Exploring the Chartered Accountant's career path: What are your options?

8 mins
Sellick  Partnership

By Sellick Partnership

Whether you're a newly qualified Chartered Accountant or have strong technical accounting skills, but are stuck between staying in practice, moving to industry or vice versa, we have outlined some of the key routes you can choose to get the most from your career.

You might be a recent accountancy graduate or a Finance Director looking for a new challenge. Whatever the case, our expert team has the answers. Check out some of the most popular career routes for ACA/ICAS qualified candidates below, or get in touch with us today for a confidential chat about your requirements.

As a Chartered Accountant, you have a huge array of career opportunities available as soon as you have passed your exams. These will only continue to grow throughout your career.

Qualified finance professionals have several options that range from working in practice firms as an auditor or within transactional services, to working for in-house roles within the businesses on the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100. Other options include working for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and listed businesses as a Financial Accountant or a Financial Analyst, to name just a few possibilities. With so much choice on the market, it’s important to know what your options are, especially for newly qualified accountants.

We asked our expert Finance & Accountancy team to outline some popular career paths to help you make the right decision and build the accountancy career you deserve.

What are the responsibilities of a chartered accountant?

Chartered Accountants play a pivotal role in the financial health and integrity of businesses and organisations. Their responsibilities are diverse, and extend far beyond traditional accounting tasks:

Financial reporting and management

  • Preparing financial statements: chartered accountants are responsible for preparing accurate and timely financial statements, including balance sheets, income statements and cash flow statements, in compliance with relevant accounting standards.
  • Budgeting and forecasting: they develop and manage budgets, conduct financial forecasting, and perform variance analysis to guide business decisions.

Audit and compliance

  • Conducting audits: a significant responsibility of chartered accountants in practice is conducting internal and external audits to ensure financial accuracy and compliance with laws and regulations.
  • Tax compliance and planning: they are responsible for ensuring that the organisation is compliant with tax laws, which includes preparing and filing tax returns, and offering tax planning advice to minimise liabilities.

Strategic advice

  • Business advisory services: chartered accountants often provide strategic advice to businesses, assisting in areas like business planning, financial management, and risk assessment.
  • Mergers and acquisitions: in corporate finance, they play a key role in advising on mergers, acquisitions, and other financial transactions.

Management and consultancy

  • Financial analysis and consultancy: chartered accountants analyse financial data to provide insights into business performance, and identify areas for improvement and growth.
  • Management consultancy: they typically offer consultancy services in various aspects of business management, from financial operations to strategic development.

Other responsibilities

  • Internal controls and risk management: implementing and monitoring internal controls to manage risk and improve business processes.
  • Stakeholder communication: communicating financial information and business implications to stakeholders, including shareholders, board members and company executives.
  • Training and supervision: in senior roles, chartered accountants may be responsible for training and supervising junior staff, ensuring the quality and integrity of the finance team’s work.

The role of a Chartered Accountant is integral to the financial stability and growth of an organisation. These professionals act as strategic advisors and contribute significantly to decision-making processes, while also helping to develop key relationships. Their expertise in financial management, compliance, and strategic planning makes them invaluable assets in any business environment throughout their professional careers.

What are the educational and certification requirements for being a Chartered Accountant?

To embark on a career as a Chartered Accountant, specific educational and certification requirements must be met. These prerequisites ensure that individuals possess the necessary knowledge and skills to perform effectively in this demanding field. 

Here's an overview of the typical educational background and certifications required:

Educational background

  • Undergraduate degree: while it is common for aspiring chartered accountants to hold a degree in accounting, finance, or a related field, this is not always mandatory. Many professional bodies accept candidates from various academic backgrounds, provided they meet other certification requirements.
  • Relevant coursework: courses in accounting principles, business law, economics, and finance are highly beneficial and often essential for understanding the complexities of the profession.

Professional certifications

  • ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant): offered by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), the ACA is a highly respected qualification. It involves passing a series of exams and completing practical work experience.
  • ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants): the ACCA qualification is globally recognised and provides a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of accounting and finance. It requires you to pass exams and gain relevant practical experience.
  • CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants): for those focusing on management accounting, CIMA is the preferred certification. It combines exams and practical experience, focusing on business strategy and financial management.
  • ICAS (Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland): similar to the ACA, the ICAS qualification is another route to becoming a chartered accountant in the UK, involving rigorous exams and practical training.

Practical experience

  • Training contracts: most qualifications require you to complete a period of practical work experience, usually around three years, under a training contract with an authorised employer.
  • Varied experience: gaining experience in different areas of accounting and finance, such as auditing, tax, and corporate finance, is advantageous and often required for certification.

Continuous professional development

  • Ongoing learning: Chartered Accountants are expected to engage in continuous professional development (CPD) to keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date in a rapidly evolving field.

Becoming a Chartered Accountant is a commitment to a high standard of learning and professional development. The journey involves a blend of academic study, professional exams, and practical experience, culminating in a rewarding career with diverse opportunities.

Staying in practice – a technical and structured career path

For many ACA candidates, especially those who have started their careers in practice firms, the decision to continue on this path can be pivotal. Staying in practice offers a clear and structured career progression, particularly in larger accounting firms, where the hierarchy and advancement opportunities are well-defined. This path is often well-suited to ACA candidates who are keen on developing a technical skillset alongside strong technical accounting skills.

This career progression pathway will generally be as follows:

  • Trainee/Graduate Accountant: this is the starting point for most ACA candidates in practice. Here, you will focus on learning the basics of accounting, auditing and tax, often while studying for your ACA exams and obtaining your accounting qualifications.
  • Senior Accountant/Auditor: after qualifying and gaining some experience, you can progress to a senior role, where you'll handle more complex tasks and start to manage smaller teams or segments of larger projects.
  • Manager: as a Manager, you'll oversee entire projects, manage teams, and have direct interaction with clients. This role involves strategic financial planning and execution of audit or tax projects, and you will start to carve out your area of expertise.
  • Senior Manager/Director: at this level, your role involves higher-level strategic planning and decision-making. You'll have a significant influence on your department's direction and will be responsible for business development activities, such as nurturing client relationships and identifying new opportunities.
  • Partner: the pinnacle of the career ladder in practice is becoming a Partner. Partners are not just senior professionals, but are also part-owners of the firm. They have a major say in the running of the firm, including decision-making and business strategy. Reaching this level requires not just technical expertise, but also leadership skills and strong acumen as a business analyst.

It is worth noting that within each of these levels, there are opportunities to specialise in different areas of accounting practice. Specialisations can include audit, tax, corporate finance, forensic accounting, and insolvency, among others. Understanding where your interests lie early in your career can be beneficial, as it allows you to tailor your career path toward your preferred niche.

In larger practices, the career path is often more structured, with clear expectations and benchmarks for progression. This structure can provide a sense of security and clarity for your career development, allowing you to focus on honing your skills and expertise in your chosen field.

For ACA candidates who thrive in a technical and structured environment, this path can lead to a rewarding and successful career in accountancy, with ample opportunities for progression and specialisation.

Opportunities within practice

There are a number of areas within practice that chartered accountants can specialise in. These are:

  • Audit: an audit role allows a Chartered Accountant to develop a highly technical skillset, which is always in demand across the UK's finance and accountancy market. Candidates that stay in audit will hone their financial reporting skills and become an expert in a range of reporting standards or sectors.
  • Tax: tax is often described as a niche area of finance. Highly skilled tax consultants are a rarity across the UK. A career in tax gives candidates the freedom to be more analytical and advisory without any limitations regarding sectors and sizes. Due to the limited number of tax consultants, candidates can often progress quickly.
  • Corporate finance: this is an area of particular interest to commercially astute Accountants as they are able to work with businesses on progression paths, assisting in areas such as financial statements, valuations, due diligence, mergers, and acquisitions. This often requires longer working hours than other areas of practice but can be especially rewarding when deals are completed.
  • Outsourced accounts: these roles tend to be outside of the Big 4 - Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) - and allow individuals the exposure to Management Accounts. This can offer candidates the best of both worlds offering chartered accountants the opportunity to work on a company’s accounts and offer support to clients. Roles such as these often give candidates the opportunity to add commercial insight and provide ad-hoc services.
  • Forensic accounting: roles such as these tend to be found in the larger practices or boutique firms. These roles suit candidates that are looking to combine their financial auditing skills and investigative nature to both prevent and detect any issues. These roles typically suit candidates that enjoy digging into the detail and fully understanding businesses.
  • Insolvency: a Chartered Accountant that works in insolvency will be assisting companies closing down. This normally focuses on risk management to external stakeholders should any debt or obligation payments not be fulfilled. This requires someone who isn’t afraid to challenge and deal with difficult stakeholders.
Moving into industry – a varied and rewarding career

Moving into industry gives candidates direct access to large blue chip organisations, private equity firms and FTSE 100 businesses, which can be appealing to many newly qualified ACA candidates. There is no set progression or development structure within industry, which means chartered accountants have the opportunity to progress very quickly. On the flip side, there is also a higher chance for a career to stagnate for candidates who do not put the work in.

Opportunities within industry

There are various options and job roles that candidates looking to carve a long-term successful career in industry should consider, which include:

  • Commercial Analyst: often this is the hardest role to secure when moving out of practice. Commercial analysts get involved with a range of ad-hoc projects and can add real commercial value to a company. This route requires candidates to learn complex excel tools and models alongside working with more operational faces. As a commercial analyst, candidates can gain a wide view of a business, working with operational stakeholders to add value across a range of areas.
  • Financial Accountant: newly qualified Accountants will have spent years developing technical reporting skills and will have the most up-to-date knowledge of current regulations in the UK. This makes the move into financial accounts one of the easiest entry points for newly qualified candidates when making their first move into industry. Entry financial accounts roles offer candidates the opportunity to develop a highly technical skillset and an opportunity to get their foot in the door in a business of their choice. As a Financial Accountant, candidates can be part of the wider controls and year-end processes ensuring compliance across the company.
  • Management Accountant: candidates who have had exposure to outsourced accounts in practice will find this route into industry easier. Management accounts offers candidates the opportunity to experience both month-end accounting as well as more commercial analytical work. As a Management Accountant, candidates can get involved with a variety of work depending on the size of the company. Often this route is a good move for first-time movers as you can try your hand at different things and work out what your skill set is.
  • Internal Auditor: internal audit roles are very similar to external audit but, you are looking at risks and compliance within one business. This means you can often get involved with a range of strategy projects for upcoming changes and help the executive team prepare for these. However, you can also get involved with existing processes and look at how they can be improved.

Making the wrong choice

If you come to the realisation that you may have gone down the wrong career path, it’s important not to leave it too long before re-assessing your options and planning your next steps. In our experience, the longer you stay in either practice or industry, the harder it is to move out and the more limited your career options will be.

If you have made the move and want to go back to practice, we advise that you talk to a specialist consultant that will be able to speak with their clients and make introductions on your behalf.

You should start to think of how you can leverage the experience you have built up when it comes to making the transition. For example, you might develop a deeper understanding of business ‘know how’, have a higher appreciation of quality service, or be able to grasp clients’ needs easier.

For Chartered Accountants contemplating a career change, there are numerous exit opportunities and alternative career paths available outside of traditional accounting roles. The skills acquired in accounting are highly transferable and valued across various sectors, including:

  • Consultancy and advisory roles: many Accountants transition into consultancy, where they offer financial advice to businesses. This can range from financial planning to business strategy development.
  • Entrepreneurship: your accounting expertise positions you well to understand the financial aspects of running a business, making entrepreneurship a viable option.
  • Teaching and academia: with your depth of knowledge, teaching accounting or finance at a professional level or at a university can be a fulfilling career change.
  • Financial analysis in non-financial sectors: many industries value the analytical skills of accountants. Roles in financial analysis or strategic planning in sectors like technology, healthcare or retail can be a viable alternative.
  • Not-for-profit and public sector roles: your skills can be extremely beneficial in the non-profit sector or in public service, where budgeting and financial stewardship are crucial.

Talk to your recruitment consultant about your career options and try not to solely rely on them as a means to finding a new job. Most recruiters will be experts in their field and will have unrivalled market knowledge when it comes to career opportunities, so keeping in touch with them and asking for advice will be hugely beneficial. At the same time, proactivity on your part will make the biggest difference in securing opportunities.

Recruiters can help you with everything from developing your online brand and interview preparation right through to advice on career paths, the training and development you should be receiving and average salaries.

What next?

With a combined experience of over 30 years, our Finance & Accountancy Consultants have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to placing newly qualified ACA candidates with a range of businesses across the UK. If you would like their help feel free to get in touch today for some tailored career advice.

Alternatively, you can check out more tips on securing your next role in our Candidate section or browse our latest Finance & Accountancy jobs here.