A certified public Accountant (CPA) is an advanced specialization for accountants that handles critical tasks involving budgets, payrolls, taxes and other financial matters for businesses, government and auditing firms. Becoming a CPA requires a certification that is difficult to earn and subject to regulations and licensure.

Roles for a CPA

A CPA is a trusted financial advisor who can serve in a variety of roles across any industry. Some careers you’d be eligible for with a CPA designation include:

  • Auditor: CPAs can be external auditors who certify company financial statements or they can be internal auditors who verify reports and track financial progress.
  • Forensic accountant: Forensic accountants examine financial records for signs of theft and fraud or to support litigation.
  • Tax preparer: Some CPAs prepare income taxes for corporations while others specialize in small to mid-sized business and personal income tax work.
  • Controller: A controller is responsible for high-level accounting functions for an organization.

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How do you become a CPA?

The path to the CPA certification requires specific education, experience and the passing of a rigorous examination. In most states, a CPA certification requires a four-year degree and many hours of supplemental expertise.

  • Education: Most CPAs have a degree in accounting, but some states allow non-accounting majors to pursue certification so long as they achieve the requisite hours in accounting courses while pursuing another major.
  • Experience: Field experience for CPA certification varies by state. Most states require candidates to work under the supervision of a CPA. In some states, they can work as private accountants, but in others, experience must be gained as a public accountant.
  • Examination: All CPAs must pass a certification exam. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) develops and proctors the CPA exam. The exam changes every year to include the latest guidelines and regulations. Only about 50 percent of test-takers earn a passing grade.

Once CPAs have the education, experience and a passing exam grade, each state has an accountancy board to grant CPA licenses. To remain in good standing, CPAs must pursue annual continuing education, pay recurring registration costs and remain ethical.

Why be a CPA?

While it sounds like a lot of effort to gain CPA certification, it can be well worth it. Here are some reasons to consider becoming a certified accountant:

  • Higher earnings: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports annual median salaries for accountants and auditors at around $70,000, but CPAs make 5-15 percent more than non-licensed accountants.
  • Career growth and opportunities: CPAs have a much greater chance at job opportunities and promotions. According to Payscale, CPAs make about $10,000 more per year than accountants without certification.
  • Prestige: Earning a CPA designation is difficult and reflects the years of experience and expertise that each CPA invests in their craft.

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