How to Become an Accountant or CPA in Alabama

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What is Accounting?


Pursuing a career in accounting has always been a smart decision for enthusiastic, analytically minded people. And with the recent shakeups in the economy, the demand is greater than ever for accounting firms - each with a wealth of career positions that are accounting-adjacent - to hire qualified Alabama state accounting program graduates.

One of the most visible benefits available for accounting students is the variety of careers out there; it’s not just CPA positions. The specializations in accountancy are numerous and can range from human resource workers, budget analysts, and risk management positions all the way to cost estimators and personal financial advisors.

However, if you’re interested in joining the workforce as an accountant, there’s no need to go all-in on one specialization from the beginning. It’s essential to keep a wide-angle view of the opportunities that are out there for accountants of all stripes.

While it’s generally a good idea for potential accounting students not to limit themselves into a specialization prematurely, there are some state-to-state details that one should keep in mind before enrolling in the program of your dreams.

Attending an accounting program in Alabama carries many benefits for Alabama residents. Living in the same state as you graduate means that your reputation precedes you in many cases, or at least the reputation of your school program. Any local networks that you developed while attending school will also carry weight with hiring managers who have personal knowledge of the instructors who teach in local programs.


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Accounting Education in Alabama


Every state in the nation has its own set of standards and practices for granting students licensures they might earn after an accounting degree. The differences in accounting careers are reflected by local laws, demand, and the degree specializations that each school prides itself on.

There are dozens of concentrations and degree programs of all semester lengths, credit hour requirements, and other variables in the state of Alabama, but don’t let that scare you from investigating the pros and cons of each. The first step is to keep your career goals in mind and then look closely at what degree level suits your needs.

How far will each degree level (Associates, Bachelors, Masters/MBA, and Ph.D.) propel you into your profession? In most cases, investing more time in a program will bring a higher average salary and access to specializations that boast increased pay, but not in all cases.

Odds are you’ve got questions about the different accounting degrees. What is the lowest level that will grant a job? What degree do you need for a management position? Is an MBA the same as a master’s? Let’s look a little closer at the takeaways available for accounting students at each degree level.

Associate Degree in Accounting (AS)

Associate accounting degrees are two-year programs designed to combine general education classes with an introductory course for fledgling accountants. It’s an excellent starting point for many students interested in pursuing a career in accounting but who don’t have the financial resources to plunge headfirst into more demanding degree programs, or even for those who may have struggled in school and need to boost their GPA before applying to more demanding four-year programs.

There are many excellent positions hiring across the state - and these are growing in demand - for two-year accounting graduates. Entry-level jobs like bookkeepers, auditing clerks, and accounting clerks are always open for associate degree holders.

Many people wonder if those with associate degrees can become CPAs. Since Alabama requires graduates to complete 150 credit hours to apply as a prospective CPA, associate degree holders will have to enroll in further education to accomplish the minimum credit hours to earn this high-level certification. For context, four-year bachelor’s degrees typically last 120 hours. However, for those looking for certification at this level, you may want to look into bookkeeper certification.

Many accounting programs also furnish students with the credentials to transfer to a four-year program upon graduation, which is an added benefit for people who wish to further their education.

Bachelor's Degree in Accounting (BS)

Bachelor’s students enrolled in an accredited accounting school in Alabama can count on their investment in a four-year program paying off. A BS degree in accounting will prepare graduates for business roles like accountants and auditors; positions expected to grow by 4% in the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists accountants and auditors with a median annual wage of $71,550.

Can bachelor’s students sit for the CPA exam? The simple answer is yes. In Alabama, people don’t need a master’s to take the CPA exam. However, for bachelor’s degree holders to apply, they need 150 credit hours of education. In a four-year program, that means you’ll need to take extra credit or go for a double major. Or you could choose to take a few master’s-level classes and set yourself up to finish a master’s program in record time later in your career.

Bachelor’s programs are often less expensive than master’s programs, making them a good choice for people looking to pay their way to an MBA on their own terms. Plus, the more extended four-year period gives you more time to narrow down your career goals to a specialization that you genuinely love pursuing.

Finally, the job offerings available to bachelor's increases when compared to associates. Forensic accountants, financial analysts, personal financial advisors, and actuaries all often start off with bachelor’s degrees. The demand for these specialized jobs is very high.

Master's Degree in Accounting (MS or MC)

Graduates from four-year bachelor’s programs often commit to the additional two-year accounting master’s programs. The primary reason is to win certification as a CPA or find a managerial career in finance or related fields. A master’s can get you into a management position quickly because of the depth of knowledge you will obtain.

However, it’s important to know that a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is not the same thing as a master’s in accounting, even if you choose a concentration in accounting to go with it. That’s a widespread misconception. There are many master’s programs in accounting that aren’t MBAs (Masters of Business Administration).

For instance, prospective master students can pursue:

  • MS in Accounting (Masters of Science)
  • MAcc (Masters of Accountancy)
  • Masters of Professional Accountancy or Accounting
  • Certified Public Bookkeeper
  • Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
  • Certified Internal Auditor
  • Plus, many concentrations within each degree program

Most Alabama master’s accountancy programs will prepare students to sit for the CPA (certified public accountant) exam. Passing the exam opens students up to higher accounting management positions overall. If you’re looking for a management position, a master’s degree is typically required.

PhD Degree in Accounting (PhD)

For students whose career goals skew more towards research and teaching interests, there are doctorate degrees available. Many graduates from this highest level of accounting education pursue careers as professors, research positions in public policy, tax law, consultant positions in large firms, or analyst careers.

A PhD, or doctorate, isn’t required for CPA practice in Alabama, nor are the majority of upper-level managerial positions filled by those with this high-level degree. However, many interested in the mathematical or research-based side of accounting, as well as the academic, flourish in PhD programs.

Typically, PhD applicants take the GMAT or GRE then follow a specialized curriculum in accounting, microeconomics, and advanced mathematics for two years to qualify for the degree. Investing your time in a terminal degree like a PhD will often lead to a higher average salary outlook. According to the BLS, a financial manager with a PhD can earn as much as $129,890 yearly.

Become an Accountant in Alabama


One of the primary reasons why thousands of dedicated students decide to follow an education in accounting is the diverse number of jobs out there for graduates to find. But that leaves the tricky part out of the equation: how do you find the professional career that suits you? More importantly, what is needed to become an accounting professional.

As with most states, the first step to becoming an accountant in Alabama is education. As you saw in the previous sections, each degree level can provide you with more and more access to a variety of positions. A bachelor’s degree is the most common level of degree earned by those who wish to work as accountants or auditors within the accounting industry. However, the State of Alabama does not require that you have a bachelor’s degree to work as a general accountant. Your ability to work as an accountant is based on your ability to find a job in the field. So, if you are willing to work hard and start from the bottom, you may be able to move up into a staff accountant position without any post-secondary education. Of course, with the increase in educational offerings, those earning an accounting education, and necessary knowledge in accounting and information systems, it will likely become harder to work your way up into an accountant position without some sort of degree over the next 5-10 years. When it comes to becoming a CPA in Alabama, it’s a whole different story.

Become a CPA in Alabama

Alabama has many more requirements for those who wish to earn their CPA licensure than they do for those who wish to work in the accounting field in general. Where you may be hired to work as an accounts payable clerk or staff accountant with just an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in another field, those who with to become a certified public accountant must meet a host of requirements. First, you must have a bachelor’s degree in accounting from an accredited college or university. You must have already completed 24 semester hours of accounting and 24 semester hours of business-related courses. And that’s just to take the CPA exam! Licensure will require another 9 hours of accounting courses and 3 hours of business courses be completed, either in finishing your degree or by taking extra graduate-level courses.

After you pass each of the four parts of the CPA exam, commonly considered to be one of the most difficult licensure exams in the U.S., then you can move on to the rest of the licensure requirements. This includes an entire year of work as an accountant, under the supervision of a CPA or public accountant with a valid Alabama permit to practice. If you don’t complete this work in a public accounting firm or as a staff accountant, you may need to work another full year to fulfill this requirement. This is for those working in industry, business, government, or college teaching. Once you have completed all these requirements, you can finally hold one of the most coveted certifications for accounting professionals in every state.

Top Accounting Schools in Alabama


Alabama offers upward of 30 top-tier accounting colleges and universities with accounting degree programs. Additionally, many schools have masters or advanced degrees in accounting. They are spread out widely across the state, and each has its own specializations worth checking out. Here are the top college programs in Alabama for prospective accounting professionals.

  • The University of Alabama:
    The University of Alabama currently has four accounting degree programs, appearing #28 on the US News Best Undergraduate Accounting Programs 2018. Its Culverhouse College of Commerce offers a top-tier MTA (Master of Tax Accounting) program designed in particular for tax accounting. The curriculum combines law, finance, business, and accounting subjects.
  • Auburn University:
    Auburn offers three accounting degrees. The MAcc from Auburn’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business is one of the state’s most prestigious master’s programs. One benefit of Auburn’s program is, full-time students can complete it in three semesters, online or on campus.
  • The University of Alabama at Birmingham:
    The University of Alabama at Birmingham provides two degrees, one of which is their online BS degree in accounting taught by world-class professors through the Collat School of Business. UAB specializes in educating accountants in non-profits, banks, insurance, and government agencies.
  • Stamford University:
    Stamford has a MAcc, MBA for master’s applicants, and an excellent BSBA program for undergrads. One of Stamford’s best attributes is its internships. According to their Brock School of Business Accounting, 85% of students receive on-the-ground training with professional accountants in their field.
  • The University of Alabama in Huntsville:
    UAH’s Master of Accountancy (MAcc) is accredited by AACSB International, a designation that only 5% of business schools achieve. In total, they offer three accounting degrees, with their MBA also earning top honors for consistently producing excellent accounting professionals.
  • University of South Alabama:
    At the University of South Alabama, students are encouraged to follow up on their BSBA (Bachelors of Science in Business Administration) degree with their MAcc program. What’s great is, full-time students can complete the master’s program online in one year.
  • Troy University:
    Networking possibilities are at the forefront of Troy’s undergraduate accounting program. The School of Accountancy Internship Program is known across the state for its method of linking young accountancy majors with accomplished CPAs, forging lifelong professional relationships that help students move past entry-level jobs and into advanced careers.
  • University of North Alabama:
    Students can pursue both a BBA major in accounting or enroll in one of the University of North Alabama’s two master’s programs: the MAcc or MBA. Their intimate setting allows students unparalleled access to their professor’s first-hand experience with tax, estate, and insurance accounting.
  • Alabama State University:
    There are two accounting degrees for students to enroll in at Alabama State, a BS in accounting and a top-flight MAcc program. One of the many good reasons to enroll at ASU is its Business Cooperative Education Program, which supports undergraduates through paid internships and a host of minor concentrations. They even offer a minor in Computer Information Systems, a concentration that is becoming more attractive to hiring staff.

Careers for Accounting Graduates


One thing that can make the process of choosing the best accounting degree program for you much more manageable and intuitive is to have clear career goals. There are dozens of specializations available to degree-holders in the accounting field - an upsell for graduates. But what specific role do you see yourself filling as an accomplished accountant? Let’s look at a few of the most popular careers.

  • Financial Analyst:
    Financial analysts work hand-in-hand with businesses to recommend ways to improve profitability and financial stability. As an advisor, they keep a close watch on markets to make the most accurate predictions on what’s going to change in specific industries or geographic regions.
  • Forensics:
    Accountants in this field generally work close to law enforcement agencies like the FBI and IRS, but not exclusively. This career often investigates cases of “white-collar crime”: bribery, embezzlement, money laundering, and fraud. Careers in forensic accounting demand advanced degrees (master’s) and a special kind of person. If you are attracted to the idea of investigating financial crimes, blending law with finance, and prefer working in large firms or in the government, this career path may be for you.
  • Personal Financial Planning:
    Becoming a financial planner is a highly sought-after career that requires a bachelor’s degree. Lots of people confuse financial planning with financial advising, but they are not synonymous. Financial planners work with people to personalize financial plans, choose investments, and tailor their client’s financial portfolios. It’s a one-on-one relationship with a client. Financial advisors require less education and direct people on smart investments.
  • Taxes:
    Tax accountants work for their clients exclusively on the IRS tax codes, helping them avoid tax penalties while optimizing yearly tax returns. Accountants who follow this career field have to be meticulous with their analysis and know the US tax law like the back of their hand. Bachelor's degrees are required for many tax preparation careers, and professionals often add a master’s to specialize as a CPA or enrolled agent. One thing to keep in mind for people interested in this career is that tax accountants often work long hours during tax season. That means you can expect to work extended hours for three to four months of the year.
  • Estates and Trusts:
    Estate and trust specialists are often CPAs or EAs (Enrolled Agents) who work within tax laws, making valuations on personal and business assets to secure their clients the optimal tax profile. This job demands accountants have a good “bedside manner” with their clients, meaning a personable, councilor-like empathy. Accountants interested in the intricacies of estate and gift tax, valuations of large business entities, and comfortable managing corporate finance, this high-risk, high-reward career path could suit you.
  • Real Estate Appraiser:
    This position requires someone with keen observational skills as well as a familiarity with real estate practices. Appraisers determine the value of properties, working hand-in-hand with homeowners and tax preparers. Teamwork and knowledge of property law are essential.
  • CPA:
    The CPA is a document-heavy profession, with accountants analyzing personal and corporate data and preparing tax returns that optimize their clients’ tax status. The ideal CPA is a people-person who enjoys collaborating with both the IRS and their clients. Public accounting also requires CPAs to file financial reports to the SEC.
  • Accounts Payable/Accounts Receivable Specialist:
    Payroll accounting (another title for this specialty) is a position that plays a variety of roles in the company. These professionals look over payments to employees and ensure that the company is adequately compensating them. Some payroll accountants work for various businesses simultaneously, which suggests that multitasking is a good skill to have.
  • Budget Analyst:
    Budget analysts look over their company’s books to ensure money is spent and managed correctly. They reduce risks by monitoring if funds are going to the right projects and, if funds are being misused, they make reports to managers about inappropriate spending. This position requires someone with a strong sense of right and wrong.
  • Bookkeeper:
    Bookkeepers have to be well-organized recordkeepers for their organization. They record, monitor, and manage financial transactions, likely quite a lot of transactions, to ensure companies operate above board.
  • Accounting Manager/Controller:
    Bluntly put, accounting managers keep an eye on a company’s accountants, ensuring that the group is working efficiently as a whole, and recommending policy changes that improve the business. This position demands an advanced degree and a “macro” view over groups of people.

Potential Additional Careers


The short summaries above are only the first step towards introducing you to the variety of professional careers waiting for accountant degree-holders.

Some other positions include:

  • Compliance Officers
  • Tax Attorneys
  • Actuaries
  • Tax Consultants
  • Tax Preparer
  • Forensic Accountant
  • Financial Planner
  • Internal Auditor

Hopefully, with the information included here, there are enough details to help persuade prospective accountants to investigate which degree program is right for them. Almost every Alabama program offers an excellent education for accountants to get started on a career of their dreams. All that’s left to decide is where to go!

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