The accounting profession is vast when it comes to job choices — accountants can work in public practice or the private or corporate sector, for governmental/nonprofit organizations or in academia. But what motivates one to choose public over private or vice versa? Which aspects of each appeal to jobs seekers in order to prioritize one versus the other? Here are five considerations:
- Exposure to different aspects of accounting. Public accounting can provide the opportunity to work across multiple industries. During my public accounting years, I realized that I like the manufacturing and distribution industry. I have had colleagues who realized that their niche was financial services. Private accounting can also provide some great exposure, but it will be limited to the industry in which the corporation operates and cyclical daily/monthly accounting tasks. Accounting skills obtained within a specific private industry can be transferrable.
- Compensation. It’s no secret that, coming out of college, public accounting compensates more than private accounting. The raises are generally also better depending on how well you perform. Many graduates tend to prioritize a high-paying job so to provide some breathing room while addressing their debt-to-equity ratio. In private accounting, despite the starting salary being lower, there are future opportunities for significant base salary increase through promotion or a lateral move to another company within the same industry.
- The level of experience. In public accounting, you can get experience being exposed to various industries (financial services, manufacturing and distribution, food, retirement plans etc.), running meetings, managing teams, cross-organization collaboration, mentorship (both upward and downward), presenting and becoming an expert within your respective field. In private accounting, one can delve deeply into the specific industry the company is in.
- Work-life balance. Working in public accounting typically requires long hours, lots of travel and a challenging work-life balance as opposed to private accounting, where the hours are set and the increased work hours are seasonal (e.g., during month-end close, year-end close). I must add that, given the fact that we have been in the middle of a pandemic for more than two years, remote work is being offered by more and more businesses. That can help contribute to some sort of work-life balance.
- Know your end goal. The answer to this question will determine your choice of a career in public or private accounting. If your goal is to make partner/director and become a leader of a business segment, then public accounting should be your choice. If your goal is to work for a company and contribute to the operation and success of that company, then private is for you. One can also combine both public and private by starting in one and switching. I wanted experience in technical accounting, managing, mentoring and participating in business meetings, so I chose to start in public accounting. I spent four years learning the craft and, after I had reached my goals, I transitioned into private where I combined my expertise acquired in manufacturing and distribution with internal audit.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula; choosing a career in public versus private accounting is based on many factors. The key determinants are to know yourself, what motivates you and what your short- and long-term goals are. Once you have enough self-awareness, you can make a choice. If you do not feel like you made the right choice, then reevaluate and make some adjustments. Most importantly, do not be afraid to fail, and do not embrace the easy way out; both are recipes for disaster in your professional and personal life.