By: Accounting.com Staff
Last Updated: December 2019

Certified public accountants (CPAs) provide a variety of accounting services to individuals, businesses, and government entities. Their typical responsibilities include tax preparation, financial reporting, and auditing. However, a professional's duties vary depending on their employer. CPAs often specialize in one or more areas of accounting, which can lead to additional opportunities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for accountants and auditors to grow by 6% from 2018-2028. This page provides information about how to become a CPA and details the necessary education, career development, and skills.

What Skills Do You Need to Become a CPA?

Certified public accountants need skills in areas related to communication and mathematics. Individuals who already possess relevant skills are often well suited to accounting careers. However, learners can obtain these skills through educational programs.

Analytical Skills

CPAs must be able to collect and analyze information to make decisions. These professionals often analyze complex laws and regulations, which they apply to accounting problems. For example, CPAs may review financial documents and tax laws to minimize tax liability.

Communication Skills

Accounting professionals must be able to listen and clearly convey information. Accountants receive information from clients, which they use to prepare financial reports. CPAs may also meet with a board of directors to review their organization's financial health.

Math Skills

CPAs work with numbers every day and must be able to understand and compare figures. Accountants rarely deal with complex mathematical equations, but they must make accurate calculations when preparing tax forms and reports. Accountants often review large spreadsheets of numbers.

Organizational Skills

Organization is crucial when working with complex, sensitive documents. CPAs manage multiple deadlines, large quantities of data, and a lot of paperwork. Strong organizational skills ensure professionals do not miss deadlines or misplace important information.

How Long Does It Take to Become a CPA?

CPA candidates must hold a bachelor's degree and additional educational qualifications. Each state sets its own educational criteria for the CPA credential, but most states require aspiring CPAs to earn 150 postsecondary credits -- or about 30 credits beyond a typical bachelor's program.

Many students earn a master's in accounting, and some schools offer five-year, dual-degree programs that award both a bachelor's and master's degree in accounting.

To meet these requirements, many students earn a master's in accounting, and some schools offer five-year, dual-degree programs that award both a bachelor's and master's degree in accounting. However, the CPA credential does not require a graduate degree. Instead, some individuals earn a graduate-level certificate to meet credit requirements.

After earning their 150 credits, CPA candidates must pass a four-part national exam. The uniform certified public accountant examination is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Students have up to 18 months to pass all four parts of the exam. After passing, candidates earn CPA certification and meet the requirements needed to practice, as established by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Accountants can pursue certificates from professional organizations such as the Institute of Internal Auditors and the Institute of Management Accountants.

Many CPAs earn additional certificates to bolster their career prospects. Accountants can pursue certificates from professional organizations such as the Institute of Internal Auditors and the Institute of Management Accountants. The time commitment for these credentials varies, but most require candidates to have at least six months of work experience as a CPA. Many employers value the specialized skills demonstrated by these certificates.

Most states require CPAs to complete continuing education credits to maintain their certification. Credit requirements vary by state. CPAs can pursue continuing education through professional organizations and colleges, both in person and online. Most CPAs devote at least 20 hours per year to continuing education.

What Education Do You Need to Become a CPA?

Educational requirements to become a certified public accountant vary by state, so candidates should research their state's specific certification requirements before choosing a bachelor's program. Earning a degree does not guarantee a specific position or career, but candidates must meet education requirements to qualify for the CPA credential.

A graduate degree can lead to additional employment opportunities and higher earning potential.

CPA candidates must hold a bachelor's degree, and most CPAs also earn a master's degree since states typically require 150 postsecondary credits for certification. Programs may allow learners to earn their bachelor's and master's degrees together in a total of five years. A graduate degree can lead to additional employment opportunities and higher earning potential.

Earning an accredited accounting degree prepares students to pass the national exam and obtain certification. Many CPAs also pursue a specialization, which may require additional training and credentials. Professionals can pursue this training through professional organizations and certificate programs.

CPA Career Development and Credentials

Accountants can pursue professional development opportunities to advance their career. Certified public accountants complete continuing education requirements to maintain certification; this education can also result in additional certifications. The sections below explore some additional credentials available to accountants.

Certifications and Continuing Education

Public accounting positions do not typically require certification or certificates beyond the CPA credential. However, completing certificate programs can qualify professionals to specialize in one or more areas of public accounting. Specializations can bolster your career prospects and lead to higher earning potential.

Many professional organizations offer certificate programs. For example, AICPA offers certificates in the areas of auditing, forensic accounting, risk management, financial planning, and technology. Specialized options within these areas include nonprofit accounting, employee benefit plan auditing, enterprise risk management, internal control, and cybersecurity.

Additionally, the Institute of Management Accounting offers a certificate in management accounting, which typically takes one year to complete, and covers topics in financial planning, performance, analytics, and strategic financial management.

Credentials and Licensing

The certified in strategy and competitive analysis credential, offered by the Institute of Management Accounting, is for accountants who have earned a certificate in management accounting and want to pursue senior leadership positions, such as CFOs.

The Institute of Internal Auditors offers a credential for internal auditors, which can lead to employment as chief audit executives.

The enrolled agent credential qualifies holders to represent taxpayers to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This represents the highest credential awarded by the IRS and requires candidates to pass a three-part test.

Finally, professionals who plan to pursue careers in investment and portfolio management can pursue the chartered financial analyst credential offered by the CFA Institute.

Learn More about CPA Careers and Take the Next Step Today

Career and Professional Resources

  • American Institute of CPAs AICPA is the world's largest member accounting association. AICPA offers multiple continuing education and certification programs, along with career guidance and advocacy.
  • National Association of State Boards of Accountancy NASBA oversees all state accountancy licensing boards. The association's website provides information about earning and maintaining CPA certification, including each state's requirements.
  • Institute of Management Accountants IMA is a membership organization that provides two certification programs, as well as career and research resources for accountants working in large businesses.
  • American Association of Finance and Accounting With locations across the country, AAFA comprises job search firms and focuses exclusively on the recruitment of accounting professionals. The organization's website provides listings of job opportunities.
  • Professional Association of Small Business Accountants PASBA serves accountants who provide services to small- and medium-sized businesses. The association provides peer support and educational opportunities.