How to Become a Forensic Accountant
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.
Accounting is a career that offers both stability and growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants and auditors earned a median salary of $73,560 in 2020, and jobs in this field are projected to grow by 7% through 2030.
How Do You Become a Certified Forensic Accountant?
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 to an online bachelor's in accounting with a concentration in forensic accounting. 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 undergraduate degree program, you'll be taught the basic tenets of how to become a forensic accountant. Keep in mind, however, that state requirements may 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 cybercrime, 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.
Forensic accounting can be a challenging, but critical and rewarding area of accounting. A bachelor's degree in forensic accounting provides you with strong foundational knowledge to prepare you for this field.
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 in Accounting 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: BLS reports 2020 median weekly earnings with a master’s degree were 18.3% higher than with a bachelor’s degree. On average, those with a master's degree had median weekly earnings of $1,545, compared to an average of $1,305 for those with only a bachelor's degree.
Not only will you gain a more in-depth understanding of the principles of forensic accounting while earning your master's degree, but you'll also get professional business training and the tools required to improve job prospects and earning potential.
Step 4: Networking and Career Assistance
A major benefit of enrolling in college is that you’ll have access to a full range of critical career services available to you, as a student and post-graduation, as well. You’ll have someone on your side, supporting your success, every step of the way.
Some advantages of career services are:
- Mock interviews
- Networking advice and opportunities
- Resume and cover letter review and assistance
- Salary negotiation advice and so much more
Along with career services, enrolling in college 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 those most relevant to your goals, is a strong first step to creating the lasting industry connections that lead to career opportunities.
Upon completion of your degree, you'll also join an alumni association at your university. Being an active part of an alumni association is a proactive way to network with other alumni. Your alumni network offers you an opportunity to meet, and engage with, professionals in your desired field of work.
Forensic accounting is just one area to consider. Learn more about the various areas to ply your knowledge and skills and see what you can do with an accounting degree.
Alexa Gustavsen '21 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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