How to Become an Accountant
The accountancy profession offers several paths for those with strong numeracy, analytical and data interpretation skills. Whether in practice – working to provide services to a variety of clients – or in industry – helping a single business to manage its financial standing – accountancy is a varied career that can bring substantial monetary reward.
Unlike many other professions, however, how to be an accountant and, more specifically, how to become a chartered accountant, is not clear cut. With several routes to entry, multiple specialist areas and several professional bodies offering chartered status through advanced accounting qualifications, it can be a confusing process.
This guide has been put together to help you navigate the various pathways of how to become an accountant and looks to answer some of the most commonly asked questions.
The first step to a career as a successful accountant is to choose a route of entry. There are a number of these available, so it’s important to consider the pros and cons of each before choosing the right path for your circumstances.
The following options cover the most popular methods of how to become an accountant in the UK.
One route is to study an accountancy undergraduate degree or a finance-related discipline such as economics or business management. Typically, these take three or four years to complete and will provide you with a sound theoretical knowledge of the accountancy profession.
You may opt to take a four-year sandwich course, which brings the added benefit of a solid period of relevant work experience.
An undergraduate degree is not a prerequisite for becoming an accountant in the UK, but it is a requirement should you be working towards applying for a graduate scheme. Many large companies offer graduate accounting programmes, including major players like Deloitte, KPMG and PwC.
Though competition is fierce, successful applicants will work towards their advanced accountant qualifications while gaining valuable experience with a leading organisation. Those who demonstrate exceptional talent usually land permanent career placements on completion of their graduate programme.
The downside to this entry route is the associated costs, with average university tuition fees currently standing at over £9,000 per year.
A second route commonly taken as an alternative to an undergraduate degree is to seek an accounting apprenticeship. There are many of these offered through both businesses and professional bodies.
You can learn more about 10 of the best accountancy apprenticeships here.
Apprenticeships are offered at three levels:
- Higher/degree level
Each level takes you a step closer to a career as a qualified accountant. They can take anything between three to five years to complete, depending on the qualification level gained. Students that complete a level seven degree apprenticeship will hold the equivalent of a master’s degree.
Apprenticeships combine study with real-world work experience, as well as a competitive starting salary. This makes them a viable option for those looking to avoid student debt.
However, they also require self-motivation and strong organisational skills to balance responsibilities.
A third entry route is to undertake self-funded study of the AAT qualification, offered by the Association of Accounting Technicians. If you do not hold an applicable degree, this qualification is typically considered a prerequisite for many roles within the accountancy field.
The AAT is a self-guided course usually taken alongside a professional role in finance, so how long it takes to complete is down to you. Generally speaking, a single level should take between 6 to 12 months to complete, with four levels in total, ranging from the basic AAT access course to the level four AAT Professional Diploma.
On completion of the AAT Professional Diploma, you’ll be awarded affiliate membership with the organisation. From here, you can pursue full membership with the AAT or choose to qualify as a chartered accountant through one of several other professional bodies.
To get your foot in the door in any accountancy role, you’ll need to demonstrate some relevant experience. This is true whether you’re looking to land a graduate-level post or gain acceptance onto an apprenticeship scheme.
Many of the large firms offer short work placements and seasonal internships, available to candidates that do not yet hold a degree, though you do usually need to be working towards one or be in your final year of A-Level study to qualify. Though these will bring strong credentials to any future applications, places are limited and competition is tough.
You can also add valuable weight to your CV by approaching smaller businesses or charitable organisations that may be open to offering work experience in their finance departments. Also, volunteer roles such as treasurer with a university society can provide relevant skills and competencies.
Once you’ve gained some experience and a relevant qualification, you’ll be looking to progress your career by thinking about how to become a chartered accountant. The first step towards achieving this is to choose a specialism.
There are several specialist areas available in the accountancy profession and choosing your direction early can help you advance your career quickly and effectively.
If you’ve chosen the entry route of a graduate programme with a large firm, you’ll need to choose your specialist area before you apply.
The two main areas of accounting are:
Financial accounting – This is the process of tracking a company’s finances and the flow of money. Financial accountants produce reports for external parties such as regulators, shareholders and investors. Most entry-level accountants begin their career in this area.
Management accounting – Again, management accountants track a company’s financial standing. The difference is that their reports are used internally to allow owners and managers to make informed business decisions. Unlike its financial counterpart, management accounting is not required by law.
Other popular specialisms include:
Audit – Auditors inspect financial accounts and ensure processes and regulations are adhered to. They may also take an advisory role to help improve efficiency and avoid risk. They can work internally with a large firm or organisation, or provide an external service to private firms, governmental bodies and public sector organisations. Public auditors work with organisations often run by the government that relate to public interests, such as education or health, while private auditors work with private businesses where financial profit is the primary consideration. Pulic sector auditors focus more on areas such as IT and cyber security, with limited access to organisations' financial information, whereas private sector auditors primarily focus on aspects related to a business's financial statements. When considering advisory vs audit services, it's important to note they are not the same.
Advisory – There is a difference between audit and advisory services, though they can overlap and businesses require elements of both to solve challenges and grow. Advisory services revolve around analyzing particular challenge areas or goals and offering actionable recommendations and useful insights to help businesses manage risk effectively, improve and grow. There is also a difference between advisory or audit vs consulting, with consulting focusing more on strategies related to large or long-term projects such as launching a new product, expanding into new markets and working out the feasibility of particular projects or ideas.
Tax – Those working in this field ensure all taxes are paid and all necessary information is sent to HMRC. They may also look for ways to reduce tax bills under HMRC rules.
Insolvency – Specialists in this area work to guide businesses through the many aspects of insolvency, including clearing debts and selling company assets.
Forensic accounting – Those that specialise in forensic accounting work predominantly to identify fraudulent activity or embezzlement. They are also responsible for providing financial analysis to a jury in the instance of a court case.
Knowing which area you want to specialise in will help you choose which advanced accountant qualifications to take, and with which professional body.
Whichever route you choose to kick start your career, there are several avenues available for progression and a number of professional bodies with which to take advanced accountant qualifications and gain chartered status.
Below are the three most common methods you can explore to become a chartered accountant.
The Associate Chartered Accountant qualification (ACA) is awarded by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
It consists of four elements:
- 15 exam modules (which progress across the three levels: certificate, professional and advanced)
- Practical work experience (totalling 450 days)
- Professional development
- Ethics and professional scepticism
The ACA typically takes three to five years to complete, the latter being the maximum time allowance, and must be taken through an ICAEW recognised training employer.
You can choose to begin the exam modules independently but you will still need to be accepted onto an approved training programme to fulfil all requirements.
Training programmes are essentially full-time jobs that allow for study and are a big commitment of both time and energy, so be sure you’re fully prepared to take on the work before you accept a place. This route is generally considered the most appropriate for those looking to pursue a career in practice, as opposed to industry.
You can find an in-depth guide to the ACA here.
The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) is an internationally recognised qualification awarded by the professional body of the same name.
The academic requirements of the ACCA are as follows:
- Multiple exams completed in the three areas of Applied Knowledge, Applied Skills and Strategic Professional Skills
- An interactive ethics and professional skills module passed by assessment
The ACCA also has a Practical Experience Requirement (PER), which states that students must complete 36 months of practical experience with an approved employer, assessed through set performance objectives.
The PER can be completed alongside, before or after the academic components so, if you choose to, you can complete the study and exam based components of the ACCA before looking for a role in which to complete the minimum experience requirement.
Generally considered a broader programme than the ACA, the ACCA provides qualified candidates with multiple career options in industry, as well as pathways into practice.
Learn more about the ACCA and the associated career paths here.
Those looking to advance their career in management accountancy may prefer to qualify with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).
Globally recognised as the largest professional body of management accountants, CIMA qualifications are offered on two levels:
- The CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting
- The CIMA Professional Qualification
Completion of both, plus a minimum of three years of assessed, practical work experience, allows you to apply directly to CIMA for membership.
If your experience is deemed sufficient, you’ll be offered associate membership, permitting you to use both designations of Associate Chartered Management Accountant (ACMA) and Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA).
Read more about the CIMA qualification here.
Regardless of how you choose to become an accountant, and which body you opt to become fully qualified through, achieving chartered status can lead to a highly rewarding career with a solid salary.
While this is very much dependent on the company, its size and location, and the sector in which it operates, the average salary for a chartered accountant in the UK stands around £85,000 per annum, with an additional yearly bonus on top.
This reward does not come without hard work, however. Whichever qualification you take, you need to be fully committed and able to balance your professional life with study. This is particularly important if you are taking an advanced qualification through an employer who is funding your advancement.
Before you embark on your accountancy career, be sure to weigh up all the options and choose the path best suited to your circumstances and career aspirations.