Forensic accountants investigate fraud and uncover financial crimes. Some work in law enforcement, conducting criminal and civil investigations into crimes such as 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 boasts strong job growth and above-average salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants earn a median salary of $70,500 per year. The BLS projects the creation of more than 90,000 new accountant jobs from 2018-2028. This page explores the skills forensic accountants need, how long it takes to enter the field, and career development tools for forensic accountants.
What Skills Do You Need to Become a Forensic Accountant?
Forensic accounting requires a strong and specialized skill set. Forensic accountants can conduct investigations to uncover financial fraud, often acting as expert witnesses during trials. Forensic accountants need advanced training in areas related to investigation and auditing. Forensic accounting degree programs help students develop the following skills.
Forensic accountants spend much of their time analyzing financial documents. These professionals need strong analytical abilities -- including skills in data analysis and critical thinking -- to effectively conduct financial investigations.
Forensic accountants rely heavily on investigative skills -- more so than accounting professionals in other specializations. Some forensic accountants work in law enforcement, conducting investigations and building legal cases. Forensic accountants often strengthen their investigative abilities through undergraduate or graduate coursework.
Many forensic accountants need auditing skills to review financial documents, identify errors in these records, and investigate potential fraud. Forensic accountants must be able to conduct a thorough audit.
Forensic accountants require strong communication skills to testify as expert witnesses, prepare forensic investigation reports, and interview witnesses.
Forensic accountants often work with multiple documents and cover several investigations. They must be able to organize data and conduct orderly investigations.
As the role of technology in the field grows, forensic accountants increasingly need strong computer skills. Accountants in computer forensics, specifically, must have strong computer skills to conduct cyber forensic investigations and use data analysis software.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Forensic Accountant?
Forensic accountants must have at least a bachelor's degree to qualify for entry-level positions, which takes four years to earn. Additional certifications can improve job prospects, but these typically require at least an additional year. Forensic accountants who pursue a master's degree usually devote an additional two years to their education.
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 that offer a forensic accounting concentration or multiple 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 specialized 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 require 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. While a bachelor's degree meets the minimum education requirements for most entry-level accounting positions, some employers prefer candidates with a master's degree or graduate certificate in forensic accounting. Master's in forensic accounting programs help students gain advanced skills. Some certificates, including the CPA credential, require credits beyond a bachelor's degree. Earning a master's degree typically takes two years, while passing all parts of the CPA exam can take up to 18 months.
Look for job opportunities. Graduates can pursue forensic accounting positions after earning their bachelor's or master's degree. Completing an internship while in school can help job-seekers demonstrate their skills to potential employers. Additionally, certification can help job candidates stand out.
Earn certification. Forensic accountants can demonstrate advanced skills in the field by earning certification. Some certifications require multipart examinations, which can take several months to complete. Certification also includes work/experience requirements.
Becoming a forensic accountant can take 4-6 years -- or longer -- depending on an individual's career goals. Professional accountants interested in becoming forensic accountants can enroll in a forensic accounting certificate program or complete a master's in forensic accounting.
What Education Do You Need to Become a Forensic Accountant?
Forensic accounting jobs typically require at least a bachelor's degree. While no degree or credential guarantees a job, this section explores common educational pathways to forensic accounting careers.
Forensic accountants typically hold a bachelor's degree in accounting or forensic accounting. Earning a bachelor's degree generally takes four years, during which students complete general education courses, major requirements, and electives. Some schools offer a forensic accounting major, while others offer a concentration or specialization in forensic accounting. Prospective forensic accountants can also complete electives in areas such as fraud examination, cyber forensics, and auditing.
According to the BLS, a bachelor's degree qualifies graduates for most entry-level accounting roles.
According to the BLS, a bachelor's degree qualifies graduates for most entry-level accounting roles. However, some positions and credentials require additional education. For example, forensic accountants pursuing the CPA credential must complete a total of 150 postsecondary credits (about 30 credits beyond a bachelor's degree). Forensic accountants can meet this requirement by earning a master's degree or a graduate certificate in accounting.
Completing a master's degree in forensic accounting, which usually takes two years, can help candidates stand out to employers. Master's in forensic accounting students learn about fraud prevention methods, common financial schemes, and investigating fraud. Some employers require or prefer candidates with a master's degree, particularly for high-level positions. Obtaining a certification, such as the CPA credential, improves job prospects for accountants.
Forensic Accountant Career Development and Credentials
Forensic accountants can advance their career by pursuing certifications and licenses. These credentials can enhance a professional's skills and help them stand out on the job market. Earning an in-demand certification can also increase a worker's salary potential and lead to specialized accounting positions.
Certifications and Continuing Education
Several field certifications can help forensic accountants stand out in the job market and increase their earning potential. Many forensic accountants pursue the CPA credential. Offered by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), the credential requires 150 credits of postsecondary coursework and passing scores on the four-part CPA exam. The AICPA also offers two certifications for forensic accountants: a core forensic accounting certificate and a specialized forensic accounting certificate.
Many forensic accountants also pursue the certified fraud examiner credential from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). This certification demonstrates advanced skills in fraud detection, examination, and investigation. CFEs earn about 30% more than their noncertified colleagues, according to the ACFE. Certified forensic accountants must typically meet continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials.
Credentials and Licensing
Most forensic accounting positions require no specific credential or license. However, CPAs must hold a state license, and some employers require additional qualifications, such as the certified fraud examiner credential from the ACFE or the forensic accounting certificate from the AICPA.
Forensic accountants who pursue the CPA designation must meet state licensing requirements. Each state sets its own licensure process, although licensed CPAs can often apply for state reciprocity.
Learn More about Forensic Accounting and Take the Next Step Today
Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
An anti-fraud organization, the ACFE grants the certified fraud examiner credential. The association sets professional standards of conduct, hosts events, and offers training resources.
American Institute of CPAs
Forensic accountants interested in the certified public accountant credential can take the CPA exam through the AICPA. The organization also offers professional development tools, scholarship opportunities for accounting students, and career guidance.
Institute of Certified Forensic Accountants
ICFA is a global, nonprofit organization representing forensic accountants. The institute publishes white papers and Forensic Magazine. It also grants certificates in the field.
Government Finance Officers Association
Founded in 1906, GFOA advocates for public finance professionals, including forensic accountants. The association offers scholarships, professional development resources, and best practice guidelines.
National Society of Accountants
This association of tax and accounting professionals provides professional development resources, including seminars and webinars. The society hosts meetings with networking opportunities and grants scholarships to accounting students.