Russ Thorne dispels some of the myths about a career in accountancy

Chartered accountants are vital to the running of businesses all over the world, whether they work in dedicated accountancy practices, accounts departments of businesses or the public sector. What do they do? It’s a straightforward question with many answers, as accountants can oversee and audit company accounts, provide advice on financial strategies, deal with tax and much more.

One thing that’s certain in the minds of those within the profession, though, is that it’s a field that can be somewhat misunderstood both in terms of the work accountants do, and how they’re trained. “There are a lot of misconceptions about routes into accountancy, and about the profession,” says Gavin Aspden of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

“You don’t have to be good at maths, and you don’t have to have done a finance degree. You don’t even have to be a graduate.”

Paths into the profession can begin when candidates leave school, with the various accounting bodies operating in the UK offering a range of qualifications and programmes. These bodies include the ICAEW; the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA); the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).

All service different areas of the profession and offer qualifications to school-leavers ranging from apprenticeships to broad-based financial training programmes: students can study in person at colleges throughout the country; via distance learning; or even through self-study.

For those wanting to go on to higher education there are a wide range of dedicated accounting degrees available.

The ACCA and Oxford Brookes offer a BSc in Applied Accounting, and the ICAEW has a range of degree programmes in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, UWE Bristol and Leeds University among others. There are also many independent BA and BSc programmes at universities all over the UK.

However, a degree related to accountancy is far from a prerequisite for entering the profession, says Aspden. “Firms are quite often deliberately looking for people without accountancy degrees, because they want people who have different thought processes,” he explains. “One firm told me they’re desperate to attract people from language backgrounds because we’re operating in a worldwide forum, so having language skills is actually a massive advantage.”

Aspden suggests that firms take up to half of their graduates from non-related degrees, but also acknowledges that those choosing accountancy degrees will have certain advantages.

“You’ve seen a little bit of the profession, so you’re not going into it without knowing anything and you’re likely to perform well in interviews,” he says.

Yet he also stresses that the training process is structured to take this into account and that regardless of any exemptions accountancy graduates receive from professional exams, the work they do while training is exactly the same. “Within six months you probably couldn’t tell the difference between them,” he says of candidates from related and non-related degree backgrounds.

When they leave education and whether they enter the profession as school-leavers, graduates or even postgraduates, all candidates wishing to attain chartered status (a title showing that an individual has industry-recognised skills and experience) follow an on-the-job training programme that varies according to the professional body they join. “It’s a holistic approach to training,” says Aspden. “Exams are part of it, the rest revolves around giving you technical work experience. You’re doing the job on a day to day basis with an authorised training employer.”

To really make themselves stand out to those employers, would-be accountants need to look beyond the classroom adds Richard Irwin, head of student recruitment at accounting firm PwC. “It is essential to be proactive. Transferable skills are very attractive to employers and they don’t necessarily have to be gained through work,” he says.

“Focus on improving yourself – that commitment to your own development is one of the most important things we look for as an employer.”

Once employed, accountants can be found in football clubs and Fortune 500 companies, audit firms and zoos, and this diversity is perhaps the greatest appeal of the profession, suggests Irwin. “The reality of a career in accounting couldn’t be further from the stereotype. You’ll see how big business really works, develop skills and gain qualifications that are always in demand by employers, and give yourself a foundation that opens all kinds of career doors for the future.”