If you have a knack for working with numbers, you might have considered career options such as an accountant or a certified public accountant (CPA). Although the terms may sometimes be used interchangeably, a CPA and an accountant aren’t quite the same. Let's explore the difference between an accountant and a CPA and which career path is right for you. This career guide explains and gives you some factors to consider as you plan your future.
In This Article:
- What Is the Difference Between a CPA and an Accountant?
- CPA vs. Accountant Job Responsibilities
- Accountant vs. CPA Educational Paths and Requirements
- What Do Accountants and CPAs Earn?
- Get Started by Earning Your CPA Degree
What Is the Difference Between a CPA and an Accountant?
Given the similarities between the two roles, it's understandable to feel a bit confused about the difference between an accountant and a CPA. Both professions specialize in crunching numbers and working on the finances of individuals and all types of companies. However, they aren’t quite the same.
So, what is the difference between a CPA and an accountant? All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. A certified public accountant is an accountant who has met the educational, certification and licensure requirements allowing them to use the CPA designation.
The following requirements outlined below are applicable to CPAs, but do not pertain to accountants who are not certified:
- National certification via a standardized examination
- Professional licensure
- Maintenance of licensure and certification via continuing education credits
- Adherence to professional standards and a code of ethics
- Adherence to fiduciary standards (Their clients’ best interests take priority over all else.)
The differences between a CPA vs. an accountant also extend to their job responsibilities, although there is some overlap.
CPA vs. Accountant Job Responsibilities
Since CPAs are accountants, albeit accountants with specialized credentials, CPAs can perform all of the tasks that non-certified accountants can do. However, given their advanced credentials, plus the fact that CPAs are held to a fiduciary standard and a professional code of conduct, CPAs are generally thought to be more qualified to perform these tasks. Accounting tasks may include the following:
- Manage the daily financial activities of companies of all structures and individuals
- Record and organize financial transactions (including accounts receivable and payable, depreciation and collections)
- Ensure all financial transactions for all accounts are correct
- Evaluate financial statements, including the organization's cash flow and accounting ratios, and make recommendations for expenditures and revenue streams to improve operations
- Prepare budgets for individual departments or the whole company
- Prepare tax returns and ensure that the company’s or individual’s taxes are properly paid
A non-certified accountant is also able to perform an in-house audit. However, only a certified public accountant can perform an external audit or an audit of a publicly traded company. In addition, CPAs can perform the following tasks that non-certified accountants cannot:
- Prepare audited financial statements and file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
- Represent individual taxpayers and organizations before the IRS in the event a tax return is subject to an IRS audit.
Accountant vs. CPA Educational Paths and Requirements
Although there are many differences between a CPA vs. accountant, both types of professionals begin their career path in a similar way. In fact, it’s not necessary for you to decide right away whether you want to become a CPA or a non-certified accountant. In either case, you’ll first need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as a Bachelor of Science in Accounting.
Even if you think you may not become a CPA or you aren’t sure about your decision yet, it’s a good idea to choose a degree program that will prepare you to sit for the National Certification Exam. If you change your mind and decide to pursue a career as a CPA, you’ll be prepared to do so.
The career paths for accountants vs. CPAs may differ. A non-certified accountant can expect the following:
- Graduate with a BS in Accounting.
- Complete an internship, either during college or shortly after graduation.
- Pursue a position as a junior accountant with a company.
- Gain experience and begin working toward senior-level roles.
In contrast, if you'd like to become a CPA, your pathway to achieving this career may look like this:
- Research your state’s licensing requirements for CPAs and choose a degree program accordingly.
- Graduate with a BS in Accounting.
- Earn any additional credits required by your state for licensure. (In some states, students may need to earn a master’s degree in accounting to meet the education credit requirements.)
- Study for and pass the Uniform CPA Examination.
- Meet additional licensing requirements for your state, which will likely include a certain amount of work experience hours under the supervision of a licensed CPA, and possibly an ethics exam.
- Obtain licensure and maintain it through continuing education credits.
What Do Accountants and CPAs Earn?
The agency tasked with tracking employment and salary data in the U.S. is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In their projections, the BLS makes no distinction between CPAs and non-certified accountants. Rather, the agency groups them together in the same employment category.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, all types of accountants and auditors had a median annual wage of $77,250 in May 2021.1 The BLS estimates job growth for accountants and auditors to be 6% from 2021 to 2031, as fast as average. This indicates employers may hire about 136,400 new accountants and auditors each year through 2031.
Get Started By Earning Your CPA Degree
Now that you’re familiar with the differences between an accountant and a CPA, you may be thinking about planning your own career path. The first step is earning your degree. As you research different schools, be sure the Bachelor of Science in Accounting program that you choose will enable you to pursue CPA licensure after graduation.
The Bachelor of Science in Accounting program at GCU requires a total of 120 credits for completion. Most of the BS in Accounting classes are 15 weeks in length. During the program you will study topics such as:
- The basics of the accounting cycle and the development of financial statements according to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)
- The principles of internal accounting, including job order systems, process costing, activity-based costing and budgeting
- Theories and practices in accounting for individuals, partnerships, corporations, estates and trusts
- Generally accepted auditing standards, procedures and ethical issues
Consider pursuing an internship while you’re working toward your CPA credential. An internship can give you an inside look at the difference between an accountant and a CPA, and what you can expect from a typical day on the job.
Begin working toward a career in accounting by earning the Bachelor of Science in Accounting with an Emphasis in Public Accounting degree from Grand Canyon University (GCU). This program can prepare students to pursue national certification and state licensure as CPAs. Complete the form on this page to learn more about our business and management degree programs.
1 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Accountants and Auditors as of May 2021, retrieved on May 16, 2023. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as Accountants and Auditors. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.
2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Accountants and Auditors, retrieved on May 16, 2023.
Approved by the academic program coordinator for the Colangelo College of Business on June 14, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.