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Public vs. Private Accounting: Everything You Need to Know

Accounting professionals have many significant career options, making it one of the most practical applications of a business degree. In general, the accounting field is about recording and analyzing business activities. Accountants provide organizations with financial information so that executives can make informed and effective decisions. Accounting professionals also help to ensure that a business is running ethically and efficiently. There are two main career areas within the field of accounting: public and private.

Public accountants provide auditing, tax, advisory and consulting services. The Big Four (Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG and PWC) are the largest accounting firms in the world. If you work in public accounting, you will interact with a wide variety of clients and will generally be a licensed certified public accountant (CPA). Private accounting is concerned with the inner workings of businesses, governments and agencies. Private accountants work for specific companies and are an important part to the success of any organization. For this reason, many public accountants eventually work in the private sector.

If you want to have a career in the essential and dynamic field of accounting, then getting an online accounting degree could be the right choice for you. Degree programs like those offered by Concordia University, St. Paul can prepare students to be competitive in the accounting job market. To help you decide whether a career in public or private accounting is right for you, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to work in both areas.

Public Accountants vs. Private Accountants

Public accountants are trained to analyze accounting systems, collect evidence and test to see if a business is running effectively. A public accounting professional also must have a keen understanding of accounting standards for financial statements. Private accountants, on the other hand, are trained in the processing of a variety of accounting transactions, such as accounts payable and billings. The knowledge of private accountants may be limited to the work they are responsible for.

A public accountant may have experience in multiple industries, depending on their specific clients. A private accountant will probably have knowledge that applies to a single industry.

Certification as a CPA, while private accounting does not require certification. Several certifications are available for private accounting, however.

The career path of a public accountant is straightforward: they will either advance through working as an auditor and audit manager to eventually holding a position as an audit partner or they will work in tax accounting. Audit partners manage audit relations and work to bring in new business, while tax accountants work with tax returns and other forms of tax record keeping. For private accounts, career paths are more likely to vary. They can begin in one of several specialty areas and then advance to an assistant controller position. Private accountants can then become controllers or chief financial officers (CFOs). CFOs are responsible for all internal accounting functions as well as treasury, risk management and investor relations.

Public accountants may experience a somewhat difficult work environment that involves travel, long hours and tight deadlines. The work environment for private accountants usually features no travel and a fixed work schedule and location. For these reasons, private accounting is often considered the more stable choice as far as day-to-day work goes.

Both types of accounting require strong social skills. A public accountant must feel comfortable interviewing clients and addressing system failures with tact. Their work often involves constructively analyzing the work of clients as well. Private accountants work with other departments within their companies and therefore must do well in team situations that require community interaction.

Because of the difficulty that can sometimes arise from criticizing and evaluating the work of other accountants, working in the public accounting field isn’t for everyone. Job satisfaction tends to be higher in private accounting because professionals are creating business transactions and reporting on effectiveness.

Generally speaking, the discipline of public accounting is where most accountants begin their careers. The examination role that is required tends to make it a less popular choice for a long-term career. However, it enables you to gain a broad base of experience in the early years of a career. For longer-term employment, private accounting is more popular. Overall, public and private accounting are different aspects of the same field. Both involve the same basic job activities, skills and education. The differences arise when students join the workforce and begin to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned. Public accounting offers specialization and the opportunity for much advancement in exchange for what some would consider higher stress levels. Private accounting is predictable and offers more flexibility. It is likely that accounting professionals will work in both the public and private sector over the course of their career.

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Accounting at Concordia

Getting your accounting degree from Concordia will prepare you for accounting careers in business settings, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Employment in both the public and private sectors of accounting is growing, so now is a great time to get started on your career with a quality education. Offered in a blended format, Concordia’s online accounting program includes 40 credit hours that students can complete on campus and online. By building on a core business education, it prepares students for the CPA and certified management accountant (CMA) certifications.

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