Accounting: Myth vs. Reality

Accounting: Myth vs. Reality

Think accounting would make a boring career? Then you haven't given the industry a close look, says Clar Rosso, director of communications for the California Society of Certified Public Accountants. Do any of the following careers pique your interest?

  • A Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who tracks down drug smugglers.
  • A financial advisor to movie stars and sports legends.
  • A software expert who ensures that a company's cybersecurity is reliable.
  • An environmental consultant who helps businesses comply with governmental regulations.
  • An expert witness who's paid to testify in complex trials involving major businesses.
  • A coordinator of care-giving services for people who can no longer live independently.
  • A world traveler who helps global companies comply with international trade laws and regulations.
  • A financial officer for an influential labor union.
  • A member of Congress.
  • A university professor who helps establish global accounting standards.
  • A chief financial officer who manages a Fortune 500 firm's investments.
  • An entrepreneur who starts a business that's eventually worth millions.

All those careers are filled by certified public accountants (CPAs). "There's so much diversity in what people who are CPAs ultimately do," Rosso says. "The myth is you're going to punch numbers into a calculator and do taxes all day." The reality is, many fields relate to documenting and guiding finances and operations for companies and individuals.

Accountants with Ammo

Who finally brought down Al Capone? FBI auditors armed with pencils -- and guns. About 5 percent of FBI special agents are CPAs, says Rosso. The agency even has its own accounting test for those who haven't passed the CPA exam.

Former FBI agents easily jump into the private sector, where they can expect a 30 percent to 100 percent pay raise from the $50,000 to $90,000 they earned working for Uncle Sam. "If they're very technically adept, they can easily get into the $120s and $140s, and if they're in senior management, the sky's the limit depending on the organization's size," says Dave Owen, vice president of iDEFENSE, a Reston, Virginia, intelligence firm.

Accounting to the Stars

He's never been an actor, but Mitchell Freedman, a personal financial specialist at MFAC Financial Advisors in Sherman Oaks, California, has been to his share of movie premieres.

"Getting invited by a client to a movie set to watch them work, or to attend a premier or be given backstage passes to events are certainly perks that can make it worthwhile," he says. But he also warns that it takes years of behind-the-scenes work before you reach the level where you're trusted by wealthy entertainers.

"You have to learn how to say no and deal with people who make more money on one project than you might make in a lifetime, and still be able to gain enough respect to control decisions on what to do with their money," Freedman explains.

Accounting Detectives

If you like puzzles, you may want to consider forensic accounting. "You work with incomplete, inaccurate accounting and financial information trying to reconstruct transactions or financial records to get the correct information the law firm or insurance company that hired you is looking to show," explains forensic accountant Alan Mandell, managing member of Blum, Shapiro Litigation Consulting Group in Hartford. "It's interesting, because it's not the normal auditing and accounting tax work where you're putting numbers in boxes. Every case is different, and you have to use your brain and question everything."

Accountants with Hobbies

If you have a special passion, you may be able to blend it with your accounting career. Love sports? Ernst & Young audits 13 major sports teams and the Baseball Hall of Fame, says partner Lisa Young. "You could be working with a sports team's finance organization and experience their operations from another side."

You're Never Alone

No matter what area of accounting you choose, you're unlikely to end up alone in a cubby with only your calculator to keep you company. With computers doing most of the number crunching today, you're more likely to be analyzing and searching for solutions to business and personal financial questions rather than inserting numbers in boxes and columns.

Learn more about accounting careers.