What Can I Do with a Major in Accounting?

Accountants come in two "varieties":

  • Those who work within a company's accounting department (these individuals may or may not be Certified Public Accountants, or CPAs)
  • Those who work for public accounting firms, whose business is to look at companies from the outside and ensure that their accounting practices are producing accurate information, both for the sake of the company itself and for individual and institutional investors (these individuals generally become CPAs after four or five years working in public accounting -- and passing the CPA exam)

Regardless of which type they are, accountants primarily keep track of things -- often money, but sometimes a company's physical or human assets. For example, a company's internal accounting department tracks all the firm's activities, including:

  • Purchases of office supplies and other assets
  • Sales of goods and services
  • Payment of employees
  • Management of pensions and benefits compliance with laws

Thus accounting involves much more than bookkeeping. In fact, internal accounting is essential to the profitability of any business. If a company can't account for its labor and raw material costs and its sales at all price levels, it can't figure out which products have generated the most profits, which have lost money, and how the various products should be priced.

Public accounting firms work to make sure that client companies accurately account for things such as assets, liabilities, cash flow, compliance with SEC regulations, investments and pension programs. Public accounting services are vital for ensuring that client companies are following the law, making wise acquisition choices, and so forth.

Accounting is especially important in industries that are:

  • Regulated (for instance, telecommunications, public utilities, etc.)
  • Characterized by high numbers of financial transactions (such as casinos and personal credit issuers like Visa and MasterCard)
  • Both regulated and heavily oriented toward financial transactions (e.g., stock brokerage, commercial banking, and investment management)

In certain industries, as well as in any publicly traded company, the law requires firms to accurately report their financial "health" so investors can make informed decisions as to whether to buy or sell stock in that company.

In both internal and public accounting, career paths follow a somewhat typical pattern. In a company's internal accounting department, new accountants may start out as auditors (professionals who examine the company's operations and ensure that the firm is following required record-keeping procedures). They would then advance to more senior levels in the financial sector of the firm. They may eventually move into general management within the firm, heading departments, divisions, and even the whole company.

A good entry point into this kind of accounting career would be to join the finance or audit track of a corporation's management-training program immediately upon graduation from college. From there, you would be well positioned to move into roles such as audit director, controller, VP of Finance, or Chief Financial Officer.

In public accounting firms, newcomers generally start out auditing client companies and may then advance to:

  • Audit manager (takes overall responsibility for the thoroughness and accuracy of an audit, managing both his or her audit team and the client relationship during the audit)
  • Partner (manages the firm's overall relationship with clients, generates new clients, and takes ultimate responsibility for all work done by the firm for clients)

The "Big Four" public accounting firms generally conduct recruiting programs at universities around the globe to acquire top graduating talent. Once in the door, you'll be on a promotion track with members of your "class", the people who started at the firm the same year you did, provided that your performance is up to the firm's expectations. This track will lead you from auditor to audit manager to partner. At some point along the way, you'll need to take the exam to become a CPA (Certified Public Accountant).

There are lots of other firms you can work for that aren't in the "Big Four." Some will recruit on campus; others you'll need to search out. Most of these firms will have either a geographic focus or an industry specialization (or both). As in management consulting, your career as a CPA in an independent accounting firm would progress from "doing" to "managing" to "generating new business." By contrast, if you work inside a corporation, you never need to generate new business. Be sure to consider these differences as you think about and plan a career in accounting.

To better position yourself for either an internal or external accounting career after graduation, get a summer internship (or two) - paid or unpaid. An internship gives you a foot in the door -- which is especially important if you're not majoring in accounting. It also gives you a better sense of whether you'll actually enjoy the work.

View 2016-2017 salary data for KU graduates in Accounting 


Common positions in Accounting:

  • Internal Auditor
  • Tax Associate
  • Audit Associate
  • Forensic/Investigative Accounting
  • IT Services
  • Personal Financial Planning
  • Estate Planning
  • Financial Reporting
  • Cost Accounting
  • Tax Planning
  • Budget Analysis
  • Record Keeping

View employers by state. 

Common Employers in Accounting:

  • Large multinational, regional, and local public accounting firms
  • Sole practitioners
  • Companies of all sizes in all industries
  • Universities & colleges
  • Federal, state, and local governments and government agencies
  • Not-for-profit organizations
  • Religious organizations
  • Hospitals
  • Get experience through an internship or other relevant part-time or summer work.
  • Conduct informational discussions with individuals from industry. The Alumni Directories in the BCSC provide a great place to start.
  • Participate in a job shadowing experience through Jayhawks on the Job or a company visit through a Friday Field Trip. Both are programs coordinated through the BCSC.
  • Attend the Accounting Reception held every fall and Business Career Fair events each September to talk with hiring organizations and industry representatives from Accounting.
  • Join a student organization such as Beta Alpha Psi, Delta Sigma Pi, Tax Club, VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Preparation), Alpha Kappa Psi, or ABWA (American Business Women’s Association). These and other organizations will facilitate career exploration.
  • Engage in personal networking to enhance employment prospects.
  • Develop skills including: customer focus, problem solving, self-direction, team orientation, analysis, communication skills, critical thinking, and high ethical standards.

Additional information on careers in accounting is available in Business Career Services in 1130 Capitol Federal Hall. Students are encouraged to review the following resources:

  • http://www.accounting.com/careers/--Accounting.com provides users with information on a variety of career options across areas such as forensic accounting, management accounting, public accounting, auditing and more.
  • www.aicpa.org – American Academy of Certified Public Accountants.
  • www.theiia.org – Institute of Internal Auditors.
  • This Way to CPA -- Provides information on CPA tests and licensure as well as career information and scholarships. 


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