Corporate vs. public accounting

What are the advantages of each as a career?

September 19, 2013
By Robert Half

Whether you’re just starting out in your accounting career or you’re interested in making a career transition, one decision you’ll need to make is whether to pursue a career in corporate or public accounting. While there’s no one-size-fits all career path in accounting for CPAs, following is a guide to the benefits of choosing a public or corporate accounting career.

Benefits of a career in public accounting

Public accounting experience provides a great foundation for an accounting career. Exciting aspects of public accounting include working with a variety of clients and the chance to become a partner or principal. Other noteworthy advantages include:

  • High demand that’s growing—Growth and job availability are looking better than ever for people entering the field of public accounting. According to the AICPA’s 2013 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, hiring by public accounting firms is “at an all-time high, especially at the Master's degree level.” Further, the report reveals that 89% of public accounting firms also forecast that they will hire the same or more graduates year after next—a positive trend into the future. Demand is especially high in audit and tax, according to Robert Half’s 2013 Salary Guide.
  • Potential for travel—Large public accounting firms offer the chance to work with major, multinational clients and the possibility of extended or frequent travel, both domestically and abroad. However, CPAs who like to travel, but less regularly, may opt to join a small or midsize public accounting firm to work with local or regional clients.
  • Diverse exposure—Accountants at public accounting firms have the opportunity to work with multiple clients, gaining increased exposure to various types of business operations as well as senior executives. For example, as an auditor, one is usually exposed to manufacturing, service, retail, government, and other industries. This can provide more opportunity down the road if one decides to go the corporate route. Going corporate from the beginning would most likely limit exposure to those various business segments and could get one pigeonholed.

    If you’re a CPA with Big Four experience, you’ll almost always be in demand among both public accounting firms and corporate accounting departments, according to Robert Half’s Salary Guide. However, CPA candidates who don’t have experience in a particular segment (corporate or public) can also gain it through an interim or project job placement.

  • Competitive salary—In many cases, public accounting salaries are higher than those in private accounting, and often come with hefty sign-on bonuses. For instance, an audit manager in public accounting can earn upward of $126,500, compared with $111,000 for an internal audit manager in a midsize corporate firm, according to Robert Half’s Salary Guide. Further, a big part of the allure of public accounting is the chance to become a partner.
  • Opportunities for advancement—With hard work and talent, progression through the ranks of a public accounting firm can be swift over the first few years. According to the New York State Society of CPAs’ The CPA Journal, it takes just about 13 years on average to make partner. For experienced and accomplished CPAs, there are also consulting opportunities. That said, mergers, number and age of current partners, and age of partner candidates are all factors that can increase or decrease this 13-year average path to partnership.

Benefits of a corporate accounting career   

Private accounting enables professionals to hone their craft in an area of business they enjoy. They also may enjoy a greater work/life balance than their counterparts in public accounting, although public accounting firms are taking steps to address this issue as they compete with the private sector for top talent.

  • Specialization opportunities—Manufacturers, major retailers, biotechnology companies, technology firms, governmental agencies, and environmental organizations are often looking for new accountant specialists for their teams. Specialty areas of IT, business valuation, and forensic accounting are also in strong demand, according to Robert Half’s 2013 Salary Guide.
  • Opportunities to contribute to the bottom line—Accounting roles that support business growth in corporations—such as financial analysts and business system analysts—provide accountants with a unique opportunity to directly contribute to the company’s bottom line.  Because corporate accountants report on the results of the business for which they are employed, job satisfaction can be higher than in public accounting, where the work is performed for clients. If you determine you want to be a high-ranking executive within a particular firm or in a specific industry, you may be better off gaining that specialized experience as quickly as possible in a corporation.
  • Personal flexibility—On the work/life balance scale, private accounting has the edge. In public accounting, the focus is on billable hours. In private accounting, there is no need to track time and relate it to money made for the company every second of the day. Generally speaking, there are also fewer overtime hours in the corporate accounting world. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for CPAs to work six days a week during tax season.
  • Consistency—Knowing that you have a specific job to do (and place to do it) day after day, for many people, is comforting. Consistency and routine are important stress reducers for some professionals, which makes corporate accounting an attractive choice. Security and routines are also important as well when you’re making decisions about marriage and children.
  • Beyond salary incentives—In order to attract top performers, companies in the private sector are taking steps to enhance their overall compensation packages to rival those at public accounting firms. When benefits over and above salary and sign-on bonuses are considered, additional corporate compensation offerings often include stock options, annual and discretionary bonuses, and a pension.

There is more than one way to make the journey through your accounting career. If you look at CFO, controller, director of finance, and treasurer résumés, you’ll see that there’s no consistent road map. There is often a mix of public accounting and private industry experience, as many choose to work in both environments at some point in their careers. In addition, it’s not uncommon for people to begin their careers in public accounting to build a foundation, then move to corporate accounting. For some, though, the hours and stress that can be experienced in public accounting lead to a desire to switch to corporate accounting.

If, as a CPA or CPA candidate, you are having trouble deciding on public vs. private, some experienced accountants feel choosing the public route could be the best bet. While it's relatively easy to move from public accounting to corporate/private accounting after a few years, they argue, it’s not so easy to work in private and then go back and compete with all the college grads for entry into a public career. And moving laterally from private to public can become more difficult the longer you stay in the private sector.

All-in-all, identifying your long-term personal and professional goals, along with your work environment likes and dislikes, is an ideal way to help you decide which accounting career path is right for you.

This article is provided courtesy of Robert Half, parent company of Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources. Robert Half is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm placing accounting and finance professionals on a temporary, full-time and project basis. Follow Robert Half on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalf.