More than a mere numbers game.
Accountants are not a single breed: they come in various shapes and sizes. If you want to become one, the first thing to ask yourself is where you want to work and what kind of accountant you'd like to be.
Within financial services, investment banks hire accountants; so do retail banks, hedge funds, private equity firms, insurance companies and fund managers. Companies in all other sectors also need accountants to help them tot up profits and losses and calculate tax liabilities.
Alternatively, you could work for an accountancy firm providing independent audit services to other companies. The best known of these are the Big Four - Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers - but there are plenty of other smaller accounting operations.
Roles and career paths
If you choose to work in an investment bank as an accountant, there are several key areas you could go into.
· Product control - Here accountants keep a close eye on the profits and losses (P&L) made on products bought and sold on the trading floor.
· Financial control - Rather than looking at the P&L made on the trading floor, accountants in financial control analyse the bank's overall performance. They produce month-end, quarterly, half-yearly and annual reports.
· Internal audit - Accountants in internal audit teams are responsible for checking that financial systems and controls within the organisation are being complied with.
· Regulatory accounting - Regulatory accountants ensure that the way the bank reports its financial activity complies with the legal rules and regulations of the countries it trades in.
· Treasury - It's the job of treasurers to structure the bank's financial affairs (often working with colleagues in tax) so that sufficient cash is available to meet its liabilities.
By comparison, if you choose to start as a graduate trainee in one of the Big Four accountancy firms, your career opportunities will be more limited. Most graduate recruits at the Big Four - 50-60% - end up in 'audit and assurance departments'. Audit and assurance professionals handle the accounts of publicly traded companies and independently validate that a company's accounts are correct.
Big Four accountants usually focus on specific industries. However, as a graduate you'll be expected to tag along with a variety of industry teams before specialising in one area.
As well as audit and assurance, Big Four firms conduct advisory work for firms which can include corporate finance (see M&A sector profile), reorganisation services (offering advice on everything from restructuring or insolvency to simply improving a firm's performance), or forensic accounting (investigating improper practices). They also run consulting arms offering advice on the business case for everything from technology to outsourcing.
Finally, if you don't want to work for a bank or an accounting firm, there are also accountancy opportunities in industry and commerce. Knock on the door of any large firm and you'll find a team of bean counters. They usually fall into two categories - financial accountant (presenting company figures for external consumption) and management accountant (presenting the figures internally and their implications for the business).
Pay and rewards
Accountants earn more in financial services than in any other business sector. Basic salaries are higher than average and there's also the potential to earn lucrative bonuses, most of which are announced and paid in the early part of the calendar year.
A newly qualified auditor working in banking and financial services in the UK can expect to earn between 52k and 58k, according to Robert Walters.
By comparison, an internal auditor working in a large firm within industry and commerce earns between 33k and 40k initially, according to figures from recruitment firm Robert Half. This rises to 46-60k after six to nine years.
Skills and attributes
"Working as an accountant, you need to like figures, analysing them and paying attention to detail," says Annabel Thébaud at Calyon, the investment banking arm of Crédit Agricole. "But you also need to show self-motivation and the ability to work under pressure."
Accountancy firms don't expect you to come equipped with all the technical skills necessary for the roles they have to offer. They look for raw talent.
Sarah de Carteret, graduate recruitment manager at Deloitte, says: "We look for all-rounders who have more than the baseline academics and can demonstrate leadership and teamwork. They should have got involved in other activities at university - sports, positions of responsibility in clubs or societies, work experience - and started to understand how the attributes and skills gained through these experiences would fit into the world of business."
Don't worry, though, if you haven't studied accounting or economics at university; firms rarely demand a finance-related degree.
If you train as an accountant in London, most firms will typically expect you to have taken the exams run by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) or the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).
If banks hire qualified accountants, they will typically go for Associate of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (or ACA) qualified accountants above any others.
The situation is different in Continental Europe. In France there are two different accounting qualifications: the DCG (Diplôme de Comptabilité et Gestion), equivalent to a three-year degree, and the DSCG (Diplôme Supérieur de Comptabilité et Gestion), equivalent to a master's degree.
In Germany, accountants qualify through vocational training with an employer for two or three years, or through more complex university studies - which typically take six years - to become an auditor, management accountant or tax adviser. Within the EU, arrangements exist between all the main accounting organisations to allow a member of one national body to become a member of another, usually through a short aptitude test.