When I Grow Up, I Want to Be an Accountant

As children, we spend our early years proudly proclaiming our plans of becoming something glamorous like an astronaut, a movie star or even a driver for NASCAR. I know I was constantly practicing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” in order to prepare for my future career as a lead singer in a band. Looking back, I don’t remember too many of my sandbox companions sharing their dreams of leases, pensions and bonds, and my guess is that not too many youngsters did. However, as bright, eager minds enter their college years, one of the top degree choices is in Accounting. It seems many have moved on from their childhood fantasies, and now see the benefits in choosing a substantial career path that promises stability, prestige and of course, money.

So for all of you accounting majors out there, give yourself a pat on the back because you’ve made a great choice. But I do realize that the next question on many of your minds is “Where do I go from here?” Out in the field I come across student after student that is looking to land a job at a Big Four public accounting firmand that’s it. Then after talking to them for awhile, I realize they don’t even know what working for the Big Four entails, and furthermore, have not even opened their minds to the other options available to an accounting major. So that is why we are taking this opportunity to highlight some of the differences between Public, Governmental and Private Accounting to showing you some of the advantages and disadvantages to each, and remind you to look into all of your available options.

Public Accounting

Public Accounting firms span over a large spectrum, having anywhere from one employee to over 40,000 employees world-wide. When you work in public accounting, you work literally for the publicwhether it’s for the small family owned bakery down the street or for a major international corporation. This of course includes the Big Four: Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and KPMG. While the Big Four may dominate in size, there are many other mid-tier and small local firms that offer great opportunity for new accountants. Keep in mind, that the smaller the firm, the greater chance that you will be able to get your feet wet in several areas.

Common Characteristics of Public Accounting:

  • Very competitive As mentioned above, many students are shooting for a career in Public Accounting, so the competition does get tight. Once you land a job, you then find yourself competing with your co-workers to move up the chain.
  • Big spenders Known for generous entry-level salaries, wining and dining employees, and paying for continuing education (get that Masters degree!)
  • Travel opportunities Your clients are everywhere. Therefore, so are you.
  • Tight deadlines Don’t even consider dropping by during tax season. Everyone is scrambling to get the work done!
  • Long hours During the busy season, expect to work 50-60 hours a week.
  • Exposure to several industries Get to work with all kinds of clients in a variety of industries.

Governmental Accounting

While there are many benefits to working in Public Accounting, the fast-paced “work hard, play hard” mentality may not appeal to all. Luckily, you can still get the variety of clients, and a less strenuous work-load by working for the government. The government actually offers a lot of interesting positions for accountants. In some cases, you may even find yourself carrying a gun in an ankle holster, or playing a crucial key in catching master criminal minds. Some examples include the IRS, FTB, FBI and DCAA. While there are a variety of areas you could work in, there are some common characteristics shared by all.

Common Characteristics of Governmental Accounting:

  • Lower pay Starting Salaries are around 35K, and slowly advance each year.
  • Fewer hours Basically, if the bank is closed, so is your office. This is great if you want more time for the fam!
  • Excellent benefits Speaking of family, it’s nice to know they’re taken care of.
  • Job security Music to all of our ears these days.
  • Exposure to a variety of clients Like Public Accounting, you can expect to work in several industries.
  • Adversarial role with client If someone’s been dodging their tax bill, you very well may be the unwelcomed guest that comes to collect. Don’t stress, it builds character!

Private Accounting

As you have seen, in Public and Governmental Accounting you get to work with all kinds of clients. In Private Accounting, you get to work with just one client. Therefore, you would be working “in-house”, and your one client is the one that signs your check each week. The types of companies that you can work for are endless. Major corporations, for example Sempra Energy and Disney, have accounting departments that are hundreds of employees large. On the other end of the spectrum, you could be working at a small company, and as a single person represent their entire accounting department. Again, while the types of companies may vary, there are some common attributes that you’d be sure to find in Private Accounting.

Common Characteristics of Private Accounting:

  • Same ole, same ole By working for one client, you’ll find your day-to-day tasks become routine.
  • Confined to your office There’s no need to go out and see the client. You’re already there.
  • Part of the family Your client is your employer. So they’ll be making sure you fit into their office culture.
  • Employee benefits package From stock options to amusement park tickets, you reap all the benefits along with the rest of the company.
  • Clear path to success Generally speaking, in private accounting you’ll find yourself on a path to management with the promise of a nice paycheck as well.
  • Job stability Unlike public accounting, you can expect less overturn.

In a nut-shell, that’s Public, Governmental and Private Accounting. These, of course, are generalizations, but most people can expect to find some variation of these elements within each category. The most important thing is that you look into all the wonderful opportunities available to you, and that you don’t close any doors. You may find something that you never knew even existed.

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