Accounting as a Second Career

Smiling, smart young professional wearing business attire in office environment looking confidently at a sheet of paper

Many American workers are searching for a change. In 2021, more than 47 million people voluntarily left their jobs to find new work opportunities. And as many as 50 percent of workers want to make a career change, with about a third of those workers looking to switch industries, according to a poll from CNBC and Catalyst, a global nonprofit that advocates for gender equity in the workplace. 

While many workers may have preconceived notions about the field, accounting is one option that deserves real consideration.

“Whether it’s taxation, whether it’s auditing, whether it’s financial statement analysis, the need for auditors and [certified public accountants] is never going to go away,” says Andrew Weinberger, an adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, with more than 10 years of industry experience in the public and private accounting sector. “Accounting is tested over time, and when you see the economy shift you always see jobs in this industry.”

Why Consider Accounting as a Second Career

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of accountants and auditors to grow 7 percent from 2020 to 2030, due to “globalization, a growing economy, and a complex tax and regulatory environment.” Depending on their specific position, industry, employer and certification status, accountants can earn competitive salaries. The median annual wage for accountants and auditors was $77,250 in May 2021, with the top 10 percent earning more than $128,970 annually.

While job security and earning potential may be important considerations for workers weighing whether to transition to the accounting field, the work itself remains central to the decision. And like many other jobs, technology and automation have transformed the roles of accountants and auditors. The days of sitting alone at a desk and crunching numbers for 10 hours are in the past. Now, machines can read documents and input data much more efficiently, allowing accountants to focus on more meaningful work like data interpretation. 

“As technology has presented itself, accounting has become more about understanding the business that you’re in and helping people solve problems.”

“The role of the accountant is becoming more exciting, because we’re moving away from the mundane work and now we’re really focusing on the outcomes, like the visualization of the data and value-added decision making that impacts the rest of the organization,” Weinberger says.

This change in function has also broken accountants out of their silos. Weinberger points out that many different accounting roles now require much more partnership and collaboration both with internal teams and with clients, where accountants act in an advisory role. 

“As technology has presented itself, accounting has become more about understanding the business that you’re in and helping people solve problems,” he says. 

This creates a unique opportunity for people who are considering accounting as a second career. For example, someone coming from a non-accounting role within an organization has foundational knowledge about the functions they previously performed that can improve how accounting is conducted.

“They’re going to have the subject matter expertise that they will be able to bring to the accounting team that might help with the financial statements and understanding the control environment a little better,” Weinberger says. 

But even as roles and functions have changed, some things remain consistent. The nature of the work involves constantly working with numbers, so personal discipline is a requirement for anyone entering this field, Weinberger added.

Accounting Career Path

Whether aspiring professionals choose to work for themselves, the government or a large corporation after becoming certified public accountants (CPAs), studying accounting entails learning practical skills. As individuals progress in their career paths, they hone these skills and master new ones. 

Employers usually expect candidates to know how to:

  • Organize, analyze and maintain financial records.
  • Examine financial statements for accuracy and compliance with laws and regulations.
  • Calculate taxes owed and prepare tax returns. 
  • Review account books and accounting systems for efficiency and use of accepted accounting procedures as well as identify potential risks for fraud.

“From an overall skill set, over the last couple of years there’s been more of an emphasis on critical thinking,” Weinberger says. “It’s one thing for a student to learn traditional accounting like the debits and the credits, but it’s another to be able to understand the meaning behind what you’re doing and how that influences the bigger picture.” 

While there are different types of accountants, there is a lot of overlap in the skills and duties required.

Here are some examples of various roles in accounting, as well as related finance jobs for career changers and people with a background in accounting:

Information technology (IT) auditors are one of the newer roles in accounting, as businesses become increasingly reliant on technology. In 2021, data breaches jumped 68 percent to the highest level ever. IT auditors are responsible for analyzing and assessing a company’s IT system to make sure it runs effectively while all data is adequately protected and compliance regulations are met. Using core accounting skills, they ensure that financial and nonfinancial data come from reliable sources and identify any points of weakness.

Forensic accountants investigate financial crimes such as securities fraud and embezzlement, contract disputes and bankruptcies. Forensic accountants combine their knowledge of accounting and finance with law and investigative strategies to determine if an activity is illegal. These types of accountants may work closely with law enforcement and lawyers and often appear as expert witnesses during trials.

Management accountants, also called cost, corporate, industrial or private accountants, are professionals who combine accounting and financial information to guide business decisions. Managerial accountants often prepare budgets and evaluate performance. Some work with financial managers on asset management, which involves financial planning and choosing investments such as stocks, bonds and real estate.

Public accountants, also known as certified public accountants (CPAs), handle a wide range of accounting, auditing, tax and consulting tasks. Their clients may include individuals, corporations, nonprofits and governments. Public accountants examine financial documents clients are required by law to disclose, such as tax forms and financial statements companies must provide to their investors. 

External auditors check that an organization’s funds, sources of revenue and internal controls, such as financial data preparation or managing risks to cybersecurity or the supply chain, are being properly managed. External auditors are employed by an outside organization. 

Internal auditors are employed by the organization they are auditing. They identify ways to find and eliminate waste, fraud and other financial risks to the organization. The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) provides generally accepted standards for this practice.

Tax accountants are public accountants who focus on tax matters. They may advise corporations about the tax advantages of various business decisions or prepare individuals’ income tax returns.

Financial analysts guide businesses and individuals in decisions about how to spend their money to generate profit. They assess and recommend stocks, bonds and other types of investments.

Personal financial advisors provide advice on investments, taxes, insurance, mortgages, college savings, estate planning and retirement to help individuals manage their finances. Many personal financial advisors work in the insurance or finance industry or are self-employed. 

Budget analysts help public and private organizations plan their finances. They prepare budget reports and oversee organizational spending for employers such as government agencies, private companies and universities.

Accounting Education

Accounting may also appeal to those considering it as a second career given that a number of different types of degrees may be sufficient to get started on this new career path. Accountants and auditors typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field, such as business or social science. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a master’s degree, either in accounting or in business administration with a concentration in accounting. A master’s degree is often required for management positions, and employers may also look for a certain number of years of experience. 

Many universities and colleges offer specialized bachelor’s or master’s degree programs in forensic accounting, internal audit and tax accounting, to name a few. These programs offer real-world knowledge, with courses focused on industry trends and niche areas like venture capital or business analytics. For example, while some schools include analytics modules in various classes throughout the curriculum, Syracuse University offers a stand-alone accounting analytics course designed to teach analytics skills with tools such as Excel, Tableau and Ultix.

“From an overall skill set, over the last couple of years there’s been more of an emphasis on critical thinking.”

“When students are leaving the University, we want them to have the traditional accounting knowledge, as well as the analytic capabilities that a lot of the firms need,” Weinberger says. “This is something that industry needs, desires and wants. The schools that are being proactive about it are definitely doing well by their students.”

Syracuse University’s online master’s in professional accounting prepares graduates with the tools to lead accounting, audit and tax processes at a range of career levels. If students already have an academic foundation in accounting, they can complete the 30-credit program in as few as 15 months by taking two courses per 12-week term on a part-time basis. Students who have no academic background in accounting will be placed into an individualized program of study that can be completed in up to 24 months. 

Advice for Professionals Considering a Career Transition to Accounting 

For those who plan to make a career shift to accounting, Weinberger says dedication is key. Accounting is a very technical subject matter that requires meeting specific standards and requirements, while also following detailed processes and procedures. 

“If you’re going to transition to accounting, know that there’s going to be jobs for you.”

“It can be like learning a foreign language you’ve never seen before,” he explains. So he encourages students to remember that this subject is also new to their classmates and that it will take time to grasp and build upon that knowledge. But as this new language becomes more familiar, the process and procedure will become second nature and their commitment will pay off. 

“If you’re going to transition to accounting, know that there’s going to be jobs for you, which is a plus for anybody going back to school for any career,” Weinberger says. “But it’s going to be demanding and challenging at times. And it’s also going to open up a lot of doors for you as long as you’re dedicated to working hard and striving to be successful.”

Last updated May 2022.