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How to become an accountant

Think accountancy is all about number-crunching? Think again! There’s far more to being an accountant than just figures

A profession in finance might suit you if you can build professional relationships with people and demonstrate integrity, business awareness and analytical skills.

Accountants benefit from above-average salaries, plenty of choice around how to specialise and professional qualifications that are recognised internationally. This guide talks you through all you need to know to become an accountant.

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Not interested in becoming an accountant? Browse all of our careers and job guides.
 

Overview

What does an accountant do?

Accountants provide financial advice and they help businesses to manage their money and maximise profits. The job will involve preparing financial reports, checking the accuracy of financial documents and advising on finances. Topics that an accountant might have to tackle include tax, pay, budgets and procurement (the sourcing of goods or services).

The day-to-day role will vary depending on the type of accountancy you decide to specialise in. For example:

Public practice accountants support businesses to manage their finances. They tend to be employed in accountancy or professional services firms and can enjoy the variety of working with a wide range of different clients.

Management accountants manage budgets within a business and look at how to make the organisation more profitable. They spend their time looking ahead, so forecasting and strategic business planning might be part of their day.

Public finance accountants work with public sector organisations, including local councils, the NHS and schools, and government departments like HM Treasury. Financial reporting is a key part of the role (providing information to stakeholders outside the organisation) and they have a responsibility to ensure that financial activities within the public sector are carried out efficiently and in the right way.

Public practice or public finance: what’s the difference?
It would be easy to get these two muddled up. Public practice accountants work with a range of business clients to help them manage their money; they tend to work in accountancy firms. Public finance accountants work with the public sector to ensure public money is being spent appropriately.

How to become an accountant

You can become a chartered accountant by taking a degree, followed by professional qualifications. Or you can work towards a degree apprenticeship as an accountancy or taxation professional. It's also possible to work your way up to chartered status by starting out in a more junior role, for example as an accounting assistant, while working towards professional qualifications.

Let’s bust a few myths about accountancy.

• You don’t need to be accomplished in all areas of maths to be a great accountant, but it does help to be good with numbers.
• You don’t need a degree, although many people follow the academic route to qualification.
• If you choose the degree route, you needn’t study accounting, maths or economics. Languages or sciences could be just as useful.

Different professional qualifications are required depending on the type of accountancy you choose to specialise in. You can find out more under professional accountancy qualifications.

What to expect as an accountant

Lewis Currie is an audit associate at Grant Thornton UK LLP. He moved into the role straight after A levels and is due to complete Association of Accounting Technician (AAT) qualifications this summer before progressing onto Association of Chartered Accountants (ACA) qualifications:

The brilliant thing about working in audit is that there isn’t a typical day. I work with such a variety of clients within different sectors, from universities and schools in the education sector, right through to commercial manufacturing companies. As the clients we work with are all different and unique, the work and testing we perform on them is individual and this keeps it interesting for me

Common accountant skills
Some of the employability skills needed in this sector include the ability to communicate, working with others, showing attention to detail and handling and analysing figures. In addition, you need problem-solving, organisation, leadership and IT skills, not forgetting commercial awareness, adaptability and integrity, which should also help you to progress.

Day to day
Typically an accountant will work office hours, with some evening or weekend work required to meet deadlines or at busy times, such as year-end or tax return season. Longer hours might be expected while you sit your professional exams, with study required alongside your day-to-day role.

A typical day for Wendy Smith, UK reporting manager for Avanti Gas Limited, might include:

coordinating the work of a team of qualified and trainee accountants, reporting results to the company’s US owner, troubleshooting accounting issues, and reviewing financial performance to recommend areas for improvement and to highlight financial risk

Wendy highlights how varied the role can be depending on the type of industry you work in and advises potential accountants to be aware of this:

Give consideration to the type of company you’d like to work for in the longer term, as each industry is so different. You will quickly build industry-specific skills that will help you to become an expert in your chosen field

Accountant education and qualifications

What qualifications are required to become an accountant?

If you choose the academic route to accountancy, you’ll need GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades 4/C or above, including English and maths. Achieving As and Bs at A level (or equivalent) and a 2:1 from your degree used to be a requirement for many top firms, but some have now moved away from these requirements in an effort to broaden recruitment. Firms are all still looking for the full package of experience, ability, skills and attitude.

When researching accountancy degrees, find out which will give you an exemption from certain professional exams. This means you can claim credit for prior learning, thereby accelerating your route to qualification and saving you from learning the same content again.

If you decide against a degree in accounting, alternative degrees for would-be accountants include maths, economics, business, management and finance. Remember that graduates of all subjects can pursue this career path.

Vocational vs academic routes to becoming an accountant

When considering which route to take to become an accountant, you’ll need to find out what will suit you best. All routes end in professional qualifications, but the path to get there can vary.

Possible routes include:

• Academic: A levels (or equivalent) plus degree plus professional qualifications
• Vocational: BTEC level 3 (or similar qualifications) plus degree plus professional qualifications
• Work-based: apprenticeship (starting at advanced, higher or degree level, including professional qualifications)
• Work-based: start off in a junior role, and work towards professional qualifications alongside work

Consider your preferred style of learning and assessment. Think about whether you're ready to commit to becoming an accountant, or whether you’d rather keep other doors open. How important is that you have a degree? Would working while studying suit you best, on an apprenticeship or through work-based qualifications? Don’t forget to factor in the cost and time taken to qualify through the different routes.

You can mix and match the routes above, for example, by studying A levels followed by a degree apprenticeship.

Top tip
It is possible to qualify more quickly through an apprenticeship than by the degree route.


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    Professional accountancy qualifications
    The professional exams you take will depend on how you would like to specialise and where you intend to work.

    If you want to work in public practice, look out for ACA qualifications from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). This route could lead you to working for an accounting firm advising a range of clients and helping them to manage their money. You could specialise in auditing, corporate finance or tax, for example. Public practice is a fairly common route for graduates moving into professional accountancy careers.

    If you have ambitions to ensure good financial and accounting practices within the public sector as a public finance accountant, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (CIPFA) professional exams might be beneficial. This route might interest you if you’d prefer to work in the charity or non-profit sector, rather than big business.

    If you want to base yourself within industry or with a particular job sector or company, you might like to consider Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) qualifications. Management accountants are more likely to be employed within a business, looking after the finances of the company.

    Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) qualifications are broader, offering the option to specialise later on. As a result, chartered certified accountants can access a range of accountancy opportunities in any sector, including public practice, industry-based or public sectors.

    These days, there is some flexibility around qualifications and roles, so don’t assume that your professional qualifications will restrict you to one type of role forever.

    Accounting technicians have their own professional qualifications, giving them the skills to manage everyday financial matters in various business settings. After AAT qualifications, one third of students progress on to one of the professional qualifications listed above to gain chartered status.

    How to become a chartered accountant
    To become a chartered accountant you need to pass certain professional exams and have an agreed amount of professional experience. Chartered certified accountants refer to chartered accountants who have gained qualifications and membership of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

    Best universities for accountancy courses
    The ‘best’ university for accountancy might depend on a number of factors, such as student satisfaction, average graduate salaries and specific module information. The Which? University course finder tool offers all this comprehensive data and more to help you decide what’s right for you.

    League tables are also a good reference point when choosing a university. According to the Guardian’s university league tables for 2019, here are the top 10 institutions for accountancy and finance.
    • Bath
    • Loughborough
    • Leeds
    • Strathclyde
    • Buckingham
    • Exeter
    • London South Bank
    • Nottingham Trent
    • Warwick
    • UCL

    Take a look at the comparable top 10 in the Times’ university league table for 2019 (behind paywall).
    • Leeds
    • Strathclyde
    • Warwick
    • Bath
    • Glasgow
    • Loughborough
    • Lancaster
    • Exeter
    • Queen's University, Belfast
    • Birmingham

    It is worth noting that non-Russell Group institutions make up at least half of both top ten lists.

    Remember: university league tables are just one source of information to help you decide on a university course. They can’t tell you whether a course is right for you.

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    Accountant jobs

    Accountants work in accountancy firms, but also for banks and building societies, management consultancies, as well as a range of private and public sector employers.

    Where to find accountant jobs

    For accountancy apprenticeships and school-leaver schemes, look out for vacancies advertised on National Apprenticeship Service, UCAS Career Finder or Get my First Job. If you’re interested in working for a particular organisation, search the company website for opportunities.

    At university you can get support from your university’s careers service to find work experience and internship opportunities. They might also be able to provide tips on how to make best use of specialist graduate recruitment agencies.

    After university, you might find graduate accountancy opportunities through websites such as TARGETJobs, Inside Careers, Prospects, Milkround, the Guardian and Accountancy Age.

    Lewis Currie, audit associate at Grant Thornton UK LLP, says:
    I would recommend that you spend time perfecting your CV, as this is important in portraying your skills and personality to potential employers. Look to attend lots of careers fairs and ensure you are armed with plenty of pertinent questions. Attend Insight Days, such as the one offered by Grant Thornton, as this can give you a flavour of what it is like to work in a large professional services firm. Check the employer’s website for when applications open and look to apply as early as possible. Do not rush the application process, and ask parents or teachers to help

    Common and well-known employers of accountants

    Well-known employers of public practice accountants include the Big Four professional services firms: PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY. Beyond these firms, you’ll find names like Grant Thornton, BDO and RSM, as well as countless small and medium practices.

    Within the public sector, look out for opportunities with HM Treasury, National Audit Office and local government. You’ll also find accountants working in health, education and charities.

    Don’t limit your search to the financial services sector. Elsewhere, opportunities can be found in large businesses across a range of industries.

    Popular accountant graduate schemes
    PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY offer some of most popular graduate schemes, but there are many other opportunities available, such as:

    BDO Graduate Programme (ACCA, CIMA or ICAEW)
    Civil Service Finance Fast Stream (ACCA, CIMA, CIPFA or ICAEW)
    The London Treasurer’s Graduate Finance Programme (CIPFA)
    McDonald's Trainee Graduate Accountant (CIMA)
    National Audit Office Chartered Accountancy Training Scheme (ICAEW)
     
    Average accountant starting salaries
    You’ll find a range of financial packages on offer, depending on where you work and the type and size of firm. According to Prospects, graduates can expect to earn up to £25,000 per annum. Once chartered and with two to four years post-qualification experience, annual salaries could jump to £56,000, later rising to £90,200 with five or more years’ experience.

    The professional associations also provide information on average and potential earnings on their websites (see ‘Where to find more information, below).

    Typical accountant career path and progression, prospects and professional development
    There is plenty of room to climb the career ladder in this profession. You might choose to specialise in an area of accounting: forensic accounting or risk assessment, for example. You could opt to become self-employed. With time and experience, you could apply to become a director or partner, although it is likely to be competitive. Senior roles include chief financial officer or head of finance.

    Continuing to learn and keeping abreast of current issues is key. Your professional body will help you to ensure that you keep up to date.

    Related jobs and careers
    If you change your mind about becoming an accountant, you might consider other roles where money and finances play a part. How about stockbroking or investment banking, working in quantity surveying, training to be an actuary or economist, or roles within retail banking?

    Where to find more information

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