How to become an accountant

If you are looking for a job and career that is relatively stable, is in demand year-round, and offers you the ability to work your way to the top, then becoming a chartered accountant is a good place to start. 

It might not sound all that glamorous, but becoming a chartered accountant is an excellent career choice and can prepare you for many different roles – you won’t necessarily find yourself gazing at spreadsheets day in, day out!

Why should I become an accountant?

Many people think that accounting is complicated and takes a lot of time, and so to become an accountant means you need to be an incredible mathematician to get the job done. But in reality, accountancy is much more than working out how much tax a person or business needs to pay. Although you’ll need some numeracy skills – because you’ll be dealing with money – the majority of the really tough calculations are done by software today, and so you won’t need to be worried about whether you remembered to ‘carry the one’ when you were adding up. 

As we’ve already mentioned, becoming an accountant means your career can be pretty flexible, allowing you to create the life you want. Let’s consider these points: 

  • Accountants are required in almost all industries
  • There are specialisms to diversify your skillset
  • Accountancy rules are universal – so whether you’re planning to live abroad now, or are considering it in the future, you’ll be able to apply for work almost immediately on arrival (subject to immigration requirements, of course)
  • If you’re planning to create your own business in a different field, an accountancy qualification is a great place to start

Accountancy isn’t just about numbers either – it is primarily about giving advice and working with people. You’ll be working with clients who are amazing at what they do, but they don’t have the resource or capacity to handle their own accounts. You need to be able to present things clearly, while maintaining a professional manner.

But let’s get to the most important reason to become an accountant – because you want to know how much you’ll be able to earn in return for your study! As a graduate entering the field, depending on where you are based, you’re likely to be able to earn up to £30,000, and during the training period, there is the potential to earn up to £60,000. 

Once you hold fully qualified chartered accountant status, the average national salary is £84,500, with hefty bonuses common in the industry. That’s a pretty comfortable amount to be rewarded with after the study it takes.

But how do you become an accountant? Keep reading to discover the steps you need to take.

The average national salary for a Chartered Accountant is £84,500

Traits that great accountants have

Now we’ve looked at the reasons to become an accountant, let’s take a quick look at some of the traits that accountancy firms will be looking for.

You’re going to need to be highly organised, with great time management skills. Deadlines issued by HMRC are not negotiable, and when a deadline is missed, either for filing accounts or a tax return, they incur pretty hefty fines. On top of that, you’re going to need to pay incredible attention to detail – everything needs to balance in accounting, and one missed digit can make all the difference!

Although a lot of what an accountant does is solitary work, most companies will be looking for someone who is a team player and can work flexibly to accommodate the needs of clients. And talking of clients, you’ll need to have great communication skills, which will help you to both understand what your clients need – and to be able to explain accounting arrangements clearly.

Finally – and this might go without saying, considering that you’ll be privy to sensitive information about businesses and their earnings – but accountancy firms will be looking for employees that are fully committed to their work, and that are reliable and trustworthy.

What qualifications can I take to become an accountant?

There are several different routes to becoming a qualified accountant, and as with everything in accounting, there are no shortcuts – each route to becoming fully qualified takes several years of work.

So what are the required qualifications to become an accountant? A degree can be one way to start your journey to becoming an accountant, although it is worth noting that not every accountant you meet will have a degree. Most accountancy firms will look for AAT qualifications, and then one of the options we’ll discuss in a moment.

If you do take a degree in accounting and choose the right modules, you may be able to use some of your modules as credit towards your preferred route to qualifying and achieving chartered status, subject to the permitted rules of the organisations.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Accountant?

Aspiring accountants often wonder about the timeline to achieve chartered status. This varies depending on an individual’s current stage in their accounting career. On average, the journey to become a chartered accountant in the UK typically spans from a minimum of three years to seven years. 

AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) accounting courses

The AAT courses are often the first step that accountants take, and they combine knowledge and practical skills in three qualifications.

  • Foundation Certificate in Accounting (Level 2)
  • Advanced Diploma in Accounting (Level 3)
    • When you have passed the assessments for this qualification you can progress to become an AAT Bookkeeping Member
  • Professional Diploma in Accounting (Level 4)
    • When you have completed this qualification you can progress to become a Full Member of the AAT.
There are no prior qualifications required to study any of the AAT qualifications, but that doesn’t mean you can jump straight in at level 4. You will need to take the AAT Skillcheck and get approval from your training provider to ensure that you don’t set yourself up to fail by aiming too high, too quickly.

How long does the AAT take? Each qualification takes between six and 18 months to complete.

ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants)

You’ll need a minimum of two A levels and three GCSEs in five different subjects including English and Maths to start studying for the ACCA qualification. The ACCA is a master’s degree level qualification, and when you complete your studies, you’ll hold ACCA membership.

To complete the ACCA, you will need three years of work experience, and there 13 exams to take across three units, which are:

  • Applied Knowledge
  • Applied Skills
  • Strategic Professional
  • You’ll also need to take the Ethics and Professional Skills module

By entering the ACCA Conditional Exemption Programme, you can sit ACCA exams while you are studying at university. This programme is dependent upon the programme you are studying, but it can allow you to become a professional within twelve months.

How long does the ACCA route take?
The ACCA allows the qualification to be studied over ten years, but it is possible to complete it within three years if you can dedicate the time.

ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) chartered accountant status

The ICAEW ACA qualification is one of the qualifications that employers most desire. It is an internationally recognised qualification. This qualification allows for accountants to open their own practice – so if that is in your plans, this route should definitely be on your agenda.

The ACA takes a minimum of three years on the job training while you study a series of exams. You can study the modules in any order that you like, and there are four aspects to the qualification: 

  • 450 days of practical work experience
  • 15 exam modules
  • Professional development
  • Ethics and professional scepticism

You may be able to apply for credit for your previous studies – and if you hold an accounting degree, you may be able to dramatically reduce the number of exams you will need to sit.

The prestige attached to the ACA is illustrated in the average salary once qualified – globally, the average ICAEW member salary is £108,000.

How long does the ACCA route take?
The ACCA allows the qualification to be studied over ten years, but it is possible to complete it within three years if you can dedicate the time.

CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) business finance award

CIMA is the route to becoming a management accountant, which is quite a different role within the financial sector. Studying the CIMA qualification will provide you with analysis, strategy, planning, and risk management skills, and for that reason the CIMA is highly regarded and sought by many employers.

  • CIMA Certificate in Business Accounting – four units and a synoptic exam CIMA Diploma in
  • Management Accounting – three operational level units and a synoptic exam
  • CIMA Advanced Diploma in Management Accounting – three management level and three strategic level units and a synoptic exam

CIMA is an international organisation and there are members in 176 countries worldwide, which is potentially very useful if you are intending to work abroad.

To achieve the full CIMA qualification, most students take around four years, depending on the amount of experience or study completed previously. It is a flexible programme though, and you can book exams online and take exams at your convenience. Eligible postgraduate study may exempt you from several of the CIMA exams.

How long does the CIMA route take?
Around four years.

CIPFA Chartered Institute of Public and Finance Accountancy

The CIPFA provides training for professionals in the public sector. If you’re looking for an accounting career in the Home Office, the NHS, local councils, or the armed forces, then studying for the CIPFA might be the right qualification for you. You won’t be tied to the public sector though – once qualified and experienced, many CIPFA members move to the private sector.

There are three stages in the programme:

  • The Professional Certificate
  • The Professional Diploma
  • The Strategic Stage

How long does the CIMA route take?
Around four years.

Accreditation from different accounting software companies

While you’re studying for the main part of your qualification, you may find you have the opportunity to become qualified in one or more of the main accounting software solutions. Here’s a quick look at some of the training you can get from accounting software providers.

In terms of getting a job, being certified by one of these companies isn’t always an essential entry requirement. We’ve mentioned it here since having this type of training or accreditation is a great way to boost your CV and shows that you are willing to develop your skills further – which is essential when you are new to the field.

What specialisms are there in accounting?

The main areas that accountants are likely to specialise in are auditing, business recovery and insolvency, corporate finance, forensic accounting, and tax. But even without specialising, there are major differences between seemingly similar roles in different industries. There are major differences between the public and private sectors, and charities have very diverse needs too – so once you’ve got the hang of one job, moving to another one could present you with some different challenges and keep things interesting.

If you’re looking to move on from ‘regular’ accounting, there are plenty of other fields in which you can find work:

  • Audit and assurance
  • Business development
  • Business restructuring
  • Commercial finance
  • Compliance and risk
  • Consulting and advisory
  • Corporate finance
  • Education and training
  • Global business services
  • Investor relations
  • Treasury

You can read much more about the different types of roles in these areas here.

The main areas to specialise in are auditing, business recovery and insolvency, corporate finance, forensic accounting, and tax.

How to get work experience in accounting or as an accountancy apprentice?

When you’re looking for your first role in accountancy, there are many ways that you can find opportunities. Training opportunities will be available with many accountancy firms, and they will allow you to get the experience that employers want, while studying for the qualifications that you need. Many companies will allow you to attend training sessions during weekdays, depending on the route they will support you to take. 

There are a lot of opportunities for finance graduate schemes, which may allow you to study for an accounting qualification while you are taking part in the programme.

Finally, you can find accounting apprenticeships directly from accountancy firms, and the AAT website is a great place to start your search. If you have an unrelated degree, or you don’t have any qualifications, studying as an apprentice is a great way to keep earning while you are gaining the skills you need.

What type of work experience is relevant to become an accountant?

Any type of work experience within the accounting industry is likely to be useful if you are hoping to be taken on as an apprentice. If you haven’t yet decided whether accountancy is for you, then shadowing someone in an accounting company may help you to make your decision – and many companies will be happy to offer you work experience if you ask.

There are plenty of opportunities to show your aptitude for the work that isn’t within an accounting firm too. Look at working with sporting clubs to help keep their books in order, or if you plan to attend university and join a society then take on that work. It is all relevant, and will be valuable as your career progresses.

Final thoughts

Finding the right route to your career in accountancy isn’t necessarily about getting it done quickly – although we do understand the desire to get your studies completed! The right route will depend on your personal circumstances, and some of the best accountants out there are the ones that took their time to get it right – just like they do with their daily work.

  • If you’re looking to change career, and you don’t have the resources to be able to study full time, that isn’t a problem
  • Studying to become chartered alongside working full time is a popular option
  • If you can study full time it is possible to become a chartered accountant within just a few years
  • You don’t have to have a degree to become a chartered accountant – but it may help if you do!

Read more about the MSc Accounting and Finance (ACCA route)
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