Public vs. Private Accounting: An Overview of the Types of Accounting Careers

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Several accountants sit at a desk reviewing data.

When choosing a career path in accounting, a central decision to be made is between public vs. private accounting. While both options involve similar skills and core competencies, the nature of their work environments and client bases can vary significantly.

As you consider a career path in public vs. private accounting, it’s helpful to explore both the similarities and the distinctions. Note that no matter which path you choose, a formal education in accounting can be a valuable first step toward a rewarding, value-added career.

For many aspiring accountants, the best approach is to begin with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. From there, ongoing education, such as a master’s degree, can provide further opportunity to develop core skills and become a more competitive job candidate.

Similarities Between Public and Private Accounting

Working as a public accountant typically involves collaboration as an independent third party, reviewing the financial documentation of client companies to ensure that they’re accurately reporting their financial position. Private accountants, meanwhile, will typically be employed by a single company and tasked with establishing financial systems and recording transactions.

While these two career paths obviously have some significant differences, it’s worth affirming some of their similarities. For example, both public and private accountants may be tasked with assessing financial records and transaction reports, verifying their accuracy and ensuring that companies aren’t misrepresenting their financial standing.

Similarly, both public and private accountants can play a key role in helping companies to file their taxes accurately, expediently and with an eye toward any possible savings.

While a public accountant is contracted by different companies and a private accountant is solely employed by one, both roles involve serving as general financial advisers, helping managers and executives to make prudent choices regarding costs and margins.

Differences Between Public vs. Private Accounting

The work of a public accountant diverges quite a bit from the work of a private accountant.

The primary focus of a public accountant is to review a client company’s financial records before that information is made available to the public. The top priority is ensuring that the company is representing itself accurately, and thus the value the public accountant delivers is as an impartial, independent evaluator.

By contrast, a private accountant works internally, helping a company to put the right financial structures in place. The private accountant’s value isn’t in being independent, but in the daily involvement with the company’s financial decisions.

Some other important distinctions between public vs. private accounting include:

  • Public accountants will often find their workloads increasing around tax season, when they may be commissioned by clients to ensure accuracy and compliance. Private accountants generally have a more consistent workload throughout the year, without as much seasonal ebb and flow.
  • A public accountant may be hired by many different companies spanning different industries, and thus they may gain broad field experience. A private accountant works for a single company and gains deep experience in a single industry.
  • A public accountant needs to be comfortable interviewing clients about their financial and transactional histories. The goal of this interviewing is to gain information — though it may sometimes feel confrontational in nature. Private accountants communicate with other employees or departments in their company, seeking relevant financial data in a way that can feel more collegial and friendly.

Pursuing an Advanced Career in Accounting

If you’re looking to pursue a career in either public or private accounting, the crucial first step is earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting. As you hone your skills in various accounting classes, it can help you weigh which specific career path is the better fit for you. Following an accounting bachelor’s degree, or 120 total credit hours, both public and private accountants can sit for the CPA exam. To become licensed as a CPA, 30 additional credit hours are required — which many students receive through a graduate-level program, such as Rider University’s online Master of Accountancy.

A public accountant can seek entry-level work and eventually rise into an auditor position, which may involve leading teams of public accountants. A private accountant can also seek entry-level work, but then rise into a chief financial officer position. This bestows high-level decision-making authority on them and may also involve leading a team of accountants, bookkeepers and other internal financial professionals.

Whether you choose to go into public or private accounting, attaining a master’s degree can be a way to further develop core accounting skills, practice your analytical skills, rise into higher levels of responsibility and become a more competitive job candidate.

Learn More About Public vs. Private Accounting

To find out more about different accounting careers and to begin developing career-changing skills, a good starting point is enrolling in a master’s program. Rider University’s online Master of Accountancy degree program provides students with the breadth of skills needed to work in either public or private accounting and to sit for the CPA exam. Learn more about the program today.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Financial Advisor: Tips and Steps to Succeeding in This Field

What Accounting Careers Can Be Pursued After Earning an Advanced Accounting Degree?

CPA vs. CFA: Comparing Key Accounting Titles

Sources:

AccountingTools, The Difference Between Public and Private Accounting 

Houston Chronicle, “Types of Accounting Jobs” 

Indeed, Public vs. Private Accounting: Definition and Key Differences 

The Balance Careers, “Accounting Careers: Options, Job Titles, and Descriptions” 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accountants and Auditors