- As of 2022, the majority of open accountant jobs in the U.S. require a degree. However, some states, such as California, appear to have looser requirements than others.
- If you didn’t go to college, consider CPA certification alternatives such as Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and Certified Internal Auditor (CIA).
- Whichever certifications you aim for, you’ll need working experience in an accounting firm to qualify. Start applying to entry-level accounting positions as soon as possible.
The job outlook for accountants is bright, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that employment for accountants will rise by 7% each year. Also, with accountants earning a median salary of $77,250 per year ($37.14 per hour), they earn comfortably above the national average of around $32 per hour.
And, besides the monetary factor, there are plenty of other reasons why working as an accountant can be attractive. Many of the repetitive and tedious tasks typically associated with accounting are now automated with software, and with the rise of start-up culture, there is a greater demand than ever for creative and innovative thinkers in accounting.
But, how do you become a competitive accountant without having an accounting degree?
In this article, I’ll be going over that very question by giving you a step-by-step guide on how to become an accountant without a degree.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
What does an accountant do?
The responsibilities of an accountant vary depending on their level of experience, the size and type of employer, and whether they work in the public or private sectors.
Generally speaking, however, the key duties of an accountant can be divided into three main categories:
- Tax preparation. Working with tax documents is a daily part of an accountant’s work. Not only are accountants experts in tax preparation and tax law, but their duties also often overlap with tax consultants, especially when working with small-to-medium-sized businesses. To obtain authorization to prepare federal tax returns, you’ll need to obtain the Certified Public Accountant (CPA)license. However, in all U.S. states, a bachelor’s degree or a minimum of 150 university credits is required to get your CPA license.
- Financial reporting. This involves preparing financial statements, such as balance sheets and income statements. Accountants have to prepare and examine financial records constantly, and those with a knack for financial operations will be able to specialize in this field by becoming Certified Financial Accountants (CPFA).
- Auditing. This involves reviewing the financial statements of businesses and organizations to ensure that they are accurate and in compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Once again, there’s a specialization opportunity here, and accountants can obtain the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification if they’re interested in pursuing a career in this field.
As highlighted above, the nature of the work of an accountant depends largely on their specialization, and no accounting career is the same. However, there are some key skills and attributes that are essential for all accountants, regardless of their chosen field.
What skills does an accountant need?
Here are some of the most important skills that all accountants need:
- Attention to detail. Although accountants must be able to see the big picture, they must also be able to pay attention to the smallest of details. This is because even a small error in calculations can lead to investigations from government agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
- Communication skills. The work of an accountant involves an exorbitant amount of communication. There are always clients who don’t submit their documents on time, and there are always incoming calls and e-mails from clients with questions. Managing all of this requires strong communication skills.
- Knowledge of accounting principles. This may seem as obvious as stating that a doctor needs to know about human anatomy. But, it is still worth mentioning that accountants need to have a strong understanding of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and international financial reporting standards (IFRS).
- Knowledge of business laws and regulations. All accountants, regardless of their specialization, must have a general understanding of the business laws and regulations of their country or state of operation. That is also why the typical accounting degree program often overlaps with a business administration degree in course materials.
- Expertise in accounting software. Gone are the days of pen and paper. Today’s accountants need to be experts in accounting software. This is because most businesses, regardless of their size, use accounting software to manage their finances. Some of the most commonly used accounting software are QuickBooks, Sage, and Xero.
What career paths are available for accountants?
Accounting professionals come in many shapes and forms as they are needed in different organizations across a variety of different industries. Here are some of the most common career opportunities for accountants:
- Payroll clerk. Payroll clerks are responsible for handling the financial records of an organization’s employees. In simple terms, these professionals make sure that all of the employees are paid on time and that they receive the correct amount of money. Payroll clerks often also deal with disputes regarding employee pay.
- Bookkeeper. Whether we are talking about a small start-up or a massive organization with thousands of employees, it is safe to say that various transactions are a daily part of running a business. A bookkeeper’s job is to track all of these transactions and keep an accurate record of them. Accountants then use this information to prepare financial statements and tax returns.
- Investment accountant. Investment accountants are responsible for tracking and managing the financial records of the investments of an organization or an individual. This includes both stocks and bonds. This means that these professionals must be well-versed in the various financial laws and regulations that govern these types of investments.
- Management accountant. Management accountants are responsible for providing decision-makers with the financial information that they need to make informed decisions about the future of the organization. This includes both short-term and long-term planning. In addition, management accountants may also be responsible for developing and implementing various cost-saving strategies.
- Public accountant. Public accountants are the most common type of accountant. These professionals offer a large set of various finance-related services to businesses and individuals alike. Generally speaking, public accountants are usually hired to offer their expertise in various tax-related matters.
- Project accountant. Project accountants are hired to track the financial progress of a specific project that an organization is working on. This includes both internal projects and external projects. To do this effectively, project accountants must have a strong understanding of accounting principles and considerable expertise in project management.
- Government accountant. As the name suggests, government accountants work at various levels of government. These professionals are responsible for ensuring that all of the financial transactions of the government are accurate and comply with the law. In addition to this, government accountants may also be responsible for auditing the financial statements of the government.
- Forensic accountant. Forensic accounting involves investigating and identifying potential cases of fraud. Forensic accountants tend to be finance professionals who know how to identify patterns and anomalies in financial data.
- Cost accountant. Cost accountants are professionals hired to analyze and reduce the costs of a company’s production. To do this effectively, cost accountants must have a strong understanding of both accounting and engineering principles.
There are even more specializations available for accountants but these are some of the most common. At first, you will likely be hired as a bookkeeper or a payroll clerk but with experience, you can move up to more specialized and higher-paying positions.
Do you need a degree to become an accountant?
No, you do not need a degree to become an accountant. However, without a degree, you will not be able to get a CPA license, and you will not have unlimited federal tax representation rights.
If you’d like to learn more about what you can or cannot do without a CPA, refer to the page “Understanding Tax Return Preparer Credentials and Qualifications” from the IRS.
As for the job opportunities for accountants who didn’t go to college, here are some statistics from 2022:
And, here’s the same data visualized in a graph:
As is often the case, employers in the United States value college education the most compared to the rest of the world. However, this doesn’t mean that there are no job opportunities for accountants without a degree in the U.S.
Here’s a breakdown of the job availabilities for accountants without a degree in the 10 most populous states in the U.S.:
|Nº of no-degree jobs||Total jobs||% of no-degree jobs|
And, once again, here’s a visualization of these numbers:
As seen above, in all the states we researched, the majority of open accountant positions do still require degrees. However, there are some noticeable differences between the 10 states we analyzed.
Namely, the data shows that California is currently the least demanding state requiring college diplomas from accountant job candidates, while simultaneously being the state with the most open job availabilities.
On the opposite side, Illinois is the least favorable state for accountants who didn’t go to college. In Illinois, only 32.54% of accountant jobs are available to those who don’t have a college degree.
So, should you move to the Golden State of California?
According to the data, yes. But, with a remarkably high cost of living and taxes, moving to California is not exactly an option for everyone. I recommend setting a different goal: getting certified. If you’re certified, you have a good chance of competing even for those positions that do require a degree.
Steps to becoming an accountant without a degree
Here’s how to become an interior designer without a degree:
1. Choose an accounting specialization.
I suggest you start thinking about specializing as soon as possible.
Being specialized in a specific type of accounting makes you infinitely more attractive to employers, and it also makes it easier for you to pass the relevant exams (more on that later). Read through our list of career paths for accountants, and try to choose one that interests you the most.
Also, the most widely acknowledged accounting certification exams provide a general overview of what specializations and employers are looking for. I provided a quick overview of these certifications previously, but let’s go through a quick rundown of the accounting industry’s most valued certifications once more in the next step.
2. Plan out your certification goals.
These are the accounting certification exams I recommend choosing from:
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA). While the CPA exam is notoriously difficult to qualify for and pass, obtaining your CPA license is the one surefire way to open up any door in the accounting world. Certified public accountants are allowed to work with federal tax returns and generally demand a higher salary than non-CPAs. But, without going to college, your options for getting the CPA are rather slim, so I recommend looking for alternatives.
- Certified Financial Accountant (CPFA). The CPFA certification is not nearly as widely known as the CPA. However, when it comes to analyzing financial reports and the financial health of the client, obtaining the CPFA is a solid way to demonstrate your expertise.
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA). The Certified Internal Auditor certification from the Institute of Internal Auditors is perfect for those interested in working in corporate settings. The CIA is the gold standard when it comes to assessing and improving the internal controls of a company and preventing fraud.
And, there’s also an additional auditor certification worth considering:
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA). The CISA, aimed at auditors in the information technology industry, is issued by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA). Because of the growing reliance on technology within the accounting industry, the CISA has become prevalent in recent years, and if you have a hunger for the tech industry, the CISA might be the right certification for you.
These should serve more as long-term goals for you as all of them require at least one year of relevant working experience. But, if you have these certification exams in mind from the beginning, you’ll know better what skills to focus on.
3. Build your skills in accounting and finance.
Once you have an idea of what you want to specialize in and what your certification goals are, it’s time to research the skills you need to achieve those goals.
In the end, with or without going to college, you’ll need some form of accounting education. Even if you are naturally gifted at math, accounting is a profession that requires specific training. There is simply no going around that fact. The best way to get this training is by taking one of many online accounting programs offered by reputable institutions.
These accounting programs offer the best alternative to a bachelor’s degree and provide the necessary skills and knowledge to become a competent accountant. Furthermore, most of these programs can be completed in less than a year and are much cheaper than getting a traditional degree.
Here are some programs worth the time and money:
- Accounting certificate program from UCLA Extension: This certificate program from UCLA Extension equips the students with the necessary skills and knowledge to become successful accountants in the private or public sector. The program covers a wide range of topics such as financial accounting, cost accounting, taxation, auditing, and more. As a plus, the program can be taken online and prepares the students for completing the exams for key accounting certificates like the CIA, CMA, and the CPA.
- Accounting certificate from Southern New Hampshire University: This self-paced online certification program from Southern New Hampshire University is one of the most comprehensive accounting certification programs available online. The program covers financial accounting, auditing, taxation, and more.
- Online accounting certificate from Ashworth College: A very affordable yet credible certificate for people looking to find work as accountants.
There are many, many more accounting certifications available, but we suggest you invest in credentials offered by educational institutions. Such certificates have more weight in prospective employers’ eyes than other online accounting certifications.
4. Optimize your resume and LinkedIn profile.
When you are competing against people who have traditional accounting degrees, you will need a resume and LinkedIn profile that highlights your accounting skills and experience in the best possible light.
Make sure to list all the accounting-related courses you have completed, any relevant experience you might have, as well as any other information that makes you stand out from the competition. For example, if you already have a working knowledge of accounting software such as QuickBooks, make sure to list that on your resume.
Just think about it from an employer’s perspective – when choosing between a candidate who only lists their degree in accounting and someone who can highlight several industry-specific skills, who would you choose?
Long story short, your LinkedIn profile and your resume give you the opportunity to show potential employers that you are as attractive (if not more attractive) of a candidate as someone with a traditional bachelor’s degree. Use this opportunity wisely.
5. Get an entry-level job in an accounting firm.
Landing that very first job and starting your accounting career will not always be easy as you’ll be competing against people with accounting degrees. And, as was evident from the data we gathered, the majority of open jobs for accountants in the United States currently require a bachelor’s degree.
However, it’s not impossible, and you should start by aiming at entry-level positions or internships.
Entry-level positions, while they have a lower salary, typically also have far lower requirements, and they can be a great way to get your foot in the door. Plus, if you land a job as a junior accountant in an accounting firm, you’ll benefit from on-the-job training and the opportunity to develop your skills further.
Similarly, internships are an excellent way of getting experience in the accounting field without having a degree. While most internships are unpaid, some employers offer paid internships, and many also offer the opportunity to convert into a full-time job upon completion.
To filter out degree-requiring positions from job search portals, use boolean search operators. For example, here’s a LinkedIn job search for no-degree junior-level accountant positions across the United States.
6. Start gaining working experience.
Each of the accounting certification exams I have highlighted until this point share one thing in common: you need years of working experience to qualify.
Whichever career or certification path you take, getting some experience under your belt is crucial. Not only is it required for certification exams, but it’s also the best way to make your resume more attractive to future employers.
That is why it’s important to start counting those months and years of professional working experience as soon as possible. Even if the pay seems poor, or if the job is not the type you’d like to be doing long-term, consider that the more years of experience you have, the wider your range of job availabilities becomes. Not to mention the salary ranges. Senior accountants can earn double that of junior accountants, and managers and partners can earn several times more. But, you’ll never qualify for those positions without plenty of experience.
7. Pass accounting certification exams.
At this point, you are already comfortably employed, have working experience, and are looking to take the next step in your career. The CPA exam is usually the natural choice for most accountants as it is one of the most respected credentials in the accounting profession.
Becoming a CPA does require passing an exam, but if you have already completed all the steps above, you’re likely ready to pass the exam itself. The tricky part, however, is that if you didn’t go to college to get an accounting degree, you’re instantly excluded from being eligible to take the exam in most states.
And, those states that do allow people without a degree to take the CPA exam, still require a minimum of 150 credit hours, which essentially already equals a degree.
Therefore, you’ll need to aim for either one of the CPA alternatives or take online programs such as the ones listed above to start racking up those credit hours. Some states require fewer credit hours than others, so read up on each state’s CPA requirements to learn more.
Ultimately, though, your success as an accountant is not just dependent on your status or non-status of CPA. There are plenty of accounting specializations outside of public accounting, and I recommend you explore those options carefully. There are plenty of successful accountants in the workforce who don’t have a degree, and with enough perseverance, you can become one of them. Start crunching those numbers!