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Accounting isn’t a “one size fits all” career path. Once you graduate and sit for your certification exam, you have several options open to you. Depending on where you apply to work, you’ll be working in a public agency or in a private accounting firm.

Several factors distinguish a public vs private accounting work. Will you be auditing or assessing the books that impact the general public? Will your work affect only your private employer? Will you have just one employer, with several clients? Will your services benefit only your employer?

Public accounting will benefit the general public, or it will only benefit the company that employs you. As you consider your options, keep all of these in mind. Your career plans will affect whether you’re employed by a public firm or whether you’ll choose to work with a private company—or even several private clients.

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External and Internal Accounting

Look at the job descriptions coming from companies advertising for accountants. What is accounting and how is GAAP utilized for private vs. public accounting? Some may specialize in public accounting and thus consult with government agencies. Others may focus on private accounting and companies in your area. These will help you to determine the focus of your career path, should you be hired. In fact, you might start comparing and contrasting public vs private accounting as potential career paths.

An “external” agency is one that faces outward. It is accountable to the public, which means it’s a public agency. These include government agencies, where you and your colleagues are required to provide transparency in your employer’s work. You may also work for an accounting firm that serves a large number of clients. Even though your employer is a private accounting firm, its mission is to provide accounting services and again, transparency, to those clients and to the general public.

On the other hand, an “internal” job means that you are working as an accountant solely for your employer. The company doesn’t have a long list of clients for which it provides accounting services. The work you do benefits only your employer.

Public Employers and Private Clients

As you work for a public agency or government agency, you are working for an employer. Your employer reaches out to individuals and other businesses to carry out the accounting work they need to have completed.

The clients your employer assigns to you may run the gamut—non-profit organizations, other businesses and even a government agency or two. As such, the work you do for each client may also vary just as widely. Even though you are employed by just one firm, you will provide accounting services to several companies, agencies and non-profit organizations (NPO). Every day will be different; each situation and problem you encounter requiring you to use everything you’ve learned. You may run into errors or even outright attempts to hide information.

Working as a private accountant, you may work as a freelancer, with your office in your home. If you do freelance, you’ll be able to pick and choose the clients you wish to work for. Your allegiance will be to the clients on your roster.

You may also work for a private employer, with your accounting services provided only to that company. You may be employed as a controller.

The Name Distinction

Look at the names of public accounting firms and private firms—they can be confusing. If you work for a for-profit accounting firm that has private accounting clients, you may be in a public accounting practice. If you need to prepare public tax documents, you are in a public practice vs a private accounting practice. Your efforts—allegiance—isn’t limited to one company. Instead, you’ll be required to provide full disclosure to each client your employer accepts. This is one characteristic you can use to verify whether you will work as a public accountant or a private accountant.

Your employer should let you know if their work focus, and your accounting focus, will be private accounting or not. If it is public accounting, you may need to be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) so that you can sign tax filings. As you get a look at the scope of the work you’ll be doing as a public accountant, the distinction will soon become clear. Private accountants might also hold CPA licenses but their work is not divulged to the IRS or the general public. Private accounting is a practice where private accountants perform audits on various parts of an organization for the purpose of internal improvement. These audits are done by private accountants because it would be disaster if the competition gained access to those private audit documents. Again, it comes down to “internal” versus “external.” Because the work you do won’t be made public, you and your team are private accountants, not public accountants.

Public Welfare and Private Interests

“Public welfare” refers to accounting that benefits the general public. In a state agency, for instance, your external auditing will be accessible by other government entities and it may be made public by the media. A few instances of a government agency may include your state or federal department of transportation. These agencies are responsible for ensuring the safety of the public as it gets from Point A to Point B.

Roads, subways, railroad tracks, interstates—all are funded by public taxes—and that funding becomes public.

This is the case with any government agency. Its books are expected to be open and accessible to the public and to the media. Your work will have to be exacting, if you want it to be trustworthy. For this reason, government agency books are opened and provided to internal auditors, who look at how the public’s money is being spent. Internal auditors also look for accidental errors that affect the totals on spreadsheets, general ledgers and balance sheets.

A private company serves only its private interests. You won’t have to concern yourself very much with making spreadsheets public knowledge. You may be employed by a general contractor. Your supervisor and the company owner rightfully expect that you will maintain confidentiality about the work you do for them. This is the essence of “internal” auditing.

As you accept assignments, the implicit expectation is that you won’t talk about the bottom line of your employer, other than to say that it’s successful. The only outside entities that will have access to the accounting work your employer does may be the IRS. If your employer decides to make your company private, offering stock to the general public, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will also have access to your employer’s numbers. However, even then, your accounting will serve only your employer, not the general public. Make sure your work is flawless.

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