What certifications do you need to become an accountant?
Accounting graduates have a range of certification options to consider, and can typically choose more than one speciality. The following is a list of the most common types:
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA)
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
Certified Financial Analyst (CFA)
Certified Public Accountant
CPA certifications offered by the American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) are the gold standard in this profession. Financial experts with this qualification are proficient in key accounting areas, and are prepared to offer multiple services including those related to appraising, reporting, and risk management. CPAs are also typically the only professionals who can perform external audits that determine an individual or organization's overall financial position.
Due to this, CPAs are often hired to evaluate complicated tax situations or help clients ensure they are complying with various laws and regulations. This can lead CPAs to find employment as accountants and auditors in businesses, accounting firms, and government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service.
You will need to check with the CPA licensing requirements of your state. In general, however, to gain a CPA certification, you should expect to complete 150 credit hours at an accredited college or university, including several accounting courses. You will also need to pass an exam that is broken up into the four sections of auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation.
Chartered Global Management Accountant
CGMAs are certified by both the AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. This endorsement is for those who want to develop an advanced understanding of various accounting principles. CGMAs have both in-depth experience in the field and extensive knowledge of financial markets, business environments, and industry trends, leading to recognition of their skills on a global scale. Given their training, CGMAs can qualify for top executive positions such as chief financial officer and chief audit executive.
Gaining this certification requires a mix of education, experience, and testing. Before applying, you must complete the CGMA Finance Leadership Program, pass an exam, and accrue three years of work experience.
CGMAs have in-depth experience in the field and extensive knowledge of financial markets, business environments, and industry trends, leading to recognition of their skills on a global scale.
Certified Management Accountant
For accountants who want to work in the corporate world, the CMA designation signals expertise in the field of management accounting. Like CPAs, CMAs have a strong grounding in accounting methods and theories. However, these latter professionals are also trained in management practices and are therefore adept at applying their knowledge in business settings. They help ensure that an organization is financially healthy by setting annual operating budgets, projecting revenues, assessing profitability, and suggesting ways to cut costs.
CMAs may be particularly well qualified to work as budget analysts or management analysts in large multinational firms and other corporate settings.
CMA certifications are awarded by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). To obtain one, you'll need to be an IMA member with a bachelor's degree and have at least two years of relevant work experience. You'll also need to pass a two-part CMA exam that tests your knowledge of key financial concepts. While there is a distinction between the two certifications and the corresponding roles they qualify you for, it is entirely possible to hold both a CPA and a CMA.
Certified Financial Analyst
Accounting can be a broad profession that includes many different areas of focus. CFAs, however, have special expertise in the domain of financial management. These professionals are certified by the CFA Institute, and possess advanced knowledge of investment practices. They typically help organizations and individuals increase their wealth by advising them on emerging markets, forecasting the performance of the stock market, managing high value portfolios, and presenting new investment opportunities. Given this, CFAs often work as financial analysts in hedge funds, investment banks, and foundations, or provide their services to high net-worth individuals.
CFA credentials are offered in many different countries and getting one can be a grueling process. Candidates need either a bachelor's degree or some combination of education and relevant work experience that amounts to a total of four years. They then need to take three different examinations, each of which increases in difficulty and requires hundreds of study hours to pass successfully.
CFAs often work as financial analysts in hedge funds, investment banks, and foundations, or provide their services to high net-worth individuals.
Industry Specific Certifications
While the aforementioned certifications are the most commonly pursued, accounting graduates have a long list of other qualifications to choose from. These credentials don't all carry the same weight, but they can help a CPA, CMA, or CFA develop their accounting know-how in a niche field, and hence further set themselves apart when it comes to offering specialized financial services.
Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
CIAs are experts in the field of internal audits. Like CPAs, they are trained to evaluate an organization's in-house financial controls and processes. However, CIAs have additional experience in this area and their certification is recognized internationally. This certification is awarded by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) to individuals who pass an exam, have a bachelor's degree, and have a minimum of two years work experience in internal auditing.
Certification in Risk Management and Assurance (CRMA)
Also issued by the IIA, the CRMA gives CIAs the chance to build on their knowledge to gain a big picture view of auditing practices and how they relate to organizational performance. In addition to passing the CRMA and gaining five years of relevant work experience, applicants must be CIAs to be eligible for this certification. To maintain their license, they must take 20 hours of continuing professional education credits each year.
Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
This certification may be ideal for CPAs who want to gain more expertise in analyzing fraud. CFEs have the knowledge and skills to detect illicit or criminal financial practices such as tax evasion, corruption, and money laundering. They are also well-versed in anti-fraud programs and legislation. Accountants who are members of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners positioned can become CFEs by passing an exam.
Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
CISAs play a significant role in the financial services industry which is increasingly relying on IT. Rather than examining financial indicators, these professionals help organizations determine their technology needs and ensure IT systems are running cost effectively. The CISA qualification is issued by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association. To gain it, applicants must have five years of work experience and pass an exam. Those who have completed 60-120 course credits or an advanced degree in IT may substitute their education to meet some of the experience requirements.
Certified Forensic Accountant (CRFAC)
Like CFEs, CFRACs are trained in how to identify and counter fraudulent transactions. However, they are also knowledgeable in using technology to track down hard-to-find financial information, and their work is often used in helping resolve court cases related to divorce, bankruptcy, or embezzlement. CFRACs must be members of the American Board of Forensic Accounting and pass an exam to obtain their credential.
The Bottom Line
While there's a lot you can do with an accounting education, it's important to keep in mind that this field is constantly changing in response to new business practices and technological advancements. The knowledge and competencies gained through various types of accounting degrees, while essential, may therefore become outdated after you spend a few years in the profession, preventing you from advancing your career. Indeed, in some cases, not having an important certification such as a CPA may even hinder your ability to land a job.
Certifications can show employers that you're a competent accountant with relevant experience and an up-to-date understanding of the financial sector. In short, an accounting degree can help you get your foot in the door of a competitive industry, but supplementing a formal education in this field with additional qualifications that align with your interests can lead to a lucrative and rewarding career.