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Choosing an Accounting Career Path: Public vs. Private Accounting

December 13, 2022

Both public and private accountants play a considerable role in our society. As experts in their field, they contribute to the healthy functioning of capital markets. U.S. News & World Report ranks accountants No. 11 on their Best Business Jobs list. They stated, "Accountants make a pretty good living, and they have a lot of job security. After all, as long as people make money, they'll need others to handle it for them."

Everyone needs an accountant, but not everyone needs the same kind of accountant. While many of the same skills are required for both specialties, each branch of accounting is unique enough to make the choice between public vs. private accounting a big one. If you want to grow an accounting career, the next step is deciding which is right for you.   

What is Public Accounting?

Public accountants work in firms that service multiple organizations or individuals, providing accounting expertise, auditing services and tax advice on a third-party basis. Some of their services may include financial statement preparation, financial statement auditing, tax preparation and consulting. Some public accountants are self-employed and provide their services on contract to organizations and individuals. 

What is Private Accounting?

Private accountants work within organizations, overseeing internal accounting duties such as maintaining a master record of transactions, including payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable and taxes. They often prepare financial statements and reports for their companies as well. They usually work with other accountants in a department where everyone takes on different responsibilities based on their expertise and career level.

Key Differences Between Public and Private Accounting

While the essential duties are similar in both sectors, some key factors make each a unique career path in accounting. A day in the life of an accountant can vary significantly depending on if you choose public vs. private accounting. Consider your professional goals, preferred work environment and areas of expertise before choosing the best path for you. 

Education & Areas of Expertise

Both branches of accounting require at least a bachelor's degree. Many accountants pursue master's-level education, especially if their goals include advancing to leadership roles or launching their own firm. Public accountants must receive their licenses to become Certified Public Accountants (CPA), and the requirements for licenses vary by state. Those who become CPAs must pass a national exam, meet baseline education requirements and maintain continued education. While private accountants are not required to be licensed CPAs, they may still find being a CPA makes them more competitive and knowledgeable in the job market. 

Christopher Ekimoff, southeast region leader and director of financial investigations and dispute services for RSM, a global audit, tax and consulting firm, told U.S. News & World Report, "Those three letters [CPA] really make your career. They will identify you in the marketplace, in the business world and in your career path as a professional willing to hold yourself to a higher standard and operate under a set of guidelines and principles that really set you apart."

Most accountants develop areas of expertise outside of accounting as well, learning certain industry standards and how businesses function. Due to the nature of their work and diverse client base, public accountants gain experience in various industries. Private accountants, on the other hand, usually become experts in a single sector correlating with the organization they work for.

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Travel & Work Environment

For some public accountants, significant travel is necessary. Others only travel from time to time. Your role and industry will affect the amount of travel you must do. In addition, public accountants may experience unpredictable hours. They work for diverse clients, including corporations, individuals or the government. This can lead to varying tasks, as well as time zone differences which affect working hours.

Because private accountants work for one business, they can expect regular hours and consistent office space. Still, travel and long hours may be required depending on the industry and time of year. For example, tax season can be a hectic time for both public and private accountants.

Accounting Career Path & Outlook

Employment of accountants and auditors is expected to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, resulting in 81,800 new jobs. As of 2021, the largest employers of accountants were accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping and payroll services companies. Many also worked for the government and in private companies. Four percent were self-employed. In 2021, the median pay for all accountants and auditors was $77,250. 

Many public accountants advance into holding high-ranking positions, such as partners, in their firms. Others decide to run their own businesses. Sometimes, public accountants transition into private accounting roles. Private accountants can hold many vital roles in organizations as they advance, sometimes becoming chief financial officers or holding other c-suite positions. To become eligible for top jobs and stand out from the competition, pursue your master's degree in accounting.

Stand Out as a Public or Private Accountant with an Online Master of Accountancy and Analytics

Completing a master’s in accountancy and analytics will allow you to gain skills and stand out from the competition for top-paying accounting jobs. It's vital to choose a program that enables you to learn from experts in various fields to choose the right accounting career path for you.

Ohio University offers full-time and online Master of Accountancy and Analytics programs. The degree coursework is grounded in accounting and analytics, though students also gain soft skills employers value, such as communication, problem-solving and collaboration. Course assignments emphasize case studies and real-world business applications. The advanced accounting skills you gain, combined with the valuable industry connections you make, will prepare you to excel in your field, whether you choose public or private accounting. Depending on your course track, you may also earn a Business Analytics Certificate to emphasize your capabilities in this area.

In addition to Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation, OHIO's College of Business also holds AACSB Supplemental Accounting Accreditation, so our students earn a degree recognized throughout the industry for the highest academic standards and career preparation. OHIO's programs should meet the requirements for CPA licensure in your state. Please check with your enrollment advisor for your state's specific requirements.

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