There are plenty of career paths in the business world for those who are adept at and enjoy numbers and analytics. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1 million job openings are anticipated through the year 2022 for professionals in accounting, business and financial occupations who have the right skillsets, education and experience.1 Two career tracks within the financial field include accounting and finance. While there is some common ground between the two disciplines, each career track has a different focus.
Comparing Accounting and Finance
The difference between accounting and finance is that accounting focuses on the daily flow of money in and out of a business or institution, whereas finance concentrates on how the money is managed to achieve growth. In other words, accounting examines a company’s past fiscal transactions and finance plans future transactions.
On a day-to-day basis, accountants track the inflows and outflows of an organization’s money, as well as maintain a general ledger, prepare balance sheets, and create profit and loss statements. Finance professionals, on the other hand, spend most of their time creating a company’s financial strategy, including activities like making investment recommendations and identifying merger and acquisition opportunities. They determine debt to equity ratios, prepare business forecasts, and create investment portfolios.2
Accounting and Finance in the Classroom
Whereas accounting and finance degree programs may have courses in common, such as economics, technical or professional writing, and business law, each program is unique.
Accounting in the Classroom
Accounting programs focus on the movement of money within an organization. Students who pursue a degree in business with a major in accounting may learn how to perform core accounting functions and learn a variety of skills including corporate accounting, taxation, governmental, and not-for-profit accounting and auditing.
Although it’s a common perception that students who gravitate toward numbers typically major in accounting, these individuals may also enjoy routinely analyzing data. Dr. Uzell Williams, Lead Instructor of Accounting at Colorado Technical University (CTU), stresses the math skills required for accounting are not especially difficult. Rather, it’s developing the necessary critical thinking skills that students find challenging. According to Dr. Williams, “It’s easy to put basic accounting skills in place. As you go on in accounting, though, you have to have an open mind and be willing and comfortable following the logic to solve a problem.”
Accountants should also be good communicators. While it’s true accountants spend a significant amount of time working with numbers, once the numbers are crunched and the ledgers are balanced, accountants need to be able to explain all of this financial information. Furthermore, depending on the nature of the position, an accountant might have a great deal of personal interaction with others. For example, he or she might present in front of a large group of people such as a board of directors, legal and financial regulators, and professional membership organizations. Since many of these people might not have a large amount of experience with the information, accountants need to be able to communicate it in a way that’s easy to understand.3
Today, technology has become a critical component of the accounting industry. Through cloud-based technology platforms, organizations have access to real-time data and the ability to automate functionality. For example, bank feeds can be integrated in real time, allowing accountants to create the most accurate statements and reports possible. Therefore, accounting students should be comfortable with sophisticated software applications and a have willingness to master new technologies as they are introduced to the market.4
Finance in the Classroom
Unlike accounting programs or concentrations, a finance degree should focus on the movement of money within the market, rather than within the company. Through finance, students can learn theories and practices related to financial accounting, the greater emphasis is on investment allocation and risk management. Course content should cover a broad range of topics including banking, analytics, and business development.
Finance is a separate field of study from accounting, and finance professionals need to have an aptitude for numbers and basic accounting. In finance, a student may manage the flow of money in your company and identifying financial risks and returns to make sound business decisions. This is a high level of responsibility, and it means individuals must have insight into accounting practices and regulations.5
According to a recent survey by Deloitte, a global network of professionals providing auditing, consulting, financial advisory, risk management and tax services,6 “CFOs frequently mention business acumen, leadership skills and expertise in gathering, analyzing and presenting data as skills they would most like to add to their teams.”7
Lastly, similar to accounting, communication skills are essential. Accounting and finance professionals need to be able to tell the story behind the numbers.
Accounting and Finance Professions
Whether you opt to pursue a degree in accounting or finance, job prospects are promising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting jobs are expected to grow by 13% between now and 2024, and finance positions are expected to increase by 16%.8
Careers in Accounting
With the demand for accountants increasing possibly due to growth in international trade and mergers and acquisitions, now may be an ideal time to pursue an accounting degree.1 Some professions in accounting include:
Accountant and Auditor
Accountants and auditors monitor and record the flow of money through an organization. They verify the accuracy of financial transactions and ensure these transactions meet legal guidelines. Furthermore, accountants and auditors analyze profits and losses to provide information to investors and business owners so they can accurately evaluate how a company is performing over time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities for accountants and auditors are expected to grow by 11% between now and 2024.9
Cost estimators develop the cost information business owners and managers need to make a bid for a contract or decide whether a new product or project will be profitable. To develop this cost information, cost estimators gather and analyze all of the data that can affect costs, such as materials, labor, location, project duration and unique machinery requirements including hardware and software. Most cost estimators work in construction or manufacturing industries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the job market for cost estimators is expected to grow 9% by 2024.10
Budget analysts organize the finances of both public and private organizations by monitoring spending and preparing budgets. They also analyze data to determine the costs and benefits of funding requests from managers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities are projected to grow at a rate of 3% for budget analysts between now and 2024.11
Additional career paths for accounting professionals:
- Loan officer
- Tax examiner, collector and revenue agent
- Post-secondary teacher
- Insurance underwriter
- Securities, commodities and financial services sales agent
- Insurance sales agent
Careers in Finance
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be approximately 632,400 new jobs for financial operations professionals through 2024 – a small degree higher than the number for accounting.12 Some professions in finance include:
Personal Financial Advisor
Personal financial advisors are partners to their clients in the financial planning process. Together with their client, a personal financial advisor sets fiscal goals such as purchasing a home or planning for college, and then the advisor devises a strategy to reach these goals. These strategies may include savings, loans, insurance and tax planning. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of opportunities for personal financial advisors is expected to grow 30%, or much faster than average, by 2024.13
Financial analysts, often performing in the roles of securities analysts and investment analysts, guide businesses in their investment decisions. They assess the performance of investments such as stocks and bonds, and they recommend investment portfolios. In addition to corporations, many financial analysts work in banks, pension funds, mutual funds, securities firms and insurance companies, where they evaluate data and study economic and business trends to advise company officials on appropriate financial opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports financial analyst careers are expected to grow 12% between now and 2024.14
A financial manager is considered to be more senior than a financial analyst, and these managers maintain an organization’s finances to maximize returns and minimize risk. Financial managers are expected to understand how a business functions as a whole, as well as have a command of specialized financial knowledge. They routinely perform financial analysis activities such as forecasting, budgeting, cost reduction analysis and operational performance reviews. They also analyze market trends to identify where investment opportunities exist. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, openings for financial managers are expected to grow by 7% between now and 2024.15
Additional careers for finance professionals include:
- Cost estimator
- Internal auditor
- Regulatory compliance officer
- Portfolio manager
- Venture capitalist
Accounting and Finance Accreditations
Both accounting and finance professionals can pursue accreditations to improve their marketability and increase their chances for career advancement. While there is a significant amount of overlap between certifications available to accounting and finance professionals, employers may also be in search of subject matter experts. Therefore, budding professionals have to opportunity to pursue certifications that allow them to develop specialties and demonstrate advanced knowledge in a niche subject matter that speaks to their personal interests and career aspirations.
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
Certified Public Accountants are licensed by their state’s Board of Accountancy, and almost all states require CPA candidates to successfully complete 150 semester hours of college coursework to be certified.17 Many CPA candidates hold a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, but it is not unheard of for a business degree major in an accounting or finance field to pursue the CPA certification. In addition to the coursework requirement, CPA candidates must pass a national, four-part exam issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).18
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), also known as the Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business, sponsors the Certified Management Accountant certification. Although the CPA certification focuses on taxes, compliance, financial reporting and auditing, the CMA focuses on business analysis and strategy as well as corporate financial management. To qualify for a CMA, professionals must have a bachelor’s degree and at least two consecutive years in either financial management or management accounting. In addition, there is a two-part exam that must be passed. Accounting professionals often opt to receive both the CPA and CMA certifications, since there is some overlap in the exam material. Furthermore, despite the “A” for accounting in its title, the CMA may also be seen as a desirable certification in many finance professions.19
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
The CFA Institute confers the Chartered Financial Analyst certification to investment professionals who have at least a bachelor’s degree, four years of work experience, and pass three exams covering topics such as accounting, economics, ethics, money management and security analysis. In this day and age, financial services companies are taking longer to fill positions in an effort to identify candidates who are a right fit not just from an education and experience standpoint, but from a cultural perspective as well. In such a competitive environment, professionals with a CFA designation may have an advantage over other candidates.20
Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
The U.S. Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) confers the Certified Financial Planner certification to professionals who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university and pass a three-part examination covering the general principles of financial planning, insurance planning and risk management, employee benefits, investments, income tax, retirement and estate planning. In addition, applicants must have at least three years of related work experience.21 The CFP designation is becoming increasingly necessary for attracting and retaining clients. According to a recent nationwide survey conducted by the CFP Board, 85% of upper-income households reported a CFP certification was very or extremely important when choosing a financial planner.22
Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)
Chartered Financial Consultant designations are granted by The American College upon completion of comprehensive coursework. This coursework must include seven required pathways that cover subject matter such as insurance and financial strategies, income taxation, planning for retirement needs, investments and estate planning as well as two elective courses. Designed to be an alternative to the CFP, the ChFC is similar in that the certification is a mark of competence in the understanding of the financial system in the economy, financial planning applications, practical estate planning, and retirement issues. Unlike the CFP, however, the ChFC has no examination. To be considered for a ChFC program, professionals must have a minimum of three years of work in the financial industry. It is also recommended the applicant have a degree related to either finance or business.23
It is important to remember, as you identify the path for which you’re best suited, accounting and finance professions tend to support one another. Accounting records and reports financial transactions, thereby supporting the work of the finance team. In turn, finance is reliant on the accuracy of accounting. Both fields require a high level of skill and education, and each occupation can yield a promising future for motivated professionals.