Choosing between public accounting and private industry means learning about a wide range of choices and career paths that each area of the field offers. Public accountants, often certified public accountants (CPAs), perform a broad range of accounting, auditing, tax, and consulting activities for their clients, which may be corporations, governments, nonprofit organizations, or individuals. Some are forensic specialists, others specialize in government accounting and auditing.
Accountants working the private sector as internal auditors review and verify their companies' financial and information systems, management procedures, and internal controls. They evaluate the efficiency of a company's operations and may recommend and review controls for their organization's computer systems. They may function as auditors, work within the finance areas of the company or take on the responsibilities of management accountants.
Both sectors offer great potential for careers and compensation. Many corporate executives have a background in accounting, internal auditing, or finance. Public accountants often advance to positions with more responsibility in one or two years and to senior positions within another few years.
Accounting graduates often begin their careers with the intention of becoming certified public accountants (CPAs), says Jim Nolan, President of the National Society of Accountants, and will look to public accounting because they are required to spend a year, and in many cases two years, working in a public accounting firm in order to be licensed. But in time, many will be drawn to other credentials, such as certified management accountant (CMA), certified fraud examiner (CFE), or for those who specialize in tax, enrolled agents (EAs). Others will soon find positions and career paths in industry.
Some graduates enjoy the client relationships and the challenges of auditing. Others who may have been working while going to school may already have found the right job and could face a loss of income if they choose to work in an accounting firm, says Kathy Downs, recruiting manager at Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Orlando, Florida.
Public accounting can be very competitive, Downs says, "and for some individuals a work environment where you go to one job and to the same place every day is preferable."
Many will choose to work in both environments at some point in their careers. "There is more than one way to get where you want to go," Downs says. "If you look at chief financial officer resumes, there is no perfect map." There is often a mix of public accounting and private industry experience.
In general, Downs says, people who are successful share four characteristics:
- Need to learn new things
- Embrace technology
- Have an outstanding work ethic
- Are good leaders