It takes dedication and hard work to become an accountant. You’ll invest a significant amount of time and money taking classes, earning certification and searching for a job. So before you commit to all of it, you need to know: Is an accounting degree worth it in the end?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question as everyone has different needs and wants in their life. However we can provide you with as much relevant information as possible for you to make the determination for yourself.
We combined real-time job analysis data, government information and first-hand knowledge from seasoned accountants to give you a better idea of whether or not enrolling in an accounting program makes sense for you. Keep reading to get some answers to your burning questions and determine if an accounting degree is worth it or worthless.
Is there any demand for accountants?
As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” No matter your stance on taxation, this is a positive truism for accountants. Barring some disaster scenario where all bets are off, people and businesses will have to taxes to pay every year. With that comes stability.
Need proof? Jobs for accountants are expected to grow at the steady rate of 13 percent through 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This slightly outpaces the national average for all occupations, suggested an optimistic future for aspiring accountants.
Do accounting jobs pay well?
Keeping a business’ or an individual’s financial house in order is incredibly important, and that importance is reflected in the compensation of accountants. The median annual salary for accountants in 2012 was $63,550, the BLS reports.* This is significantly higher than the median annual wage for all workers in 2012, which was $34,750.
If you choose to pursue credentials like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification or decide to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), your earning potential can be even higher. A salary survey conducted by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) suggests that accountants who earn the CMA make about $10,000 more than an accountant without this certification. Keep in mind this salary information is self-reported, and the majority of the respondents have several years of experience in the field. Even with a survey population that skews toward experienced accountants, this still illustrates the long-term value and compensation potential of an accounting degree holder.
What do I have to do to get started?
Like most in-demand jobs with high earning potential, the majority of accounting positions will require a bachelor’s degree. In fact, an analysis of nearly 285,000 accounting jobs posted in the past year revealed that 98 percent of employers are seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree or higher.**
However, you may be able to find entry-level jobs in accounts payable/receivable or as a tax preparer to build experience as you work your way through school. Accountant Michael Gelsinger did exactly that.
"I would highly recommend a degree in accounting to anyone who wishes to have a solid career in a field that offers a wide range of possibility."
He began working as an accounts payable clerk while attending junior college, transitioned to a finance manager position for a non-profit and then returned to school while interning at a county controller’s office. Now he’s worked his way up to a position as an accountant for the state of California.
“I would highly recommend a degree in accounting to anyone who wishes to have a solid career in a field that offers a wide range of possibility,” Gelsinger says.
Another factor to consider in getting started in accounting is the certification process—CPAs and CMAs must undergo rigorous certification exams that will require both practical work experience and a deep understanding of accounting practices. It’s not uncommon for CPAs to spend months studying and preparing as they make their way through the four certification exams.
What if I want to change careers?
The time and money invested into becoming an accountant is significant, so it’s understandable if you’re concerned that you might box yourself into a career you find you don’t really enjoy. Though accounting may seem like a very specific skill, you’re not going to be completely ‘stuck’ if you find life as an accountant isn’t what you may have hoped for.
Aalap Shah, co-founder of digital marketing agency SoMeConnect, began his career as a CPA working for one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms. The mix of long hours and his entrepreneurial spirit eventually led him away from accounting, but Shah says his background has helped, not hindered, his current career.
“I think any field that relies on the ability to work with data provides opportunities for former accountants to have a base level expertise in how to approach that business,” Shah says. He’s found the same skill set needed to analyze data, numbers and information can be leveraged in organizing and executing marketing campaigns.
Of course, not everyone has the means to start their own business, but there are plenty of examples of accountants who have successfully transitioned into other careers.
So is it worth it?
As you can see, an accounting degree can put you on track to a steady, well-paying career. But don’t expect it to be a walk in the park. You’ll need to first earn your degree, and in the case of most accountants, complete a rigorous certification process to be in contention for some of the more prestigious accounting or auditing jobs.
So is an accounting degree worth it for you? We can’t answer that question for you. But the information above should give you a much better idea. If you’re up for the challenge and love working with numbers, earning an accounting degree is undoubtedly a good option.
Still need more information? Check out 9 Must-Know Pros & Cons of an Accounting Career.
*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
**Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 284,836 accounting job postings, Nov. 01, 2014 – Oct. 31, 2015)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in Nov. 2013. It has since been updated to reflect data relevant to 2015.