Although there are many different types of accountants, most fall into one of two categories: public accountants, like certified public accountants (CPA), and private accountants, like staff accountants for a business. Public accountants work with multiple clients, potentially across a wide range of industries, whereas private accountants typically work within a single industry and organization.
While both categories of accountants share some overlapping duties and skill sets, there are also significant differences between them, which are important to understand if you’re considering pursuing a degree or career in accounting. This guide to public vs. private accounting will compare these career paths in detail, including job duties and education requirements, so that you can make a decision that is aligned with your goals and interests.
What is Public Accounting?
While private accountants work internally for a specific company or organization, public accountants typically work on an external basis, providing their services to a range of clients like large corporations, non-profit businesses, small businesses, and other entities. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains, “Public accountants, many of whom are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), generally have their own businesses or work for public accounting firms.”
Like private accountants, public accountants use their expertise to provide financial guidance while simultaneously working to ensure that their clients are in compliance with various tax and financial regulations. Unlike private accountants, public accountants have the option to obtain CPA certification, which involves passing a challenging exam in order to become licensed.
At a minimum, you must hold a bachelor’s degree to sit for the CPA exams. After passing the CPA exams, you need to complete additional 30 units to have a total of 150 credits plus a year of working under a CPA to become licensed as a CPA. This requirement applies in all U.S. states and includes 150 minimum hours of coursework. After completing an undergraduate degree program, additional postsecondary education is recommended to increase your overall marketability and earning potential, especially if you are interested in pursuing managerial or executive positions.
Your specific job duties as a public accountant will vary depending on factors like your experience level and the specific needs of each client that you are working with. This is especially true if you operate your own firm or business, and an MBA program can equip you with the skills to operate more successfully. Below are some typical examples of tasks and duties for a public accountant.
- Consulting on matters of tax and financial planning
- Filing and preparing financial statements, tax returns, and other documents
- Helping ensure that clients comply with financial laws and regulations
- Maintaining an organized and accurate system of financial records
- Providing clients with audit representation
- Reviewing financial records and tax documents for errors or omissions
What is Private Accounting?
Private accountants are sometimes also referred to as corporate accountants. They generally possess extensive experience within a specific industry — for instance, specialized knowledge about accounting in the restaurant industry — and are usually employed by only one organization, such as a private company, where they work within its financial department.
Private accountants are not required to sit for the CPA exam, which is an optional exam for public accountants seeking CPA licensure. However, according to data from Zippia, more than three-quarters of corporate or private accountants (76%) hold bachelor’s degrees, while about one in 10 (12%) hold master’s degrees. Using data collected from over 3,300 resumes, it’s indicated that slightly over half of corporate accountants majored in accounting (57.3%), while smaller but still substantial numbers majored in programs like business (24.5%) or finance (6.8%).
Considering the competition you’re likely to encounter when applying for corporate accounting jobs, it is highly advisable to pursue a bachelor’s degree at minimum, like the Bachelor of Science in Accounting at National University. A Master of Accounting, or MAcc, will help you further highlight yourself to prospective employers, broadening your skill set — and your work opportunities — while simultaneously increasing your earning potential.
As a private accountant, your job duties will be heavily impacted by factors like the size of your company’s accounting department and which industry your employer is part of. However, some typical tasks and responsibilities for a private accountant include:
- Analyzing data to make predictions about future financial performance and how it could be improved
- Developing departmental and/or company-wide budgets
- Ensuring that accurate, efficient accounting procedures and records are maintained
- Providing strategic financial guidance and insight to management
Differences Between Public Accounting and Private Accounting
Public and private accounting share a few similarities, but they also differ in important ways that should be taken into consideration when deciding on a career. Not only are public and private accountants subject to different education requirements, but they also tend to work in different settings and chart different professional paths. Here are a few factors to keep in mind when you’re evaluating the options.
- Education and Training — A bachelor’s degree is required to sit for the CPA exam, but is also strongly advised for anyone pursuing a career in public or private accounting. Training differs based on job duties, focusing more on compliance for public accountants and transactions (such as accounts receivable) for private accountants.
- Work Environment — Private accountants work for a single employer on an in-house basis, such as being a staff accountant or internal auditor. Public accountants have numerous clients and consequently may need to travel and work irregular or extended hours, particularly around tax deadlines.
- Career Path — Public accountants typically begin their careers in entry-level auditing roles and, as they accumulate more experience, take on roles as audit managers or partners. Additionally, public accountants may focus on tax preparation and accounting. By comparison, there is a wider range of paths that private accountants can follow, with the potential to transition from an assistant controller position into becoming a controller and, eventually, CFO of a company.
Hard and Soft Skills Needed to Be an Accountant
You’ll need to master a range of hard and soft skills in order to excel in your career as a public or private accountant. Hard skills refer to technical skills, knowledge, or training, such as knowing how to use certain types of software, while soft skills are more like strengths or personality traits, such as being a team player or an effective communicator. Here are just a few of the hard and soft skills that are needed to maximize your success in an accounting position, including critical thinking, time management, and general business knowledge.
- Proficiency with the latest versions of tax and accounting software for businesses
- Extensive knowledge of regulatory standards and how they apply in a range of tax scenarios
- Strict adherence to professional ethics and standards of accounting
- Careful attention to detail, which is essential for accuracy in tax and financial reporting
- Critical thinking and the ability to communicate ideas effectively with diverse teams
- Exceptional time management and ability to meet deadlines, such as IRS filing deadlines
- Business knowledge, which may be specialized to a particular industry for corporate accountants
- Dedication to providing great customer service
Which Option is the Better Career Path For You?
We’ve covered some of the differences between public and private accounting. The next question is, which path is right for you?
The answer depends on a range of factors that you’ll need to weigh carefully, including the level of training or education you’ll need to obtain, what sort of environment you prefer to work in, and how you envision your career path unfolding. For example, public accountants may need to travel to meet with various clients, while private accountants may work at fixed locations with minimal or no travel involved.
Here are a few points to keep in mind when weighing the pros and cons of a career in public vs. private accounting.
- Public accountants typically have more travel opportunities but may work longer, less consistent hours. Depending on your perspective, public accounting might offer more adventure and less routine, while private accounting might offer a more manageable schedule and better work-life balance.
- Private accountants may enjoy greater stability by working for a single employer, but may also have fewer opportunities to network and learn about different industries. On the other hand, that allows private accountants to develop highly specialized knowledge about their industry, which might be more difficult for public accountants to acquire.
- Both public and private accountants have the potential to earn above-average salaries and are needed in every industry and economic sector. Accountants and auditors earn over $77,000 annually compared to the national average of $45,760, with the potential for higher earnings with a master’s degree and/or CPA certification.
Ultimately, the “best” choice is whichever option most closely aligns with your strengths, interests, and goals. If you need some more help comparing your options, speak with one of our knowledgeable admissions counselors about the degree options we offer at National University.
CPA Career Options
There are multiple career paths to explore once you pass your exam and earn CPA licensure. You’ll find five examples below, including corporate accounting, forensic accounting, and working in the government, non-profit, or academic sectors.
If you want to advance in academia — for instance, if you want to teach accounting at a college or university — you’ll need to earn a master’s degree at minimum before you will qualify for most positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that postsecondary educators, like college professors, earn a median salary of over $79,000. The field is also expected to enjoy robust 12% growth through 2031, considered “much faster than average” by BLS standards.
If you have a passion for business, consider merging your interests by pursuing a career in private or corporate accounting. Examples of corporate accounting roles include tax, management, or financial accountant; internal auditor; chief financial officer (CFO); or various management positions, such as tax manager. According to sources like Glassdoor, Indeed, and Salary.com, the average salary for corporate accountants ranges from about $63,200 to $69,300.
Are you passionate about helping government agencies operate more efficiently so that they can provide better service to the people and communities who depend on them? Consider becoming a CPA or accountant for a federal, state, or local government organization, such as a school district or workers’ comp agency. According to BLS data, government-employed accountants and auditors earn a median salary of $77,290.
According to the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA), “CPAs in not-for-profit organizations provide the information these institutions need to determine that the benefits and services they provide do not exceed revenues.” For example, that might involve a role in internal auditing or financial accounting and reporting. Based on data submitted to Glassdoor and ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a CPA in the non-profit sector ranges from around $61,370 to $63,850.
This exciting field merges elements of accounting with investigative work and financial crime prevention. According to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for forensic accountants is over $90,900 per year Learn more about what a forensic accountant does and how to become one.
Earn Your Accounting Degree at National University
Looking for a career field that offers growth, stability, and above-average earning potential? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accountants and auditors earn median salaries exceeding $77,000 per year, with the top 10% earning close to $129,000. Plus, this career field is projected to grow by 6% through 2031, outpacing the average 5% growth rate and adding nearly 82,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.
If you’re ready to become one of them, get the skills and training you need by earning your BAcc or MAcc at National University. Our flexible, fast-paced courses can be completed in just four to eight weeks and are available 100% online, empowering you to take charge of your education on your schedule. Talk to an admissions counselor about our accounting programs, or apply to NU online today.