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    Accountancy career guide

    Accountancy and tax are rewarding and interesting career options for young people considering their future career pathways. Very importantly, both are also highly regarded professions that can be entered without necessarily taking a university degree. Given that university fees now cost almost £20,000 a year, with living expenses on top, a career that can be high profile, stimulating and financially rewarding – without having the burden of a student loan – is very worthwhile considering.

    Basic information to begin the decision making process

    This guide explains how to become a Chartered Certified Accountant and member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) or Chartered Tax Adviser and member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT). In each case you would be working in practice – either with a firm or independently – as opposed to working for an organisation in-house. This guide was prepared by Robert James Partnership LLP, a surrey based accountancy and tax advice firm.

    Option 1: Becoming a Chartered Certified Accountant


    If you want to become an accountant or auditor, it’s possible to get a job as a trainee accountant straight after ‘A’ levels. With a good set of exam results (or good predicted grades) you can find a trainee position with a small to medium sized local firm. Many people falsely assume that you automatically need ‘A’ Level mathematics. That’s clearly useful but not essential. Many good trainee accountants have studied economics, business studies or IT instead. How quickly you then progress is up to you. If you work hard and pass all your exams first time it is possible to be fully qualified within 4 to 5 years.

    Life as a trainee accountant

    As an 18 year old school leaver, you will be working as a Junior Trainee Accountant. Your daily work will typically include bookkeeping, which involves maintaining records of the financial transactions required to produce a set of financial accounts. You may also help complete simple VAT returns and financial accounts for sole traders. Importantly, you will be part of a busy team and involved with clients from the outset.

    After 18 months to 2 years you can expect to be promoted, and become a Semi Senior Trainee. In this role you will be working on statutory accounts for smaller companies, assisting an auditor senior with company audits and possibly doing some management accounting. This involves preparing quarterly accounts showing how well a company is performing, guiding it towards future success.

    After another 18 months, provided you have successfully completed the relevant examinations, you will become an Audit Senior and take responsibility for preparing more complex company accounts. By this time, you may also be leading smaller company audits and have a portfolio of clients you are directly responsible for managing. Depending on the size of firm, you may also have junior staff responsible to you. At this point you should be well on the way to becoming a qualified accountant.

    Working whilst studying


    After finishing the AAT course (or if you have sufficient UCAS points already) you can begin studying for the ACCA professional exams. The rules concerning the number of points required and possible exemptions change all the time, so it is important to check this with a local firm or with the ACCA directly. Typically, having the AAT qualification will entitle you to up to 4 exemptions from the ACCA Foundation stage course, which otherwise comprises 9 examinations. Then, to complete the final ACCA Professional stage, you will need to pass a further 5 exams.Training to become an accountant will involve taking a series of exams whilst you are working with a firm. If you enter the profession as a school leaver after ‘A’ levels you may need to obtain the Association of Accounting Technician (AAT) qualification before commencing ACCA examinations. This depends on the ‘A’ levels you have and number of UCAS points awarded. Doing the AAT exams is the equivalent to taking a Diploma or HND in Accountancy and can take up to 2 years to complete.

    To become fully qualified as an ACCA accountant, you will need to pass 14 different exams awarded through ACCA and work for a minimum of three years with an accountancy firm. The rate at which you can complete these exams will vary but as a general rule of thumb, by the time you are working as a semi-senior trainee you should have completed 6 or 7 exams. Then, by the time you reach the accounts manager position, you should be nearing the end of your ACCA training exams.

    Once you have completed the ACCA Foundation stage, you will be working as an Accounts Senior or possibly, a Junior Accounts or Audit Manager. In this role, you will be responsible for reviewing the work of junior staff. This will involve allocating work to other team members, working with a larger portfolio of clients on more complex projects and possibly supporting a Partner. There is also likely to be greater cross over between your work and that of the tax department.

    What happens after qualifying as an accountant?

    Once you have completed and passed all 14 ACCA exams, you are theoretically qualified but not yet eligible to apply for a practicing certificate through ACCA. To obtain a practicing certificate requires another 2 years of work experience with an accountancy firm. After this, you are able to join ACCA and obtain a practicing certificate. At this point, you will be a fully qualified professional accountant.

    From here, there are lots of potential career opportunities. The highest position you can reach within a firm is partner and it’s possible to achieve this level 2/3 years after obtaining your practicing certificate. So in total, it is possible to go from trainee to partner in just 6 years.

    There are multiple pathways to becoming an accountant and we have described just one – a route to becoming ACCA qualified without having a university degree. If you do want to go to university, perhaps for the life experience it offers, you should. Entering the accountancy profession with a degree just means you are exempt from more of the ACCA exams and will be able to qualify more quickly. For instance you may be exempt from up to 9 papers. The important thing to understand is that in the end, it won’t affect your career prospects either way – you will get out what you put in, in terms of effort and hard work.

    In addition to becoming an ACCA qualified accountant there are other routes to be aware of. For example, you may wish to become a Chartered Accountant with the ICAEW Institute of Accountants in England and Wales. Both professional bodies are equally highly regarded and it is a matter of personal choice about which route to follow.

    RJP LLP is a Platinum Approved ACCA Training Centre. If you would like more information about ACCA qualifications and becoming a professional accountant please visit the ACCA website at

    Accountancy Career Case study: Ben

    Ben recently qualified as an ACCA accountant with RJP LLP. He came to RJP after obtaining good ‘A’ / ‘AS’ levels in History, Design and Technology, Business Studies and IT. Although Ben has enough UCAS points to accept his place at university, he decided against taking a degree because of the financial cost involved.

    “I chose accountancy because my business studies teacher said I would be good at it after doing well in my accountancy modules,” said Ben. “After applying to a variety of local firms I was successful in securing a position as a Junior Accounts Trainee with RJP.”

    “It took some time to get used to working because a lot of my friends were at uni and had a lot more free time. I became the driver when we went out because I avoided drinking, which was then easier to juggle the need to have a social life with friends and being effective at work each day. Looking back it didn’t do me any harm.”

    “Getting the work/study balance can be tricky as client work always has to be prioritised but if you are organised it’s possible to achieve both. I used to work every night after a day in the office and dedicate some time at the weekend. It’s important to find a study pattern that works for you.”

    “Looking back, if I could offer anyone starting out some advice it would be to go for it. Accountancy is a great profession and it’s very true that not having a degree has not held me back. Get your exams out of the way as quickly as possible because as you progress within a firm it becomes more challenging to make time to study,” he concludes.

    Option 2: Becoming a Chartered Tax Advisor

    Starting out as a trainee tax advisor


    Getting onto the career ladder as a tax adviser is similar to becoming an accountant. As an 18 year old school leaver with a good set of ‘A’ levels, you can get a position with a firm as a Tax Junior. Your daily work will typically include completing simple tax returns for clients who may be sole traders or private landlords needing to complete a tax return. You will also be responsible for maintaining correspondence with HMRC, checking coding notices issued and you may also help complete simple VAT returns.

    After 18 months to 2 years, you can expect to be promoted to the role of Tax Semi Senior. Here you will be working on more complex clients and have more day to day client contact. It’s also possible to be involved with some smaller tax enquiries and be involved with managing your clients’ personal and business tax issues.

    Then, after 3 years, you could be working as a tax senior and completing more complex tax planning and tax advisory work. This will include assisting with completing claims for R&D tax relief, setting up share option schemes, helping clients apply for EIS approved status and possibly, more complex VAT assignments. As a tax senior, you will most likely have a small team of junior trainees reporting to you and be involved in more client relationship management.

    Finally, after completing 5 or 6 years with a firm, you will be promoted to tax manager, and possibly have responsibility for a larger team of tax staff. A tax manager will be required to delegate work within a team, meet new clients and to complete more complex work assignments. For example, you may be required to undertake company valuations, manage group structures and undertake tax planning for clients.

    Finally, once you are fully qualified as a tax adviser you will be eligible to become a tax partner. This can take 7 years to achieve and your success will be dependant upon passing the relevant tax professional qualifications – Association of Tax Technicians (ATT) and Chartered Tax Adviser (CTA). As a partner you will be responsible for overseeing the work of the tax department and in addition, identifying new business opportunities and securing new clients.

    Qualifications required become a tax advisor

    Turning to the question of qualifications, a tax adviser is required to complete a range of professional examinations just like an accountant. It is possible to enter the profession as a school leaver with good ‘A’ levels and mathematics is not essential. The first set of exams is awarded by the Association of Tax Technicians (ATT) and involves sitting 4 papers, which can either be completed in a single sitting or in stages. After passing these, it is possible to start studying to become a Chartered Tax Adviser. You can also be accepted for the CTA examinations if you are a qualified ACCA or ICAEW accountant.

    The CTA exams are more challenging and can take a number of years to complete. There are three main pathways to studying, depending on the type of work you would like to be involved with in the future. They are as follows:

    ‘General Practice’
    A popular route for those who want to be able to advise businesses and their owners on all areas of taxation.

    ‘Corporate Specialist’
    This a good choice for anyone wanting to work in a corporation tax advisory role or those interested in group reorganisations or international aspects of corporate tax.

    ‘Personal Specialist’
    This is the route to take if you want to work with high net worth individuals, and are interested in trust and estate planning.

    Working whilst studying

    Training to become a tax advisor will involve studying whilst you are working with a firm. It is possible to enter the profession as a school leaver after ‘A’ levels, and begin by studying for the Association of Tax Technicians qualification. Alternatively, if you have a relevant degree, or are already an ACCA or ICAEW qualified accountant, you may be exempt from some of the ATT modules and could commence with CTA training instead. It is essential to check this with a local firm or with the Chartered Institute of Taxation.

    What happens after qualifying?

    Once you have completed and passed the ATT and CTA exams, you are entitled to practice as a Chartered Tax Advisor. From here, there are lots of potential opportunities. The highest position you can reach within a firm is Tax Partner and it’s possible to achieve this within 7 years of entering the tax profession. After becoming CTA qualified you can continue your professional education and complete a variety of international diplomas, or may wish to complete an MBA or PhD.

    Tax Career Case Study: Vicky

    After completing her ‘A’ levels in Accountancy, Computing and Psychology, with AS level Spanish, Vicky began a BSc in Accounting and Finance at Oxford Brookes University. As a three year course, she took a number of tax modules and decided this was the career path she’d like to follow. Upon graduating, she found a position as a trainee with a local firm near Oxford and started training to become a professional tax adviser. As a graduate Vicky was exempt from a number of ATT modules and completed the course within a year. She then commenced her CTA training and completed this successfully within 3 years. The CTA course involved 4 formal examinations and 2 online assessments, at which point her position at work was Tax Senior.

    “Working whilst studying was challenging but I was able to take some study leave which helped,” says Vicky. “I set myself a routine of working for 3 to 4 hours on weekdays and made weekends time to relax. It required a lot of discipline but I got there in the end.”

    “My advice to anyone starting out would be that tax is a very exciting profession – it’s very varied and always changing. When working with clients, you get a real sense of being able to help them that’s always rewarding.”

    “If you think you want to become an accountant or tax advisor I would recommend getting the best ‘A’ levels possible and finding a job with a firm to qualify whilst working. Going to uni was great but it really only helped me to identify that I wanted to do tax, I had already pretty much decided upon accountancy before in my choice of degree. Looking back I could have avoided a lot of expenses and got to the position I am at now a lot quicker.”

    She concludes: “It has always been my ambition to become a Tax Partner by the time I reach 35 and I still hope to achieve it.”

    Skills: What Do I Need to Pursue a Career in Tax and Accountancy?

    By now, you should already have shown a passion or expertise for numbers, which will have possibly given you an early indication that a career in accounting is for you. You should ideally also have good writing skills as it’s important to be able to communicate effectively with clients as you rise within the profession.

    If you are wondering whether you would like a career in tax or accountancy and cannot decide between the two, consider this advice from Vicky:

    “Tax is more logical and you have set rules governing how you do things whereas accountancy is more open to interpretation. Working in tax allows you to do more to help clients because you can arrange their affairs using various tax reliefs to help them pay less tax – whereas accountancy is more about reporting what has happened. If you like helping people, tax is a great option and you get to develop very close working relationships with clients.”

    Other skills key to success in accounting and tax include:

    You must be able to adapt to and discover new technologies. Technological innovation has introduced some major changes in accounting, with new electronic systems in place for creating and submitting financial statements. If you have an interest in IT-based systems or at the very least a willingness to learn more about them, you’re on the right track for a role in this field.

    Problem solving
    Advisory or consulting work for clients can require solutions to be identified which are not immediately obvious. Clients may want to apply for specific types of tax relief and various routes to obtaining the end result will need to be explored. Having an aptitude for problem solving is a very good attribute to have.

    As with any role, you have to use your initiative in order to tackle problems head-on. Accountants are responsible for auditing, organising and managing people’s financial information; a willingness to take on such work in as proactive a way as possible will stand you in good stead.

    Good Communication Skills – Accountants are required to work closely with colleagues, as well as communicate regularly with clients, either as a self-employed professional or as an employee at an accountancy firm. Communication is also vital to good teamwork and will help budding and new accountants build a strong network of clients.

    Becoming a qualified accountant or tax advisor is hard work and will require a large amount of self-discipline, good organisational skills and high levels of motivation. When you are studying whilst working, you will be expected to manage high volumes of client work and set aside enough time during the evenings and weekends to complete your examinations. On average you can expect to have to study for 12-15 hours each week over a period of about 6 years to become qualified.

    Further Reading

    Want to know more about accountancy or tax and breaking into the industry? Here, we’ve compiled a handy list of further reading online, to help you discover more about your chosen career path.

    The Global Body for Professional Accountants:

    The Facebook page of The Global Body for Professional Accountants can be found here

    For advice on ACCA qualifications and exam modules, go to

    To find ACCA courses in London, head to>
    To find out more about becoming a tax advisor, visit:

    Find out more about a career in tax from the CIOT:

    The complete university guide to all the best accountancy courses:

    For accountancy networking events, enter your postcode at

    To view the answers to an accountancy Q&A over on The Guardian website, go to

    For graduate opportunities in accounting, go to

    If you’d like to keep up to date with the latest developments in the tax and accountancy world, follow RJP LLP at @Taxtalkrjp and @tax_stalker. We’ll keep you up to date with regular blogs and re-tweets from experts in the field.

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