Students going into accounting may have a very narrow view of their career options – CPA doing people's taxes every year, or corporate bean counter in a cubicle. There's a widely held misconception about what defines an accountant's job; most people visualize a math geek who does nothing but add columns and fill out forms for a living. But accounting is actually an extremely varied, diverse career, and today the best accounting jobs that fetch the highest hourly rates are those that are most specialized.
Why Should I Specialize?
The accounting field is changing all the time, driven by globalization, corporate consolidation, changes in the tax code, and, of course, the new technologies that are emerging every day. From the incredible possibilities and challenges of Big Data, to the tax complications that come from the merger of major multinational corporations, accountants can make themselves very desirable on the job market with specializations in areas that are rapidly growing, or underrepresented.
There are so many options today that there's no reason to go for a general accounting degree (unless that's really what you want to do). What's more, since many students don't even realize there are more options out there, some of the most interesting, challenging, or lucrative specializations are also the most in-demand – there just aren't enough specialized experts coming out of school to meet the need.
Here are just 5 of the smartest accounting niches you can start preparing for today.
1. Estate/Trust Accounting
One of the most in-demand specialties today is estate and trust accounting. This job has accountants work with families, couples, and individuals to formulate a strategy on how their wealth will be distributed in the event of death. The business side of dying can be complicated – distributing inheritances, dealing with life insurance policies, managing investments – and estate and trust experts can help families avoid unnecessary complications (and tax penalties) by planning early. And a solid estate accountant can help smooth out issues even if the deceased did not plan ahead, making a good estate planner well worth their pay rate.
Becoming either a Chartered Trust and Estate Planner (CTEP) or an Accredited Estate Planner (AEP) is a good way to show clients that you know what you're doing. Both require work experience, continuing education, and exams. Many colleges and universities are including estate planning as specialized concentrations in their accounting bachelor's and master's degree programs. These specializations may include the education credits necessary for certification. For working accountants wanting to add a certification or extra credentials, these can often be found in fully online formats.
2. Forensic Accounting
Forensic accountants are in high demand, especially in the law enforcement and homeland security niches. These accountants are trained on how to scrutinize and thoroughly examine business records for any signs of irregularities. If there are any anomalies identified by the forensic examinations, they can be used as testimony in a court of law. Forensic accountants are often key witnesses in prosecuting corrupt staff who've been indicted for embezzlement or executives committing serious white collar crimes. As a forensic accountant, your main duties and roles often revolve around performing systematic auditing, searching for discrepancies in both private and public funded companies. Other routine duties include reviewing financial statements and reports from the Fortune 500 listed and traded companies.
Most often, forensic accountants are permanent employees of the state and federal governments. These professionals are easily absorbed into agencies like the FBI, the US Secret Service, and by the Big 4 accounting firms. Alternatively, you'll find the forensic experts opting to venture into private practice as accounting consultants. To get into forensic accounting, colleges and universities frequently offer forensic accounting as specializations or concentrations within their bachelor's and master's degree programs. Often, forensics programs collaborate with business and law programs for an interdisciplinary degree that is well-rounded and market-ready.
Check out Accounting Degree Review's ranking of the Top 25 Bachelor's Degrees in Forensic Accounting!
3. Accounting Information Technology/Systems
Accounting Information Technology and Systems isn't so much a job in the accounting field as it is an approach to accounting. Accounting IT combines accounting skills and knowledge with understanding of computer science, information technology, and related skills. Accounting IT or IS makes use of technology, which may include using existing technology to improve bookkeeping, data recording and analysis, or communications. AIS may also include developing new technology to do these things better – data visualization, tracking, security, automation, and more. It's the next frontier in accounting, and it's already here.
Accounting information specialists need a highly focused, interdisciplinary education, and fortunately, that exists. In fact, accounting IT is one of the fastest-growing concentrations in accounting education, with business schools joining forces with computer science programs to turn out graduates who are equally confident in both. Often, accounting information systems programs are found at the graduate level, and are designed for students who already have a bachelor's degree in accounting or computer science. Whichever side they come from, a master's program makes students experts in the combination of the two – Accounting and Information Technology, BFFs.
Don't miss Accounting Degree Review's ranking of the Top 30 Best Bachelor's Degrees in Accounting Information Systems!
4. International Tax
International anything is complicated – international travel, international dating, international shipping. But international taxation? That's another level of complicated. Of course, in the era of globalization, no major corporation (or even a small one) is solely concentrated in one country, so expertise in international taxation is one of the most attractive skills you can show potential employers. Corporations need accountants who can navigate the hairy, scary world of international tax, especially to keep them from paying more than they need to.
Colleges and universities are making international taxation an important new component in a good accounting education. In many cases, a specialized certification can be added to an existing degree to help a working professional accountant or attorney add the knowledge (and the official credentials) to work in international tax. Accounting schools and law schools are also developing concentrations within their degree programs to bring together accounting, tax, and law to help business. It's only going to get more important as companies spread out across the world, and if you like travel and international cultures, now is the time to get into the field.
Accounting Degree Reviews has ranked the 30 Best Value Master's in Taxation Degrees!
5. Mergers and Acquisitions
Mergers and Acquisitions has gotten a bad rap. It doesn't help that one of the most quotable lines in American Psycho (2000) has crazed killer Patrick Bateman describing his occupation as "murders and executions, mostly." Naturally, in the business world, his victim hears it as "mergers and acquisitions." But there's nothing wrong with a little M&A – in fact, it's pretty basic to American business. Every time Disney or Facebook buy up another company, that's a job for the mergers and acquisitions department, and everybody knows it happens plenty. There's a lot of work to be done in a big merger, and somebody's got to do it. That's the accountants and lawyers.
Accountants in mergers and acquisitions need a very wide and thorough education. It's not just the accounting – there's law, business, ethics, and even public relations involved in making a merger happen. Antitrust laws mean that any merger needs to be on the up-and-up, and the experts in mergers and acquisitions make sure everything happens. There aren't many specialized concentrations in accounting degree programs, but there are several certifications to show you're serious: the Certified Merger & Acquisition Advisor (CM&AA); the Certified M&A Specialist (CMAS); and the International M&A certification.
Getting the Accounting Education You Need
There are several different educational paths you can take to get into these kinds of in-demand accounting specialties. First of all, for a basic, entry-level accounting job, you'll need a bachelor's degree from a regionally-accredited college or university – don't waste your time with unaccredited diploma mills. An AACSB-accredited school or program is even better; that's the worldwide standard for business accreditation. If the accounting program is also AACSB-accredited, you've hit the jackpot.
However, most of the in-demand specializations we've discussed will require a master's degree: either an MS in Accounting, an MAcc, or an MBA in Accounting. Online master's degrees in accounting are quite easy to find these days, including programs from some of the most highly regarded colleges in the US. Professionals who already have bachelor's degrees in another field may also qualify for online certificate programs in accounting that can provide the skills necessary to make a career change. With those credentials in place, a specialized master's program, or a certification in an area like mergers and acquisitions or international taxation, can get you on the fast track to an in-demand career.
It's a good idea to consult with your teachers, or with an experienced accounting professional, before making any long-term decisions. These people may be able to advise you on what pre-qualification courses to take, and they might also come in handy when the time comes for you to finally search for a decent accounting gig in your locale. Joining local and national accounting associations is an important step too. These professional organizations often hold seminars and workshops to help sharpen and motivate new and emerging accountants. With the accounting realm poised for even greater growth in the coming years, it's imperative you have a solid understanding of the best accounting jobs so that you can plan your future career properly.