If you have what it takes to qualify as an accountant, you’ll be flying high with a well-paid career for the rest of your life, but what exactly does it take, and what does the job involve? Text by Ingrid Francis, Case Studies by Kate Hilpern
Good accountants are motivated, business-minded and strong team players. A maths or business degree isn’t essential – most firms are open about degree subjects. Most major firms expect a 2:1, but many smaller ones will accept candidates with a 2:2 in any discipline. Good numeracy skills are needed, but software is used to do most of the number-crunching.
The profession is dominated by the "Big Four" multinationals – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG. There are also many lesser-known firms. Accountants are also needed in the media, arts, retail and the public sector. So as a first step, consider not only the job itself, but also what else you’re interested in.
What jobs are on the market?
Accountancy can be either audit or non-audit. Auditing involves making decisions about the financial statements of a client. The work is often based at the client’s own premises, so good relationships with clients are a must. Management accountants, finance analysts and those working in tax are people-orientated. Working at all levels of seniority within a client company, they have to be able to convey accounting jargon in an explainable way. Corporate finance offers worldwide opportunities and lucrative starting salaries.
What will my working life be like?
Accountancy involves meeting many people, and combines working on the job with studying. The job is very much about adapting your approach to the individual customer. A lengthy application process begins with an online application form, is likely to include a phone interview leading to interviews, and ends with competency tests, role-playing and teamwork. Hours are described as "reasonable", and the key to avoid working long evenings is good time management. There is a strong focus on a healthy work-life balance.
Most accountants say the worst thing about the job is getting the qualifications (see box). With gruelling exams to pass, the profession might not appeal to those who have had enough of studying. But afterwards, you will end up with internationally accredited qualifications, which in turn will be rewarded. If your work and exam results are impressive, you can achieve greater responsibility and fast promotion. After exams, a qualified accountant could be offered a starting salary of as much as £35,000 per year, if they are based in one of the larger London firms, and in the first three years your salary can double.
Normally, training for professional accreditation involves three years of study. The qualifications differ to some extent, so you need to find out what individual companies prefer you to take. Most firms support those studying for exams, with a structured programme of work and study, paid study leave and often paid tuition fees. Some training bodies don’t expect you to be employed while studying, so you could qualify while working in a different job, or even not working at all. In these cases students must fund themselves.
How do I start?
It’s important to be finance-savvy. Read the finance pages of the newspapers, and do your homework on the firm and position you are interested in. Careers fairs present an ideal chance to meet trainees and ask questions about companies. A work experience placement will leave you standing head and shoulders above the rest – as well as helping you to decide whether you are genuinely interested in pursuing this career path.
EXAMS AND OTHER ACRONYMS:
ACA – Associate Chartered Accountant: This is the qualification awarded by the ICAEW (see below). Taking three years to achieve, it is seen as being hard-going.
ACCA – Association of Chartered Certified Accountants: It claims to be the largest and fastest-growing international accountancy body. The qualification offers flexibility.
CA – Chartered Accountant: This is the qualification awarded by the ICAS and is considered prestigious. Its syllabus is tough.
CIMA – Chartered Institute of Management Accountants: Management accountants look to the future. They analyse the performance of a business and advise on how it can develop.
CIPFA – Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy: This is reportedly one of the UK’s leading professional accountancy bodies and the only one to specialise in the public sector.
CTA – Chartered Tax Adviser: According to the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), "A CTA is a specialist in tax who has passed the ‘gold standard’ qualification."
ICAEW – Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales: This is the largest professional body in Europe.
ICAS – Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland: The institute trains accountants across the UK – not just Scotland. It was the world’s first professional body of accountants, receiving its Royal Charter in 1854.
IOA – Institute of Actuaries: The actuarial profession says: "Actuaries provide commercial, financial and prudential advice on the management of assets and liabilities – especially where long-term management and planning are critical factors."