Career Woman

Accounting career: Is a career in public or private accounting right for you?


Whether you’ve already got a degree in finance or accounting, or you’re considering a whole new career path, an accounting career offers some great opportunities. If you think an accounting career is all about spreadsheets and crunching numbers, think again.

While there will always be numbers to crunch and — and don’t get me wrong, spreadsheets are incredibly powerful tools — technology can now make quick work of those tasks, leaving the accounting team with more time to problem solve and do important, strategic work for the company.

In fact, with more and more companies using accounting practice management software, accountants are becoming more and more involved in every aspect of the business. They help their employers and clients comply with financial regulations, make better business decisions, optimize their taxes, and pinpoint fraud or errors buried deep in their financial records.

If you think the challenges of an accounting career may be a fit for you, take a look at the two main types of accounting career and the advancement opportunities they hold.

Two types of accountanting career streams

The first thing you need to think about when considering an accounting career is whether you want to work in public accounting or private industry. Put simply, public accounting work is for accounting firms, serving a wide range of clients. This could be a small CPAs office all the way up to one of the ‘Big Four’ international accounting firms.

Most public accountants working for larger firms will specialize in a specific area. For instance, if you enjoy doing tax work, you would work in the tax division of the firm. If you prefer auditing, you’d focus on that. You may also focus on specific industries, especially if they have unique or complex accounting demands. This is great if you like to drill deep on a narrow focus and become a specialist.

Among the perks of working in public accounting are:

  • Working with diverse clients in different industries
  • Travel opportunities (public accountants often travel to their client’s location for audits or other projects)
  • Access to a wealth of accounting knowledge and experience
  • A fast-paced, challenging work environment

Private industry accountants, on the other hand, work directly for one company. They perform accounting tasks like recording transactions, reconciling accounts, and closing the books at the end of the period.

The daily life of a private industry accountant really depends on the size of the company. In some cases, you may be the only accountant in the building. In a larger company, you may be on a large team and focused on a specific part of the accounting process.

The benefits of working in private industry include:

  • A stable work setting with more consistent hours and little required travel
  • The opportunity to focus on an industry you like or help build a company you care about
  • Closer interaction with the rest of the business, so you can watch your contributions impact the company as a whole
  • Working with the same team day after day

Consider which of these paths is the best fit for your personality type. Both public and private accounting have amazing opportunities for career advancement and growth.

Getting in the door

Working in public accounting typically means earning your CPA (certified public accountant). The requirements vary from state to state but often includes around 150 credit hours (including specific accounting courses) and sitting for the CPA exam. However, you can get started in a staff accountant or junior auditor role while you work towards that credential.

Private industry is a bit more flexible. You can get started in payroll, accounts receivable, or accounts payable as a clerk with no degree at all. This can be a great way to get experience while you’re in school. But some accountants climb all the way to the top of their company without ever earning a CPA or CMA credential.

Climbing the accounting career ladder

Once you have your foot in the door, what about advancement opportunities? Accounting is full of them! Public accounting has plenty of opportunities to advance with experience and education. You can work your way up from staff or junior accountant, through senior roles, and all the way up to a management spot or partnership.

Private accountants go from entry-level roles to more senior positions, eventually reaching the role of Controller or CFO if they desire. And many reach those positions without ever sitting for the CPA exam. In fact, according to recent data, just over a third of CFOs at large publicly traded companies are CPAs. Instead, many choose to pursue an MBA or a degree in finance.

Is an accounting career right for you?

If you love working with numbers, problem-solving, and contributing to a team, accounting could be a great career path for you. You’ll have the opportunity to use your skillset to solve complex problems and there’s nothing quite like being the go-to expert when your accounting knowledge is needed.

There are a variety of great careers in accounting and great opportunities for life-long advancement. Whether you choose an industry or company that you want to stick with for the long haul, or you work with a new client every month, there’s an accounting career out there with your name on it.

About Helen Baker'

Helen Baker is a licenced Australian financial adviser and author of two books: On Your Own Two Feet – Steady Steps to Women’s Financial Independence and On Your Own Two Feet Divorce – Your Survive and Thrive Financial Guide. Helen is among the 1% of financial planners who holds a master’s degree in the field. Find out more at | Note this is general advice only and you should seek advice specific to your circumstances.

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