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Which accountancy specialisation is right for me?

Emmanuel Payne

Service line, business area, division… whatever it’s labelled, your potential future employer will ask you where you’d like to specialise.

The accountancy industry offers diverse career paths. One of the first and most important decisions you’ll need to make before applying to accounting graduate jobs is what specialisation suits you. The qualification you graduated with and the subjects you choose to do while studying will have a bearing, possibly ruling certain specialisations in or out. If you want to pursue auditing, for example, a solid academic background business studies can be beneficial.

Once you’ve worked out which specialisations are realistic options it’s a good idea to do one of the ‘self-selection tests’ many accountancy firms put on their websites to assist potential graduate employees to determine which areas of the business they are best suited to. Finally, if you want to kick it old-school, you can always seek out someone who is in the role to get their view on what it’s like on the job.

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William Buck
Australian National Audit Office (ANAO)

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Eleven options

Here’s a rundown of the main areas of specialisation in accountancy and the type of person they will most likely appeal to:

1) Assurance

This is fertile ground for those with a strong academic record, above-average communication skills and plentiful self-confidence. CPA defines assurance as professional services that are 'intended to increase the confidence that users can place in a given subject matter or information'. It involves reviewing the financial data and procedures of a company to ensure decisions are being made based on quality information and shareholders’ money is being put to proper use. You’ll also be providing potential investors with the information they need to determine whether to put money into a company. Expect to be involved in e-commerce, mergers and acquisitions, internal controls, inventories, fixed assets, accounts payable and system reliability (basically anywhere information needs to be compiled to make a smart business decision).

2) Commercial finance

Got good business awareness and strong analytical skills? Commercial finance is at the heart of industry and focuses on consumer transactions. You could be employed anywhere from retail, to manufacturing, to fast-moving consumer goods or the leisure sector. You’ll be expected to analyse the performance of your employer’s products or services and make profit-maximising recommendations.

3) Corporate finance

You’ll need unshakeable confidence, unimpeachable communication and numeracy skills and an appetite for long hours and high-stakes situations. You’ll mainly be adding value to businesses in the midst of M&A activity, sourcing funds, and capital restructures. Roles range from lead advisers, who project manage the process of raising capital, through to reporting accountants and auditors, who are responsible for making sure the accounts of target companies are in good order. Whatever the role, you’ll be playing a crucial part in assessing and managing risk from strategic, tactical, and financial perspectives.

4) Corporate treasury

Have a masterly grasp of business and economics, top-shelf analytical skills and a knack for working well when the heat is on? Corporate treasurers play a crucial role in any organisation given it’s their responsibility to make sure there’s enough cash on hand to cover outgoings. This chiefly involves monitoring liquidity in the company’s finances. You’ll also need to be across any developments in the business that generate risk and to have arranged the necessary capital to keep the organisation solvent should a risky initiative go bad.  

5) Financial accounting

This is a smart choice for those with an analytical, inquiring mind, top-notch communication skills and a willingness to challenge an organisation to improve the way it works. Financial accountants analyse and report on financial transactions (via financial statements like the balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement), which helps yield vital data on a business’s performance.

The difference between financial and management accounting is that financial accountants provide reports for people outside the organization (e.g. investors, regulatory bodies etc), where management accountants provide reporting to help managers within the organization make decisions. As a financial accountant, you’ll sometimes need to explain complex financial situations to non-experts, so the ability to communicate well is important.  

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    6) Forensic accounting

    If you love a good detective story, you may wish to consider becoming a forensic accountant and help clients with problems such as fraud, disputes and suspected misconduct. You’ll carry out investigations to uncover key information about the person or organisation in question and quantify the losses involved. You’ll need an inquisitive mind as well as the communication skills to explain complex problems to non-experts. One added bonus: thanks to the recently released Ben Affleck action film (The Accountant), forensic accountants are enjoying a moment of pop culture sexiness!

    7) Insolvency

    This is a specialisation best suited to those with an insatiable curiosity about the way different companies work, strong negotiation skills, a capacity to process complex financial information and a dash of sensitivity. You’ll have the weighty responsibility of doing what you can to ensure that creditors, suppliers or employees of failing businesses get the best outcome possible. Specialists in this field are usually appointed through referrals from banks, lawyers and accountants so you’ll also need good relationship-building skills.

    8) Internal audit

    This isn’t too far removed from being a forensic accountant, though you’ll be a lot closer to those you’re being paid to keep an eye on. As the name suggests, internal auditors examine key areas of the business they’re employed by and report their findings to management. Essentially, it will be your job to warn management if any divisions are being run in an inefficient, financially risky or fraudulent way. It’s a delicate job best suited to those with both an eye for detail and the ability to grasp the bigger picture. Internal auditors also need a thorough knowledge of how businesses are run and an ability to communicate effectively, often in tense circumstances.

    9) Management accounting

    You’ll require sharp decision-making skills, plenty of business acumen and the ability to convey complex financial information to staff at various levels in an accessible manner. Management accounting is all about the supply of information and reports that can aid in the decision-making processes in a company. Management accountants gain an in-depth knowledge of the sectors they work in and a range of skills such as planning, management and strategy (in addition to the standard accounting competencies). Once they’ve acquired this skill set, knowledge and experience, management accountants can proffer valuable, specialised, business-specific guidance.

    10) Risk assessment

    Do you have a questioning, logical mindset that zeroes in on problems? The creativity to come up with solutions to those problems? Interpersonal skills and confidence? If so, risk assessment could be for you. It’s all about helping organisations understand, prioritise and manage risk to avoid problems and capitalise on opportunities. This enables clients to reach their goals, which might include growing their business, outperforming competition or protecting their brand.

    11) Tax

    For obvious reasons, this is a speciality with plenty of opportunities for advancement and potentially hefty remuneration. To stand out from the competition, you’ll need a talent for analysis and problem solving, first-rate numeracy skills and the ability to create and maintain trusting working relationships. Needless to say, discretion is also a must. Tax advisers may be temporarily engaged by businesses or wealthy individuals as consultants to offer one-off solutions to a particular tax problem. Alternatively, they may be employed on an ongoing basis, ensuring compliance and cost-effective solutions to taxation demands made on their client.