Chartered accountants offer financial advice, audit accounts and provide trustworthy information about financial records. This might involve financial reporting, taxation, auditing, forensic accounting, corporate finance, business recovery and insolvency, or accounting systems and processes.

Generally, they play a strategic role by providing professional advice, aiming to maximise profitability on behalf of their client or employer.

They work in many different settings including public practice firms and industry and commerce, as well as in the not-for-profit and public sectors.

In public practice firms, chartered accountants provide professional services to fee-paying clients who might be private individuals or large commercial or public sector organisations.

In commerce, industry and the not-for-profit and public sectors, they may work in treasury management, procurement, financial management or in reporting roles.

Responsibilities

The role of a chartered accountant covers many aspects of finance work, including:

  • continuous management of financial systems and budgets;
  • undertaking financial audits (an independent check of an organisation's financial position);
  • providing financial advice.

In public practice, tasks carried out by a chartered accountant include:

  • liaising with clients (individuals or businesses) and providing financial information and advice;
  • reviewing the company's systems and analysing risk;
  • performing tests to check financial information and systems;
  • advising clients on tax planning (within current legislation to enable them to minimise their tax liability) and tax issues associated with activities such as business acquisitions and mergers;
  • maintaining accounting records and preparing accounts and management information for small businesses (accountancy);
  • advising clients on business transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions (corporate finance);
  • counselling clients on areas of business improvement, or dealing with insolvency;
  • detecting and preventing fraud (forensic accounting);
  • managing junior colleagues.

In commerce and industry and the public and not-for-profit sectors, work involves:

  • liaising with internal and external auditors and dealing with any financial irregularities as they arise;
  • producing reports and recommendations following internal audits or public-sector audits;
  • preparing financial statements, including monthly and annual accounts;
  • arranging financial management reports, including financial planning and forecasting;
  • advising on tax and treasury issues;
  • negotiating terms with suppliers.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for accountants vary depending on the location, sector, size and type of firm. Graduates entering the career can expect to earn salaries of up to £25,000. Those without a degree will earn less than this.
  • Once fully qualified, accountants can earn £26,000 to £50,000+. According to a 2014 salary survey by Stott and May, the average earning potential of chartered accountants with two years of experience is £47,900 plus bonus.
  • The average annual salary in business is £90,800.

Careers in banking and capital markets tend to attract the highest salaries.

Salary packages may include benefits such as bonuses, profit-sharing schemes, medical insurance, pensions and car allowances.

Chartered accountants have to undertake a training contract, (usually three to five years), in order to qualify. It is therefore important to consider the package of training, leave and pay offered by employers, as studying while working can be demanding. One of the main challenges for trainees is managing professional study commitments with the day-to-day job.

Income data from ICAEW. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary depending on the role and the organisation, but are not typically 9am to 5pm. Working extra hours in the evening and at weekends is quite common in order to meet deadlines, particularly in larger firms. Trainees can usually have time off in lieu of any overtime worked.

Flexible working arrangements are possible (usually after qualification). There is also the opportunity to work independently by setting up as a sole practitioner.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available in most areas throughout the UK, but are more commonly found in cities and larger towns, where higher salaries are typically earned. Post-qualification opportunities exist overseas. There are also training opportunities overseas with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) - Careers.
  • Due to the high profile, accurate and responsible nature of the work, the dress code is usually formal.
  • Support and advice for women entering accountancy is offered by Women in Banking and Finance, which aims to empower individuals to reach their full potential.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent in audit work, which is carried out mainly at client premises. Absence from home overnight and occasional overseas travel is possible.
  • Working in other areas, such as tax, or in smaller firms, tends to be more office-based with less travel.

Qualifications

Entry is open to graduates of all disciplines and, while a large number have business-related degrees, other subjects are strongly represented, including:

  • arts;
  • languages;
  • maths;
  • science;
  • social sciences.

A Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business (CFAB) may also be a useful step between a degree and a training contract.

Although entry to the profession without a degree or HND may be possible, accountancy is a highly competitive industry and graduates will have the competitive edge over other candidates. Candidates with a degree are generally preferred to those with an HND by the large employers.

Some employers train students to do the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) Accounting Qualification, which does not require a degree and can lead on to training for chartered status.

There are three separate professional institutes of chartered accountants in the UK, (as well as a number of other bodies awarding other accountancy qualifications). The three are:

Entry regulations vary slightly between institutes. ICAS requires a degree or the AAT Accounting Qualification, while ICAEW will accept three GCSEs and two A-levels or a 2:1 or first class honours degree (some employers will accept a 2:2).

One of the most difficult parts of becoming a chartered accountant is securing a training contract with an employer approved by one of the institutes. Many firms will ask for a minimum of 260 UCAS points, although 300+ are frequently required, as well as a good degree and evidence of mathematical knowledge and ability. Numeracy skills are often tested as part of the selection process.

Competition to enter the profession is tough and the selection process is rigorous. It is best to start applying in the autumn term of your final year to ensure access to the biggest range of opportunities, as some employers have application deadlines at the end of October (although there will be vacancies available later in the year).

Many firms attend recruitment fairs and hold presentations on campus. Take the opportunity to find out as much as possible about the job and training before applying; some firms hold short courses or open days.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • general business interest and awareness;
  • self-motivation and commitment, in order to combine study while working;
  • communication and interpersonal skills;
  • organisational and time management skills;
  • a methodical approach;
  • IT proficiency;
  • strong analytical and problem-solving skills;
  • numeracy;
  • leadership qualities and effective teamworking skills;
  • motivation and initiative;
  • integrity and trustworthiness.

Work experience

It is very helpful to have relevant pre-entry work experience, such as vacation work, work placements or shadowing.

Employers

Chartered accountants can work in any sector and in any size of organisation.

Although the majority of training opportunities for chartered accountants are in public practice, more and more training contracts are available in industry and there are opportunities for graduates to train with a firm of any size and sector, as long as it is authorised by one of the relevant institutes.

This means that trainees can choose their preferred working environment. Larger firms, where the vacancies are concentrated, have offices in major cities and towns around the country.

Smaller firms may be concentrated in a particular location or specialise in a particular type of client.

Employers include:

  • public practice: including international accounting organisations or smaller accountancy firms, known as small and medium practices (SMPs) - all providing a variety of accounting and business services to clients;
  • industry and commerce: including major commercial companies, such as those in the manufacturing, retail and telecoms industries;
  • public sector: including local and central government, educational institutions, charities and not-for-profit organisations. Historically, the public sector was not a big recruiter of chartered accountants, but opportunities have increased in recent years.

Look for job vacancies at:

Some trainee vacancies may be available through recruitment agencies, but most employers recruit directly.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Training to be a chartered accountant involves undertaking a training contract with an employer approved by one of the three institutes in the UK:

  • Chartered Accountants Ireland;
  • ICAEW;
  • ICAS.

The contract typically lasts three years but can take up to five years to complete in some cases, and combines professional development, practical work experience of at least 450 days, a structured ethics component and various stages of exams.

The structure of the exams and methods of training vary slightly between the institutes. They may involve intensive blocks of time or shorter courses spread over a longer period.

The qualifications cover a similar syllabus and there are a variety of exemptions for qualifications already held. As an example of what you might expect to study, the ICAEW syllabus covers 15 modules over three levels:

  • advanced level: case study, corporate reporting, strategic business management;
  • professional level: business planning taxation, business strategy, audit and assurance, financial accounting and reporting, financial management, tax compliance;
  • certificate level: accounting, assurance, business and finance, law, management information, principles of taxation.

Preparing for chartered accountancy examinations is likely to be a demanding learning experience and candidates need to be very focused for the duration if they are to succeed.

The majority of chartered accountants train in firms of accountants (public practice). However, there are now also training contracts available in commerce, industry and the public sector. The exams are the same and only the practical experience differs.

Employers will also provide in-house training on technical and general skills to help staff perform well in their job. Chartered accountants must keep up to date with technical and business issues, so there is a strong emphasis on continuing professional development (CPD) after qualification.

All chartered accountancy qualifications have equal status and are equally recognised, and all lead to the designation 'chartered accountant'. Candidates who qualify through ICAS or Chartered Accountants Ireland receive the designation CA (Chartered Accountant), while those who qualify with ICAEW are designated ACA (Associate of the ICAEW).

Career prospects

The majority of chartered accountants train in public practice and the first three years are typically devoted to achieving the CA or ACA qualification. During this time you build up experience and take on additional responsibilities, including supervising junior staff and liaising more directly with clients.

In some cases, there may be the opportunity for a secondment to another area of the practice to broaden your experience. You usually remain with the same employer throughout the training contract.

The CA or ACA qualification provides a foundation for many different career routes, and opportunities for post-qualification progression are numerous and varied.

Staying in public practice offers the opportunity for secondments or transfers to different areas of practice (e.g. tax, corporate finance or management consultancy) or, alternatively, a move to a different-sized firm.

In the large international firms, overseas secondments are possible.

Progression is often structured and an accountant may become a manager two years after qualification and a senior manager three years after that. Progress to partnership is competitive but is achievable between eight and 15 years after qualification. In small firms, progression may be more rapid.

After training, around half of all qualified chartered accountants work outside public practice, in commerce, industry, financial services, banking and the public and not-for-profit sector. Typical roles at the newly qualified stage include internal auditor, financial accountant and business analyst.

Career progression in this setting varies, depending on individual aspirations and abilities, but it is possible to progress to finance director of a major company within ten to 15 years of qualification.

The CA and ACA qualification also opens doors to general business management careers or creates the opportunity to set up independently as a sole practitioner.