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Public or corporate: Which accounting career path is right for you?

By Robert Half International

Modern accounting encompasses a wide array of specialized tasks, from standard bookkeeping and tax filing to fraud examination and regulatory compliance. You learn something about almost every aspect of the field when you earn a bachelor's degree in accounting. But without much experience, it's hard to know whether the corporate or public accounting career path is right for you. And if you want to become a certified public accountant (CPA), work history is important, as the vast majority of states require at least one year of accounting experience before taking the final exam.

So, how do you know which accounting career path to start down? Here are a couple of things to consider:

1.      Do you prefer to work with one employer or a number of clients?

2.      Do you enjoy the challenge of an ever-changing workload and schedule, or is a more stable nine-to-five career what you're after? 

If you're having a hard time deciding which CPA career path to take, or even if you decide not to become one, don't worry too much about making the wrong choice. Public accountants can easily switch over to corporate accounting at some point in their career, and, although less common, some corporate accountants may elect to join a public accounting firm as a second career, particularly if they have developed an expertise in a particular industry or discipline.

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Public accounting career path
Public accountancy is the route many new graduates take. The major accounting firms actively recruit from top colleges. You could work for one of the Big Four, join a smaller private practice or eventually set up your own business. Variety is a definite draw for public accounting. By joining a larger firm, you may gain experience with a number of different accounting specialties and work with a wide range of clients. Many large accounting firms have robust internship and training programs as well. Auditing, tax services, forensic accounting (fraud examination) and advisory services are the four main areas of public accounting. Solo public accountants and smaller firms typically focus on just one or two of those areas.

There is also more travel involved, as accounting firms can serve clients throughout the state, region and country. There may even be opportunities for international travel depending on the firm's scope of services and client mix.

Another aspect of public accounting is seasonality. Tax season for individual filers (January through mid-April) is the busiest time of the year for most public accountants who handle personal income taxes, and they typically have to work overtime during those months. Accountants working for corporations with fiscal or calendar year reporting schedules experience crunch times at quarterly closes and year-end. Longer hours do lead to a higher salary, though.

Corporate accounting career path
Corporate accountants perform a broad range of finance- and accounting-related tasks for privately held or publicly traded companies. Typical functions in private industry include financial accounting, internal auditing, corporate tax accounting, SEC regulations, compliance and management accounting. 

The most attractive feature of a corporate accounting career path is the consistent work environment and typically few assignments away from home. As such, most corporate accountants enjoy a greater work-life balance than those on the public accounting career path, though public accounting firms are starting to address issues such as frequent travel and employee burnout.

Salaries tend to be lower in corporate accounting and bonuses are generally based on some combination of company and personal performance. The starting pay for an entry-level corporate tax accountant at a large firm ranges from $45,500 to $58,250, but the equivalent position in a large public accounting firm pays $54,250 to $67,750, according to the 2014 Robert Half Accounting and Finance Salary Guide. Salaries for a senior accountant represent a 4 percent increase over 2013 salary ranges as reported in the guide. Not all accountants are certified, but those on a CPA career path can expect to earn about 10 percent more regardless of where they are.

When deciding which type of employer you would like to work for, make an honest assessment of your personality, lifestyle, ambitions, skill set and career goals. Can you see yourself working sometimes crazy hours and making more money, or in a more predictable environment for slightly less pay? Taking the time to answer these questions will help you determine which accounting career path is right for you.

Robert Half is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, read our blog at blog.roberthalf.com or follow us on social media at roberthalf.com/follow-us.

Copyright 2014 Robert Half International. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without prior written authority.

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Story Filed Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 11:44 AM


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