If money is the language of business, then no one speaks it better than accountants. "The accounting function is the backbone of the financial markets," says Lisa Young, a partner at Ernst & Young in New York City. "When you come into public accounting, the most exciting thing is what you learn about commerce, the flow of business and understanding business overall."
Pick a Public Accounting Path
"The biggest decision [accounting] graduates need to make is public versus private accounting," explains Mary Feeney Bonawitz, PhD, CPA, assistant professor of accounting at Pennsylvania State University, Capital College, and past president of the American Society of Women Accountants.
Staff accountant or junior auditor are typical entry-level positions in public accounting, whether the firm is large or small, says Clar Rosso, director of communications for the California Society of Certified Public Accountants. In your first few years on the job, you'll assist senior auditors and prepare for the CPA exam.
At a Big Four firm such as Ernst & Young, you would work as a staff auditor for a year or two and then move up to a senior-level auditing post, then manager, then senior manager and ultimately to partner level.
To land the job and keep moving up the ladder, "you need to be a well-rounded individual with strong scholastics, demonstrated leadership capabilities and outside interests," Young says. "Public accounting is about relationships and understanding technical issues. It's about being able to work with a variety of people from all different walks of life."
Pick a Private Accounting Path
If you decide to go the private accounting route and work for a corporation, your first job will likely be in the controller's department. You might do monthly reports or internal audits of your own company, which could send you traveling to job sites in other states or countries.
"You might also work in the budget department doing forecasts or in mergers and acquisitions if your company is looking to grow," Bonawitz explains.
People who follow this accounting track typically seek additional education or credentials to boost them into a job as an assistant controller, then controller and eventually chief financial officer. Options include earning a master's degree in accounting or MBA, or becoming a CPA or a Certified Management Accountant.
Pick Something Else
But accounting graduates have at least two other options: government or nonprofit work.
Uncle Sam and his cousins at the state level hire accountants and auditors to prepare and analyze financial reports, as well as to review and record revenues and expenses. Auditors investigate agencies and programs looking for fraud or waste. Tax examiners decide how much businesses and citizens owe, and then they collect those funds. Purchasing agents buy supplies, while management analysts handle efficiency issues and may suggest solutions to management problems.
If you choose to take the nonprofit route with your accounting career, you can expect to earn less than your fellow grads who choose for-profit employers, but you may have the opportunity to make the world a cleaner, safer or better-educated place in which to live.