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What’s the difference between public and private accounting?

At a glance

  • Private accountants help businesses with tax preparation, financial analysis and internal auditing.
  • Public accountants provide auditing, tax, advisory and consulting services to private, public or governmental agencies.
  • Public accountants need to take the CPA exam, which may require additional credit hours after completing a bachelor’s degree.
  • If you’re interested in learning foundational knowledge and skills to prepare you for a career as a private accountant, consider an online accounting degree through University of Phoenix.

Whether you’re interested in becoming a personal accountant or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), an accountancy career can be a good fit for analytical minds, critical thinkers and problem-solvers. First, however, it’s important to understand which path to take — for both your education and your career.

Within accounting, there are two primary career paths — public and private. How do those differences impact your choice of major? Let’s take a closer look at what it means to be an accountant in the public versus private sector.

What is a private accountant?

Private accounting focuses on the inner workings of companies, governments and agencies. Not all private accounting jobs require a CPA certification, but it’s common to see it listed as a preferred qualification. Private accountants help businesses with various accounting responsibilities, such as tax preparation, financial analysis and internal auditing

Educational requirements

Whether you’re interested in forensic accounting, bookkeeping or tax preparation, your career will benefit from the foundation of a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Some common job titles for accountants with bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Accountant
  • Accounting manager
  • Cost accountant
  • Auditor
  • Tax examiner

A robust online business degree program teaches such skills as how to use accounting principles to:

  • Manage all aspects of the accounting cycle
  • Evaluate financial statements and other information
  • Translate ethical, legal and accounting standards into best practices
  • Integrate business and financial operations

In addition to the skills gained, an online bachelor’s degree in accounting can help you learn the skills necessary to launch yourself into a position with a growing job outlook.

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Today’s job market: business and finance

Salary and job outlook

As of May 2021, salaries for accountants ranged between $47,970 and $128,970, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This profession is projected to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, according to BLS.

The salary range for private accountants can vary greatly due to the vast array of businesses and industries that need highly trained financial professionals. That’s why it’s important to research where private accountants are in high demand.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Where does a private accountant work?

Whether you plan to launch your own company, become an entrepreneur or grow in your current career, private accountants have various options for their career paths. They may become accounting managers, cost accountants, auditors or tax managers for a company, for example. As leaders in their industry, private accountants use their diverse knowledge and business communication skills to enhance, sustain and maintain a business’s financial ecosystem.

What is a public accountant?

Public accountants provide auditing, tax, advisory and consulting services to private, public and governmental agencies. For people with an accounting or business degree, becoming a CPA is a significant career milestone. This certification almost universally conveys the idea that you’re an expert in your field. However, it takes extra work to get there.

Educational requirements

To prepare for the CPA exam, you’ll need to take 30 additional credits after earning your bachelor’s degree, for 150 credit hours. In addition, the state you live in may have specific requirements for becoming a CPA. Look for an online degree program accredited by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy to ensure you have the proper training to sit for the exam in your state.

In addition to accreditation, a strong accounting program offers opportunities to learn key business and financial concepts, such as:

  • Business communication
  • Principles of accounting
  • Ethical and legal topics in business
  • Principles of microeconomics and macroeconomics
  • Accounting specializations like corporate and cost accounting

Since aspiring public accountants need to complete additional credits following a bachelor’s degree, it’s helpful to know early on if you intend to make the leap to CPA. Deciding this ahead of time can help with semester planning, job hunting and time management.

Salary and job outlook

As mentioned above, salaries for accountants ranged between $47,970 and $128,970, according to BLS.

Public accountants have the potential to move into higher positions, such as financial managers. As of May 2021, financial managers had an estimated pay range between $77,040 and $208,000. The projected job outlook for accountants in the next decade is expected to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, which translates to roughly 136,400 openings each year.

Where does a public accountant work?

Public accountants are often employed at tax preparation companies, accounting services, insurance companies and government agencies. Many CPAs can become business owners or are self-employed. 

Should you be a public or private accountant?

Public accounting offers the opportunity to work with various accounting systems and for an array of companies operating all over the world. Public accountants often have to build rapport with their clients, so strong social skills are a significant advantage. Life for a public accountant can be busy, filled with travel and irregular work hours.

Private accountants are typically employed by a single employer and review internal business documents to plan budgets and evaluate fiscal performance. While working with solely one employer can feel more routine, it often leads to a healthier work-life balance. Private accountants often specialize in a specific industry, which can build specific knowledge and skill sets within the chosen field.

Both career paths have similar foundations: They prepare leaders with the necessary accounting skills to help organizations make financially sound business decisions.

Pursue an online program from University of Phoenix

If you want to expand your knowledge and skill set within accounting or financial planning, University of Phoenix offers a few online degree programs and individual course offerings to consider:

Bachelor of Science in Accounting — This program teaches essential skills to better understand accounting, such as auditing, accounting, financial statements and bookkeeping principles.

Bachelor of Science in Accounting with an Associate of Arts with a concentration in Business Fundamentals — This program covers how to record and communicate measurable business activities to stakeholders, analyze financial statements to help an organization strategize and more.

Bachelor of Science in Business with a Financial Planning Certificate — If you want to help people make wise money-management choices, this program is for you. Learn important skills like management, operations, financial planning and financial analysis.

Individual accounting courses — If you need individual courses to pursue your career goals in accounting or to complete a degree program UOPX offers 23 accounting courses that can be earned completely online. 

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