What Is an Accountant?
The term accountant refers to a professional who performs accounting functions such as account analysis, auditing, or financial statement analysis. Accountants work with accounting firms or internal account departments with large companies. They may also set up their own, individual practices. After meeting state-specific educational and testing requirements, these professionals are certified by national professional associations.
Several other terms are often discussed in conjunction with the phrase “accountant,” which can lead to confusion on what this career actually entails. For example, “accountant” and “bookkeeper” are phrases that are sometimes used interchangeably, yet there are several key differences between these job titles.
Typically, bookkeepers will have earned at least an associate degree and focus on recording financial transactions. Accountants, on the other hand, will have typically earned at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and are tasked with interpreting financial information rather than simply gathering it.
Roles and Responsibilities
Although the daily duties of an accountant will vary by position and organization, some of the most common tasks and responsibilities of accountants include:
- Ensuring the accuracy of financial documents, as well as their compliance with relevant laws and regulations
- Preparing and maintaining important financial reports
- Preparing tax returns and ensuring that taxes are paid properly and on time
- Evaluating financial operations to recommend best-practices, identify issues and strategize solutions, and help organizations run efficiently
- Offering guidance on cost reduction, revenue enhancement, and profit maximization
- Conducting forecasting and risk analysis assessments
Additionally, accountants have a legal obligation to act honestly and avoid negligence in their practices. As such, they are also responsible for ensuring that their clients’ financial records are compliant with the relevant laws and regulations.
There are several skills that all accountants need in order to be successful in their roles. Some of the most important skills for accountants are:
- Attention to detail: Accounting professionals must pay strong attention to detail in order to be able to keep information accurate and organized. With the amount of financial data that must be analyzed, it can be easy to make mistakes; however, simple errors can translate into much larger problems if they are not caught.
- Business acumen: To be effective in this role, an accountant must understand the basic functions of a business in order to accurately analyze and interpret financial data. Having a solid foundation in business provides context to the financial information that accountants work with on a daily basis.
- Computer literacy: Professionals in this field need to be able to use advanced accounting software and other computer-based tools to work effectively.
- Analytical skills: Collecting and analyzing financial data is a large part of accounting and is an important aspect of identifying patterns and potential issues. In fact, applying data analytics to the accounting field is an emerging trend in the industry that is expected to have a growing impact in the future.
- Communication skills: Accountants must be able to listen carefully in order to accurately gather facts and figures from clients, managers, or other stakeholders. They must also be able to clearly articulate the results of their work and present their findings in written reports.
- Mathematical skills: A common misconception is that you have to be good at math to be an accountant. It is true that math skills are important in order to analyze, compare, and interpret data and figures; however, complex mathematical skills are not typically necessary to become an accountant.
How to Become an Accountant?
1. Earn a degree. Although you can obtain an associate degree for accounting, a bachelor’s degree generally looks better to prospective employers.
2. Get an advanced degree, too. Though not required, some employers may even prefer that their accountants have a master’s degree in accounting or business administration with a concentration in accounting. Some universities and colleges offer a five-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program.
3. Take the certified public accountant exam. The CPA exam is a four-part exam issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. State requirements vary, and some require you to take an ethics exam, too.
4. Keep up with continuing education. In order to maintain your CPA license, continuing professional education is required every year. You’ll also need to renew your license every couple of years.