Accounting job options and duties vary among the three major fields of accounting: public, management and government. Accountants examine, record and audit the financial records of individuals, businesses, nonprofit entities and government agencies. They also prepare their financial statements and tax returns.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor predicts that the employment of accountants and auditors will grow 18 percent from the year 2006 to 2016–an approximate increase of 230,000 jobs. This is one of the fastest-growing job categories.

Public Accountants

Public Accountants are employed by public accounting firms. They provide a range of accounting activities from financial statement preparation, financial analysis and tax work to consultations for account management. These services are for individuals, private businesses, public firms, government agencies or nonprofit entities. The field includes external auditors, tax advisers and forensic accountants. Most public accountants are CPAs.

  • Public or Certified Public Accountant – The most obvious career path for an accounting major is to pursue a license as a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, and practice public accounting. Public accountants are professionals who provide a broad range of financial advisory and external accounting services for their clients.

Some services provided by public accountants include assurance (audit), tax compliance and advisory, mergers and acquisitions due diligence, and estate and financial planning. In order to complete the CPA certification process, public accountants must pass the CPA exam and work in public accounting for at least one or two years.

While a CPA certification might be the most common, there are other accounting certifications as well, including Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), and Enrolled Agents (EA) for those specializing in tax.

A public accountant is essentially a general accountant who either works for an accounting firm or has his or her own private practice. Though public accountants do traditionally work in an office setting, because they often work with several clients at one time, they encounter a wide variety of types of work and people, keeping the job engaging and interesting.

Public accountants, who often become certified public accountants, perform a number of accounting services for their varied clients, either individuals or corporations:

    • Public accountants’ daily tasks range widely, from auditing, tax and financial planning to consulting and providing advice about compensation and benefits.
    • Public accountants meet with clients, work with larger teams of accountants and eventually train other junior accountants.

Many public accountants end up rising to a high-level position within a firm or moving to a private corporation to become a controller or CFO. An accounting degree, however, is crucial to entering and succeeding in public accounting.

Public Accountant Career Path


Entry Level

Mid Level

Senior Level

Types of Roles Staff accountant, junior auditor, tax personnel at an accounting firm Senior associate/accountant or manager for audit or tax in an accounting firm Partner/senior partner or director of a firm, CPA in private practice, corporate accounting executive, or CFO of a private company
Getting There
  • Bachelor degree in accounting or finance
  • Proficiency in Microsoft Office applications
  • All entry-level requirements
  • CPA certification
  • An advanced degree like an MBA with a focus in accounting or MAcc is helpful
  • All mid-level requirements
  • An MBA or MAcc is recommended
  • Work on specific tasks for a variety of clients
  • Help prepare audit papers
  • Execute audits
  • Work on tax returns
  • Review and test data
  • Help senior accounting staff
  • Supervise project teams and accounting staff
  • Review and prepare audits and tax returns
  • Work with clients
  • Conduct research
  • Help with firm strategy and planning
Executive in accounting firm:

  • Oversee audits, tax and consulting
  • Drive strategy and business development
  • Manage client relationships

CPA in private practice:

  • Work with client base on anything from tax issues to audits to budget analysis

CFO of a private company:

  • Senior-level management accountant responsibilities
  •  Financial Accountant – Financial accountants prepare financial statements based on general ledgers and participate in important financial decisions involving M&A, benefits/ERISA planning and long-term financial projections. They are concerned with how a company’s performance is represented to outside parties, as well as reporting information on profit, loss and cash flow to managers and shareholders.

The work can be varied. One day you may be running spreadsheets. The next day you may be visiting a customer or supplier to set up a new account and discuss business. This work requires a good understanding of both accounting and finance.

Accurate financial accounting reports help potential investors and lenders decide whether to invest in a firm or lend a company money; they enable tax authorities to determine the appropriate amount of tax owed on profits; and they keep stakeholders within the business informed about its overall financial performance.

Professionals in the financial accounting field usually follow the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Reports such as balance sheets and income statements should adhere to these standards, so that there is consistency in reporting throughout an individual company’s history as well as throughout the corporate world.

If your career interest lies in financial accounting, you may one day find yourself on the management team of a large corporation; however, financial accountants are found in organizations of every size. On a day-to-day basis, they take bookkeeping records and other business transactions and use that data to prepare four reports required by the GAAP:

    • The balance sheet
    • The income statement
    • The statement of owner’s equity
    • The statement of cash flows

In smaller companies, financial accountants may be involved in other areas of business management in addition to their accounting duties.

Financial Accountant Career Path


Entry Level

Mid Level

Senior Level

Types of Roles Accountant, staff accountant, bookkeeper Financial accountant, senior accountant, senior financial analyst Financial controller, finance director, chief financial officer
Getting There
  • Bachelor’s degree in accounting (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, or Bachelor of Business Administration)
  • Knowledge of bookkeeping, accounts payable and receivable, and accounting software
  • CPA certification is required for any accountant working for a public company registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • All entry-level requirements
  • Strong communication and analytical skills
  • Up-to-date knowledge of financial regulations
  • At least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance; an MBA degree can mean higher salaries and better opportunities
  • All mid-level requirements
  • Excellent managerial and interpersonal skills
  • High standards of integrity and accuracy
  • A bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance is necessary; a graduate degree in finance such as an MBA is desirable
  • Work under a senior accountant or manager
  • Check accuracy of business transactions and calculations
  • Perform routine accounting duties that produce the primary financial data used in accounting records and reports
  • Assist in preparing financial reports such as profit and loss statements
  • Collect and analyze data and prepare reports on a company’s financial activities
  • Assist and direct junior financial accounting personnel
  • Prepare budgets, monthly statements, and special reports
  • Accountable to management; may advise managers about a company’s finances or budget
  • Oversee all financial activities of the company
  • Hire, train and oversee staff
  • Ensure the company adheres to state and federal financial regulations and tax requirements
  • Produce high-level financial reports for management, stockholders and investors
  •  Tax – Tax accountants prepare corporate and personal income tax statements and formulate tax strategies involving issues such as financial choice, how to best treat a merger or acquisition, deferral of taxes, when to expense items and the like. This work requires a thorough understanding of economics and the tax code. Increasingly, large corporations are looking for persons with both an accounting and a legal background in tax. A person, for example, with a JD and an CPA would be especially desirable to many firms.

Management Accountants

Management accountants are employed by private or public companies to support their goals by performing such tasks as asset management, budgeting, performance evaluation and cost management. These individuals are also called private, cost, industrial or corporate accountants.

  • Budget Analysis – Budget analysts are responsible for developing and managing an organizations financial plans. There are plentiful jobs in this area in government and private industry. Besides quantitative skills many budget analyst jobs require good people skills because of negotiations involved in the work.
  •  Cost Accountant -Cost accountants might work for accounting or consulting firms, or they might work directly for corporations in the retail or manufacturing sectors. But regardless of work environment, accurate cost accounting enables a company to reduce financial waste and increase profit.

 How is this accomplished? By determining the specific factors affecting the cost of a product or service. These factors may include labor costs for the production process, cost of materials used in making the product, packaging costs, waste costs, inventory costs, and overhead figures such as the cost of running a particular piece of equipment. A cost accountant understands how these factors, and many more, influence the selling price of an item or service.

  •  Management Accounting  – Management accountants work in companies and participate in decisions about capital budgeting and line of business analysis and help shape business strategy within a company. Major functions include cost analysis, analysis of new contracts and participation in efforts to control expenses efficiently. This work often involves the analysis of the structure of organizations. Is responsibility to spend money in a company at the right level of our organization? Are goals and objectives to control costs being communicated effectively? Historically, many management accountants have been derided as “bean counters”. This mentality has undergone major change as management accountants now often work side by side with marketing and finance to develop new business.

Also known as corporate accountants, management accountants work within one specific company.

The role of the management accountant is to perform a series of tasks to ensure their company’s financial security, handling essentially all financial matters and thus helping to drive the business’s overall management and strategy.

Management accountants are key figures in determining the status and success of a company. Some choose to become a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), a similar credential to CPA, but with a greater focus on cost accounting, financial planning, and management issues.

Job responsibilities can range widely. Depending on the company, your level of experience, the time of year and the type of industry, you could find yourself doing any of the following tasks:

    • Budgeting
    • Handling taxes
    • Managing assets to helping determine compensation and benefits packages
    • Aiding in strategic planning

Management Accounting Career Path


Entry Level

Mid Level

Senior Level

Type of Roles Staff accountant, cost accountant, junior internal auditor, tax accountant Accounting manager or senior accountant, senior internal auditor Controller, director of accounting or finance, CFO
Getting There
  • Bachelor degree in finance or accounting
  • Strong technology skills (specifically in Microsoft Excel)
  • All entry-level requirements
  • Strong communication and analytical skills
  • An MBA with a focus in accounting, MAcc or CPA or CMA certification is recommended
  • All mid-level requirements
  • Track record of excellence and leadership in the field
  • Solid management skills
  • Knowledge of the industry and US accounting principles
  • A graduate degree—MBA or MAcc—and/or CPA or CMA certification is desired
  • Work under a senior accountant or manager
  • Do tasks involving receivables and payroll, financial statements and compliance audits
  • Help in the budget department
  • Prepare reports for the controller’s department
  Prepare financial statements  Assess internal controls  Analyze and/or prepare monthly financial information  Help create company budgets

  Supervise accounting staff

  Complete and review tax returns

  Help manage the general ledger

  • Responsible for all or part of a company’s financial status, actions and transactions
  • Coordinate accounting operations
  • Hire, train and oversee staff
  • Maintain budget
  • Perform financial analysis
  • Build business strategy
  • Manage relationships with investors and auditors
  • Private or Industry Accountant – A private or industry accountant performs internal accounting tasks, services and functions for a company. A private accountant may act as an internal auditor and review and verify the company’s financial results, policies and internal controls.

 He or she may also work as a staff accountant and perform typical internal accounting duties or as a financial analyst providing budgeting, operational and review support.  Gaining experience in a corporate structure can prove to be invaluable, as many high-level executives have backgrounds in accounting, internal auditing or finance.

Government Accountants and Auditors

Government accountants provide services to government agencies and private businesses that are subject to government regulation, such as utilities, telephone service, banks, drugs, food and financial service companies, including those that handle insurance or trade stocks. Also included are businesses that provide professional services, such as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and engineers.

  • Audit – Work in audit involves checking accounting ledgers and financial statements within corporations and government. This work is becoming increasingly computerized and can rely on sophisticated random sampling methods. Audit is the bread and butter work of accounting. This work can involve significant travel and allows you to really understand how money is being made in the company that you are analyzing.
  •  Government AccountantMost people would rather face the executioner than receive a notification letter from the Internal Revenue Service that states, “You’re being audited.” So, with all the accounting degrees and accounting programs available in the scheme of number crunching careers, why would you want to become a feared IRS or government accountant? Well, there are many good reasons to consider a government accounting degree or a government auditor position—first and foremost: stability and opportunity.

As a government accountant or auditor, you’ll work primarily in the public sector to maintain and examine the records of government agencies, as well as audit private businesses or sole proprietors whose business transactions are subject to government regulations. With a government accounting degree, you’ll be employed by federal, state or local governments, making sure that revenues are received and expenses are reported and recorded in accordance with laws and regulations. You also might work as an Internal Revenue Service agent, in financial management or in budget analysis and administration.

Required skills: People seeking a government accounting degree should have an aptitude for mathematics and be able to analyze, compare and interpret facts and figures quickly. They must be able to clearly communicate both verbally and in writing and must be good at working with people, business systems and computers.

Places government accountants work: Government agencies and government-affiliated corporations and companies and law enforcement agencies.

  •  Internal Auditor – Internal auditors are similar to management accountants. They review their companies’ financial management practices and check for mismanagement, fraud and waste. They then provide this information to management and the Board of Directors. Contrary to belief, internal auditors are unique in the field of accounting. Instead of the usual budgeting and number-crunching, internal auditors usually work inside their own companies to verify the effectiveness of internal company procedures and controls.

If you pursue an internal auditing career, your job will be to check for mismanagement, waste or fraud by examining your firm’s financial records and processes, information systems and management procedures to ensure that accounting records are accurate and that the controls in place are sufficient. You may also review your company’s operations and check these for compliance with government regulations.

Required skills: Previous accounting or auditing career experience can help an applicant get a job. Practical knowledge of computers and their applications is a plus for undergraduate and continuing education students in the accounting and auditing fields.

Places internal auditors work: Any private or public corporation or company or government offices and law enforcement agencies.

  • Forensic Accountant – More often the stuff of a Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective or a Cold War-era secret agent, the crime-fighting, mystery-filled life of a forensic accountant is miles away from the “bean counter” accounting stereotype. Working on anything from bankruptcy and divorce, to major fraud and capital crime cases, forensic accountants have a love of the excitement that comes with law as well as order.

Those in a forensic accounting career combine their accounting, auditing and investigative skills to analyze and interpret business and financial evidence, and can participate in trials as expert witnesses. Before you begin your sleuthing however, you’ll need to find the right forensic accounting program.

Required skills: In addition to strong accounting skills and legal knowledge, forensic accountants must have the following:

    • Remarkable curiosity
    • Attention to detail
    • Persistence
    • The ability to think creatively
    • Communicate effectively
    • Analytical and research skills

Those who have completed an accounting program will work anywhere investigative accounting is needed. This ranges from private corporations or firms that help specific companies deal with suspected (or known) fraud and embezzlement to government organizations like police departments, the FBI or the CIA. Forensic accountants also frequently work for public accounting firms, banks, the IRS, insurance companies and law firms.

  • FBI AgentAlthough it may not seem like the most obvious career choice for an accountant, many Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are actually CPAs. In fact, most FBI agents are either attorneys or CPAs. If you choose to pursue a career with the FBI, there are two main types of accounting jobs from which to choose.

 You can work as an internal accountant, or you can serve as a Special Agent. As an internal accountant, you will be responsible for typical accounting services, such as tax, audit or budget. If you choose to be a Special Agent, you will be responsible for investigating financial crimes.

Curious about what you can do with an accounting degree? Want to dispel the “stereotype” of who accountants are or what they do?

Professional associations and societies are a wealth of information and resources. These organizations conduct research in the accounting, tax, forensic, and advisory fields and on such issues as fraud and work/life balance. They provide advice and links for career search preparation and job listings, scholarships, local chapters, membership, or CPA exam preparation and application. Listed below is only a partial listing of resources available:

  • Association of Certified Fraud Examiners
  • California Society of Certified Public Accountants
  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
  • Government Finance Officers Association
  • Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting
  • American Society of Women Accountants
  • U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

The California Board of Accountancy issues certified public accounting licenses; therefore their website has information about licensing, issues related to licensing, or status of licensees in the state.

Public accounting firms’ websites have a wealth of information about their firm, career opportunities, job search preparation, research, and about the profession. Government agencies, such as the County of Orange, Federal Bureau of Investigation, State Board of Equalization, or Central Intelligence Agency, maintain websites that provide information about their agencies and career opportunities.

Technical Resources

In addition to professional associations, boards of accountancy, or firms, organizations provide technical information such as generally accepted accounting principles, auditing standards, or compliance standards.

  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
  • Public Accounting Oversight Board
  • Securities and Exchange Commission
  • Financial Accounting Standards Board
  • International Federation of Accountants


For more information on the outlook for accountants or descriptions of what accountants do, students can visit: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Students can review professional organizations’ websites, such as: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, Institute of Management Accountants, Institute of Internal Auditors, to name a few.

Students can review governmental agency websites such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency.