How to Become a Forensic Accountant
| N. Susan Emeagwali Modified on May 2, 2022
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Forensic accountants investigate fraud and uncover financial crimes. Some work in law enforcement, conducting criminal and civil investigations into crimes like illegal financial transactions and embezzlement. Forensic accountants can also work as fraud examiners and certified public accountants (CPAs), reviewing financial documents to resolve civil disputes.
The field has strong job growth and above-average salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants earn a median annual salary of $73,560. The BLS projects an added 96,000 accountant jobs from 2020-2030. This page explores the skills forensic accountants need, how long it takes to enter the field, and career development tools for forensic accountants.
Steps to Forensic Accountant Careers
- Enroll in an Accounting Program: Candidates need a bachelor's degree in accounting to qualify for entry-level positions in the field. Choosing an accounting program and completing the application process can take several weeks or months. When evaluating accounting programs, prospective students should look for schools offering a forensic accounting concentration or many electives in fraud examination and forensic accounting.
- Complete Specialized Courses in Forensic Accounting: During their bachelor's studies, aspiring forensic accountants should take as many forensic accounting classes as possible. Learners should consider programs that offer a concentration or major in the field.
- Earn Your Bachelor's Degree: Most full-time students take four years to complete general education coursework and accounting major requirements. After earning a bachelor's degree with a focus in forensic accounting, graduates qualify for entry-level positions in the field.
- Consider a Master's Degree: A bachelor's degree meets the minimum education requirements for most entry-level accounting positions. Still, some employers prefer candidates with master's degrees or graduate certificates in forensic accounting. Master's in forensic accounting programs help students gain advanced skills.
- Look for Job Opportunities: Graduates can pursue forensic accounting positions after earning their bachelor's or master's degrees. Completing an internship while in school can help job-seekers demonstrate their skills to potential employers. Certification can also help candidates stand out.
- Earn Certification: Forensic accountants can demonstrate advanced skills in the field by earning certification. Some certifications require examinations with multiple parts that can take several months to complete. Certification also includes work/experience requirements.
Some certificates, including the CPA credential, require credits beyond a bachelor's degree. Earning a master's degree takes two years, while passing all parts of the CPA exam can take up to 18 months.
Required Degree in Forensic Accounting
A forensic accounting career requires abachelor's or master's degree in accounting, forensic accounting, or finance. Students can begin their education with an associate degree in accounting or a related field.
An associate degree requires 60 credits, which students can transfer into a bachelor's degree. Transfer students can complete a 120-credit bachelor's in forensic accounting in just two years.
Schools offer accounting or forensic accounting programs. These can lead to a bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of science (BS), bachelor of business administration (BBA), or bachelor of accountancy (BAcc).
The BA in accounting blends a liberal arts education with accounting principles. The BS and BAcc emphasize the major. The BBA gives students a broad business foundation. Many accounting programs offer forensic accounting only as a specialization.
Requirements for a forensic accounting degree vary by program. Students can expect to complete general business classes such as business law and business finance.
The accounting major provides a sound foundation in accounting theory and practice. Specialized courses develop skills in advanced auditing, forensic accounting, and interviewing techniques for fraud investigations.
Required Forensic Accounting Certification
Forensic accountants do not need a license to practice. Professional forensic accounting certification can improve accountants' marketability, career options, and pay. Accounting programs can prepare students for the CPA designation, the gold standard of accounting.
Exam and licensure requirements to become a CPA vary by state. A bachelor's provides at least 120 of the 150 credits required for candidates to sit for the CPA in most jurisdictions. An accredited master's in accounting generally meets this requirement in full.
Students can pursue the CPA designation as part of a degree in forensic accounting. Some employers prefer forensic accountants with the certified fraud examiner (CFE) designation or similar. CFE candidates must join the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, have at least two years of professional experience, and pass the CFE exam.
The CFE exam tests accountants' knowledge of law, investigation, financial transactions and fraud schemes, and fraud prevention and deterrence.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants administers the CPA exam and offers the certified in financial forensics (CFF) designation. Candidates need a valid CPA license or certificate and to pass the CFF exam. The exam tests accountants' core and specialized forensic knowledge. Topics covered include digital forensics and fraud prevention, detection, and response.
Optional Degrees and Credentials
Accountants may pursue optional forensic accounting certifications that employers value. The American Board of Forensic Accounting offers the certified forensic accountant (CRFAC) credential.
In addition to a bachelor's or master's, CRFAC candidates must hold CPA licensure or the international equivalent. They must register with their State Board of Accountancy and demonstrate two years of accounting/auditing experience.
Candidates must complete the CRFAC training program. The program covers topics like fraud, litigation services, and cybersecurity issues. Auditors may want to consider the certified internal auditor (CIA) credential, administered by the Institute of Internal Auditors.
CIA candidates must pass an exam that tests auditing essentials, practice, and business knowledge for internal auditing. Accountants may pursue a master's degree to enhance their skills and marketability.
Required Experience for a Forensic Accountant
Forensic accountants should have at least one year of accounting experience. Many forensic accountants begin their careers as general accountants. They develop specialized skills at accounting firms or in fields like law enforcement. Some employers require credentials such as the CFE to certify candidates' skillsets.
Students pursuing degrees in forensic accounting may build hands-on experience through accounting internships and practicums. These employers give students real-world work experience. Online students can complete this requirement with local firms. Internship durations may vary. Some bigger firms pay their interns.
Should I Become a Forensic Accountant?
The BLS projects jobs for accountants and auditors to grow by 7% from 2020-2030, indicating stability in the field. Forensic accountants may find themselves less dispensable as companies employ AI and other technologies for routine accounting tasks.
Accounting professionals enjoy good pay. According to the BLS, accountants with bachelor's degrees and limited experience earn a median annual salary of $73,560. Pay depends on factors such as region and industry. Candidates with in-demand credentials, such as the CFE and CPA, may earn higher salaries.
Seeking Forensic Jobs for Accounting
Job hunting can pose a challenge. College job fairs offer strong networking opportunities. Internships play a crucial role in building students' professional network as they acquire experience.
Professional organizations such as the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, American Institute of CPAs, and American Board of Forensic Accounting offer job boards and networking events. Accountants may also consider specialized employment firms such as Robert Half, which allows candidates to upload resumes.
Association of Certified Fraud Examiners: AFCE members can view jobs and upload their resumes on the career center site. Nonmembers receive limited access to this resource.
eFinancialCareers: This global job board that focuses on jobs in banking, accounting, finance, and technology. Candidates create a profile accessible to employers registered on the website.
FinancialJobBank: Job-seekers can explore more than 115,895 jobs in accounting and finance on this website. Candidates create a profile that employers can view. Members can receive daily alerts about new jobs.
American Accounting Association: Job-seekers can view accounting jobs in the U.S. and other resources, such as those for professional development. They can create a profile for free on AAA's career center site.
Consultant 500: This niche job site caters to the professional services sector, including forensic accounting. Jobs submitted to this site get distributed to more than 150 job sites, including ZipRecruiter and Google for Jobs.
Read more tips on job searching:
- How do you professionally network in accounting?
- Is it worth working with a recruiter?
- How do you write a resume?
Financial managers develop companies' financial reports and oversee investment activities. They work to steer companies away from unfavorable financial decisions.
These managers work in industries such as insurance, banking, and investments. Financial managers begin this role with bachelor's degrees at minimum. They should also hold at least five years of experience in accountancy, securities, or a related field. An accounting background develops strong hard skills such as competency with numbers and corporate finance.
Financial managers make a median annual salary of $134,180. They enjoy a projected 17% job growth rate, much higher than the average for all occupations. The BLS projects approximately 64,200 annual openings for financial managers from 2020-2030.
Financial managers and other investment professionals can pursue credentials such as the CFA Institute's chartered financial analyst certification. Experienced financial managers can assume C-Suite positions such as chief financial officer. Top executives make a median annual salary of $107,680, and often make much more depending on the company.
Questions About the Forensic Accountant Career Path
What degree do you need to become a forensic accountant?Forensic accountants need an accredited bachelor's degree in accounting, forensic accounting, finance, or a related field. Students may customize their accounting degrees with coursework in criminal justice or law enforcement. Some accountants begin their careers with master's degrees in accounting or finance.
How long does it take to start a forensic accountant career?Students complete a bachelor's degree in four years. Those pursuing certifications such as the CFE need at least two years of professional experience.
How do you become a certified forensic accountant?Candidates for the certified forensic accountant exam must hold a CPA license or the international equivalent. They must demonstrate two years of accounting or auditing experience and register with a State Board of Accountancy.
Are jobs for accounting in forensics in demand?The BLS projects a need for 96,000 accountants from 2020-2030, marking a 7% annual job growth. The field needs accountants to prepare and examine financial records and handle international trade and mergers and acquisitions.
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