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Developing your career in accountancy

If you are logical, organised, analytical and numerate, a career in accounting could be for you. Accountancy qualifications can prove useful across a wide range of careers, particularly in management and finance.

As a career, accountancy offers: a graduate environment, variety, people contact, a professional qualification, high salaries and opportunities to work internationally. Accountants work in all areas of business and in the public and voluntary sectors, for employers such as banks, manufacturing companies, local authorities, charities, publishers, film companies, hospital trusts, insurance companies, and universities. Many accountants work in firms of chartered or certified accountants, or use their qualification to move into general management or to set up their own business.

Accountants in industry and commerce use their financial expertise to inform management decision-making, to advise other departments within their organisation and to maximise profitability and effectiveness. In the public sector they perform a similar role but with the emphasis on ensuring value for money. Some accountants go on to specialise in particular areas after qualifying – such as audit, insolvency, tax, or forensic accounting.

In addition to paving the way to further training as a professional (chartered) accountant, studying accountancy develops transferable skills that are highly valued by employers in all sectors, including:

  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • attention to detail
  • analysing, organising and planning
  • IT skills and the ability to analyse and present data
  • the ability to explain complex ideas to others.

Becoming a chartered accountant

There are several different professional bodies that regulate the training and work of accountants in the UK but, as a general rule, qualifying as an accountant will involve three years of study (in addition to a degree, which can be in any subject), exams and relevant employment. Training for professional exams is provided by employers. Early responsibility and fast promotion is available if your work and exam results are satisfactory.

Selecting your training will depend on the direction in which you want to take your career. For example:

  • To work for local authorities, health authorities, or other public sector bodies, the Chartered Public & Finance Accountant (CIPFA) would be the most relevant qualification. If you pursue this route, your work would typically involve managing financial services such as income collection; providing budgeting information and advice to management; and being directly involved in the management of a multi-million pound organisation.
  • To work for Chartered accountancy firms of any size, the ACA Chartered Accountant qualification through the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) would be more appropriate. Once qualified, your role would involve visiting clients as part of an audit team; and reviewing their business operations and financial records to establish the validity of the company's accounts.
  • To work for private sector companies, public sector organisations or in private practice the Chartered Certified Accountant (ACCA) qualifications would be the most relevant option. This would enable you to manage accounting systems; audit financial records and investigate anomalies; prepare financial statements/management information; improve procedures & processes; and advise clients on tax and other financial issues.
  • If you are more interested in financial management and analysis, qualifying as a Chartered Management Accountant with CIMA provides you with a qualification related to organisational management and planning.

It is important that you research your options carefully before deciding which route to take. Please use the links below to find out more about professional bodies and qualifications. You can also discuss your options with a Careers Adviser within a careers interview if you need some guidance in relation to this.

While a degree is not an essential preparation for training, many employers offer graduate trainee schemes and you can get exemption from certain exam papers if you have a relevant undergraduate qualification. Note that some employers also look favourably on degrees in unrelated subjects – for example, a language qualification would be attractive to firms with international clients. Competition for a good traineeship can be very fierce, so a wide skill set can help you stand out from the crowd.

Once qualified as a chartered accountant, you’ll need to undertake Continuing Professional Education (CPE) to keep your technical knowledge up to date, and if you intend to work directly with clients (rather than being an employee) you’ll need to gain a Certificate entitling you to practise, which involves undergoing inspections and getting insurance.

Professional bodies and qualifications

Jobs in accountancy

Use the Prospects website to explore career options related to accountancy.

How the OU can help

Any good degree can be an excellent start for a career in accounting. Visit our website to browse the full range. We have the following business management degree where you can specialise in accounting and offer single accounting modules, some of which will give you exemption from accountancy exams.

Undergraduate courses

Single modules