Our Guide on How to Become an Accountant in the UK
If you do not have experience in the financial sector, then it is important you achieve a theoretical base from which to build your career.
Strong numeracy skills, the ability to manage money, a flair for interpretation, adaptability and an analytical mind, are the essential skills required for an accountant. This will also give you a good basis for further education. A Level Math’s and Economics followed by an undergraduate degree in accounting is the traditional route. You would then usually apply for a graduate position with an accounting firm. If you have serious academic pedigree, you may even be able to start higher up the ladder.
If you find yourself with a degree in a science-related subject, or a similar subject with transferable skills, you can look for work at junior level, as an administrator or analyst for an accounting firm. You can then undertake supplementary training in accountancy to progress.
Qualifications are always key and there are a number of training programs that are highly respected by financial employers. Three starting level qualifications are ideal for those with no previous accounting experience. These AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) accounting courses are the minimum level of qualification to become an accountant.
- AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) accounting courses are a series of three foundation level qualifications. They combine industry knowledge and practical work skills.
To become a chartered accountant, you’ll have to progress to the ACCA, ACA or CIMA qualifications listed below.
- ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) qualifications – consists of two levels; Fundamentals and Professionals. Modules cover a variety of topics from corporate and business law to audit and assurance.
- CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) business finance award – oversees the widely recognised CGMA (Chartered Global Management Accountant), which requires you to have already gained the postgraduate-level Certificate in Business Accounting.
- ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) chartered accountant status – also referred to as the ACA, this qualification consists of three to five years of practical work experience and the completion of 13 modules.
Many accountancy firms will accept qualifications from any of these examining boards, but if you have a preferred career path in mind, it is worth taking a look into the preferred qualifications for that specialism.
For example, if you’re interested in becoming a chartered accountant, you’ll need to have studied for the ACCA qualification and have three years’ work experience in a relevant role. It usually takes around four years in total to become fully qualified.
As mentioned, an accountancy degree is preferred, but not essential. It is possible to become a chartered accountant without a degree. You can apply for the ACCA qualification with a combination of GCSEs and A-levels. An undergraduate or postgraduate degree will give you a head start with these qualifications and will even exempt you from some required exams. A degree will also give you a solid skill base to develop, as accountancy requires a great deal of numerical accuracy. But the bottom line, you can enter the accounting profession without a formal qualification and study at the foundation level first.
Choose an accounting specialism
Accountancy has a negative reputation as a boring and mundane career. However, this stereotype could not be farther from the truth, and a career in accountancy and finance can be extremely rewarding, with a wide range of industry specialisations to choose from.
It’s recommended for prospective accountant to understand the different areas of accountancy so you can plan your career path correctly.
Accountancy can be split into two key areas: management accounting which involves providing information to people within a company, and financial accounting which involves providing information to those outside of it, such as customers and shareholders. Within these two divisions are further specialist fields such as budget and financial analysis and working as a controller.
Unlike financial accounting, management accounting is not required by law and only covers particular products, while financial accounting covers the entire organisation. Most graduates will enter accounting through financial accountancy, which can provide a variety of career prospects. For each accounting specialism, graduates also have the choice of whether to work in the public or private sector.
Assurance could suit you if you have a strong academic record, great communication skills and self-confidence. It is the review of financial data and procedures within a company to ensure that shareholders’ money is being put to proper use, and to provide them with the information they need when considering investing in an organisation.
Commercial finance could suit you if you have a good dose of business awareness and strong analytical skills. It is at the heart of industry and commerce and has a strong focus on consumer transactions. Sectors such as retail, manufacturing, fast-moving consumer goods and leisure employ commercial finance managers to analyse the performance of their products or services and make recommendations to maximise profits.
Corporate finance could suit you if you have confidence, excellent communication skills, good numeracy skills and the resilience to be able to work long hours under a high degree of pressure. It primarily involves adding value to businesses through buying and selling. Roles range from lead advisers, who project manage the process of raising capital, through to reporting accountants and auditors, who are responsible for making sure that the accounts of any target company are in good order, to lawyers, who ensure that any transactions are carried out in the correct legally binding way.
Corporate recovery could suit you if you have an interest in the way that companies work, good negotiation skills, an ability to deal with complex financial information and sensitivity. It involves the processes behind ensuring that creditors, suppliers or employees of failing businesses get the best deal. Specialists in this field are normally appointed through referrals from banks, lawyers and accountants.
Corporate treasury could suit you if you have a good understanding of business and economics, excellent analytical skills and an ability to work well under pressure. Corporate treasurers work within the heart of an organisation, ensuring that it has enough cash to meet any demands that are likely to be made upon it. This involves monitoring liquidity in the company’s finances and being aware of any developments in the business that generate risk and ensuring that capital is available to cover these.
Financial accounting could suit you if you have an analytical, enquiring mind, excellent communication skills and a desire to challenge and improve the way in which an organisation works. Financial accountants analyse and report on financial transactions that can yield vital information on how a business is performing. They are often required to explain complex financial arrangements to those with little or no financial background so they need excellent communication skills.
Forensic accounting could suit you if you have the inquisitiveness and sound judgment of a detective as well as the numerical and communication skills to convey complex conclusions to people from a non finance background. Forensic accountants help clients resolve financial problems such as fraud, disputes and suspected misconduct. They carry out investigations to uncover key information about the person or organisation in question and quantify the losses involved.
Internal audit could suit you if you have an eye for detail, while being able to see the bigger picture, a good knowledge of how businesses are run and an ability to liaise and communicate effectively, sometimes in awkward situations. Internal auditing teams look closely at key areas of the business and report their findings to management; the information that they gather is used by senior management. Internal auditors can advise management if important areas of the business are being run in an inefficient, financially risky or even fraudulent way.
Management accounting could suit you if you have good decision-making skills, a high degree of numeracy and a good level of business acumen, as well as the ability able to present often complex financial information to management staff in an easy-to-understand manner. It deals with the supply of economic information that can aid in decision-making processes. Management accountants have acquired an in-depth knowledge of the business sectors they work in and a wide range of different skills such as planning, management and strategy in addition to their accounting abilities; it is this combination that allows them to provide specialised, business-specific guidance.
Risk assessment could suit you if you possess a questioning, logical mindset to identify problems and the creativity to come up with solutions as well as strong interpersonal skills and confidence. Risk assessment plays an important role in helping organisations to understand, prioritise and manage risk in order to avoid problems and capitalise on opportunities. It enables clients to achieve their objectives, which might include expanding their business, outperforming competition or protecting their reputation.
Tax could suit you if you have a talent for analysis and problem solving, a high level of numeracy, the ability to build good working relationships based on trust and can practise discretion. Tax advisers may be called in by businesses (corporate tax) or highly paid individuals (private client tax) as consultants to offer one-off solutions to a particular tax problem, or they may be employed on an ongoing basis, ensuring compliance and cost-effective solutions to taxation demands made on their client.
Secure a job or accountancy apprenticeship
University is time consuming and expensive and it is highly unlikely you will be generating a full-time income during your studies if it is a full-time course. This mean the university route is not for everybody. An accountancy apprenticeship means you can avoid the huge cost and debt of going to uni. You’ll kick-start your career straight from school.
As an apprentice you’re giving yourself a real head-start: you’ll have a professional qualification with fantastic experience and skills to back it up. If you do change your mind later, you may actually be able to use your higher apprenticeship as a fast-track to a degree.
It’s also worth pointing out that you can complete the full ACA by doing a school or college leaver programme. Read ICAEW’s higher apprenticeship’s guide to learn more.
Despite the importance of qualifications to become established in the industry, the value of real-life accountancy work experience cannot be underestimated. Indeed, study often complements work in a full-time position, presenting the perfect opportunity for graduates hoping to build key skills. By securing a training contract, this can enable you to work while studying for a recognised accounting qualification.
As an accountant, you’ll be able to find work in any sector (public and private) and both large companies and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Over time you’ll be able to focus on your preferred working environment. Most vacancies are available direct from employers so look out for roles that you’re eligible to apply for.
It’s also the case that finance graduate schemes are sometimes structured with an accounting qualification such as the ACA or CGMA as one of the programme’s objectives.
However, accountancy apprenticeships, such as those run by the AAT, are a viable alternative to university and they provide a fast-track to achieving chartered status with the main professional bodies (ICAEW, ACCA etc.)
When you secure an apprenticeship, you can gain the required practical skills while earning a wage and receiving the same benefits (including a holiday allowance) as other employees at the company.
Get relevant accounting work experience
Another way you can enter the industry is through a work placement, voluntary or part-time role. If you just want to get a taste of the finance world, many of the large firms run insight or shadowing programmes. For example, PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young all offer insight days for people at different stages of their education. Asking to shadow someone for a couple of days is a more informal, non-committal way of getting work experience. It’s also a useful way of gaining a better insight into one of the career paths you’re considering.
Check individual websites of companies you’d like to work for to see if they have any current vacancies. Or by sending speculative applications to local SMEs in the financial sector, you may be able to land a work placement.
If you’re at university, consider volunteering to be the treasurer for a club or society, or look for a part-time job that will help you to develop skills in this area.
Depending on the size of the firm, you may get to work on real projects and manage your own workload as you develop key accounting skills. Training is usually provided to those undertaking work experience and you’ll get to make industry contacts that can aid your future career.
As many employers will only support trainees in studying for their accounting qualifications if they’ve previously undertaken relevant work experience, this will be a valuable addition to your CV and help you on your way to becoming a qualified accountant.