Myth vs. Reality: What Is Being an Accountant Really Like?
By Will Erstad on 06/03/2019
The world is full of misconceptions about careers. Whether it’s superhuman police officers, nurses whose only responsibility is to serve doctors or corrections officers being surrounded by violent killers at all times. It’s easy for those who’ve never spent a day in a career to make assumptions that wildly differ from reality, and that's no different for jobs that deal with money.
While accounting isn’t typically portrayed in media in a bombastic or over-the-top light, there are still plenty of things the uninitiated tend to get wrong about the job. We’re here to help clear up some of the confusion.
What is accounting like? 7 Myths and misconceptions explained
We asked seasoned accountants to share some of the most common misconceptions the public has about the field and help set the record straight. Let their insight give an inside look into what being an accountant is really like.
1. Accountants are all math whizzes
“[People] immediately think I must absolutely love math and I’m great with numbers,” says Ben Watson, CPA and DollarSprout personal finance expert. “While I enjoy math, I still let Microsoft Excel® do most of the heavy lifting.”
Don’t get us wrong—numerical literacy is still an important part of the job. But many seem to get the impression that accountants possess some form of rare genius and like to spend their free time completing Advanced Calculus assignments. Some accountants may find that appealing, but the idea that the math behind most accounting work is exceedingly complex is fiction. In most cases, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will get the job done, and "artificial intelligence" and automation helps take care of the more tedious calculations.
2. Accountants love to provide free tax advice
Many accountants spend long hours navigating complex tax arrangements and seeking ways for their clients to legally maximize their profits. So of course they’d love to spend their free time taking a peek at your relatively simple W-2s and receipts, right? You can probably see where this is going, but this is a terrible assumption to make. There’s a reason accountants get paid for the work they do—they’re not digging into the minutiae of the U.S. tax code just for fun.
And even if you do know an accountant kind enough to hear you out, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to immediately help with information just off the top of their heads.
“Similar to how a doctor might be immediately asked their opinion on a discolored mole, I get a lot of immediate requests for tax advice,” Watson says. “While I do know a lot about taxes, I only specialize in specific areas since the topic is so vast.”
3. Being an accountant is boring
In terms of excitement, accounting might not compare with being a fighter pilot, but it’s not fair to assume accountants are bored to tears on a regular basis. Like any line of work, there are parts that can be a little dull or monotonous, but other aspects can be downright interesting. This is particularly true for accountants who’ve climbed into leadership positions.
“[People] often don’t understand that the accounting and finance person becomes a strategic partner,” says Bob Prather, general manager of accounting and finance at Lucas Group.
Accountants have an incredible vantage point into their clients’ business operations—they see where the money is coming and going and can learn a substantial amount about what goes into running a profitable business.
“When you get to the good part of accounting you are dealing more with people, processes and business partnership,” Prather explains.
4. Accounting work is rigid
Given the generally buttoned-up and structured nature of parts of their work, you might be inclined to believe accounting is essentially “paint by numbers” with little variation in how scenarios are resolved.
“When I started my accounting education, I didn't think that my future jobs would require as much creativity as they did,” says Logan Allec, CPA and owner of Money Done Right. Allec stresses that he doesn’t mean accounting “creativity” in a legally or ethically dubious way. The creativity is more about the different approaches that can be taken to help a client.
“As with any service profession, in accounting you must be constantly thinking of new ways to serve your clients better,” Allec says.
5. Accounting skills are narrowly applied and focus only on taxes
Michael Rogers, CPA and entrepreneur says that prior to attending college, he assumed an accounting degree led to basically tax preparation or auditing roles, but has since learned the truth about the breadth of options.
“Taxes are only a small part of what a CPA or accountant can do,” Rogers says. “There are so many other careers that accountants are able to pursue because of their understanding of financial statements and how businesses operate.”
For example, management accounting, mergers and acquisitions, estate and trust accounting, and compliances roles are all types of accounting positions you may choose to specialize in over the course of an accounting career.
“Doesn’t matter if you work for a Fortune 500 or a local nonprofit, somebody has to manage the money to keep things running smoothly,” Watson says. “I was pleased to discover just how much more flexible accounting is.”
6. Accountants don’t need to communicate
You might imagine accountants as bleary-eyed folks silently fiddling with spreadsheets for hours on end, only to emerge from their cubicle caves for more coffee. While there may be a sliver of truth to that—just ask any accountant about their love/hate relationship with Excel® and you’ll likely need to pull up a chair—but most accountants aren’t sealed off from the world and rely on their communication skills to be successful.
Allec says writing, and communication overall, is a huge part of his job. He interacts directly with colleagues and clients alike on a regular basis.
“I have to write emails to clients on a daily basis explaining complex tax or accounting issues in language they can understand,” he explains. “I have to draft memos documenting tax positions. I have to write instructions to others on my team so they can do their jobs better.”
7. Accountants are dull or unfriendly
Sure, accounting work can be dry at times. And any group that collectively tends to get excited about fancy pens might cause you to raise your eyebrows, but as with any career, you’ll find a variety of personalities throughout the profession.
“People assume accountants don’t have personalities or are anti-social,” Watson says. “Most people who meet me for the first time are surprised that I’m outgoing and have hobbies.”
Prather says that prior to working in the field he had some misguided notions about the personalities he’d find in the profession.
“I thought they would be stuffy,” Prather says. “On the contrary, I have met so many amazing, different personalities and am lucky to call many of them friends today even after 20 years.”
The truth about being an accountant
There are a lot of erroneous assumptions about the accounting field and the people working in it. But the truth is that being an accountant might be much more interesting than you thought.
If this realistic look at the role of an accountant has you considering a career in the field, you might be interested in learning a little more about what accountants actually do. Get an in-depth look in our article, “What Do Accountants Do? A Look at Life Behind the Ledger.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.