Public Accountant Vs. CPA

Public accountants and CPAs are very similar positions with a significant key difference: the level of seniority and responsibility they possess. Learn details about the job responsibilities and seniority levels for these careers.

Comparing Public Accountants to CPAs

A public accountant's work includes a broad range of accounting tasks, including report preparation, general ledgers, and taxes. Public accountants who qualify can take the Uniform CPA Examination to earn the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential, thus becoming CPAs. A CPA's work also includes supervising accounting departments and performing higher-level accounting tasks, such as audits.

Job Title Education Requirements Median Salary (2017)* Job Growth (2016-2026)**
Public Accountant Bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, business or other related field $57,513 10% (for all accountants and auditors)
CPA Bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, business, or other related field; CPA certification $63,818 10% (for all accountants and auditors)

Sources: * **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of Public Accountants vs. CPAs

Public accountants and CPAs are responsible for accounting tasks ranging from audits, to taxes, to general financial ledgers. They work with documents and information required by law to be disclosed publicly. Public accountants generally work at a lower level than their certified counterparts (CPAs) and complete more day-to-day tasks within an organization's finance department. CPAs typically work at a more senior level and may manage their own accounting firm. All publicly-traded companies are required to have CPAs sign off on documentation submitted to the Securities & Exchange Commission.

A primary requirement of both of these positions is the ability to evaluate financial information in a detailed manner and uphold the highest financial ethics. With certification, overall job prospects are generally brighter. Some employers will pay for their public accountants to become CPAs.

Public Accountants

Public accountants are responsible for completing day-to-day accounting tasks, including payroll, general ledger entries and oversight, billing, and accounts payable. They may manage lower-level positions within the accounting and finance department of a larger business or work as the sole member of a finance department within a smaller company. Public accountants may work with an external CPA on larger projects, such as taxes and auditing. Most public accountants work a standard 40-hour work week, although they often work overtime during busy seasons, such as when taxes or reports are due. They work in a regular office environment. Advancement opportunities include becoming a CPA or finance manager.

Job responsibilities of a public accountant include:

  • Complete revenue recognition reports
  • Perform account reconciliations and collect on delinquent accounts
  • Identify trends in revenues and expenditures and implement corrective action as needed
  • Review contracts and terms, including grant applications or other financial applications, as appropriate to the industry
  • Perform invoice review


CPAs generally occupy senior-level positions in finance departments or become partners/owners of accounting firms. They possess official certification granted from the state in which they work, which they earn by taking a certification exam; relevant postsecondary education and work experience are required to take the exam, and once earned, certification must be renewed every two years. CPAs may complete audits or tax filings for individuals or businesses, although some CPAs specialize in a particular accounting field, including auditing, taxation, or forensic accounting.

Due to the additional education and examinations undertaken by CPAs, their expertise is often held in higher esteem by businesses and individuals. CPAs work a standard 40-hour work week in an office environment for most of the year. However, during busy tax reporting times, usually February, March, and early April, they may work additional hours. Advancement opportunities include becoming a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or partner in a CPA firm.

Job responsibilities of a CPA include:

  • Sign reports for publicly-traded companies that will be reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Prepare monthly, quarterly, and annual financial reports for businesses
  • Provide guidance to businesses regarding contractual language and other financial dealings
  • Represent clients during financial litigation

Related Careers

If you are interested in becoming a public accountant, a career as a payroll supervisor may be of interest to you. Both careers involve working with payroll, tax, and financial information. A career as a certified financial planner may also be interesting to those looking to pursue a career as a CPA, as both careers require many of the same financial skills and involve working with clients regarding their financial situations.

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