an organization's finances, meaning an accountant understands when the company is doing well or when it needs to make some adjustments.
But there's more to accounting than that. "You also have to have good communication skills," Bouchard said. Stephens agreed: "You must be able to communicate complex information to non-accountants." Find any list of soft skills that employers are seeking, and communication is most likely at the top of the list.
Stephens dug deeper into the importance of soft skills. "Accountants must have good skills in problem solving, big-picture thinking, attention to detail, critical thinking and be able to collaborate with other parts of an organization," she said. Because their job affects so many parts of a company, skills for accounting positions often go far beyond actual accounting.
Then there are ethics. "Ethics play a huge role," Bouchard said. "Someone who is ethical is a great quality to have as an accountant." An accountant must have a solid grasp of generally accepted accounting principles, as well as an understanding of an organization's goals and code of conduct.
The accounting profession is filled with opportunities, and an accounting degree can arm you with the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in them.
Stephens shared the types of roles graduates may be prepared for depending on the degree they earn:
- Associate in Accounting: accounting clerk, bookkeeper, payroll clerk or accounting assistant
- Bachelor's in Accounting: accountant, auditor, tax preparer or Certified Management Accountant
- Master's in Accounting or MBA in Accounting: Certified Public Accountant, management, senior level accountant or consultant
"If you want to go into public accounting and become a Certified Public Accountant, you need to have 150 credit hours," Bouchard said. "You typically will earn 120 credits with a BS, and then you can earn 30 more credits in a graduate program. You also need to have taken a certain number of accounting courses to be eligible to become a CPA. So a BS degree with plans to get your master's is key. If you plan to go into private accounting, then a BS degree will be sufficient." You could also consider earning the CMA designation, which is a highly respected credential for management accounting.
The demand for accountants never seems to go away, Bouchard said.
"It is an excellent field to go into," he said. "Whether the economy is good or bad, every organization needs to keep track of their finances, so accountants will always have great job opportunities."
Beyond the wide range of roles, Bouchard said that being an accountant never gets boring.
"It's a very exciting field," Bouchard said. "Despite the image one may have of accountants, it is a constantly changing field as rules and guidelines change all of the time. A good accountant never stops learning."Deidre Ashe is a copywriter in higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn</p