Why there’s no perfect route to becoming an accountant

The choices you make at the beginning of your career in finance could have a huge impact on the rest of your working life.

So how do you know what courses to take? Or what level to aim for? Here are some words of wisdom from finance professionals and students at different stages of their careers.

Faster isn’t always better

When you are starting out, getting qualified as quickly as possible can seem like the Holy Grail. However, taking the time to really get to grips with the basics could prove a better approach in the long run.

That’s why accounts assistant Ceara Stephenson, who currently works for Tax Assist, chose to take the Foundation Certificate in Accounting when she started studying with AAT in September 2017.

“My Tutor and I went through the differences between Foundation Certificate  and Advanced Diploma,” Stephenson said. “You don’t need foundation to study advanced any more, but I still decided to start with foundation to get the foundations in place for when I progressed.”

Now a commercial finance business partner, Dairin O’Donovan agrees that skipping the basics can make life a lot harder.

“When I started my accountancy studies, my local college was offering an Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) course, so I went straight into that,” she said. “Thankfully, I had some on-the-job experience from my first finance role as an accounts assistant, which helped me to cope. But if I were starting out now, I would take the accountancy GCSE, then work my way up the AAT ladder first.”

Setbacks can make you stronger

Taking a wrong turn or facing a setback early in your career doesn’t have to be a disaster – especially if you use the experience to make a positive change.

“I got my first job in accountancy after leaving university part way through a civil engineering degree,” O’Donovan said. “It was tough at the time, but I’m so glad I decided to switch to accountancy. It was definitely the right move for me.” While Stephenson also regrets wasting time before starting her accountancy training, she too believes she is now on the right track.

“If I could go back and do it differently, I would start AAT straight after leaving high school, rather than doing my AS Levels,” Stephenson said. “But at least I know that now I’m on my way to a great career.”

For AAT apprentice Jessica Brindle, struggling with the online AAT Professional Diploma pushed her to go back to the classroom, which has proved a much more productive environment for her. “I studied for Levels 2 and 3 online,” Brindle said. “But Level 4 is a big jump up and I struggled to do it online, partly because the job I had was very demanding and I couldn’t concentrate. Luckily I was able to change to the classroom, which was clearly the right choice as I’m now on my last module.”

Taking a wrong turn or facing a setback early in your career doesn’t have to be a disaster

Work experience is essential

While the right qualifications are vital for a career in finance, there is no substitute for the lessons learned while working in the field. Brindle, who began her apprenticeship in 2014, believes working your way up is the best option.

“Personally, I think an apprenticeship is more useful than a degree, because as you’re learning you’re putting it into practice straight away,” she said. “I’ve found it makes what I am learning easier to pick up, especially as I can check things with my colleagues as well as my tutor. So my advice to anyone considering an AAT apprenticeship would be: do it!”

O’Donovan agrees that work experience is an important part of your journey to becoming a successful finance professional.

“You can’t learn it all from textbooks,” O’Donovan said. “Workplace experience is a key part of the process. It’s also a great way to see how rewarding accountancy can be.”

There are lots of ways to use your qualifications

Earning AAT qualifications opens the door to a range of further qualifications, as well as a wide variety of exciting careers.

“AAT is a great stepping stone to other higher qualifications,” Stephenson said.

The options open to you include:

  • Getting a job in accounting or finance.
  • Becoming a chartered accountant by continuing your studies with a chartered accountancy body such as the ACCA.
  • Full AAT membership (MAAT), which is available to those who complete the Professional Diploma in Accounting as well as the AAT’s work experience requirements.
  • Using your qualifications to study to become a tax specialist with the Association of Taxation Technicians(ATT).
  • Going to university – using your AAT qualifications to get a place (the Advanced Diploma in Accounting has A level equivalence and attracts around 56 UCAS points).
  • Becoming self-employed and offering accountancy, taxation or related consultancy services on a freelance basis.

You can explore the next stage of your qualification journey by the AAT Skillcheck test

Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.

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