New accountants are often advised to start their careers with a public accounting firm, and eventually transition to a private (corporate) position down the road. But is this long-standing advice really the best strategy? At first glance, private accounting can often look like the best choice—but each side of the accounting coin comes with different advantages. Accountants early in their careers should consider the differences to find the paths that best fit their personalities, ultimately increasing their chances for fulfilling and successful careers.
Private accounting: More predictable, and often less stressful
When it comes to careers, public accounting can be demanding. At times, charging through projects to meet deadlines might be compared to an entry-level position in a law firm: long hours and frequent emergencies, combined with a salary that leaves something to be desired. The idea of taking a vacation or a sick day can strike fear into the heart of public accountants because of how much time will be lost on a project.
By contrast, private accounting positions are more measured. You have your weekly, monthly, and quarterly obligations—you know exactly what needs to be completed, and by when. If you need to take a day off, you often have co-workers who can fill in for you. And your paycheck will often look much nicer than your public accounting counterparts, especially when you calculate the amount of hours you put in to earn that paycheck. While private industry jobs may require more than 40 hours per week, the work/life balance is usually better, and often comes with fewer surprises.
Public accounting: More skill development, less monotony
Traditionally, and often unfairly, accounting is viewed as a dry and boring profession, filled with spreadsheets and number crunching. This perception is based largely on the perceived role of private accountants, who work for the same company, producing the same financial projects and reports year after year.
Public accountants act as third-party consultants, and work with a wide variety of businesses and industries in a number of capabilities. Yes, there are long hours and stress involved—but the job can’t be described as boring. With a public accounting firm, you’ll have the opportunity to develop skills in multiple areas and work with a diverse client base. There’s also a healthy dose of pride and a sense of accomplishment involved in successfully closing a project for a client.
In addition, while the pay scale starts out on the slim side, public accountants have an easier time moving up the ladder to lucrative senior management and even partner positions, with earning potential that can become greater than equivalent positions in the private sector.
Which should you choose?
Ultimately, the decision to work in public or private accounting rests in your hands. Those with young families may prefer the stability and regularity of “private industry” accounting roles. If you enjoy interacting with a variety of clients and have a long-term plan to make partner, the more systematic climb to higher positions might sway you in the direction of public accounting.
Often, our clients prefer to hire candidates who have a combination of both public accounting and private industry experience. Having the proven ability to work in the dynamic and demanding world of public accounting, combined with tangible, hands-on Accounting or Financial Reporting experience gained in private industry, produces a combination of experience that proves you can handle almost any situation.
In either case, obtaining a CPA license improves your marketability, raises your earnings potential, and will increase your chances of landing the accounting position you want. In the past, public accounting experience was required to obtain a CPA. Later, the AICPA changed those requirements and Accountants without any public accounting experience can become CPAs by passing the Exam, having a qualifying degree, and gaining accounting experience under a CPA in private industry. Any Accountant with desires for career growth should seriously consider earning a CPA.
Both sections of accounting offer opportunities for stability and career growth. For many, it’s an equal choice and success can be achieved via both paths. Your personal work preferences and understanding your capabilities should inform your ultimate decision.