What's it like to be a bookkeeper, and how do I get there from here?
March 24, 2013 11:30 PM   Subscribe

I have a BSc in physics and an environmental diploma, neither of which are getting me any work. I've been doing office temp work for a couple of years now - mostly admin with a bit of reception. I enjoy admin work but I'd rather get away from the customer/client-facing stuff. I have pretty strong math and computer skills (via physics), I enjoy some things people often find boring (e.g. filing, messing around with Excel), and I'm comfortable sitting in front of a computer all day. Do you think I would like bookkeeping? What's it actually like to be a bookkeeper? What do you do in the run of a day?

The internet seems to think it's possible to get bookkeeping work without going to school for it. Does that sound right? I'm thinking of taking a free online course. Maybe then I can get some temp admin work with a bit of bookkeeping involved, and then move more fully into bookkeeping as I gain experience.

Does this seem reasonable? Am I getting ahead of myself? Are there other pathways I should be exploring to get away from the front desk?
posted by fullerenedream to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What about becoming an actuary?

You wouldn't be the first physics type to do so. One of my wife's former students had a go at it once she got her Physics BSc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:00 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a Math major finishing my undergrad degree, I had a heck of a time finding a job within my field so I looked into this extensively. I tend to enjoy repetitive work, particularly with numbers. The interviews that I got were office admin/bookkeeping work, and I figured I could use that as a stepping stone to a full bookkeeping job.

After the interviews, I often left with the impression that I was selling myself short. I don't know you, but really, with a physics degree, I'd imagine you are too. The hours are pretty nice and stable but all the interviews I had we're for positions in the $8-15 ballpark. There's so little room for advancement within these companies too. They were mostly small, family-owned companies. It seemed that a lot of the bookkeeping jobs I had applied to were really admin jobs with a tiny bit of bookkeeping thrown in.

You could potentially do that for a few years, get as much bookkeeping experience as possible, then start your own bookkeeping business. Again, the pay isn't great until you could command a good rate due to experience and customer reputation.

What about data analysis? Pays better, was the only other type of job I could get interviews for, fair amount of entry level jobs, and really had better potential for advancement. Or underwriting? Actuaries have to take one or two difficult exams before they can land an entry level job, but you can join an underwriting trainee program without experience.
posted by andariel at 3:38 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many people fall into bookkeeping through admin type roles. But as others have said it's pretty repetitive, progression is limited because for the more complex roles they'll hire a qualified accountant so it is not really a role you need a degree for. Having said that gaining the experience and setting up you own bookkeeping business is definitely an option.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:47 AM on March 25, 2013

I work in finance/accounting. Courtesy of my husband’s self-employment, I’ve done a bunch of bookkeeping as well. Here’s what your day might entail…

• recording expenses/issuing payments to vendors
• recording payments/cash receipts
• doing bank deposits
• processing payroll, possibly (most businesses outsource this but some smaller businesses do their payroll in-house)

This job requires excellent organization skills and an attention to detail. There isn’t a ton of interaction with others. To some extent you do cultivate relationships with vendors, but it can be a pretty isolated job.

There is satisfaction in this work, akin to the kind of satisfaction that comes from, for example making the bed or crossing things off your to-do list. However, it’s repetitive and not very challenging. If you have a BSc. in physics, I don’t think you would find much satisfaction as a bookkeeper (I have a BBA, and even though this type of work is in my field, I’d find it mind-numbing to do on an ongoing basis).

Yes, I think you could get into this field without further education, though you will definitely need to learn the basics somehow. Additionally, if you moved out of a small business into a larger company, there’d be room for advancement into a general accounting/financial analyst type position, which would be a lot more interesting and come with a nice jump in pay. There are tons of jobs like this in corporate America, and your undergrad degree and Excel skills would come in handy here.
posted by yawper at 7:26 AM on March 25, 2013

Bookkeeping = 90% data entry. Really the only requirements for the position are accuracy and attention to detail. You don't even really need to be good with numbers since any bookkeeping system does all the math for you.

I enjoyed doing it as well. It is very satisfying on a daily basis. But I did it to help put me through college and getting a Biology degree. I'm not going back to it now.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:39 AM on March 25, 2013

I had no degree related to bookkeeping, nor was math ever my strongest subject, but I happened into a bookkeeping-type position through the back door, if you will. I had worked in the steel industry as a purchasing agent and in sales, and had done administrative work, so when a job opened up in a very small company for a "controller" the guy who interviewed me told me that industry experience/knowledge was more important than accounting experience - that would come with practice. Which it did. Lots of data entry, but in an odd way it turned out to be somewhat satisfying rather than boring. It was like puzzle pieces fitting together when I'd do the month-end and everything balanced.

Every bookkeeping job is different, but in my case I had to not only enter (record) all the incoming invoices, I had to match them up to the particular sale they applied to. In steel, this meant keeping track of inventory as well - tag numbers, weights, scrap, etc. So there was more than just data entry involved, and the computer couldn't automatically figure out everything. Also I recorded accounts receivable, made bank deposits, handled payroll and paid the monthly and quarterly taxes. The taxes were the bit that I disliked; let it slip your mind that it's the 15th and file one day late and there are penalties involved.

Anyway, even though there was a lot of data entry, it wasn't mind-numbing, and there was a sense of satisfaction to see a pile of papers "taken care of" at the end of each day.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:09 AM on March 25, 2013

My mom is a bookkeeper. You need to be super organized and be comfortable doing a lot of data entry and repetitive tasks. She didn't learn it in college...when I was little she took a few accounting courses at a community college, and was fortunate enough to have good mentors.
posted by radioamy at 7:18 PM on March 25, 2013

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