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Career Paths in the Accounting Profession

by: Smith and Howard

August 25, 2017

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 There are many different and frequently overlapping paths you can take in accounting, and there are pros and cons to each. Here are some of the paths to consider:

  • tax, audit, or accounting
  • public or private
  • compliance or consulting
  • big company or small company

In school you are asked to decide between tax, audit or accounting.  Professionals in each of these areas do a different type of work so it is important to consider your strengths and weaknesses.  At a high level, accountants create the books and make sure they are correct.  Auditors examine what the accountants prepare and attest to 3rd parties that the financials are correct.  Tax accountants use the financials to prepare the tax returns that report income to the IRS.  Each professional has their role in the financial health of the business.

Accounting professionals can help with compliance, as detailed above, or provide more of a consulting role. Consulting generally takes the role of helping the compliance process be more efficient or save money.  This can include systems management or tax credits. Generally these roles are available at a private company or an accounting firm.  At a private company, you will only work with the company that employs you.  At a public accounting firm, you work with multiple clients.  How many clients will depend on the firm at which you work.

Throughout my career I have done consulting work as well as compliance.  I’ve worked at companies of different sizes.  I’ve worked for public and private companies.  As stated above, there are pros and cons to each.

First, let’s talk about public or private companies (“industry”).  In public accounting, you ultimately work for multiple companies, aka your clients.  Your schedule can be hectic at times during the year as multiple clients all want their work done at the same time.  Since you have multiple clients, you need to know about different industries and remember details about multiple companies.  When working for a private company, you only have to consider what one company is doing.  Your schedule is usually more consistent day-to-day.  It’s easier to know who to talk to get information.  You only learn about things that apply to your company and your industry. 

Once you decide if you want to work in industry or public accounting, you should consider what size firm you want to work for. In industry, work is generally the same. The difference is the size of the department.  Are you one of three or one of fifty?  In public accounting, size changes the type of work you do, the type of clients you see, and the number of clients you work on. Big 4 firms are large and will give you access to work on some of the largest companies.  Professionals at the Big 4 often are pushed to be very specialized and it’s not uncommon to only have a few clients.  Professionals tend to lean more toward consulting work or being a compliance expert.  Big 4 firms are very large.  You may know your team and a handful of co-workers, but you will not know most of the employees of the firm. 

Small accounting firms tend to help companies from beginning to end.  They work mainly with small business and individuals.  They help companies with the accounting work as well as tax returns.  They prepare individual returns at the end of the year.  They also do some consulting.  Professionals at small firms are expected to have a very broad knowledge base.  These firms only have a handful of employees, so everyone knows everybody. 

For those that want some of both of these worlds, there are medium size firms.  You usually get a blend of a small company feel and big company work. These are firms that have enough personnel so individuals do not have to know everything, yet are still expected to have a broad knowledge.  You may work on small companies, but have the capabilities to work on medium to large companies.  Individual return work is for individuals that have more complex returns. Clients expect both consulting and compliance assistance.  The firm is big enough that you may not know everybody, but you know the majority of your co-workers. 

After working at public firms of all sizes and for industry, I chose to come to Smith & Howard to continue my career.  Through my years of experience, I have found I like seeing a variety of work.  I like the challenge of being responsible for multiple projects.  I like working with clients and helping them improve their business and seeing things from beginning to end.  I want to be part of a team and a company that values me.  I like the complexity of larger companies, but the small company culture you find at a mid-size firm.  Smith & Howard is big enough  to see a lot of different issues, but I don’t have to know everything.  I have found this is the best of both worlds (big and small), while giving me the challenges I desire to continue my career.

This article was written Kate Maxwell, CPA, a Senior Manager in our tax department.

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