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Mythbusters: Accounting edition

UNC Kenan-FlaglerToss aside your preconceptions – there’s much more to the accounting profession than you might realize.

Myth: Accountants are dull and socially inept.

Forget how Hollywood portrays them. Today’s accountants are a far cry from the nerds with pocket protectors depicted on the silver screen. Accounting is the language of business, so communication and interpersonal skills are a must.

“Technical knowledge and analytical skills are required, but not sufficient,” said Jana Raedy, associate dean of the Master of Accounting (MAC) Program at UNC Kenan-Flagler. “Our innovative curriculum not only teaches the fundamentals but also develops students’ leadership, communication and negotiation skills.”

Myth: Accountants were all business majors in college.

You don’t have to be a business major to be an accountant, said Raedy. “English and history majors who graduate from our program thrive in the field. The top accounting firms and corporations value their intellect and skills in decision making, leadership, critical thinking and communication.”

Myth: All accountants are mathematicians. 

Sure, accountants can crunch numbers – but they do so much more as they analyze and interpret information.

“Accountants tell the story of a company’s financial performance. Their information and analysis often leads to improved business operations,” said Amy Wittmayer, managing director of the MAC Program. “A company can have something great to sell and the right team to propel it, but if the firm can’t measure its success – if leaders can’t report their performance to investors and stakeholders – their success doesn’t mean much.”

Myth: Accountants aren’t innovative thinkers.

In the past, accountants were stereotyped as being just bean counters – but that notion is a thing of the past. Today, firms recognize the value of the unique perspectives, analytical skills and strategic contributions that accounting professionals bring.

“We create an environment for innovative thinking to flourish,” Raedy said. “The curriculum develops both an understanding of theoretical aspects and how to apply them. Our graduates’ intellect, critical approach and effective communication skills are a powerful combination that gets stronger with experience, so we are truly developing future leaders.”

Myth: Accountants struggle to maintain a strong work-life balance.

As work-life balance becomes more important to more employees, the accounting industry is likely to continue developing innovative and creative arrangements to support it. Fortune recognized each of the Big 4 firms in its 2014 list of 100 best companies to work for – and support of work-life balance is a key factor in a company’s ranking.

Myth: Accounting jobs are for men only.

Women make up 60 percent of the accountant and auditor workforce, according to a Clarion-Ledger survey. The Journal of Accountancy reported an estimated 843,000 women work as professional accountants, up from 500 female CPAs in 1951.

And while retaining women has historically been a problem for the accounting industry, changes are afoot – and making a difference.

“The progression of the accounting industry towards promoting work-life balance is a huge factor in the increasing number of women accountants,” said Raedy. “Women in the industry now have the same opportunities for growth as men do. And with more women in the field, female mentorship is also more readily available.”

Myth: Accountants don’t make good money.

Accountants earn competitive salaries and are consistently in high demand, meaning a MAC degree provides an even greater ROI as grads progress in their careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2013 mean annual wage of all accountants and auditors was $72,500 – well above the $46,440 median wage of all U.S. occupations. And at the partner level, an accountant can expect to make approximately $500,000 per year.

Employment of accountants and auditors is predicted to grow faster than of all occupations through the year 2016. Over 98 percent of the Class of 2013 accepted employment offers upon graduation, with annual compensation between $60,500 and $77,000. And in just five to eight years in the field, MAC grads can earn as much as doctors and lawyers – an incredible ROI on their one-year investment in graduate school.

Myth: Accountants are stuck on boring career paths.

The variety of career paths available in the accounting industry might surprise you. Opportunities exist in different types and sizes of firms, as well as in the federal, state and local government – from forensic accounting to financial accounting and analysis. Accountants are also employed by the IRS as criminal investigation special agents – a far cry from the bleak and boring stereotype. And careers in the accounting field are expected to grow 13 percent before 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Students network with representatives from premier public accounting firms and corporations, developing the foundation for long-term relationships, Raedy said. With a wide range of employers recruiting at UNC Kenan-Flagler, MAC students gain exposure to exciting opportunities in the industry and are in a position to explore different career paths – within the field and beyond – after graduation.

Graduates of the UNC Kenan-Flagler MAC Program are employed at all of the largest accounting firms and taken roles at Disney, Apple, American Red Cross, Bloomingdale’s, IBM, J.P. Morgan, SAS, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Customs Service, Coca Cola Co., Tupperware, Girl Scouts, Bronto and Biscuitville.