CPA Australia: How To and Career Guide

CPA (Certified Practising Accountants) is the biggest of the three professional accounting bodies in Australia by membership and is one of the most sought after professional memberships, providing members with a wide array of accounting career options across virtually all areas of accounting from insolvency to management accounting and everything in between. We explore the steps needed to become a CPA and what type of career you can expect.

As a former accountant working in the industry for six years, I decided to write this article to help explain to university students and accountants how exactly you go about joining CPA Australia.

Employers, recruiters and the business community highly value and respect the CPA designation, and it’s worthwhile doing not just for the ego boost that comes with more titles – it will genuinely help your career prospects and improve your knowledge of the Australian accounting industry. This article will cover the following:

  • What exactly is entailed in becoming a CPA
  • What you can expect on the CPA exams
  • What kind of career options become available to you
  • The differences between the CA (Chartered Accountant) program and CPA
  • Mutual recognition agreements between worldwide accounting bodies

So, let’s begin.

How to become a CPA

CPA Australia has two classes of membership; Foundation level membership (for which you become eligible once you’ve satisifed the qualification prerequisites) and Professional level membership, achieved once you have completed the required CPA modules and demonstrated the required practical work experience under your mentor.

The first thing you should know is that the organisation imposes some entry requirements before accepting you as a Foundation level member to ensure you have the requisite background knowledge in accounting, finance and similar concepts. CPA’s exact requirements vary from year to year – as of right now they don’t outline specific requirements for entry as a Foundation level member but it generally involves meeting CPA’s ‘core knowledge requirements’.

This means you’ll need to have completed units at university level study from the following foundation areas of knowledge:

  • Accounting Systems and Processes
  • Management Accounting
  • Financial Accounting
  • Accounting Theory
  • Finance
  • Commercial and Company Law
  • Economics Quantitative Methods
  • Information Systems Design and Development

Your university level units might not correspond exactly to the core knowledge areas listed above, but you should have a rough idea of whether you qualify based on how similar your units are to the subject areas above. Whether you qualify for Foundation level entry depends entirely on CPA Australia. Each new member is required to submit an application form and go through a review process.

In my experience, though, I have found that if you’ve done any form of straight Accounting degree or a Commerce degree with an Accounting major in Australia, you’ll almost certainly qualify for the Foundation level.

If you’re deemed by CPA not to have met all of the requirements for their Foundation level membership, you’ll have to complete a Foundation Level Exam for those units. CPA provides you with a Study Manual for each exam which contains the background information and material to help you study for and pass the foundation level exams.

The exams do not have a specified percentage threshold to aim for – you are just given a pass or fail result, so your best bet is to study as thoroughly and intensively as you can for the exam.

The next step in qualifying as a full-fledged Professional-level CPA is to complete the Professional level program. The requirements involve completing 4 compulsory segments and 2 electives. The 4 compulsory segments include the following (as of 2013):

  • Ethics and Governance
  • Strategic Management Accounting
  • Financial Reporting
  • Global Strategy and Leadership

The two elective units can be picked from the following list:

  • Advanced Taxation
  • Malaysia Taxation
  • Singapore Taxation
  • Advanced Audit and Assurance
  • Contemporary Business Issues
  • Financial Risk Management

The Professional Level qualification also includes a mandatory integrated practical experience requirement, which means you’ll have to log and record 5040 hours of practical experience under an approved mentor in a professional accounting environment.

The exact requirements for what constitutes a ‘professional accounting environment’ vary, but generally in order to have your experience approved it’ll need to be under the supervision of a fully qualified CPA/CA and you will have to be in a professional level accounting role, so for example if you’re working as a bookkeeper at a local factory, you might not get your experience approved even if it’s under the direct supervision of a CPA.

CPA Australia has a panel of staff who review and decide on approvals of practical work experience, and you can always appeal if you’re not happy with their decision. Your mentor will also have to sign off on your practical experience form confirming that they have mentored you for the duration of the practical experience period.

What You Can Expect on the CPA Exams

All CPA exams are open book, however don’t make the mistake of assuming this makes the exams easy. Time is extremely limited in a CPA exam, and you’re often given about 100-200 questions to do in a relatively short time period, usually no more than 2 hours.

You’ll need to be very well prepared, and familiar with the source material. Of particular importance is knowing where to locate the source material for each topic in your study guide, as the last thing you want to be doing is wasting time searching through your study book trying to find particular topic. Every minute counts.

I’ve compiled a handy list of top tips from professionals and former students on passing the CPA Australia exams. Read on to ensure you have the fastest possible journey to CPA qualification by passing your exams on the first attempt.

  • Index your source materials such as your study guide and any related books you might want to bring into the exam. You can use post-it or sticky notes or other stationary to mark sections of the book so you know exactly where to turn to during an exam. This will particularly help you on the taxation exam – you’ll constantly need to refer to tax legislation, case names and rulings, so make sure you know where to find sections containing important and relevant case names and legislation sections.
  • This one is more generic advice that could be applied to almost any examination situation, but keep time management in mind as you prepare for the exam. It can’t be emphasised enough how important this is, as the allocated time for the exam will rapidly run out if you spend too much time on one particular question. Most CPA exams are at least 75% multiple choice so there’s a good chance you can easily make up the lost marks on a missed question.
  • Stay motivated for the exams. It’s often difficult to manage full time work with professional level study, but think of the bigger picture – once you’re a qualified CPA, many doors will open for you in your career and you won’t have that invisible barrier preventing you from making the career progress you deserve. A lot of firms also give their employees bonuses for successfully completing the CPA or CA qualification – if nothing else, let financial reward be your motivation.
  • Try and keep up to date on your studies. Experience shows it’s far easier to prepare for the final exam if you’ve studied a little bit each night throughout the semester as opposed to trying to do it all in the last few days. Even if you allocate yourself half an hour each night to study, you’ll find you won’t need to cram nearly as much come exam time and you’ll end up stressing yourself out a lot less.
  • If you plan on doing two CPA modules at the same time, as a lot of people do, you might want to take Financial Reporting separately. Many students claim it’s the most difficult CPA unit, along with Global Strategy and Leadership. Past students suggest that the best modules to combine are Ethics and Governance with Strategic Management Accounting, or Advanced Taxation with Contemporary Business Issues.
  • Keep up to date with your ‘My Online Learning’ page. It provides you with course updates, study tips and hints, and valuable course material.

What kind of career options become available to you?

Being qualified as a CPA will open many valuable career doors for you.

Your options, of course, depend largely on the field of expertise in which you gained experience while completing the CPA Professional level program, but generally if you want to advance to any level of management or senior roles in the Australian accounting industry, you’ll need a postgraduate accounting qualification such as the CPA or CA.

The accounting industry is so broad and extends across virtually every major industry in Australia and indeed the world, so it’s difficult to set boundaries on what type of career you could have with a CPA qualification, but here’s a rough guide based on the type of specialisation you are interested in and your skill set:

Management and Executive Roles

The CPA qualification is an ideal choice if you’re looking to take up a future management or executive role. The CPA program is generally known for training its members with a specific focus on business strategy, leadership and management, over more technically oriented qualifications such as the CA program.

Management roles in accounting are among the highest paying in the industry, with the median salary for a Chief Financial Officer an impressive $156,411 (AUD) in 2013.

Some specific job roles that this area of accounting encompasses would include Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officers, Finance Managers and Directors, Financial Controllers, Group Reporting Managers, Business Development Managers, Risk Managers and Compliance Managers.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Average Pay Range 2013: $91,226 – $296,829 (AUD)

Accounting Specialists

The CPA’s wide range of elective units means you can choose to study specific areas based on your chosen specialisation, such as Taxation or Audit. Specialists in accounting fields such as audit, tax, finance, risk, policy, and compliance are almost always required to have a professional level certification such as the CPA.

Tax Accountant Average Pay Range 2013: $38,752 – $71,152 (AUD)

Traditional Accounting Roles

Most people would probably be more familiar with the traditional set of accounting functions and roles that are required across almost every industry in Australia – from financial accountants, who are responsible for recording an organisation’s transactions and preparing a set of financial statements for stakeholders that accurately represent that financial position, to management accountants, who usually are concerned with providing accounting information for decision makers – such as whether to continue making a certain product or keep a factory operational.

Other types of traditional accounting roles include corporate accountants, systems accountants, project accountants, planning accountants, and treasury accountants. The CPA program prepares you well for each of these roles and will often provide the extra career boost needed to step into a more senior accounting role.

Management Accountant Average Pay Range 2013: $53,943 – $102,546 (AUD)

Financial Accountant Average Pay Range 2013 : $51,075 – $95,881 (AUD)

At the end of the day though, it’s almost impossible to define the career options available to a CPA without writing a lengthy parable, as they encompass almost every industry in Australia from finance to manufacturing, to education and health care. Just know though, that almost for almost any professional accounting role you’ll need a professional level certification to be considered for senior and management roles.

Differences between the CA and CPA programs

Laymen and people not in the accounting industry are often confused at the varying designations given to professionals within the industry. The simple fact is that CPA (Certified Practising Accountants) and CA (Chartered Accountants) are two different professional bodies who provide largely the same function – to act as representatives of professionals working in the field of accounting, to provide education and training support for members, and to promote and help regulate the industry as a whole.

Which one is ‘better’ is a hotly contested area of much debate and dispute, and there is unfortunately no clear, definite answer. It all depends on your career goals, personal preferences, and even your firm’s preferences.

However, there are some fairly common opinions and stereotypes about each of the professional bodies that you might want to keep in mind before committing to one or the other. CA’s are largely seen as the more traditional ‘straight-laced’ accounting body, and as technical accounting specialists likely to perform more of the nitty gritty accounting and auditing work whereas CPA’s are seen more as still technically competent but more educated in business strategy, management and specialist accounting areas. The majority of CPA’s are in commercial roles, such as banking, finance and industry, whereas the majority of CA’s are in public practice (accounting firms).

You’ll get plenty of differing opinions on which one is superior, but the fact is that they both prescribe to the same standards, regulations, and principles. You’ll find that as long as you’ve proven yourself in the workplace, the vast majority of managers and senior accountants will not care either way if you have a CPA or CA designation. Some types of organisations, such as certain public practice accounting firms or Big 4 partners may be more politically influenced and motivated and may prefer CA over CPA, but generally this is a rapidly aging and antiquated viewpoint.

As to which one is harder to do – there’s really no question, the CA program is more difficult. It goes deeper into the technical aspects of accounting and requires you to complete often very detailed and involved assignments as well as the exams. Your work is also generally judged far more harshly in the CA program – markers will expect you to know everything there is to know about the area you’re being examined on, and you’ll usually have to provide detailed workings and references as to why you did something a particular way.

In contrast, CPA exams usually are comprised of at least 75% multiple choice – which doesn’t automatically make them easy, of course – you’ll still be required to actually know the material you’re being tested on, and work fast and efficiently.

So if your personal goal is simply to get accreditation to satisfy your boss’s demands that you get a professional accounting qualification, you’re probably better of going with the CPA program. It’s less time consuming to study for, less stressful in general and has excellent support services and exam help provided by CPA staff. If you have grand ambitions of one day becoming a partner of a Big 4 firm like Deloitte or Ernst & Young, you might be better off choosing the CA program as to avoid any complications later down the track.

CPA Australia also has significantly more members than CA, with approximately 144,000 members compared to an estimated 38,000 Charted Accountants.

Finally, the other thing to consider is that the CPA qualification isn’t recognised in the Global Accounting Alliance (GAA) whereas the CA is. So if you ever want to transfer your qualification to the United States or the UK, then doing the CPA will not allow you to do so.

Mutual recognition agreements between worldwide accounting bodies

CPA Australia has mutual recognition agreements with the:
Society of Management Accountants of Canada (CMA Canada)
Certified General Accountants Association of Canada (CGA-Canada)
Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA)
Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA)
Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore (ICPAS)
Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)
Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)
The Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Ireland (CPA Ireland)
Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI)

Note: Coconut Daily assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information in this article. Please consult the CPA Australia website for the latest enrollment and membership requirements.

photo credit: Mothlike via photopin cc

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