What are the differences in Public Accounting and Private Accounting and what’s right for you?

Now that you have made the choice to become an accountant, you have several decisions to make, especially within your academic path. What kind of accounting would you like to do? Would a B.A. or B.S. degree be most beneficial to you? What sort of certifications will you need and then perhaps you need to consider which sector of accounting you would like, public or private. The best way to decide which sector to pursue would be to educate yourself on the differences and then think ahead to the career you see yourself doing in the future.

The Public Accountant works for a variety of different clients, for example, individuals, corporations or small businesses. They typically work for a public accounting firm performing accounting services such as preparing taxes, financial documents and consulting.

Public Accountants often work 40 hours per week or more depending on workload, with an emphasis on “billable” hours, however, some regional and international travel may be involved, as well, especially if you are employed by a larger firm. You may want to choose a smaller firm to work for if you would like to keep travel at a minimum. A bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance and a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification is required in the public accounting sector. You must have strong analytic skills and familiar with business systems.

What is your long-term goal within the public sector? While beginning as an entry-level accountant, you may then advance, within a few years, to a position as a senior accountant and then on to management. Becoming a partner in the firm should be your ultimate goal. Most accountants complete this goal, on average, after about 13 years of service, depending on age and positions of other partners or candidates.

The career outlook in the public accounting sector is very strong with an average salary ranging from $50,000 to $73,500 annually for the general accountant. Also, due to the various clients you will work with, if you decide to work in the private sector later, then you have diverse experience to share. It is easier to transfer to the private sector than it is to start in the private sector and transfer later to the public sector because beginning in private accounting limits your client exposure and you won’t be as marketable to other employers.

Now let’s review the other side of the coin…the private sector of accounting. In Private Accounting, sometimes called Corporate Accounting, accountants are primarily employed by one corporation or industry. They become experts in accounting issues dealing specifically with their particular corporation. Private accountants must have extensive knowledge in the business process and requirements pertaining to the type of business they are in and familiar with reporting manufacturing costs, billing, cash flow reports, payroll, account payables and account receivables. The work environment in the private sector is usually a typical 40-hour week, with no need to track hours. Travel is kept at a minimum, if any.

Unlike the public sector, private accountants are not typically required to own a CPA certification, although, it is helpful and impressive to have in regards to future job searches and employers will be impressed by your effort, not to mention a potential increase of salary.

As with any position, you will need to climb the corporate ladder beginning with entry-level positions and serving in a management capacity before achieving your ultimate career goal as a Chief Financial Officer in the private sector of accounting. The career outlook for private accounting is very strong and the salary ranges from $44,250 to $59,500 annually for the general accountant, depending on location and size of company.

So, as you can see, the differences are subtle, however, they are important when thinking of your future career accomplishments. Generally, the public sector is going to provide you with a variety of client types and give you a wider range of valuable experience to help you build your career. Most accountants, at some point, work in both public and private sectors. Identifying your long-term professional goal will allow you to choose an educational path that is right for you.

Browse our Resources

  1. Get started with our Frequently Asked Questions section.
  2. Looking for the perfect online option? Searching for the perfect brick and mortar degree program? Visit our All Rankings page!
  3. Dig deeper with our business management school rankings per state.
  4. Please, visit our Ranking Methodology page to see how we retrieve our data.
  5. Visit our Features page for information ranging from "Starving Students" to "Startup Billionaires".
  6. Have suggestions for our page? Contact us! We'd love to hear from you!