If you'd like to work in a public accountant’s office, taking a CPA career path will open a world of possibilities. Today’s CPAs are internal auditors, information technology managers, forensic experts, tax accountants, compliance officers, CFOs and CEOs of major corporations.
With the continued need for fiscal accountability and cost efficiency in companies, accounting and finance professionals with the CPA designation are in high demand. This demand is also pushing up salaries. Robert Half's latest Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance shows that the anticipated compensation for CPAs will increase 3.4 percent or more in 2017.
A closer look at wages gives further incentive for taking the step to get your CPA. According to the Salary Guide, a staff accountant with one to three years of experience can earn between $50,000 and $65,000 annually working in financial services. A senior manager in tax services at a large public accounting firm can expect a salary range of $130,000 to $216,500 in the year ahead.
But first, what are the steps along the CPA career path to acquire the skills you’ll need before you can add those three letters to your name? Consider these three E’s to be your guide to the CPA: Education, Exam, Experience.
First step on the CPA career path: EDUCATION
If you would like to move toward earning your license, the first step on your CPA career path is earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance or a related field. The degree must include at least 150 semester hours of coursework, 24 of which should be in accounting-related subjects, although this requirement may vary by state. Many states also require a certain number of business and ethics coursework hours as well.
Since the typical bachelor’s degree requires only 120 semester hours, you’ll need to make up the difference in continuing education credits or graduate school hours. In fact, some CPA candidates complete their master’s degree before taking the exam.
Next step: Study for the CPA EXAM
The next step on your career path is to take and pass the Uniform CPA Exam, which is the only CPA exam in the U.S. accepted for licensure in every state. A score of 75 is the minimum needed for an accountant to pass the exam.
To get started, ask your school to send a copy of your college transcript to your state’s Board of Public Accountancy. Then, register online with your state’s Board of Public Accountancy to access, print out, complete and return the CPA Exam Application Package. If you are declared eligible, you will receive a Notification to Schedule, which is valid for six months.
There are four parts to the exam:
- Auditing and Attestation
- Business Environment and Concepts
- Financial Accounting and Reporting
You can take all four parts at the same time, or you can schedule each section separately. However, the fee is nonrefundable, so don’t schedule any of the sections until you are sure you can take them within the six-month time frame. All four parts should be completed on a rolling 18-month schedule, which means from the time you take the first part of the exam, you have 18 months to take the last part.
Read our our roundup of all you need to know about CPA jobs — and then some.
Along the way: Get some EXPERIENCE
Your career path also includes at least one year of supervised experience before you can take the CPA exam. As an accountant, you can obtain this experience in entry-level positions in a variety of areas, including public accounting, corporate accounting, healthcare and financial services. Generally, in your first year or so, you should gain experience in accounts payable, accounts receivable, reconciling statements, tax preparation, budgets and audit preparation.
After you take the exam, many states also require you as an accountant to gain additional experience before actually receiving your CPA license. You need hands-on experience in this phase of your career path in general accounting and in attest experience (which is gained from assisting with audits and full disclosure financial statements). A licensed CPA in a supervisory position must document general accounting experience, and the attest experience must be documented by the employer on the appropriate forms received from the state board.
After you receive your license, you will need to complete continuing education credits every year or every two years.
Becoming a CPA can be an important milestone on your career path and increase your marketability. These tips can help you properly prepare and pace yourself.
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Editor's note: This post was updated recently to reflect current information.