Public Accounting: Careers, Skills, and How to Become a CPA

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

This article defines public accounting and explores this career field so that readers can decide if they want to enter it. This article also offers actionable steps for becoming a CPA.

[Featured Image] A CPA conducts an audit for a client on their laptop at a long wood table.

What is public accounting?

Public accounting refers to the services that a public accountant or accounting firm offers to prepare financial documents such as tax returns and budgets. Public accountants, also called certified public accountants (CPAs), are qualified to help other businesses as well as individuals with their tax needs. 

Public accounting firms can range in size from a sole practitioner to hundreds or thousands of CPAs, offering services locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. Some firms are full-service in that they offer a full range of accounting services, including taxes, bookkeeping, audits, risk, payroll, and more. Some firms may specialize in one of these services. 

Public accounting vs. private accounting

While public accountants serve multiple clients at any given time, private accountants perform accounting services within an organization’s internal finance department.


What does a certified public accountant do? 

A certified public accountant has at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting and has passed the CPA exam. As a CPA, you can perform a broad range of services, explored below:  

  • Preparing tax returns: helping individuals and organizations prepare documents that report income, expenses, and other financial information to a tax authority 

  • Estate planning: helping individuals plan what happens to their assets after death

  • Consulting: includes advising clients on how to use accounting systems, the level of risk involved in different financial decisions and investments, and evaluating the financial health  

  • Mergers and acquisitions: assisting two or more companies in transferring ownership or consolidating assets 

  • Business valuation: determining the economic value of a business, such as by calculating assets minus liabilities 

  • Audits: thoroughly assessing the financial documents of an individual or organization to determine whether they are accurate 

  • Representing clients during IRS audits: advocating for taxpayers, helping them understand their rights, handling negotiations with IRS agents  

Read more: What Is a CPA and How Do I Become One?

Public accounting skills 

Building a robust skill set is essential for a career in public accounting. According to ZipRecruiter’s Career Keyword Mapper for certified public accountants, the top skills employers ask for in job descriptions include: 


  • Tax preparation 

  • Financial statements 

  • Financial reporting 

  • Using Quickbooks software 

  • Knowledge of GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) [1]

Other skills that you may find useful as a CPA include: 

  • Bookkeeping 

  • Completing payroll 

  • Understanding how businesses operate

  • Conducting audits

  • Managing others 

  • Serving customers 

Public accounting careers

You can pursue a career in public accounting at firms of all sizes. In this section, you will explore four roles in public accounting, based on information from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), Indeed, and Glassdoor, as of September 2022. For each role, we’ve included the US average total pay (base salary + additional pay), typical responsibilities, required skills and qualifications, and top companies hiring*. 

*Glassdoor ranks companies based on their employees’ reviews. 

Staff auditor 

  • What they make: $70,873

  • What they do: develop audit objectives and procedures, prepare audit reports, ensure accuracy of financial information 

  • Required skills and qualifications: bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance, a CPA license may also be required, understanding of banking laws and regulations, knowledge of audit theories and practices 

  • Top companies hiring for this role: Deloitte, KPMG, Baker Tilly US, American Express, RSM

Tax accountant/CPA

  • What they make: $115,635

  • What they do: prepare tax returns, offer tax advice, provide payroll and bookkeeping services, conduct audits, advise people on investing or retirement planning 

  • Required skills and qualifications: bachelor’s degree in accounting or related field, CPA license, knowledge of auditing and tax return preparation, proficiency with accounting software  

  • Top companies hiring for this role: Deloitte, KPMG,, Intuit, Robert Half

Read more: What Is a Staff Accountant? And How to Become One

Tax consultant

  • What they make: $66,798

  • What they do: educate clients on different tax laws and requirements, prepare tax returns, develop tax planning strategies, research taxation in multiple states 

  • Required skills and qualifications: bachelor’s degree in accounting, experience in consulting, experience in R and C programming languages, familiarity with tax laws and regulations

  • Top companies hiring for this role: Deloitte, Ryan, LLC, Deloitte Tax, ADP, KPMG

Tax manager

  • What they make: $138,036

  • What they do: manage the tax team, review company tax returns, improve companies’ tax procedures, provide support during internal audits, oversee special tax projects 

  • Required skills and qualifications: master’s degree in accounting, CPA license, experience in public accounting and management, proficiency with accounting software 

  • Top companies hiring for this role: Deloitte, KPMG, Intuit, RSM, Baker Tilly USA

How to become a CPA

Ready to launch a career in public accounting? Follow the steps below. 

1. Set your career goals. 

Starting with this step can make it easier to streamline your efforts. Reflect on the kind of company you want to work for and the role you want to fill that is best aligned with your accounting interests. 

Divide your career goals into short-term milestones and long-term goals. For example, a short-term milestone might be to acquire an in-demand skill like using accounting software, while a long-term goal might be to advance into a leadership position. 

Other examples of goals include managing an accounting team, working for a large accounting firm, or starting your own business as a CPA. 

Read more: What Are Your Career Goals? Tips for Setting Your Goals

2. Get an accounting education. 

To become a CPA, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in accounting, which typically encompasses 120 hours of semester coursework. According to AICPA, the pre-licensure education required for a CPA is 150 semester hours of coursework. You could fulfill the extra 30 hours by pursuing a master’s degree in accounting or taking additional relevant coursework at the undergraduate level.  

You may find that for some accounting positions, employers require or prefer candidates with a master’s degree. 

As a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, you might consider getting an associate degree in accounting. This level of education can qualify you for entry-level jobs such as accounting assistant, accounts payable clerk, or bookkeeper

3. Take the CPA exam.

Beyond a bachelor’s degree in accounting, you’ll need to take the Uniform CPA Exam. This exam consists of four sections: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation. Questions include multiple choice, task-based simulations, and written communication tasks. To pass the exam, you must score 75 on each section on a scale of 0 to 99. 

4. Gain experience. 

Experience in public accounting and your degree and licensure can make getting hired as a CPA easier. Also, some states require two years of public accounting experience to get a CPA license. Confirm whether your state requires experience for licensure here

Read more: 7 Finance Entry-level Jobs + How to Get One

5. Build your job search materials.

As you fulfill the CPA requirements, it’s a good idea to keep your job search materials updated, including your resume and LinkedIn profile. It’s also a good idea to improve your interviewing skills, such as researching a company, preparing questions to ask the hiring manager, and presenting your qualifications.  

Read more: 9 Accounting Interview Questions + How to Prepare Answers

6. Apply for accounting jobs. 

To find a job that matches your accounting career goals, begin applying for open positions. You can search general job sites like Indeed, ZipRecruiter, and Glassdoor for job openings in public accounting. Be sure to scour job boards specific to accounting, including: 

Build accounting skills with Coursera 

Online courses can be a great way to explore career options in public accounting, build skills in this field, and begin your journey toward becoming a CPA.

Learn how to produce and analyze financial statements, payroll accounting functions, and more in the Intuit Bookkeeping Professional Certificate. Learn tax laws for individuals, employees, and businesses, and more in the U.S. Federal Taxation Specialization.

Article sources

  1. ZipRecruiter. “CPA Must-Have Resume Skills and Keywords,,” Accessed September 20, 2022.

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