Clearly, you have an interest in an accounting career, and in all honesty, why wouldn't you? If you're good with numbers, organization, and detail, there's probably no more stable and lucrative career out there (not one that's legal, anyway). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for accountants are growing at a steady 10% over the next decade, and many specialties – especially those related to emerging technology – are growing even more quickly.
Once you start researching how to start your accounting career, though, you'll soon find out that many different career opportunities at many different education levels are available. Each degree can take you in different directions with your future career. To help you better understand where you can take an accounting career, let's understand what kinds of education levels there are.
Certificate or Diploma in Accounting
A short certificate or diploma program in accounting is the place where many accounting professionals start their career. Generally speaking, most diploma programs take around one year, and they cover the basics of accounting, bookkeeping, payroll account, or some other particular job. These are enough to qualify you for a job as a bookkeeper or clerk, but lack the general education requirements you would need to transfer to a 4-year college. Certificate programs may be shorter, and require just three or four courses – the bare basics necessary to start a job.
Most of the time, students can earn these entry-level qualification from a community college or small accounting school. While a bookkeeper certificate or diploma won't get you very far toward a college degree, it's ideal for people looking to learn the basics of accounting, and to sit for licenses and credentials like the Certified Bookkeeper exam.
Associate's in Accounting
The next step up, beyond a certificate or diploma, is an associate's degree in accounting. A full, 2-year associate's degree (usually 60 credit hours) will not only give students the basics of accounting, but also the general education requirements necessary to transfer to a 4-year college. Most local community colleges and technical schools will offer an associate's degree in accounting, and many institutions are now offering fully online accounting associate's degrees. Some of these accounting associate's can be quite affordable.
With an associate's degree, graduates will still be able to get jobs at the entry level, such as bookkeeper and accounting clerk. While it's limited in terms of opportunities, the real benefit of an associate's degree over a faster and cheaper diploma or certificate is the ability to transfer credits to a 4-year program. Most public community colleges will have articulation agreements with the colleges and universities in the area to make transferring to a bachelor's program easier.
Bachelors in Accounting
To start a career as an actual certified public accountant (CPA), the minimum standard today is a bachelor's degree in accounting. A full 4-year bachelor program generally takes at least 120 credit hours, though if you already earned an associate's degree, you've got the first 60 covered. Once the general education courses are out of the way (the first 2 years worth), your classes will focus on accounting, business, finance, math, and statistics. Online accounting bachelor's degrees and degree completion programs have become extremely common.
In addition to qualifying for a CPA license, many bachelor's programs today offer specializations in extremely in-demand fields, such as forensic accounting, accounting information systems, and actuarial science. Because there is so much need today for trained, qualified accountants, colleges and universities are offering extremely affordable online accounting bachelor's degrees, just to meet the job market demand from students and employers.
Note: If you already have a bachelor's degree in another field, but want to start a new career as an accountant, there are many online undergraduate certificate programs in accounting that can get you up to speed without a whole new degree.
Masters in Accounting
A Master's in Accounting (MAcc) degree is the next level of accounting education, and for most professionals, it's the last stop. Requiring an extra 1-2 years beyond a bachelor's degree, students in a master's program will learn advanced accounting skills, theory, and practice, as well as focus in a particular specialization such as forensic accounting or taxation accounting. Graduates can be considered a specialist with their concentration, opening the doors to higher positions within a firm, a corporation, or government agency.
Demand for master's degrees in accounting has become high, as the job market has become more competitive and accounting professionals are looking for a credential to set them apart from the competition. For that reason, colleges and universities are adding online master's degrees in accounting, often requiring no residency or time on campus at all. These can be found an many forms, such as accelerated accounting master's programs, and to entice students, some schools keep their online programs as affordable as possible.
Note: As with the bachelor's certificate, online accounting master's certificates have become quite common for working professionals who already have a degree, but want to add an accounting emphasis.
MBA in Accounting
Many accountants today choose a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an accounting specialization, rather than a MAcc degree. That's because the MBA, unlike the MAcc, also includes an emphasis on management along with advanced accounting skills, giving professionals more preparation for leadership positions.
Either degree will provide the knowledge to be a great accountant, but for accountants who are considering moving up into management, or going on their own as an entrepreneur, the enhanced business expertise will make a difference in your success. The MBA is one of the most common graduate degree programs, so it's easy to find convenient, affordable online MBA programs in accounting, finance, and related specializations.
PhD or DBA in Accounting
Doctorate programs in accounting were not very common until recent years, but you can pin the blame on the job market. When the bachelor's degree becomes standard, professionals have to get a master's degree to stand out; when everyone has a master's degree, where do you go but up? The two main doctoral degrees in accounting are the Doctor of Business Administration and the PhD. Both are terminal degrees, both take a good deal of hard work (as little as one year, but as many as 4 to 5 years), and both serious accomplishments.
The DBA is a professional (rather than academic) degree, meaning it is intended for people who want to actually work in the field, as opposed to research or teaching. The DBA will focus more on leadership and using accounting knowledge and expertise in an administrative capacity, such as C-level executives or vice presidents. The PhD is for accountants who want to teach accounting at the college level, or work in research, so it will focus more heavily on research, writing, and teaching skills. Either degree may be appropriate if you're interested in working as a corporate consultant, entrepreneur, or accounting guru.