Heidi Brundage, Technical Manager - Human Capital
I commend you for asking these questions early on. The career options for an accountant are endless. The good news is that you are on the right start to a very rewarding career, no matter which path you choose.
There is a great need for both audit and tax professionals in the public accounting world. According to the AICPA's 2009 Trends Report, firms hire more auditors than tax folks, but that gap appears to be shrinking. You're going to experience a tremendous amount of exposure to the profession in either field. I started my career in audit and would do it all over again. I worked with different people on every engagement, traveled and saw a range of industries. In the big firms, there is a definite career path for auditors and a different one for tax professionals. However, in smaller firms, you'll most likely to work in all areas of the firm and therefore become a generalist early on, perhaps before deciding to specialize in a particular area. Learn more about big vs. small here. I think work hours are probably the same for both audit and tax but the workload seasons will vary a bit (e.g. tax season is heavy in Feb-Apr and Sep-Oct, while audit is busy based on year-ends and Jan-Mar). My advice is to not over think this decision and go with your gut. There will be chances for you to switch down the road and you can’t go wrong with public accounting.
Check out Robert Half’s 2009 Salary Guide for more information on salaries. Tax and audit in public accounting should be very comparable.
I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the bigger the firm and the more focus on audit, the more travel you’ll do. This statement does not mean that small firms don’t have out of town clients or that tax professionals don’t travel. From where I sit, it appears that auditors travel more than tax professionals because they need to observe more things at the client in person. Be sure to ask around for other opinions on this subject. And remember that “travel” is a subjective term because sometimes the travel is an hour away to a rural area and other times it’s to the center of a major city.
Finally, I firmly believe that credentials are extremely helpful in a competitive business environment. I am not that familiar with the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst), however I understand that it is well known in the finance industry. I recommend that if anyone becomes an expert in an area or has a special interest in diving deep into something, attaining an additional credential is an excellent way to hold yourself out as a specialist to potential clients. In fact, the AICPA offers credentials that are specific to CPAs, such as the PFS (Personal Financial Specialist). You can learn more about these Specialized Communities at aicpacommunities.org.
I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. And again, you should be very proud of the fact that you are planning your career so early on. I’m certain you are going to do great things!