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Just How Difficult Is It to Break Into Accounting As a Second Career?

accounting as a second career

Around these parts we like to focus on the “traditional” accounting track: school, degree, Big 4 job, CPA exam, and exit to greener pastures, usually in that order. It’s how it’s always been for accounting majors and likely how it always will be because as we know, it’s Big 4 or nothing in the world of accounting. We’re as guilty as anyone when it comes to focusing on the Big 4 and forgetting that there’s a whole wide world of other routes into out there. Like the ones taken by people whose experience with accounting is limited to visiting a tax prep office once a year and may just now be considering accounting as a second career.

It struck me the other day while endlessly scrolling through Reddit that we have neglected a chunk of the potential accountant population: folks for whom accounting wasn’t their first choice. I’ve been seeing more and more posts on r/accounting lately that ask “can I, a [insert random job here], be an accountant?” The short answer without even filling in that blank is “yep!” Unless you’re an accounting tabloid writer who gets paid to pick apart every move accounting firms make, sad to say that bridge is probably burned for me. Oh well.

Longtime Going Concern readers likely already know this but for those of you new to the site or just stumbling across this post while searching “how do I get into accounting as a second career,” I got my start in CPA review. I stumbled into the job accidentally in that I never in a million years would have imagined myself working in accounting nor anything accounting-adjacent because up until I actually worked in it I, like most civilians, mistakenly believed there were icky numbers involved (eww). But let’s not get into that, it’s not important. I’m telling this story because I think it’s relevant to the matter at hand: how to get into accounting as a second career.

Picture it: San Francisco. 2007. As I’m taking the bus up the peninsula to my CPA review job in the city, I couldn’t help but notice how many homes dotting my route were wearing For Sale signs in their yards. Hmm. I suppose I heard some buzz of a “housing crisis” while flipping channels on my way to peak VH-1 bad reality TV but as a 20-something renter didn’t think much of it as it didn’t affect me. And then the shit hit the fan.

My work was inundated with calls from people who, for whatever reason, maybe took an accounting class or two in college but decided to do something else with their lives up until the point that whatever they chose was no longer an option. People from all over, and all walks of life, suddenly scrambling to figure out how to survive in an uncertain job market. OK, “uncertain” isn’t the word for it. The market was certainly crap for a lot of professionals out there. “I liked accounting in school,” they’d say, “I guess it just wasn’t for me so I didn’t pursue it.” Real estate agents, teachers, even guys who tried to pass the CPA exam before I was born were now embracing the profession in droves and seeking to add those three letters to the end of their email signatures. Why? Because other than the government, accounting was one of the few industries still reliably hiring leading up to, during, and just after the Great Recession.

All that to say, accounting is a safe choice. If it can survive total global economic collapse, surely it can survive anything. Numbers will always need to be crunched, audits will always need to be performed, and in turbulent economic times the people who can make sense of all those negative numbers are even more in demand.

Here’s some more good news: accounting isn’t difficult to get in to. I know the Wake Forest tryhards are going to get a little butthurt by me saying that but what I mean is, unlike law, you don’t have to go to a top school just to get in the door. Will you be a top PwC consultant with just a Bachelor’s degree from University of American Samoa? Well probably not. But you can still be an accountant.

Are you a plumber? A tattoo artist? A circus performer? Doesn’t matter. Accounting as a second career is a viable option for many different people from blue collar workers to stay-at-home parents who want more than just a side gig. As a working professional you can bring a lot to the table even if you don’t have much actual accounting experience: communication skills, relationship management, out-of-the-box thinking and the ability to manage stress are all vital skills in the accountants’ toolkit. You’ve likely learned at least some if not all of these in whatever it is you’ve been doing up until now for most of your adult life.

If you want to be a CPA, all you need are the educational units and the determination. CPA exam requirements vary by state and I won’t be getting into that too much here but NASBA (the national board that administers the exam, not to be confused with the AICPA that develops it) has a decent licensing resource here. You can also access their Accounting Licensing Library for $10 to search for a state in which you might be qualified to sit for the CPA exam (you don’t necessarily have to sit in your state of residency, though practicing as a CPA might be another story). Additionally, you can go straight to your state board of accountancy to read up on the requirements in your state.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the educational requirements to become a CPA in my home state of Virginia. Again, this will vary by jurisdiction but generally speaking all 55 CPA exam jurisdictions are similar in that there isn’t one that requires 80 units in accounting with another requiring just five. 120 hours/24 accounting units/24 business units to sit is pretty standard:

Exam candidates must obtain from one or more accredited institutions:

  • At least 120 semester hours of education
  • Baccalaureate or higher degree
  • Accounting concentration or equivalent: Principles or introductory accounting courses cannot be considered in determining whether a person has obtained the 48 minimum number of semester hours required for an accounting concentration or equivalent.
  • Minimum of 24 semester hours of accounting courses, to include: courses in auditing, financial accounting, management accounting, and taxation.
  • Minimum of 24 semester hours of business courses. As many as 6 hours of accounting courses (not included in the 24 hours of accounting courses) may be considered for the business course requirement.

Note that an overwhelming majority of jurisdictions require a total of 150 units for licensure, the above are solely requirements to qualify to sit for the CPA exam in my state. Once you sit for and pass the exam you can proceed with applying for licensure.

If you’ve been out of school for a while, you can have your transcripts evaluated by a transcription service to find out where you’re deficient and fill in the educational gaps from there. I won’t recommend any, Google it.

Some people looking into accounting as a second career will have more work ahead of them than others depending largely on your educational background but the requirements are pretty straightforward. Back in my CPA review days I remember a nearby school that offered an accounting “fast track” program to get required accounting units quickly, might be worth checking around if something like that is offered at an accredited school near you.

Do you need to be a CPA to be an accountant? Nope. But despite declining CPA exam candidate numbers and the ongoing threat of legislation that could but most likely won’t make CPA licensure obsolete, the CPA remains the gold standard worldwide. Passing the CPA exam signals that not only do you understand the fundamentals of the work but you possess the dedication and discipline necessary to join the ranks of certified public accountants before you. A CPA is required for certain things like signing audit reports but not expected at entry level. Almost nobody has a CPA fresh out of college, it can take a couple years for early-career Big 4 accountants to get through the process and at some point a few years in is required for promotion, something you don’t need to worry about for now.

One caveat: remember what I said above about giving up on that dream of being a high-flying Big 4 consultant if you don’t have a perfect educational pedigree? Here’s the thing, the profession is fed by an extremely robust on-campus recruiting pipeline and access to the coveted public accounting jobs at large firms is often tied to the resources at your school. You, as an older candidate, may not be able to take advantage of the recruiting machine that turns fresh-faced 22-year-olds into bitter honest-to-god accounting professionals. This just means you’re going to have to think a bit more creatively than the junior accounting major who phones in a Meet the Firms event once a semester. Again, it’s not impossible. You can always try contacting the accounting department chair at your nearby big university to see if they’ll let you drop in at a campus recruiting event. Hey, what do you have to lose? There are also recruiting firms you can use, accounting firm websites themselves are stacked with job openings, and networking is always a good idea, you can join professional organizations and associations and you’ll be rubbing elbows with accountants in no time.

Is your background in technology? Well yay, you’ve already got a leg up. Everyone around these parts knows the coming robot revolution in accounting is a huge deal, but in the last few years we’ve gone from joking about robots taking over your job to seeing automation come into play in a much more tangible way. This push toward tech-literate CPAs is further exemplified by the CPA Evolution project, an ambitious, tech-focused rehaul of the CPA exam that launches in 2024. What began as a discussion about changing CPA exam content to better align with real-world accounting applications in 2020 is now being realized into a modern, future-forward exam that will (hopefully) better test entry-level CPAs’ skills and technological expertise.

Excepting the CPA exam, the barrier to entry in accounting is fairly low (at least when compared to other professional careers like law). And as far as we’ve seen in the 13 years since this website was founded, demand for qualified accounting professionals is high in times both turbulent and calm. Well, on second thought, things have been fairly turbulent since 2009. Sort of like how terror alerts since 9/11 are always orange, just varying shades of turbulence. Whatever, accountants will always be in demand.

There are a million specialties and certifications you can pursue as well, but this article has already run longer than anyone around here has the attention span for so we’ll end there. If you’re dying for even more information, check out our Definitive Guide to Accounting as a Second Career which covers the most in demand skills for accountants, what to expect in your accounting program, the plethora of job options you’ll have with a degree in accounting, and some myths you may have heard about a career in accounting. If you are an “outsider” looking to break into accounting and have a specific question for our team of accounting profession rejects, go ahead and get in touch.