Career Guide: What Can I Do With An Accounting Degree?

Brian McGuire

Brian McGuire

Never say never. When Brian McGuire earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of South Alabama (USA), he promised his wife that was the last time he would step foot in a classroom. After he earned his MBA from USA, he made that promise again. But soon, he was off to the University of Central Florida to earn his Ph.D. in accounting. Today, McGuire has more than 15 years of experience working in higher education, serving as associate dean and MBA director at the University of Southern Indiana. Before his road to academia, he worked in both public and management accounting in many areas, including healthcare and information systems. McGuire also currently serves as Chair-Emeritus of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA®) Global Board of Directors and as chair of the Volunteer Leadership Committee.

Question: Working in higher education, you have the opportunity to encourage students to study accounting. What do you tell them?

McGuire: “Accounting, you hear a lot, is the language of business. If you know how to speak the language, you have a much greater strength over people who cannot, even if you end up not going into accounting for your entire career. I started off in public accounting and then moved into management accounting. By the time I advanced, I was really doing more administration, so I had people under me that were doing all of the accounting duties. But I was still glad I had my accounting background because I was able to talk to creditors and investors and was able to look at our financial position and make good business decisions. That’s what I try to tell students.”

Question: What kinds of fields have you seen students go into?

McGuire: “Accounting is a field that provides you with a lot of opportunities. We have somebody who’s a CEO of a real estate company. We have several graduates that are now CFOs. The opportunities are endless; it just depends on what the person wants to do. You never know where life’s going to take you. I never thought I’d end up in academia. It probably was not even on my radar as a possibility. And yet here I am. And before that I was in healthcare, and before that in information systems. I’ve been an expert witness in an Indiana superior court. The thing about accounting, wherever you end up going in life, it can give you a way to get there.”

Question: What different paths are available within accounting?

McGuire: “In our program at the University of Southern Indiana, we have accounting core topics that basically look at financial accounting, tax auditing, information systems, managerial accounting, and cost accounting. And then we have tracks that a student can choose — financial accounting, managerial, financial management, and information systems. Students wanting to sit for the CMA (Certified Management Accountant) exam probably would follow the management accounting track, as it does the best job preparing you for the exam. The reason we have the accounting core courses is it gives students the background to be able to handle anything. Initially, a lot of people go into public accounting, though historically, over three quarters of accountants end up in what I call “industry,” which means they work for specific companies. These companies could be healthcare, banking, anything. Most people will end up in management accounting because that’s where most of the jobs are. Good or bad, that tends to be what leads people into certain areas, especially in today’s economy. Sometimes it’s difficult to get that first job, you might start off in one area that you don’t want to do long-term, but it’s a good first job, and you eventually might end up somewhere else working in an opportunity that you do enjoy.”

Question: How important is continuing education in the field?

McGuire: “Accounting has changed. If you look at some of the top fields right now, many of their leading companies didn’t even exist 20 years ago. And so I think education and certification have become really important. You want to have as broad an education as possible. Certainly I think getting your undergraduate degree and then possibly a master’s degree makes a lot of sense. Becoming certified is very important. I have students ask, ‘should I try to pass the CPA exam or the CMA exam?’ and my answer is yes, try to pass them both. These days, as the economy becomes more global, I think the more credentials you have to help you stand out from the crowd, the better off you are.”

Question: What types of students do you see in your accounting program?

McGuire: “Most college students change majors these days at least once. That’s how we end up with a lot of our accounting majors. They start off with something else, hear that there are a lot of good career opportunities in accounting and that it’s a valuable degree to have long-term, so they end up switching into accounting. We have a post baccalaureate in accountancy for students who have an undergraduate degree in another area and decided they wanted to go back into accounting. Maybe they’ve been working for a while and didn’t like what they were doing, or had trouble finding employment, the post baccalaureate provides them with the background knowledge required to go into accounting. We have a lot of students in that, especially over the last four to five years since the economy tanked there for a while. Sometimes people the first time around get degrees in something they really like, which is a nice thing, but you never think about what you’re going to do with it. We get a lot of people like that. They’re majoring in accounting a second time around just because it’s a really good career.”