What is a Comptroller and How to Become One?


Updated October 26, 2023 · 4 Min Read

Do you want to become a comptroller? Explore this guide to learn about the role, including required education, credentials, and job offerings.

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Comptrollers are executive-level professionals with supervisory authority over accounting processes and financial reporting. A type of financial manager, comptrollers usually work for government and nonprofit organizations.

In the U.S., federal, state, and local government officials sometimes hold the title of comptroller. Financial controllers play a similar role as comptrollers, but they typically work with for-profit businesses. Comptrollers usually occupy more senior roles than financial controllers.

The typical comptroller career path starts with a bachelor's in accounting, followed by years of experience in the accounting field. Many comptrollers hold professional certifications such as certified internal auditor.

This page explores the steps necessary to become a comptroller.

Steps to a Comptroller Career

  1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting. The first step to become a comptroller is to enroll in an accounting bachelor's program at an accredited university. Consider specializing in auditing, governmental accounting, or management accounting.
  2. Get Professional Accounting Experience. Comptrollers typically need five or more years of accounting or financial management experience. To best prepare for a career as a comptroller, find a position with a governmental or nonprofit organization. Over time, apply for accounting positions with more responsibility and management tasks.
  3. Complete Further Education. Some employers prefer or require comptroller candidates to hold a master's degree in accounting, business management, finance, or a related field. Even if not required, a graduate degree or certificate can help you stand out from other applicants.
  4. Pursue Certification. A comptroller career does not require a specific certification or license. However, earning a professional certification demonstrates skills and knowledge and can improve career opportunities. Employers may prefer to hire applicants with certification.

Consider certifications that demonstrate financial management and accounting skills. Examples include certified government financial manager, certified management accountant, and certified public accountant (CPA).

Required Education for a Comptroller

The comptroller career path includes at least four years of higher education. Comptrollers need at least a bachelor's degree in accounting or actuarial science to qualify for most jobs.

It helps to concentrate in governmental accounting, public accounting, finance, or management accounting. Some comptrollers start their college education by earning an associate degree in accounting or a related field before transferring to a four-year program.

Comptrollers need at least a bachelor's degree in accounting or actuarial science to qualify for most jobs.

Employers sometimes require or prefer comptrollers with a master's degree in a field like accounting, actuarial science, business management/administration, or finance. Comptrollers with a master's degree may find better salary and career opportunities.

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Certifications and Licensure for Comptrollers

A certification is a voluntary credential that people can pursue to demonstrate their skills. Licensure is a legal designation that is required to practice a profession.

Required Credentials

A license is not required to become a comptroller. However, many comptrollers are certified public accountants, who need a license to practice. CPAs apply for licensure from their state board of accountancy and must pass a test from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Optional Education

Comptrollers can sometimes advance their careers by seeking higher education or a professional certification. Pursuing additional education demonstrates professionalism, ambition, and a dedication to the field.

Comptrollers need a bachelor's degree at minimum, but earning a master's degree or post-baccalaureate certificate can improve salary and career opportunities. Earning an accounting certificate or master's degree may happen right after college, but some people work in the field for many years first.

Although not required, comptroller careers can benefit from earning a certification from a professional accounting organization. Holding a certification can help comptrollers stand out from other job applicants.

Potential certifications to consider include certified management accountant, certified internal auditor, and certified government financial manager. The certification process typically requires additional education, passing an exam, and meeting minimum experience requirements. To maintain a certification, the certifying group usually requires completion of continuing education credits.

Required Experience for a Comptroller

Comptroller is not an entry-level job. A senior-level position, it usually requires at least five years of relevant experience in a financial or business field. Comptrollers often start their careers as accountants, loan officers, or financial analysts. Experience working for governmental or nonprofit organizations prepares candidates for comptroller roles.

Comptrollers often start their careers as accountants, loan officers, or financial analysts.

Most accountants work for five or more years before they can qualify for a comptroller job. Completing post-baccalaureate education may open the door to more positions, but typically does not substitute for experience.

Students can gain education and experience simultaneously by choosing an accounting program that includes an internship or practicum.

Should I Become a Comptroller?

Becoming a comptroller takes persistence and hard work, but many people find the career rewarding and lucrative. PayScale reports that comptrollers made an average annual salary of $71,550 as of October 2021. On average, comptrollers report high levels of job satisfaction.

The comptroller career path is long, with substantial education and professional experience required. You might be in a lower-level position making less money than you would like for many years. Earning college degrees and pursuing professional certifications can also require a large financial investment.

As senior-level executives, comptrollers make decisions that financially impact entire organizations and, in some cases, the public. This level of responsibility may cause stress for some people. Consider these pros and cons when deciding if you should become a comptroller.

The Job Hunt

When job searching, consider attending job fairs and networking events through professional organizations and annual conferences. Check for comptroller career resources and networking opportunities through organizations like the American Institute of CPAs and American Accounting Association.

You can also ask for mentor recommendations or seek help through your school's alumni network or career services center. Below we highlight four top job boards that include comptroller jobs.

iHireAccounting adds more than 2,800 accounting jobs daily. The site includes accounting jobs of all types and levels. Users can upload their resumes to a database searchable by hiring managers.

One of the top job sites on the internet, Indeed lets users search for jobs, research companies, and post their resumes for free. The site adds 10 new jobs every second.

Another top job site, ZipRecruiter connects businesses with future employees. ZipRecruiter finds relevant openings and suggests them to job-seekers.

Read more tips on job searching:

Upward Mobility

Comptrollers already hold senior-level executive roles. However, potential career opportunities that can lead to upward mobility include chief executive officer (CEO) or chief financial officer (CFO) of an organization.

  • Chief Executive Officer: CEOs oversee all business decisions for their organizations. They often hold a master of business administration and need at least five years of relevant business management experience. PayScale found that chief executive officers made an average annual salary of $155,700 as of October 2021.
  • Chief Financial Officer: CFOs manage the financial operations of their organizations. They often hold a master's degree in a business- or finance-related field and need at least five years of experience. PayScale found that CFOs earned an average annual salary of $137,110 as of October 2021.

Questions About the Comptroller Career Path

What degree do you need to become a comptroller?

You need at least a bachelor's degree in accounting or actuarial science to become a comptroller. Some employers prefer comptrollers with a graduate degree in business management or finance.

How long does it take to enter a comptroller career?

The road to a comptroller career is lengthy. After earning a four-year degree, comptrollers often spend many years working in lower levels of accounting. Some also pursue graduate education and/or professional certifications.

What certifications do you need along the comptroller career path?

A certification is a voluntary earned credential to demonstrate professional skills. Although not required, most pursue certification along the comptroller career path. Potential certifications include certified public accountant, certified government financial manager, and certified management accountant.

Are comptrollers in demand?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 17% job growth rate (much faster than average) for financial managers from 2020-2030. The job outlook for financial managers, of which a comptroller is one type, will likely grow with the economy.

Featured Image: Eva-Katalin / E+ / Getty Images

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