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How To Become An Accountant


Accountants ensure that companies are financially sound and compliant with the national legislation, and their services range from auditing to financial advice. The accountancy profession is a relatively stable one, regardless of economic context, and financial rewards for chartered accountants are substantial. While a good deal of emphasis is placed on training and experience, accounting positions with FTSE companies and renowned international corporations can only be secured with serious dedication and a good postgraduate qualification.

AAT qualification

Accountancy is one of the more competitive industries, where entry is not guaranteed without a degree or occasionally, a Higher National Diploma (HND). Some employers will be satisfied with an Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) Accounting Qualification, which leads to training for chartered accountant status.

Undergraduate qualifications

Entry into the field of accountancy is open to all graduates, and although most will understandably have business degrees, some will have studied maths, science, arts, languages or social sciences. A Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business (CFAB) could also be useful in securing a training contract.

Global Accreditation

In the UK, there are three professional institutes of chartered accountants and entry requirements slightly vary:

Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and its two equivalent bodies in Scotland and Ireland, Chartered Accountants Ireland (overseeing Ireland and Northern Ireland), and Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS)

The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)

ICAEW requires three GCSEs, two A-levels, and a first class honours degree, while the ICAS accepts a degree or an AAT Accounting Qualification. Graduates studying for the ACA qualification from the Institute of Chartered Accountants also need three years of practical training. On completion, an ICAEW qualification could lead to a career in audit, assurance, forensic accounting, corporate finance, business insolvency or tax advice. You will be qualified to sign off audited accounts for other companies, as well as fill a position as accountant or finance director. With a qualification from CIMA, you will be able to be an accountant or finance director, but not sign off audited accounts of other businesses, whereas with the ACCA, it's the other way around.

For those specialising in the public sector, a qualification from the  Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy CIPFA, offers the title of Chartered Public Finance Accountant.

Training as an accountant

Securing a training contract with an approved employer is one of the hardest tasks involved in becoming a chartered accountant, as employers are known to ask for UCAS points in excess of 300, a good degree and evidence of mastering mathematics. Any pre-entry work experience, such as vacation work, shadowing or work placements will be very helpful.

Competition is tough and the selection process can be extremely rigorous, as most employers ask for evidence of leadership, numerical, analytical, problem-solving, IT, organisational and interpersonal skills.

Some employers accept applications up until the end of October, which is a good reason to start applying in your final year of your undergraduate degree, in the autumn term. Companies will organise recruitment fairs and hold presentations on campus, or provide short courses or open days.

Accountants generally have to abide by  ICAEW Code of Ethics in their daily financial operations and any training or pre-entry work will require you to be familiar with those terms.

How to become an accountant Postgraduate qualifications   

After taking a degree, accountancy exams with any of the professional bodies mentioned above will probably take another 3 or 4 years to complete, during which time you could also take up an MBA, MA or MSc in accountancy to further your career prospects. The MBA is a relatively new type of postgraduate degree, having celebrated its centennial at Harvard Business School in 2008, whereas the masters degree was first awarded in 859.

According to the  Higher Education Statistics Agency, three quarters of 2011/2012 masters graduates found a job in six months, and of those who were employed in the UK, more than 80% occupied professional and managerial positions, whereas only 60% of first degree graduates found similar positions. Additionally, the Graduate Management Admission Council performed its 2013 annual Corporate Recruitment Survey, which revealed that 75% of employers in 50 countries intended to hire MBA graduates and other business masters graduates. With all countries showing better prospects of employment for MBA and masters graduates, the data in favour of studying postgraduate degrees is more than encouraging.

MBA or masters degree?

Choosing between an MBA and a masters degree is a matter of what you believe to be the most relevant qualification for your personal goals. An MBA offers more general courses – although there are some options to specialise in some modules – while a Masters in Accounting and Finance course, for instance, will relate mostly to the topic of accounting. If you wish to specialise on a certain aspect of business, then a masters degree may be the best option for you, and it is especially suitable for you if you have a major strength, but little interest in any other subjects. Every business seeks talented accountants, but if wish to acquire a broader range of business-related skills to help you with your career in accounting and perhaps contribute in other departments as well, for a company with less rigid structure and organisation and perhaps with international presence, then an MBA could be just as useful. MBAs are intensive, research-based and practical courses that are designed to prepare graduates with extensive knowledge of theoretical principles and understanding into how to best apply them. On the other hand, masters programs feature mostly classroom and laboratory-based activities, such as presentations, tutorials and lectures and the emphasis is mostly on independent learning.

Aside from granting expertise in daily accounting procedures, postgraduate courses also expand a candidate's horizons in their search for the ideal job, as most companies offering high-level positions will specifically be looking for the skills and abilities that a course of this kind enhances and nurtures. Moreover, MBAs and masters degrees are taught by highly qualified professors who use up-to-date research, case study examples and global data to enhance their students' career prospects in the field of financial management and accounting.

Different types of accountancy masters programs

Postgraduate degrees with global recognition, such as the hundreds offered by British institutions are challenging programs with flexible yet rigorous schedules which provide comprehensive knowledge of management accounting, investment, finance and financial accounting, with integrated application in today's business context.

An MSc in Accounting and Finance, such as those offered by Bangor Business School London Centre, or an Accounting and Business Management MSc, like the one offered by the Brunel Business School, aims to provide students with the skills they need to secure a senior level position in accounting or financial services. Furthermore, an Accounting and Finance (CIMA) MA program like the one offered by the University of Central Lancashire allows you to develop the skills to improve your career opportunity, while also preparing you for the CIMA examination.

For those interested in working with NGOs, an MSc in Charity Accounting and Financial Management such as that offered by Cass Business School could provide specialist knowledge of charity taxation and privileges, with a comprehensive understanding of the particular accounting practices and financial management required. Alternatively, an MSc in International Accounting and Finance prepares students for the complexities of accounting practices of multinational companies, and broadens their perspective by touching on aspects of business strategy and consultancy.

Advantages of a postgraduate accountancy qualification

A postgraduate degree could make you exempt from requiring ACCA or other type of accreditation discussed above, which is a serious advantage in terms of job market, especially since these qualifications are recognised by the industry and may require less time to complete than an ACCA, therefore granting you more time to build up that experience that employers are absolutely adamant about.

Additionally, due to the fact that postgraduate courses have international student bodies, they will extend your knowledge of accountancy across cultures and countries as you will be required to assemble and cooperate to gain business insight. Postgraduate courses cover all aspects of accounting, including bookkeeping, management accounting, taxation, auditing, cost accounting, computerised and administrative accounting.

Business school facilities for budding accountants

Some of the best business schools and universities will offer their postgraduate students a wide array of academic resources, including an extensive library, journal subscriptions, and access to data concerning public liability companies and even IT facilities and suites such as the Bloomberg Research and Trading Room facility, Matlab, Reuters Eikon and Datastream.

Accountancy Postgraduate Student Case Studies

A postgraduate success story is Lee Phelan, who gained a few years of experience at Citibank and then went on to build his own Private Equity Investment Firm thanks to gaining his MA qualification in Accounting and Finance at the University of Leeds, in 2002.


Another example of the competitive advantage that a postgraduate qualification can provide is the inspirational Kandarp Khanvte, who also studied at the University of Leeds and gained his MA in 2003 and is currently the Vice President of the Financial Restructuring Group at BNP Paribas, but also worked for KPMG and Fortis Bank.


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