Accountants and auditors work with a business' financial statements and ensure they are accurate, up-to-date and in compliance with various regulatory standards. Accountants prepare these financial statements, which include the balance sheet, income statement and statement of cash flows.
Beyond this, there are myriad additional duties that an accountant might perform, such as bookkeeping, tracking expenses and revenues, forecasting future profits and cash flows, and tax preparation. An accountant could be a dedicated employee of a company, or he or she might work for a third party hired by businesses to manage its books and prepare its taxes.
What Auditors Do
Auditors come in behind accountants and verify the work they do. They examine the financial statements prepared by accountants and ensure they represent the company's financial position accurately. Auditors verify that these financial statements, particularly the ones of public companies that are required to release them annually, are assembled in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
Like accountants, an auditor can work internally for a specific company or for a third party, such as a public accounting firm, to audit various businesses. Additionally, many auditors are employed by government and regulatory bodies, most notably the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Accounting and auditing draw from the same talent pool and, for the most part, require similar skill sets. However, subtle differences exist. Accounting requires a person who is more detail-oriented and focused. Small mistakes can cost millions, particularly for large companies dealing with massive sums of money. As an accountant, it reflects poorly on you when an auditor comes in behind you and discovers errors. Auditors must value attention to detail, but they also need strong investigative skills.
In addition to capturing honest mistakes, a good auditor is called upon to detect subterfuge, fraud and intentional misstatements. The companies that perpetrate such chicanery are generally good at hiding it, which is why preternatural detective skills are so valuable for an auditor.
For a student debating between these two career paths, understand that both offer strong income potential, above-average job security and plenty of upward mobility. As for which can lead to a more successful and satisfying career, this depends largely on your specific goals, personality and skill set.
Expect to complete at least a bachelor's degree to put yourself in an auspicious position to succeed in accounting or auditing. While neither career imposes across-the-board educational standards, and both professions employ successful people who did not graduate college, these people are the exception, not the rule. Most high-level accountants and auditors, at some point, take and pass the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam. To do so requires 150 hours of postsecondary education, which is more than a bachelor's degree and almost enough to obtain a master's degree. The Big Four accounting firms – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and KPMG – for whom many recent graduates in accounting want to work, generally prefer their new hires to have passed the exam already or, at minimum, be eligible to sit for it.
Accountants and auditors must be good with numbers. This does not mean a working knowledge of multidimensional calculus is necessary, since calculators and spreadsheets do most of the heavy lifting where math is concerned. Professionals in both careers, however, need to be quick and confident with quantitative analysis. Those who get confused easily when working with numbers, and who make constant mistakes, are going to find both careers frustrating.
The accounting world has long been pigeonholed as a haven for nerds and introverts who prefer the company of numbers to people, but this stereotype is outdated and inaccurate. Under the broad umbrella of accounting are many fields, such as management consulting, that require dynamic, extroverted individuals who can establish rapport with C-suite employees and give confident presentations to boards of directors.
Moreover, accountants and auditors often work in teams to conduct such duties as preparing and reviewing financial statements, tallying inventory and forecasting future sales. The hackneyed image of the geeky accountant squirreled away in a corner cubicle, hiding behind a thick set of glasses and a computer screen, in no way accurately reflects the profession as it exists today.
The salary range for new accountants and auditors is broad. Where you fall on this continuum depends on several factors, such as education, geographic area and size of employer. The Big Four firms set the salary benchmarks for the profession, and as of 2017, their salary range for new accounting associates is between $40,000 and $68,000 depending on the factors listed above.
A job with a smaller public firm or an industry accounting position might pay within this range, or it might pay more or less. Also, keep in mind that accounting and auditing starting salaries are highly negotiable; if you have multiple offers on the table, this can be used as leverage to get a higher salary from your chosen employer.
The government lumps accountants and auditors together when forecasting career growth, and this forecast looks strong. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook, there is an expected 10% growth rate for accountants and auditors between 2016 and 2026. This compares to an average growth rate for all occupations of 7%.
Job growth in the accounting field closely correlates to the health of the economy as a whole. Stronger-than-expected economic growth could push the numbers for accounting upward, while a deep recession or prolonged period of stagnation might squelch the demand for accountants in coming years.
Which One to Choose
For a recent grad or young professional who is ambitious, detail-oriented and quantitatively inclined, it is difficult to go wrong with either accounting or auditing. Subtle distinctions in your interests and personality type will likely determine which career path will ultimately be more satisfying. If creating things from piles of raw numerical data sounds like a fun way to spend a day, lean toward accounting.
If, on the other hand, taking someone else's creation and picking it apart looking for errors and inconsistencies sounds more exciting, a career in auditing can give you what you desire.