A CPA Career Path Guide (with Tips for Career Advancement)

Updated 31 May 2023

A certified practising accountant (CPA) is a financial expert who has the necessary work experience and educational qualifications to hold a CPA certificate. They offer strategic financial advice to individuals and businesses and provide accounting, tax, auditing and consulting services to ensure they adhere to financial regulations. Exploring how to become a CPA can help you identify the necessary skills, experience and qualifications you need. In this article, we define a CPA, outline the typical CPA career path and provide some valuable tips on how to advance your career as a CPA.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

What is a CPA?

A CPA has extensive knowledge and expertise in accounting, taxation, auditing and financial management. After passing educational, work experience and examination requirements, they gain a CPA certificate that legally allows them to offer specific professional financial services. CPAs typically assist individuals and organisations in navigating complex financial regulations, tax planning and financial reporting. They also provide valuable financial advice to help their clients achieve long-term success while ensuring compliance with the law. CPAs often have extensive technical and interpersonal skills, such as communication, leadership, analysis, strategy development, auditing and financial accounting.

Related: Is Accounting a Good Career? (With Pros and Roles to Consider)

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CPA career path

Below, you can explore a CPA career path that might help guide your journey to becoming a certified practising accountant:

1. Identify your current skill set

The first step on your path to becoming a CPA is to recognise your strengths, discover areas for improvement and develop a targeted approach to professional growth. By evaluating your skills, you can focus on enhancing key competencies and tailoring your education and work experience to align with your career goals. Some skills worth developing include analytical thinking, attention to detail, problem-solving, communication, time management and adaptability. You may also benefit from developing a solid understanding of accounting principles, financial analysis and tax regulations, which you usually gain through educational courses.

Related: Accounting Skills: Definition, Examples and Tips to Improve

2. Obtain a bachelor degree

As an aspiring CPA, it's necessary to complete a bachelor degree relevant to accounting or finance. This serves as the foundation for your accounting education and helps you build the knowledge base needed to excel in the financial industry. Upon completion, you will be equipped with the essential skills and understanding of financial and accounting principles and ethical standards. Completing a bachelor degree is also typically a prerequisite for entering a CPA program, and it may satisfy a portion of the educational requirements set by CPA Australia, which is a private accounting body that certifies CPAs.

Related: CPA vs CA: Choosing an Accounting Career for You

3. Consider a postgraduate degree

While a bachelor degree can provide a solid foundation in finance, business and accounting, consider completing a postgraduate degree to further develop your skills and expertise. Although not strictly necessary, a postgraduate degree offers advanced knowledge in specialised areas, such as taxation, auditing and financial management. This additional education can increase your employment and career opportunities by demonstrating advanced expertise to potential employers. A postgraduate degree can also satisfy the educational requirements for CPA accreditation, allowing you to pursue higher level positions and potentially receive a higher salary.

Related: What Does an Accountant Do? (And How to Become One)

4. Gain employment in entry-level accounting roles

Gaining work experience is usually necessary for becoming a CPA, as it enables you to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations, develop practical skills and gain a deeper understanding of industry-specific challenges. Relevant work experience is also usually a mandatory requirement to attain CPA accreditation. As an aspiring CPA, try to gain experience in accounting areas such as auditing, financial analysis, tax preparation and management accounting. Exposure to various industries can provide you with a broader perspective on how you apply accounting principles to different sectors.

Related: An Accountancy Career: 12 Accountancy Jobs with Salaries

5. Complete a CPA program

The CPA program is a comprehensive, globally recognised and professional accounting qualification offered by CPA Australia. As an aspiring CPA, completing this program is necessary for becoming certified and gaining the practical skills, knowledge and expertise required to excel in this accounting profession. It involves coursework in various subjects, such as ethics and governance, financial reporting, strategic management accounting and global strategy and leadership. You usually require around 3 years of work experience before you can apply for the program.

6. Complete additional licensing or certification requirements

Consider completing additional licensing or certification requirements to expand your skill set, improve your employability and stay competitive in the job market. Additional qualifications, while not always necessary for becoming a CPA, can demonstrate your commitment to professional development and expertise in specific areas. Examples of these licences and certifications include the Registered Tax Agent certification, which enhances your expertise in taxation services, and the Graduate Certificate in Internal Auditing, which allows you to specialise in conducting internal audits.

Related: Accountant Certification: 4 Program to Enhance Your Career

7. Consider specialising

As an aspiring CPA, specialising can allow you to develop expertise in a particular area. This can lead to increased job opportunities, a higher salary and professional recognition. One way to specialise is by pursuing advanced education, such as a master degree or a specialised certification. You may also consider gaining relevant work experience in your desired area of expertise to establish a solid foundation and enhance your professional credibility. Potential areas of specialisation include taxation, auditing, financial management, forensic accounting and environmental accounting.

Related: How to Become a Chartered Accountant in Australia (with Tips)

8. Network with industry experts

Networking with industry experts, while not mandatory, can lead to mentorship opportunities, job alerts and valuable insights into the accounting profession. Establishing professional connections can also help you stay informed about industry trends and developments, which can facilitate your continued growth and success. To start networking, consider attending industry conferences, joining professional organisations, such as CPA Australia, participating in local networking events and engaging in online forums or social media groups related to the accounting profession. Building a strong professional network might greatly enhance your career prospects and long-term success in the field.

Related: What Is Networking? (Plus Importance, Benefits and Steps)

Tips for advancing your career as a CPA

Review these tips to help advance your career as a CPA:

Remain up to date with industry trends

Remaining up to date with industry trends can help you stay competitive and informed about changes that could impact your clients or employers. Staying current with changes and trends typically enables you to provide accurate advice, adapt to new regulations and use innovative tools or methodologies. You can keep your financial knowledge up to date by reading industry publications, attending conferences and webinars, participating in professional organisations and engaging in networking events. You may also consider monitoring changes in tax laws and accounting standards, as this can ensure you provide services in compliance with the latest laws.

Proactively seek advancement opportunities

When advancing your career as a CPA, proactively seeking advancement opportunities is usually necessary and can lead to increased responsibilities, higher salaries and a broader range of skills. It can also demonstrate your interest and dedication to further developing your expertise. Advancement opportunities often include promotions, lateral moves to gain experience in different areas or transitioning to more specialised roles. As a CPA, you can seek these opportunities by demonstrating excellent performance, expressing interest in new challenges to your supervisors and expanding your professional network.

Related: How to Ask for a Promotion and When Is It Most Appropriate?

Develop your leadership skills

Leadership skills typically encompass a range of abilities, such as effective communication, decision-making, problem-solving, delegation and team building. Developing leadership skills can help you advance your career by preparing you for managerial positions, supervisory roles or even managing your own practice. Strong leadership skills can help you manage teams, make strategic decisions and positively influence an organisation's overall success. When developing your leadership skills, consider pursuing leadership training programs, engaging in mentorship, seeking feedback from peers and supervisors and embracing increased responsibilities within an organisation.

Related: Top 6 Leadership Skills: Definitions and Examples

Pursue ongoing professional development

Ongoing professional development is often necessary for your career progression as a CPA, as it demonstrates your commitment to maintaining competence and staying informed about new developments in the field. Continuing education can lead to increased job security, improved performance and access to more diverse career opportunities. As a CPA, you can engage in ongoing professional development by attending workshops, conferences and seminars, enrolling in courses, obtaining specialised certifications and participating in industry events.

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