As a public accountant, you will have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of clients. Public accountants work for businesses of all sizes, nonprofits, the government, and even individuals or families. Public accounting careers also provide a number of services to their clients, so you could do anything from preparing financial statements for shareholders to advising your clients on how to organize their employees’ benefits in the most efficient, cost-effective way.
Auditing clients’ finances may be one of the more well-known duties of a public accountant. As an auditor, you go over every one of your client’s business transactions and make sure the information in the financial statements is accurate. In some cases, you prepare these statements, and in others, you merely examine preexisting financial records to verify that they are accurate.
Aside from auditing, public accountants work as consultants who provide advice to their clients on how to save money. A public accountant may go over a client’s taxes and find ways to reduce the amount the client owes the government either through pretax deductions or other means. Public accountants also consult clients on how to provide affordable benefits to their employees.
In order to prevent a conflict of interest, a public accountant is legally prohibited from working as both an auditor and a consultant for the same client. A client seeking both of these services would need to hire accountants who work for different accounting firms.
Forensic accounting is a sector of public accounting for those particularly interested in the law. Forensic accountants focus specifically on financial fraud. As a forensic accountant, you will likely work closely with lawyers and the police. Forensic accountants are also often called to the witness stand for cases in which they are involved.
Most public accountants become CPAs (Certified Public Accountants) after passing the CPA exam. Nearly all public accountants have a bachelor’s degree, and many have master’s degrees as well, either an MBA with a concentration in accounting or a Masters of Accounting (MAcc).
When you begin your accounting career as a public accountant, you will likely work for a large firm. Currently, four major accounting firms in the United States—nicknamed the “Big 4”—employ many public accountants right out of college and graduate school. As a public accountant at a large firm, you will likely work in a small team of colleagues and may spend a lot of time out of the office traveling to clients’ sites. Tax season for public accountants lasts from January until mid-April, and it is the busiest time of year. You may be putting in a lot of hours during these months, but many firms are flexible when it comes to vacation time outside of the busy tax season.
Some public accountants continue their careers at large firms, while many others become self-employed. Even though self-employment can offer more flexibility in scheduling, tax season is still a busy time for all public accountants.
If you decide to stay at a large firm, you will have the opportunity to become a manager after about six years of experience, and you may be able to become a partner of the firm after ten years. Salaries for entry-level accountants average in between $50,000 and $60,000. The Big 4 firms often have slightly above-average salaries, and firms located in urban areas tend to have slightly higher salaries than firms located in rural areas. As a manager at a public accounting firm, you can expect to earn about on average about $100,000 per year. Partners can earn anywhere between $200,000 and $300,000.