A private accountant in the US works for a single employer, performing one or more of several different accounting functions, such as internal auditing, budget consolidation, tax accounting or cost accounting, among others. A private accountant may have a different title, such as “staff accountant,” “internal accountant,” or “management accountant,” but all perform essentially the same function. While many private accountants don't have a college degree in accounting, larger companies almost invariably will require at least a bachelor's degree, and many will also require applicants to have some experience in public accounting.
While private accountants work for a single employer, public accountants perform accounting duties for a number of different client companies, and by design maintain an arm's length relationship with the companies for which they perform these services. They may be assigned to five or six companies during the course of a year, or even more, and many never return to the same client. This gives them a broad range of experience in different business structures and accounting situations. It's this experience that companies seek if they require that applicants for their private accounting jobs have public accounting experience.
One of the most important duties a private accountant may be called on to perform is an internal audit, which is a detailed investigation of all the different components of the company's financial transactions. For example, a private accountant will thoroughly explore all the documentation supporting a disbursement, and ensure that all are accurate and fairly reflect the transaction. In many cases, this will include verifying that goods or services were received as billed and setting up systems of internal control, if necessary, or monitor them if already established. For example, an element of an internal control system is to log all incoming monies independently of the bookkeeping process. A private accountant will monitor the log and ensure that all monies received were properly handled.
Tax accounting is another important component of a private accountant's job description. Although many smaller companies will routinely employ a public accounting firm or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) to do the actual preparation of the tax returns, much of the preliminary work is done by the private accountant.
A common misunderstanding about the job of a private accountant is that it's nothing more than a glorified bookkeeper. While some small companies may give their bookkeeper the title of “staff accountant,” the reality is that a private accountant's work essentially starts where the bookkeeper's job ends. While private accounting careers generally do not offer as lucrative a compensation package as those in public accounting, they offer a better balance of work life to private life, as public accounting demands very long work hours, especially of entry-level accountants.