Accounting | The Profession

Should you choose industry, practice or your own firm? Here’s what CPAs say

As with any major decision in life, your choice will depend a lot on your personality and goals. But here are some key insights from people in the know

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Young professional looking out of windowThere are no right or wrong choices when choosing your path in accounting; everything comes down to personal preference, CPAs say (Getty Images/PeopleImages)

One of the biggest questions many new CPAs need to answer is: Should I go into practice or industry?

On the surface, the question seems simple enough. As one article put it, “If you’re more interested in working for an individual company in a specific industry, you should go into corporate accounting. But, if you’d rather work with a variety of businesses, public accounting is a better choice.”

Within those broad categories, though, there is much more to consider. As CPA Ismail Akhter, associate director, member in practice, audit, assurance and reporting at CPA Canada, points out, “Every public practice and every industry experience is different because of the many possibilities you can encounter. Within industry, you have a broad range of companies, from small to large. Then there is the industry itself, as well as the culture within it.”

In order to get a better sense of what each area involves, we talked to several CPAs to determine what they liked best about their jobs—and what they liked less about others. Of course, they all agreed that there are no right or wrong choices; everything comes down to personal preference. But here are some of the themes that emerged. 


A wide-angle view: There is arguably is no better way to gain exposure to different roles, industries, positions and specializations than in a big firm. As CPA Jordan Barratt points out, “You’re constantly moving around working with new clients, new industries so, if you choose to move into a particular industry, you’re well prepared.” Over the past 13 years, Barratt himself has gone from senior manager in the financial services/audit group at EY to director of quality assurance and operational risk at RBC, then back to EY, where he’s currently the national campus and experience recruiting leader. 

Built-in variety: If you are in the assurance group at a big firm, you work on a banking client, a manufacturing client or an insurance company. “So, even though your job is the same, each assignment feels different,” says Barratt.

A team focus: Professional services is a very people-oriented business, says Barratt. “You need to be able to operate in teams and you need to enjoy that type of work.” As Barratt points out, he worked with 60 or 70 different people throughout the year in his original position at EY and really missed that contact when he moved to industry.

Everyone is different: Of course, working with a variety of personalities can sometimes be challenging and dealing with new clients in new industries can create an element of uncertainty. “When I was in assurance, I always liked that aspect of the job, but some people like to know what to expect day to day,” explains Barratt.

Finding your balance: It’s often said that working hours are longer in public practice than in industry. But, as Barratt points out, his firm puts a lot of effort into balancing things out through the year to ensure people take advantage of all the benefits that are offered. “Personally, I always knew when I was going to be busy and when I would have some downtime. And I was able to plan for it and never minded it.”


One company vs. many: While public practice provides exposure to many industries and people, industry can allow you to help drive the success of one company. For example, CPA Hadia Amrane currently works as treasurer and head of shared services at MHIRJ Aviation Group, a division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. She likes working in treasury because it has a “critical impact on the day-to-day financial health of the company.” Among other pluses, she also likes acting as a strategic partner to the business, implementing efficient processes and systems, and “dealing with different challenges that allow you to be creative.”

Internal vs. external relations: In industry, you work mainly with internal stakeholders, which brings a different perspective than managing client relations, as you would be doing in public practice. And this is something Amrane enjoys: “I like working with different stakeholders—finance, legal, accounting, sales, IT, HR and banks.” 

A different kind of progression: While every experience is different, some say progression in industry may not be as clear-cut as in practice. As one article points out, “Public accounting salaries are generally higher than private accounting salaries, although both fields are well compensated.”

Predictability vs. variety: It’s often said that industry provides a more consistent schedule than public practice, as it has less travel and a better work-life balance. Of course, accountants with fiscal or calendar-year reporting schedules can experience crunch times but, as CPA Bob Gore, principal of Robert Gore & Associates, explains, “You have more control over your personal life for the most part.”

One vs. many: If you are coming from public practice, some say it can be a culture shock to move from a firm where there are many other people doing the same work as you, to one where you might be the only accountant in the business.


Although having your own firm, large or small, would put you squarely in the area of public practice, there are some distinguishing characteristics that make it worth a look.

A matter of autonomy: For those who like the freedom of being their own boss, opening a solo or small practice just makes sense. For example, small practice owner Gore spent time in both industry and practice before realizing he would be better suited to going out on his own. “Before I took the leap, though, I looked at my personal contacts and friends who might be interested in doing business or referring business to me.” Today, the firm has 13 employees in two offices.

Every client is different: As with public practice in general, variety is also a big draw. As CPA Debbie Gorsline, a partner at Calgary-based Anderson Gorsline, points out, “All the entrepreneurs we work with have their own challenges. No day is ever the same.” 

Risk vs. reward: In some cases, having your own firm can be more financially rewarding than a position in industry—although that potential also comes with a heavy dose of risk. As Gore points out, “When I decided to go out on my own, I was married with three kids and a mortgage and a wife who was staying home. It had to work—and fortunately, it did.”

People skills are a must: Naturally, to develop business, you must inspire confidence in prospective clients. “Having an outgoing, engaging personality is really important—with the presumption that you have the technical skills to back it up,” says Gore.

Long days: Like any business owner, CPAs with their own practice can expect a busy schedule. As Gorsline puts it, “You’re on the job 24/7 as you are always thinking about client needs and managing the practice.” Gore agrees: “I didn’t appreciate until I started running my own firm that the hours were way more open-ended (read never-ending) than they would be in industry. But, since my wife now also works at the firm (in IT), we have much better control over when we take time off.”

Again, choosing a path is not necessarily a one-time proposition. Your career may take you from public accounting to industry and back again. But, however it unfolds, you can be confident that your prospects will be excellent. As one article puts it, “Accountants can enjoy long and successful careers, whether they choose [a path] in public accounting or [industry].”


Looking for more insights on career direction?  CPA Canada has a wealth of resources for both industry professionals and practitioners, including those looking to open or sell their own practice. And, if you’re considering a move, make sure to read this first. 

Also, make sure to keep up-to date with CPA Canada’s strategic initiative to reshape the accounting profession by checking out Foresight: Reimagining the Profession.