What Does a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a certified public accountant: Start with a BA in accounting, some get a Master's as well; you must pass a state exam in order to practice; advise businesses and individuals on their financial options; prepare annual reports and file taxes

The Balance / Ellen Lindner

The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation is without question the most valuable credential for advancing a career in accounting and auditing. It attests to holding in-depth knowledge of accounting principles and practices, including applicable laws and regulations.

Many holders of the CPA in private practice devote a considerable portion of their time to preparing and filing tax returns for both small businesses and individuals. The general public erroneously assumes this is the major focus of the profession, but that's not the case. 

Approximately 1.4 million accountants and auditors worked in the U.S. in 2016, and CPAs are at the pinnacle of this profession.

Certified Public Accountant Duties & Responsibilities

CPAs' responsibilities can depend on the capacity in which they work, but some common duties include:

  • Prepare financial statements.
  • Review financial statements for accuracy, as well as systems and procedures for efficiency.
  • Organize and keep current all financial records.
  • Prepare tax returns, schedules, and forms, ensuring that they're filed in a timely manner and that all taxes due are paid on time.
  • Meet with management to suggest potential changes to increase revenues and reduce costs.
  • Write and maintain ongoing reports.
  • Review and sign off on annual reports due to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Salary

The salary for accountants and auditors can depend on whether they're self-employed, are on retainer for a large firm or business, or work for an accounting firm. CPAs tend to earn more than those without a CPA license. Taking all this into consideration, median income is:

  • Median Annual Income: $70,500 ($33.89/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Income: More than $122,840 ($59.06/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Income: Less than $43,650 ($20.98/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training & Certification

Those looking for a career as a CPA should begin with some fundamentals and proceed from there.

Education: You'll need a bachelor's degree, ideally in accounting. Many CPAs also hold master's degrees in accounting or business administration.

Licensure: You're required to pass an exam and fulfill continuing professional education (CPE) requirements to become a CPA. Most states have their own boards of accounting, also known as boards of accountancy, that regulate the profession and the awarding of the CPA license. Qualifying to practice in one state might not automatically allow you to practice in another. If you work within a large corporation with a multi-state footprint, however, many of these complications can be overcome.

Aside from the public accounting sector, within other financial services firms like banks, brokerage firms, and investment firms, the CPA license is only required in some highly specialized support functions such as internal audit. The vast majority of jobs within the controller and compliance functions outside public accounting firms themselves are filled by people without a CPA, even senior management positions.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Skills & Competencies

You should have several essential qualities to succeed at becoming a CPA.

  • Analytical skills: You must be able to discern problems before they become apparent and affect the bottom line.
  • Organizational skills: You'll be handling numerous documents for numerous clients, both electronically and in paper form, and you might need to place your hands on them quickly.
  • Keen attention to detail: Transposing even two digits can spell disaster is some situations.
  • Communication and people skills: This career regularly involves interaction with others, not all of whom are going to be happy about what their CPA is telling them.

Job Outlook

This profession is expected to grow by about 10% from 2016 through 2026, which is faster than the average for all other professions. Complex tax changes in 2018 can be expected to hike an immediate need for more qualified accountants.

Work Environment

Many CPAs are self-employed and they might even work from home, but others work for public accounting firms. In either case, this is largely a desk job and it can be a solitary one at times, although interaction with clients and teams is required.

This profession can also involve some travel to clients' business locations.

Work Schedule

Most CPAs work full time, and about 20% regularly work overtime, particularly during peak times such as tax season or the end of a company's fiscal year.

How to Get the Job


Use your CPA as a major selling point in seeking any position in financial services. A CPA license is widely respected as an indicator of quantitative skills and high standards of professionalism. It can vastly enhance your credibility as a job applicant.


Holding a CPA indicates that you have much of the in-depth knowledge necessary to analyze financial reports thoroughly and systematically if you decide to pursue a career in securities research.


It's probably is not worthwhile to obtain your CPA strictly as a means to launch a financial services career outside the public accounting sector itself.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Some similar jobs and their median annual pay include: 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018