What are the Differences Between an Accountant and a CPA?

The only significant difference between an accountant and a certified public accountant (CPA) is the completion and maintenance of the official certification. However, qualifying and completing the licensing process is much more demanding than the typical entry-level requirements for entering the general profession. While students and new professionals may launch their accounting careers without becoming certified, some plan their academic and early work experience with the goal of becoming a CPA as soon as possible.

Becoming an Accountant

Much like other professional disciplines, accounting has several types of entry-level career options depending on education and experience. Many people start their career with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in the field, but it’s possible to qualify for some bookkeeping and basic positions without any formal academic training. People who want to test the occupation may be able to get an internship or entry-level position before deciding if they want to pursue a degree and turn accounting into their career.

Basic Roles and Responsibilities

Since employment requirements vary widely based on employer and position, accountants often build their reputation through experience and ongoing professional development. Many work in industry settings as corporate accountants, while others serve as staff members at firms or work directly with individual clients as a financial or tax advisor. These positions usually require at least a bachelor’s degree, but they also usually offer opportunities for growth and advancement.

The Path to Certification

There are many common elements to achieve certification, including the official examination, but many of the details depend on local state laws. Applicants need either a bachelor’s or master’s degree with at least 150 semester hours in addition to a number of hours spent working in accounting, according to the Association of International Certified Public Accountants. Applicants who meet all of the qualifications of their state proceed to the examination phase, which is an administered test composed of four main sections. Applicants need to pass all four parts, but they don’t necessarily need to do this all at once. Current exam sections include auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation.

Related Resource: 30 Best Online Bachelor’s in Accounting

Opportunities and Obligations for CPAs

A certified public accountant is qualified to perform several essential tasks compared to general accountants. This includes most auditing functions, forensic accounting practices and supervisory or management positions. These duties are more common in larger corporate environments, although some individuals and small businesses may benefit from them as well. The decision to become a CPA is a significant commitment, but it can also have immediate and tangible career benefits. Certified accountants generally enjoy higher job stability and a greater annual salary compared to non-licensed accounting professionals.

There are dozens of different reasons that motivate people to study accounting, but many pursue the field due to job security and career-building opportunities. No matter the reason, all of them eventually face the decision of whether or not to get certified. Deciding if the differences between being an accountant and a CPA are worth the effort depends on the individual’s personal and professional goals.

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