Accountants help individuals and businesses alike keep their finances in order and meet their tax obligations. To become an accountant, you must complete a bachelor's degree at minimum. However, some employers require a master's degree, which takes an average of one to two years to complete. A master's degree is not necessary to become an accountant, but many students find it gives them a career advantage when they graduate.
Accountants work in a wide variety of settings, including a private practice, corporate office, government agency or nonprofit organization. Accountants can work with individuals to file yearly taxes and can represent individuals in tax disputes, such as when they owe back taxes. Accountants can also work with businesses, preparing profit and loss statements, monitoring expenditures and creating systems for managing financial transactions. Depending on the setting in which they work and their specialty, the day-to-day activities of accountants vary widely.
Accountants do not have to get a master's degree to begin practicing. However, many find that completing a master's degree expands their opportunities for employment or advancement. In addition, many choose to complete a master's degree to help them meet the 150-hour requirement that most state licensing agencies set. This rule requires students to take at least 150 hours of classes -- with a certain number of hours specified for accounting classes -- before sitting for the state licensing exam. These hours can be completed at the undergraduate level, but many choose to finish them while also pursuing a master's degree.
Licensing is granted by the State Board of Accountancy in the state in which you wish to practice. You are not required to become licensed unless you have to file a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, many choose to be licensed to show their expertise for prospective clients or prospective employers. Licensing requirements vary by state, but most include passage of the licensing exam given by the State Board of Accountancy in addition to other requirements.
Certification allows accountants to specialize in a certain type of accounting. The Institute of Management Accountants and the Institute of Internal Auditors are two organizations that provide certification though there are others. Each group has different requirements for obtaining and maintaining the certification.