Accountant vs CPA: Is There a Difference?

We’re just wrapping up a busy recruiting season full of student events.  Having attended 4 meet the firms events at local universities, and just returning from the IMA’s student Leadership Conference in Charlotte, NC, I’ve been fielding questions about the CPA exam left and right.  One of the common questions I’ve been getting from students is “Do I need to become a CPA?” I think it’s worth diving into this conversation both for students considering a career in accounting and for candidates already in accounting who are considering the CPA exam.  

So,  is a CPA the same as an accountant?

No, a CPA is not the same thing as an accountant.  Being a CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, allows you to perform certain accounting tasks that an unlicensed accountant cannot perform.  These include preparing and signing an audit report and filing reports with the SEC. 

While they are not the same thing, you can have a long and successful career as an accountant without becoming a licensed CPA.  Not having the license will limit your ability to perform the tasks mentioned above, but also comes with a few other limitations.  Many public accounting firms- regardless of size- require their employees to be licensed in order to progress past a certain level.  In most cases, you cannot earn a manager title in a firm without your CPA license.  

Additionally, many high-level industry jobs require or have a strong preference for licensed CPAs to fill those jobs, such as Controller, CFO and VP of Finance.  In my experience, there are also many companies who give preference to CPAs at lower levels within their accounting department as well.  

Given the current state of the market (I’m writing this in November, 2019), both CPAs and unlicensed accountants are in extremely high demand in the marketplace.  This is true both in industry and public accounting. However, generally speaking, if a company had one opening for a given position and had the choice between a CPA and a licensed CPA, many will go for the licensed individual.  Again, this depends on the specific role, but suffice it to say that having your license will never count against you in a job interview.

In addition to a possible leg-up against other candidates in a job interview, as a licensed CPA you can expect to make significantly more money than an accountant.  According to the Journal of Accountancy, the average CPA salary is $119,000.  Accountants, depending on a number of factors, take home a salary between $48k and $70k per year.  Company size, years of experience and location are some of the factors that contribute to the salary range.  None of those salary figures include bonuses. So while the CPA exam requires an investment of both time and money, keep in mind that it will pay for itself almost immediately.  In the long-run, you’ll end up significantly ahead.

To CPA or not to CPA…

When I’m speaking to someone who is considering the CPA (or any professional certification in the accounting/ finance field) here’s what I suggest:  Think about the future. What is your dream job? Don’t worry about how you are going to get it…just imagine it. If that job opportunity were to come across your desk at some point in the future, you would want to know that you were qualified and ready to jump on it.  Does that job prefer or require a CPA license? If so, go for it. Don’t let a fear of failure or a temporary inconvenience of having to study and make some minor sacrifices impact the long-term trajectory of your career.  

That fear and hesitation is normal when taking on a big challenge like passing the CPA exam- we’re here to help make it easier.  Whether you’re just getting started in your career & struggling to get motivated to take the first step, or if you’re a few years in, potentially juggling a full time job, family and now studying..we’ve got the tools for you.  

Start here– download our free guide The 10 Mistakes that will Kill Your Chances of Passing the CPA Exam– and get started on the path to CPA success.

To your success,

Erin Daiber

1 Comment

  1. on September 27, 2023 at 7:27 am

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