Public Accounting

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Public Accounting

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An Overview of Public Accounting

Public accountants assist individuals and corporations with a variety of financial tasks, including computing and filing income taxes, reviewing financial records, staying up to date on fiscal regulations, creating financial statements and providing general accounting advice. Whether they are working in private practice or for an accounting firm, public accountants are responsible for understanding the needs of each client and helping them make the most cost-effective decisions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently reports that there are more than 1.6 million public accountants employed as of May 2013, not including those self-employed in private practice. Demand is predicted to increase 13% from 2012 to 2022, meaning an additional 208,000 jobs will be added to the workforce. In general, demand for accounting professionals increases proportionately with economic growth, though an additional boost is expected due to expanding auditing and compliance requirements stemming from new financial regulations.

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Pursuing the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential is highly recommended for anyone entering the public accounting field, as it is a minimum requirement for nearly all employment opportunities and also confirms an applicant's grip on the essential knowledge and skills of accounting. CPAs can also choose a specialization focusing on a specific service (e.g., taxes, auditing, consulting, forensic accounting), industry (e.g., government, aviation, manufacturing, information technology), or type of client (e.g., small business, investors, nonprofits).

Public Accounting Careers

Public accounting expertise is required in a wide range of business, government and nonprofit settings, with CPAs working under a number of job titles. From entry-level “staff accountant” at a small company to senior-level “partner” at a large firm, public accountants are in demand and have opportunities for advancement and specialization throughout their careers. Major responsibilities include:

  • Maintain financial data and create reports for clients
  • Audit financial records for accuracy as well as compliance with laws and regulations
  • Calculate income and other taxes; prepare and submit returns and related documentation
  • Provide advice on a wide range of topics related to decision making about costs, expenditures and financial practices
  • Use specialized accounting software and accounting management systems to maintain data and monitor financial trends
  • Communicate effectively in the context of a business environment

Career paths in accounting can vary by industry and individual employer. Potential job titles include budget analyst, tax examiner, external auditor, business systems analyst or compliance professional. The following profiles include general expectations for public accounting positions from the first job after graduation to senior executive roles.


Entry Level

New accounting graduates are employed in a range of roles that can include working as a junior-level associate at an accounting firm, performing accounting functions at a small business or non-profit organization or serving in a financial-related position in a government agency.

Education and Experience Requirements
  • A bachelor's or master's degree in accounting or a related field is preferred.
  • Internships and other opportunities to learn in a workplace setting can be an advantage in a job search. CPA license or desire to pursue license preferred.
Job Stats
  • Salary: The 2015 Salary Guide from Robert Half reports the annual salary for tax services and audit/assurance services positions, with three or less years of experience, ranges from $48,000 to $72,750 at mid-size accounting firms.


Accountants can advance to staff and senior accountant positions that include additional responsibilities and require advanced skills. These roles may include management functions as well as specialization or certification requirements. Accountants at this level also gain experience that can help them obtain consulting positions and eventually start a private practice.

Education and Experience Requirements
  • A master's degree in accounting or a related field is preferred, as well as a CPA certification.
  • This level of employment usually includes 5-10 years of relevant accounting experience.
Job Stats
  • Salary: According to the 2015 Salary Guide from Robert Half, the salary range for mid-level tax services and audit/assurance services positions ranges from $61,500 to $98,500 at mid-size accounting firms.

Senior Level

Job titles such as partner, finance manager and financial controller are found at the senior or executive level of accounting. These positions require advanced management and leadership skills, as well as the ability to oversee high-level accounting and reporting functions. Senior-level accounting professionals may also manage the work of mid-level managers.

Education and Experience Requirements
  • A master's degree in accounting or related field is preferred, as well as certification.
  • Accountants in senior level positions often have 10 or more years of related experience.
Job Stats
  • Salary: Public accountants working at the senior manager/director level can expect to earn between $104,000 to $184,750 annually according to the 2015 Salary Guide from Robert Half. Professionals at this level may also be eligible for bonuses and incentives in addition to salary and other forms of compensation.

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