We write a lot about CPA salaries, CPA skills, CPA specializations and the CPA exam here, but what about the basics? What is the CPA, what do CPA jobs actually entail and how can you become one? Read on to find out.
The CPA is a certification held by more than 650,000 accountants, according to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). Informally, a CPA, or certified public accountant, is also the person holding the certification.
CPAs are accountants who have met strict educational, testing and on-the-job requirements. They are certified to occupy financial positions at organizations ranging from startup ventures to nonprofits to multinational corporations. As the business environment grows in complexity, so does the demand and the career options for these trusted advisers.
CPA jobs and specializations
On the most basic level, CPAs keep and inspect financial accounts for companies, governmental entities and individual clients. The CPA license isn’t required for corporate or private accountants, but it is for public accountants, who work either solo or for companies that provide accounting services to others.
Some CPAs choose to specialize in areas such as these:
- Financial analysis — The job of a financial analyst is to support business growth by analyzing financial data, preparing reports, interpreting data affecting investment programs and helping management make informed decisions.
- Internal auditing — Internal auditors analyze and report on company financial records and operations by examining risk management issues, financial data and operations, and control processes. Many employers favor a CPA certification for this role, but the globally recognized certified internal auditor (CIA) designation is more likely to be required.
- Information technology auditing — Combining the IT and accounting disciplines, IT auditors examine the technological infrastructure of companies, testing systems to ensure security, accuracy and compliance with regulations.
- Tax accounting — Duties of a tax accountant range from maintaining tax records and completing tax returns to guiding companies in tax strategies, compliance, and tax laws and regulations.
- Management accounting — Accounting managers prepare budgets and financial documents, evaluate and refine accounting procedures, and consult with a company’s management teams to help them make good business decisions.
First steps to becoming a CPA
Most simply, becoming a CPA requires specific education and passing a state CPA exam. Regulations vary by state, and the requirements for each jurisdiction are different, but most state boards of accountancy call for 150 semester hours of instruction, which is 30 hours beyond a typical four-year bachelor’s degree. Some states also stipulate advanced coursework in subjects such as financial reporting, taxes, auditing and other non-accounting business areas.
For those who plan to pursue CPA jobs, at least a bachelor’s degree is required, typically in accounting, finance or business. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Many CPAs earn a master’s degree in business administration or pursue an accelerated five-year accounting program.
Before you pursue any of the many CPA jobs, read these blog posts:
- Private vs. Public: Choose Your Accounting Career Path — The demand is great for both types of accounting, with salaries on the rise. But as you’ll read in this post, there are differences between the two, from the daily routine to job titles to salaries.
- CPA vs. CMA? Which Is the Best Certification for You? — It’s not a matter of which certification is better, but which one fits your career path. Discover the differences in requirements, exams, perks and salaries in a side-by-side “CPA or CMA” summary in this blog.
- 3 E's to Excellence on the Career Path to CPA — Before accountants add those three letters to their names, they should learn about the three E’s that will guide them to a career as a CPA: Education, Exam, Experience.
The rigors of the CPA exam
CPA candidates typically enroll in test preparation courses to get ready for the four parts of the Uniform CPA Examination: Audit and Attestation; Financial Accounting and Reporting; Regulation; and Business Environment and Concepts. The exam underwent significant changes in 2017 that reflect a shift from memorization to an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis, in an effort to better reflect the demands faced by today’s CPAs.
The 16-hour CPA exam is offered at testing centers in all states during the first two months of every quarter. Candidates take the sections in any order they choose, but once they have passed one part, they must successfully complete the other three within 18 months.
The cost of the test plus application fees varies from state to state but typically runs around $1,000. Every quarter, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which develops, maintains and scores the CPA exam, releases the pass rate for each exam section. Historically, the average pass rate for each section is 50%.
In addition, CPA candidates are required by most states to work for 1,800 hours under the supervision of a licensed CPA. They can do this before, during or after the CPA exam.
Once they become a CPA, license holders have to keep up their professional education. Many state boards of accountancy require that CPAs maintain and improve their skills through continuing professional education (CPE) courses. The AICPA requires an annual renewal fee and every-three-year recertification.
Check out the training options in CPE Requirements Offer Learning Opportunities for CPAs.
CPA salary information
Not only is the CPA an in-demand and trusted credential, but it can also put an accountant at the higher end of the compensation table.
According to the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals, hiring managers in nearly every industry are scrambling to find skilled accounting and finance professionals, especially CPAs. In the public accounting sector, for instance, the salary midpoint (or median national salary) for a senior manager/director for audit/assurance services is $134,000, and for a senior manager/director in tax services, it’s $136,750.
The Salary Guide offers starting salary ranges for more than 190 accounting and finance jobs, with the ability to adjust salaries to local markets. These ranges represent starting compensation only since various hard-to-measure factors such as seniority and job performance can affect ongoing pay.
Job outlook for CPAs
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of accountants and auditors will grow by 6% between now and 2028. A short supply of skilled talent has lowered unemployment rates for accounting and finance roles below the overall national rate. Those qualified for CPA jobs are in even greater demand, with public accounting firms and other organizations recruiting at all levels. Much of the activity is focused on adding professionals in audit and tax roles, but firms are also looking for expertise in risk, compliance, and mergers and acquisitions.
As CPAs get more experience under their belts, many naturally want to take on more responsibilities, make more strategic business decisions and move up the career ladder. Find out more about those options by reading 8 Ways CPAs Can Make Their Way to Management Positions.
Real stories about the CPA
Now that you can answer, "What is a CPA?" how about hearing from some real people about their CPA jobs and journeys? We have a few to share from our blog.
- Belicia Cespedes Tells Her Story: How I Became the Youngest CPA at 17 — Belicia writes about how she started high school at 10 and college at 13, and was rewarded with trips to the Cheesecake Factory every time she sat for a section of the CPA exam. She tells an inspiring story.
- How to Become a CPA in 9 Months: Live Under a Rock Like I Did — Charlene Rhinehart shares her heartfelt and advice-filled story of how she used her grit and tenacity (and brains) to study for the CPA exam and pass the tests within nine months.
- 5 Ways to Fail at the CPA Exam (Like I Did) — Ethan, a senior associate in the audit and assurance department of a regional public accounting firm, offers his candid warning about how NOT to approach the CPA exam, the way he did. He’s inspiring, too, in a different sort of way from Belicia and Charlene.
- The Top 7 CPA Skills — and How to Get Them — A study asked 450 staff-level finance and accounting professionals what they would like to add to their compilation of CPA skills in the next year, and this post discusses their top seven responses.