What it is:
An accountant is trained to compile, inspect, interpret, and/or report financial statements and tax returns that comply with governmental and regulatory authority requirements.
How it works (Example):
Accountants often work in a company's accounting department, at an auditing firm, or in a private practice. Regardless of where they work, an accountant's work generally revolves around recording, measuring, and presenting financial information.
In a company's accounting department, accounting functions often include billing customers, collecting payment, paying vendors and employees, reconciling bank accounts, calculating and remitting taxes, and correctly recording transactions among subsidiaries and ventures. They also include creating budgets, setting spending policies, and making or participating in major business decisions.
Audit work includes verifying a company's financial information, helping a company determine the appropriate accounting treatment for complex transactions, and providing public opinions about the quality of a company's accounting records. Accountants in private practice may provide bookkeeping services for small companies, prepare tax returns for companies and individuals, or offer consulting services for certain types of transactions or industries.
Many accountants seek certifications to evidence their attainment of certain levels of professional competence. These certifications include Certified Professional Accountant (CPA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and Certified Internal Auditor (CIA). Some accountants also specialize in certain areas of accounting, such as tax accounting, oil and gas accounting, forensic accounting (bankruptcy), or international accounting.
Why it Matters:
Although people often refer to accountants as "bean counters" who focus on the smallest details, accountants have the rare advantage of being able to understand both the details of each area of a company and the big picture. This broad and deep knowledge is why CEOs often come from the ranks of accounting and finance.
Effective accountants must be able to solve problems creatively and analyze information to gain insight into situations. They must also be able to persuasively discuss and defend their views, stay abreast of new e-commerce and software technologies, manage projects and deadlines, and have the confidence to make recommendations and policies that affect an entire organization. Above all, successful accountants are good communicators, act ethically, and rigorously follow the law and accounting rules.
It is very important to understand that not all accountants are CPAs. CPAs are licensed by the states in which they practice. To become a CPA, an accountant must complete a formal program of study at a college or university, pass the Uniform CPA Examination administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and have a certain amount of related work experience. Each state's board of accountancy determines the exact requirements in each of these three areas. In some states, only CPAs can perform certain accounting functions. The Securities and Exchange Commission also requires that only CPAs perform certain functions.
Each state board of accountancy requires its CPAs to keep current on accounting rules and practices by taking Continuing Professional Education (CPE) courses each year. Each board determines how many CPE credits a CPA in that state must obtain each year and what activities warrant these credits.