Public Accounting vs Industry Accounting

If you have not graduated from college yet, this will be the first big career decision you will have to make. A lot of your accounting professors do not talk about both career paths equally or present all of the pros or cons of each. Deciding between starting a career in public accounting and industry accounting can shape the outcome of your professional accounting experience. However, keep in mind that once you pick where you want to start you are not stuck. Plenty of people switch between public and industry within their careers, though it is harder to make the change from industry to public.

Pros for Public – Public accounting right out of school is pretty competitive when it comes to the Big 4. Schools push for their students to go to one of these firms because of the unique experience. What is so great about this experience? Working for one of the Big 4 firms is an opportunity to work with some of the largest companies in the world. Within in your first year you will have meetings with the upper management of your clients. This exposure is something most of your peers in other fields won’t get this early on. Working on these engagements helps paint a pretty high level picture of how companies operate in many different industries. Working with these companies helps build a great network for future job opportunities as well. Being able to say you work for one of the Big 4 also carries a certain amount of prestige on its own.

Historically, when you come to work at a Big 4 firm, you will decide between Audit and Tax. This will be the type of engagements you will work on during your time at the firm and the “organization” you will progress through. The hierarchy is very well defined in Big 4 firms. You will start as an associate and progress from there to a senior associate and so on based on years with the firm and obtaining your CPA license. Becoming Partner in the firm is the end goal of many, but also very difficult. For the few that stick the course and play their cards right have a shot at becoming Partner. Being Partner gives you an ownership stake in the firm and usually equates to an extremely nice paycheck and benefits.

Going the public accounting route doesn’t mean you have to only pursue employment at a Big 4. There are many midsize and local firms. Instead of your clients being large Fortune 500 companies, your clients will be more regional companies and individuals. At these firms you may not just be limited to audit or tax, you may get the opportunities to see both. As any employee of a small business you may need to wear many hats. This can keep things interesting and provide for more direction on where you want to go with your career, instead of just working in either audit or tax. Another benefit of going with a smaller firm is that it may be easier to work your way up to being a partner in a firm and possibly less office politics.

Public accounting experience in general will help open some doors in other industry jobs as it may be a requirement to have.

Cons for Public – The biggest con right off the bat is working hours and work life balance. When it is busy season in public accounting expect to work no less than 60 hours a week and on Saturdays. Add studying for the CPA and you essentially eat, breathe, and sleep for accounting. This working schedule coupled with a hectic travel schedule can wear you out. Some refer to the first two years of employment as a “boot camp”. This can cause firms to have a revolving door of young associates who stick around just long enough to get the experience on their resume.

For those that do not have an outgoing personality, it can be an extreme challenge. You will be in a room with your fellow co-workers for long hours and have many interactions with your clients both at work and outside of work. How well you fit in with the other team members is definitely a big part of the interview process for public accounting. Also remember you are providing a service to your client and customer service is expected just as if you were a waiter or waitress, so you always need to be on.

Pros for Industry– Industry is an option that in my experience is not as talked about as much in college. The first big pro is that in general the work life balance is much better than in public accounting. There will be times of the year that are busy, but in general you are not working as many 60 hour work weeks if any. In industry you will have more consistency and a home base. You will not be switching to different clients and you will most likely have your own office or cubicle. You will get a good detailed understanding of how a specific company operates. This can be seen as an advantage because public accounting sometimes has a reputation of only seeing how a company works from a high level view.

You will also have a chance to make an impact on the company, this can lead to better job satisfaction when you can see the results of your work. Job satisfaction is increasingly becoming a criteria for people that are happy at their job.

Cons for Industry– Predictability is more prevalent in an industry position. If you need variety and a change of scenery more often than not, you may want to reconsider. There are a lot of jobs in industry that don’t require travel and have a predictable schedule such as month end close every month. However, internal audit positions are a big exception to this. Industry positions also only show you how one company operates where some computer programs and accounting functions are very specific and not directly transferable out of that company.

Conclusion: The comments above are only some of the pros and cons of both Industry Accounting and Public Accounting. The pros and cons listed above may not apply to every company as well; these are just general pros and cons that have been fairly prominent over the years. A lot of what path you will take depends on what you like to do in your free time, what responsibilities you have outside of work, and your long term goals. If you are not big on travel then a public auditor may not be suited for you. If you don’t want to close the books every month and find that boring you may want to avoid specific industry positions. In my opinion, if you want a little bit of both worlds without fully committing to either one, an internal audit position may be a good fit. Click through to find out why and what an internal audit position entails.

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