So you've decided to get a degree in accounting. Great decision! Accounting is the financial backbone of every organization, and one of the fastest growing fields in the U.S. today.

But should you stop there or should you take it one step further and become a CPA?

That's up to you.

The decision to become a CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, is a personal one – depending on your life and professional goals.

To help you make a decision, here's some basic information on what it means to be a CPA.

What exactly is a CPA?

A CPA is a licensed accountant who has:

  • Passed a series of rigorous tests administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA);
  • Completed 150 hours of coursework, compared to the traditional 120 hours require for a bachelor's degree;
  • Worked at least one year in the accounting field under a licensed CPA.

Does that mean every CPA is an accountant?

Yes, but not every accountant is a CPA.

It's an important distinction for the IRS.

While accountants can prepare detailed financial reports, audit the books of public companies, and prepare reports for tax purposes, only CPAs can legally sign tax returns and represent clients at tax audits or other matters by the IRS.

Lawrence H. Blum, senior partner of the Florida region of Marcum LLP, one of the largest independent public accounting and advisory services firms in the nation, calls the CPA designation the "platinum standard" for accountants.

"It creates a credentialing process," he says. "Right away, the buyer of your products knows you have a certain level of expertise and education."

And, he adds, "The CPA designation requires continual educational enhancement."

CPAs must complete 80 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) every two years to keep their license current. In most states, the requirement includes a minimum number of accounting and auditing courses, as well as a board-approved ethics course.

"It's a commitment," says Passard Dean, associate professor of accounting at Saint Leo University and a former corporate accountant. "Don't do it just because someone tells you to. Do it because you want to do it."

And that goes back to the issue of personal and professional goals.

Consider where you want to work.

Are you looking to work in a public accounting firm, or are your sights set on private industry? That's another important consideration.

"It's hard to progress in a CPA firm without a CPA degree," says Blum, adding that non-CPAs rarely become partners in public accounting firms unless they are specialists in a nontraditional discipline, such as computer systems.

But that doesn't mean you have to get a CPA license.

"There are a number of different designations," says Dean, "such as Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and Certified Management Accountant (CMA)."

His advice to students: Get a designation.

"If you are not planning to become an auditor or work for a public accounting firm, becoming a CPA is not a necessity, but get another designation," he says.

"You need a designation. You are not a professional accountant until you get a certification – until you are accountable to an organization such as the AICPA."

Dean, himself, holds two designations: CMA and CFE, and he is currently working on a CIA.

For his students considering CPA licensure, Dean explains it takes more than a good test-taker to become a CPA.

CPAs, he says, need to be analytical and detail-oriented. They should be proficient in Excel. They need good written and oral communication skills, and good people skills.

And, they need to pass the four-part CPA exam.

Take the CPA exam.

"The CPA exam is technical; it takes commitment and dedication," according to Dean. "You can't haphazardly study for it."

Dean advises his students to take one part at a time. Candidates have 18 months after completing the first part to complete the other three.

"I tell my students to do it over a year," he says.

"Study five days a week for two-and-a-half to three months and take the toughest part first. Then, take off no more than two weeks and get back on it."

It's a formula that has proven successful time and again for his students.

But there's more to being a successful accountant that holding a license, Dean says.

"A CPA license doesn't make you a better accountant. You become a better accountant by having knowledge and the wisdom to apply that knowledge."

Other posts you may be interested in:

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CPA To CMA: Which Accounting Certification Is For You?

"Should I Study Accounting?" 10 Questions To Help You Find Out

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