Accounting goes well beyond the realm of tracking credits and debits. It’s a field of service, one that can potentially foster financial improvement for others. An accounting degree can also provide graduates the chance to develop and refine a host of professional and personal skills. These skills can provide the foundation needed for meaningful interaction with clients spread across an eclectic array of industries.

So, what can you do with an accounting degree? Plenty. The skills developed through successfully completing an accounting degree can provide a foundational level of field acumen ideally suited for several well-paying employment opportunities in the public and private sectors. From corporate auditors and management analysts to personal finance managers, the potential career paths you can take can have a positive impact on large-scale businesses looking to improve profitability or on humble families seeking a more secure future.

female accounting professional with tablet

A Look at Employment and Industry Options with an Accounting Degree

At first glance, answering the question of what can you do with an accounting degree may look as simple as working with numbers. While “number crunching” is a component of the field, assuming it’s a blanket answer to what the degree can help graduates achieve is not quite right, as an accounting degree is so much more than that.

For instance, those who successfully complete an accounting degree can have the capacity to explore a broad spectrum of employment opportunities, spread across a wide variety of industries. The breadth of opportunities associated with obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s in accounting underscores the degree’s true foundation as a business degree. It is a career path based on forging and maintaining solid relationships. In the case of accounting, it’s defined by helping others to be the best they can be from a financial perspective, whether that entails running a business in a booming industry or mapping the future of a brand-new family.

Public, Private and Nonprofit Accounting: What You Need to Know

While all accounting careers deal with some facet of finance, the field can be broken down into three distinct employment types:

  • Public accounting
  • Private accounting
  • Nonprofit/government accounting

There are several similarities among these three fields—similarities that transcend the concept of simply being good with numbers. The primary role of an accountant in each field is to ensure the financial system the accountant is charged with overseeing is running efficiently and ethically. Accountants across the board also analyze and present information to their clients so they can make informed short-term and long-term decisions. Because of the delicate nature of the work, possessing a capacity for clear, tactful communication is also a core competency of the accounting profession.

Generally speaking, the completion of at least a bachelor’s degree is required. Some advanced positions in each field may require the completion of extra coursework or a master’s degree.

There are also major differences within these employment types that graduates of an accounting program should understand prior to settling on an accounting-based career path.

Public Accounting

At its core, public accounting is built around the accountant being an independent third party for numerous clients of various sizes. An accountant’s clientele can consist of individual taxpayers, large businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.

Typically, a public accountant’s skills are honed toward utilizing data that verify the accuracy of a client’s financial claims. Because public accountants could have an eclectic group of clients, they may become associated with numerous industries. They also typically have to travel and work long hours. They occasionally have to deal with unsavory work conditions and tight deadlines.

Public accountants can become licensed as a CPA, or certified public accountant. Schools typically offer CPA preparation courses as part of their accounting degree curricula, although it should be noted that specific CPA requirements vary from state to state.

The need for public accountants also tends to fluctuate based on the state of the economy; however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected this job market to grow by 10 percent between 2016 and 2026, partially because of an increase in business globalization.

Private Accounting

Private accountants are chiefly focused on the inner financial workings of a specific business. They are not considered an independent third party. Rather, they’re often found on a business or agency’s payroll.

Private accountants are usually charged with overseeing a company’s internal financials and specific transactions, such as accounts payable/accounts receivable and billing. Since they work for a single entity, their work environment is similar to an office job, with regular hours, a fixed work location, and little to no travel. There are also no specific certification requirements associated within the private accounting field.

The demand for private accountants is strong. It should be noted, however, that it’s not uncommon for accountants to jump between public and private accounting roles during their careers, particularly if they possess an advanced degree.

Nonprofit Accounting

Nonprofit accountants typically work with government agencies, educational institutions, or charitable organizations. They’re also charged with overseeing a nonprofit’s adherence to financial rules that can sometimes be markedly different from the rules that apply to for-profit businesses.

Nonprofit accountants chiefly track the flow of business transactions made by a specific nonprofit organization. The concepts monitored, such as net assets and donor restrictions, are unique to the field. The work environment of a nonprofit accountant is similar to that of a private accountant. There is also a certification designed specifically for this field: the Certified Nonprofit Accounting Professional, or CNAP, certification.

Each accounting field carries its own set of pros and cons that future professionals should consider before taking the plunge. While public accounting provides the excitement of exploring several industries, the long hours and inconsistent work environments may turn it into a grind. The stability that private accounting offers may lead some people to feel as if they have fallen into a rut. While working for a nonprofit is a noble, feel-good cause, its unique rules may seem like a completely different language to some.

Top Industries for Accounting

After you’ve gone through a reputable accounting curriculum, you’ll be faced with an important question: What can you do with an accounting degree? Fortunately, there are several industries that are eager to answer this question for you. Some of the top industries include the following:

  • Investment banking
  • Public relations
  • Healthcare and hospitals
  • Manufacturing
  • Management consulting
  • Software publishing
  • Engineering services

As this list demonstrates, becoming a professional accountant isn’t just about tracking debits and credits. It can also be an opportunity to participate in a dynamic industry, one that you may find to be rather intriguing.

A Public Accountant’s Potential Roles

Deciding to jump into the public accounting field after you’ve obtained a degree opens you up to several potential career paths, each containing a unique set of challenges. While the skills you develop working through an accounting curriculum may help prepare you for multiple roles within a public accountant’s sphere, it’s a good idea to take each role into careful consideration before you embark upon your career path.

There are three roles that a public accountant can fill after obtaining a degree:

  • Auditor/CPA
  • Management Consultant
  • Financial Advisor

Auditor/CPA

An auditor’s core responsibility is to prepare and analyze financial records. Auditors conduct this analysis for several reasons. Firstly, a proper audit can ensure a company’s financial records are accurate. It can also be used to make sure a company pays its taxes in a timely, proper fashion. Along the way, auditors can assess a company’s financial operations to make sure they are running as efficiently as possible.

  • Education: Most auditor positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
  • Certification: Obtaining the title of Certified Public Accountant (CPA) can improve an auditor’s chances of landing an auditing position. Most reputable advanced accounting degree programs contain courses within their curricula specifically designed to prepare enrollees to take the CPA exam.
  • Salary: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for an auditor is approximately $68,000 per year. It should be noted, however, that auditors with the CPA credential typically make roughly 10 to 15 percent more annually than those without it.
  • Work Environment: While most auditors work more than 40 hours a week, overtime is typical at busy times on the calendar, such as tax season or at the end of a company’s fiscal year.

Management Consultant

Also known as management analysts, a management consultant’s chief role is to find ways to make companies more money. By gathering information through interviews with personnel, financial analysis, and data scrutiny, management consultants can create and propose solutions to improve a business’s financial and operational efficiency, which could lead to higher profitability.

  • Education: A bachelor’s degree is typically required for entry-level positions within the management consulting field; however, some employers set a master’s degree in accounting or business administration (MBA) as the minimum qualification for employment.
  • Certification: Management consultants can also earn the Certified Management Consultant (CMC) designation to add additional punch to their resumes.
  • Salary: The median pay for management consultants, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is about $81,000 per year.
  • Work Environment: While most professionals in this field can work about 40 hours a week, the tight deadlines often associated with management consulting can occasionally demand long hours.

Financial Advisor

This branch of public accounting is the one most involved in the private sector, because these accounting professionals work directly with individuals on their personal financial needs and goals. Through interview and analysis, financial advisors develop short-term and long-terms financial strategies on a wide range of individual finance topics, including investments, estate planning, tax planning, college saving, and retirement. Because of the broad scope associated with this profession, some financial advisors focus on a specific concentration, such as tax planning or risk management.

  • Education: Typically, financial advisors possess a bachelor’s degree.
  • Certification: Because of the delicate nature of some of the advisory roles this position can demand, people in this field may be required to obtain additional licenses. Furthermore, financial advisors may be required to register with state regulators or the Securities and Exchange Commission, depending on the size of the firm.
  • Salary: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for financial advisors is around $90,500.
  • Work Environment: The work commitment for this position tends to be more demanding than other fields, particularly for self-employed financial advisors—a category occupied by 24 percent of professionals in the field, according to the BLS. In addition to advising their clients, financial advisors can travel to attend conferences and take meetings on the weekends and evenings in an effort to bring in new clients.

Tax Preparer

Tax preparers are charged with analyzing data to calculate an individual’s tax return. They can also sign and file these returns on behalf of individuals and businesses. Individuals who earn the title of CPA and those in the financial advisory field can prepare taxes for individuals as long as they possess a preparer tax identification number, or PTIN.

Pursuing a Career in Accounting

There are many different career paths you can take once you’ve obtained an accounting degree. While plenty of differentiation exists among the various fields, they are tied together by a common bond of service brought about through clear communication and engagement. Even though number crunching sits at the heart of accounting, service represents the field’s true soul.

Going back to school for an accounting degree is the first step towards a range of rewarding careers. Find out how an online accounting degree can prepare you for any accounting career path you may choose to pursue.

Sources:

This Way to CPA: Is the Grass Greener in the Private Industry?

This Way to CPA: Should You Become a CPA?

Accounting Today

Accounting Tools

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Accountants and Auditors

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Management Analysts

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Personal Financial Advisors

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Data for Occupations Not Covered in Detail

Robert Half, Look At What You Can Do With an Accounting Degree

Robert Half, Public Accounting or Private Accounting: What’s Right for You?

Internal Revenue Service