So you’ve been chucking along in your accounting career for a while. Things are fine, but you are looking for more… whether it’s more money, more challenges, and more interesting work, your career is probably due for an upgrade. Let’s take a look at how you can do it.
1. Switch to a Bigger Firm
Whether you are an auditor or a financial analyst working in a company’s accounting department, you can always make the jump to a bigger competitor.
For auditors, it would mean switching from local/regional firms to national firms and the Big 4; for those working in non-public accounting, it could mean going from a regional company to a big, multi-national, fortune 500 corporation.
So What Is The Benefit?
Better pay and benefits – you can expect a small jump from your paycheck, and a considerably better benefits package if you work for the big firms
Better job security – nothing is guaranteed, but bigger firms are usually better at riding through financial crises and bad times
Greater exposure – everything is bigger, more complex, and (arguably) more interesting. Not everyone likes this but is certainly attractive to the more ambitious accountants
More opportunities in internal transfer – transfers between departments are common and sometimes encouraged in these firms. It’s a great opportunity to keep your accounting job interesting and greatly enhance your exposure and networking within the firm. For the adventurous lot, you can even apply to an overseas post for a truly special experience.
Regional vs Big 4 Accounting Careers
If you are working in a “hot” industry and Big 4 is looking to expand that division, you have a pretty chance of success. But is the switching good or bad for you?
Here are the pros and cons of working in a regional CPA firm vs Big 4.
2. From A Public Accounting Career To The Corporates
If you look at the triangular structure of any CPA firm, you will not be surprised that most auditors will end up leaving public accounting and work somewhere else. Most of them will likely work with their former clients or related companies on the business side.
Depending on the size of the company and whether it is a private or listed company, your experience will vary greatly.
It could be a pretty stable job churning out monthly management reports and annual financial reports.
It could also be an exciting and demanding job with handling the books for multiple subsidiaries, supplying data to business units, legal, investor relations and other divisions, crafting projections, answering questions from senior management, and working on ad hoc financing projects…
General tips are to pick a business sector that (1) you are interested in and (2) has a relatively good future. Then it could be a stable yet interesting job.
3. From Corporates To Public Accounting
The switch from corporate to public accounting is relatively rare, and if it does happen it is most likely at the senior level when the CPA firm looks for expertise in a particular business sector.
If you started with public accounting and switched to corporate in the middle of your career, when you accumulate enough experience and connection you can certainly think about going back to public accounting by starting your own CPA firm.
As your own boss, there are more flexibility and upside, but it comes with the extra stress and risk that you need to consider as a business owner.
4. Get Into A More Specialized Field
Specialization often requires specific skills, which means that the job nature could be more interesting and likely more pay.
Therefore, as mentioned in point 2, it is important to pick the “right” sector so you can benefit from an interesting and lucrative niche when you gain the necessary experience.
5. Become A CPA!
As an accounting professional, I am sure you know how the CPA title demands respect from your family, friends, colleagues and business partners. More importantly, as you move up your career path either in public or non-public accounting, you need the CPA title to secure the job.
If you aren’t a CPA yet, chances are that you’ve thought about becoming one from time to time.
Besides the respect, a CPA title helps you:
Earn more – 10% based on a recent recruiter’s survey. Remember, it’s 10% every year
Break into lucrative and specialized niches that open only to CPAs
Keep your job – as you get promoted to senior positions such as controller and CFO, you may be asked to get a CPA qualification… or out. Better get it done sooner rather than later.
How Do I Become A CPA?
You can check out this beginner’s guide to pass the CPA Exam, or a similar page written for candidates with international backgrounds. Good luck!
Consider Other Accounting Certifications Too
Once you become a CPA, you’ll find that it benefits your career in many unexpected ways. For instance, the IIA (Institute of Internal Auditors) offers the CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) credential. Normally, the path to becoming a CIA is lengthy and requires passing a 3-part exam. However, if you already hold a CPA, then you can take the IIA Challenge Exam and take an expedited path. Plus, if you study with a course like the Gleim CIA Challenge Exam Review System you can gain your CIA qualification even easier.
If you don’t meet all the CPA requirements, don’t worry! Several other accounting designations could propel your career, too.
For instance, consider the CFA vs CIA. And if you might be interested in the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst), then you might be interested in the related SIE (Securities Information Essentials) exam. The SIE exam is for professionals interested in securities and financial advising, and candidates can pass related “Series” exams as well. Furthermore, the SIE exam has a strong pass rate, especially if you use one of the best SIE exam courses, best Series 9/10 study material, or best Series 99 study guides to prepare.
And if the CMA designation doesn’t work for you, the Enrolled Agent requirements are some of the easiest to attain. Basically, Enrolled Agents are specialized tax practitioners who have technical expertise in many areas of federal taxation. The IRS bestows the credential, which you can attain after passing a 3-part exam. However, the EA exam pass rates are higher than most other accounting credential exams, including the CPA Exam. What’s more, if you study with a review course, your chances of passing the EA exam increase even more.
Think of public accountants as “external” accountants who provides services to clients such as audit, consulting and tax planning services.
Then, think of private (non-public or corporate) accountants as “internal” accountants who work in a company, non-profit organization or a government agency. You can work in the financial accounting, management (cost) accounting, budgeting, corporate planning, treasury or in the internal audit department within the corporation.
How do I Choose between Public Accounting vs Private Accounting?
It largely depends on your career aspiration, strengths and personality.
For public accounting, you need…
Good People Skills. Public accounting is a client oriented business. This means that you need good interpersonal skill. For example, you’ll need to communicate effectively with your clients. It is also helpful to understand the client’s business and to request information for your analysis.
It may sound easy, but not all clients are willing to release all information. You need to be tactful and consistent to get the data and complete the audit work.
As you move towards partnership, you’ll acquire important skill in how to deal with difficult clients and maintain ethical standards and integrity at the same time.
Good Sales Skills. You need to solicit business for your firm, and this is people skill at the next level. Good sales and marketing skill (while keeping your professionalism) is critical if you aspire to become a partner or launch your own CPA firm
What’s Not-So-Good in Public Accounting
More Stressful Environment. Because you are dealing with a wide variety of people and demands, public accountant’s work is more stressful. On the other hand, private accountants work with the same group of colleagues and tend to have a more relaxed lifestyle.
Longer Hours. Because you work with clients instead of colleagues, the deadlines are often hard deadlines. Over-time and late nights are common especially for junior accountants. Other than the account-closing month, corporate accountants have more or less a 9-5 job.
Less Stability. While accounting job is considered one of the most secure jobs, the boom and bust of economic cycle does affect CPA firms as clients cut budget and corporate finance activities. Within public accounting, audit and tax teams are more secure than advisory teams for this reason.
What’s Great in Public Accounting
Better Exposure. Working in a public accounting firm expose you to a wide variety of projects, possibly in different industries. This is an unrivaled experience when compared to an accounting role in one company.
More Doors Opened. An experience in CPA firm (especially Big 4) is valuable for your resume. It is always easier to go from public accounting to private accounting than vice versa.
Both public and non-public accounting can offer rewarding careers for students interested in the accounting field. There are lots of interesting CPA career paths as you gain more experience in your niche.
In terms of what to wear to an interview, men and women have the same rules:
Conservative. Smart. Appropriate.
Here are the suggestions for ladies. (For men, please click here)
1. Stay Conservative
This is the number one rule in any interviews. There are many ways to look good and smart, but wearing few pieces of cloth isn’t one of them. At the very least, don’t show cleavage and red bra straps — it kills your interview immediately if meeting a female partner.
2. Look Smart
So, how do you look sharp? Remember these 3 rules: good fit, good color and good fabric.
For ladies, I would go for a pant suit or a skirt suit, with a blouse.
I generally prefer the skirt unless you feel uncomfortable showing your knees and calves. The suit should have a good cut. This means two things:
Fitted to your build: If the clothes are too big, you look sloppy; if too tight, you look intense (and worse, your undergarment shows). Not the type of personalities you want to show to interviewers.
In style: please invest in at least 1-2 suits bought within 2 years so the cutting matches with the current style. Never borrow a suit from your mom.
I would also pick a darker color. Unlike the man, I think girls can pull off with a black suit as long as it goes with a blouse with lighter color. If wearing a suit without a blouse, then you may consider charcoal, a darker shade of ash gray, midnight blue, maroon or raw umber depending on your skin color.
A simple design and a light natural color would work for most ladies. I probably wouldn’t go for pure white because it looks austere and unfriendly. A color that is too close to your skin tone isn’t a good choice either. Some girls look fabulous in bright colors so you may consider that, but bear in mind the first rule on conservatism.
A pair of good quality stud earrings and possibly a simple necklace can add an air of elegance to your appearance. I would skip the bracelet and anything that dangles. Definitely no ankle bracelet.
For bags, try to stick with a darker and more conservative color. Also, skip your Prada — if your bag looks more expensive than the female partner’s, not good.
Again, conservatism rules. No open toes and super high heels. Anything opposite to CFM pumps. Don’t don’t forget your panty hose for a formal business look. I would bring a pair of extra for long office interviews.
3. Dress Appropriately
In most cases, wear business formal. This applies to career fairs, Meet the Firms, pre-interview dinners and the actual interviews.
In some cases you may be invited to an occasion that is obviously more causal, such as a BBQ lunch at a partner’s home. Then you wear business casual or even casual.
If not sure, always ask the recruiter before hand. If for some reason you are unable to contact her, wear something that looks business formal with the jacket and business casual when without.
If you know you look good, it will instill confidence in you, which will come across in your personality when you interact with interviewers. This is a huge psychological advantage that you should have in your court going into the interview process.
I know. It’s long hours and stress. Every single blog says that.
Everybody hates late nights and stressful workplace, but some people do stay and thrive in Big 4 under this environment. Long hours and stress cannot be the reason, at least the only reason.
Having thought about this for a while I come to a conclusion that there are personality traits that clash with what’s required for a long term career in Big 4.
1. Type B Personality
According to Wikipedia:
Type A personality is generally more competitive, outgoing, ambitious, impatient and/or aggressive are labeled Type A, while more relaxed personalities are labeled Type B.
This is quite obvious. An outgoing personality helps in a client-facing business, as well as a workplace that thrives in team work. At the same time, Big 4 is by itself competitive to get into, so naturally, the peers are more status-conscious and proactive in nature. Big 4 people tend to be more aggressive as well, because otherwise, they cannot justify the long hours and stress they have to ensure climbing up the corporate ladder. The fact that they love to multi-task, push themselves with deadlines and hate delays fit the requirement of the Big 4 perfectly.
If you have Type B personality, you are the opposite of what’s described above.
Type B people may be smarter than their colleagues, but since they are not competitive, they don’t seem to take initiatives. This would affect their performance review. Type B people tend to disregard stress when they can’t achieve — imagine that when facing a hard deadline from clients!
2. Creative Minds
Big 4 (and public accounting in general) don’t have much room for creativity. It’s more for people who loves black and white. Those who like to take the time to explore ideas won’t have time to do so, and even find the work extremely boring. Once the interest is lost, long hours and stress become the last straw.
Accounting majors with creative minds would be much happier working in academia. As professors you will enjoy exploring the fundamentals of accounting concepts and be creative in developing the accounting profession.
3. Entrepreneurial Spirit
Similar to creative people, these individuals may find the corporate culture suffocating. There are layers upon layers of supervisors above you. If assigned on big team, you may work on task so specialized that you may never able to see the big picture until reaching senior.
If this is you, you might be better off working in a smaller firm, where you can take part in the entire audit. The clients are smaller and work is less complex, but this also means that you can take on a higher responsibility earlier in your career.
Another career path you can take is to stay in Big 4 until reaching senior manager and then set up your own CPA firm. It takes time, but see that as worthy investment for the ultimate dream job.
4. All-Out Extrovert
Surprised? First, let’s explore what exactly we mean by an extrovert vs introvert: it doesn’t simply mean outgoing vs shy.
Extroverts love to be in the limelight. They achieve that by being the first to raise their hands, the one to express an opinion, and the man to lead. They also have the urge to chat with everyone on anything.
This sounds somewhat like Type A personality. I do believe that there are quite a lot of them at the associate level, but they tend to drop out as they reach seniors and managers. Why is that?
Public accounting is a client-facing business. An outgoing personality helps, but we also need to be good listeners. A respected auditor observes and analyzes before making an opinion; a seasoned consultant listens and reflects on client’s issues before offering a solution. These are classic traits of an introvert.
It doesn’t mean that extroverts are doomed and introverts zoom straight to the corner office. My point is that all-out extroverts survive Big 4 longer if they practice a bit of introversion in their daily lives.
5. “Ivy League” Mentality
It isn’t strictly a personality trait, but I notice that Ivy Leaguers don’t stay long in Big 4. Take a look at the partners’ list and you’ll find out.
Those graduated from Harvard and the like have more doors opening for them. If they don’t mind the intensity, investment banks offer the same thing, with more money and glamour. Also, with a great brand name on the resume and more importantly a good network developed during the college days, they tend to have more opportunities that lure them away from tedious task a junior accountant is responsible for. Be it cool start ups or a high profile position in a family’s business, they don’t stay long.
The main takeaway is that we shouldn’t focus on long hours and stress as the primary reason of not taking the Big 4 route. If you want to reach for the star within big four, harsh environment will only make you stronger.
The reason of people quitting early is that they are disillusioned, or lose interest in the job. Creative people could get incredibly bored, all-out extroverts may get into trouble, entrepreneurs can’t stand the hierarchy, and ivy leaguers may have other interesting opportunities waiting for them.
Having said that, it’s totally fine that you plan only to stay in Big 4 for a few years. The firms expect a lot of exits anyway as there aren’t enough positions at the top. As long as you get the most out of it as much as you can, it can still be an invaluable experience and the network you’ve built will benefit you for the rest of your career.
I am sure you’ve heard about the Big 4 accounting firms and (sort of) know what they do. But how do people earn a living there?
Big 4 Audit
Also known as Assurance, this is the core service line of Big 4 accounting firms. You can learn more about what audit does here; but in general, the audit team reviews the financial statements of their clients and determines whether their financials are presented fairly and accurately.
What sets Big 4 apart from other public accounting firms? Publicly listed companies tend to only engage one of the Big 4 as their auditors. This is because the Big 4 audit team is perceived to have the experience to deal with the complexity in relation to listed companies, and therefore, able to protect a larger group of stakeholders (shareholders, investors and creditors). Many banks lend only if they see the Big 4 name on the audited reports.
This is how the Big 4 call their respective audit department:
PwC: Audit and Assurance
Big 4 Tax
We usually think of tax services as filing annual tax return. Big 4 tax provides such service for companies with global presence and complex structures.
Big 4 tax professionals develop their expertise as they deal with tax laws in different countries, and how they may affect each other. Also, they advice their clients on tax advantageous structures and strategies, and assist their colleagues in audit team on tax information in annual reports.
Everyone calls this department as Tax.
Big 4 Consulting
Consulting is a vague term, so what do they do? Client faces a challenge and the team tries to solve it.
It could be a big marco look at the company’s structure and suggest ways to steamline operations (e.g. improve supply chain management); or it could be restructuring a division, or setting up a new ERP system from scratch. When compared to traditional management consulting firms, Big 4 consulting’s strength is on risk management, compliance and IT.
A big theme that people interested in Big 4 should know is independence. 10 plus years ago, Big 4 consulting was such a profitable business that Big 4 (back then, Big 5) were willing to undercut their audit fees to gain consulting business. This impaired their judgement in the audit work, leading to the Enron and Worldcom scandals.
After that, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was enacted to separate consulting business from these audit firms. Specially, the firm has to remain independent as an auditor and cannot have financial interest (such as consulting work) with that particular client. This doesn’t lead to the end of Big 4 consulting — nowadays one of the Big 4 takes the audit while the other three can get the consulting business.
You may also want to know that Accenture (which used to be part of Arthur Anderson) is now the biggest player in the consulting industry.
This is how the Big 4 call their respective consulting department:
PwC: Consulting (under Advisory)
KPMG: Advisory (for big business) and Enterprise (for small business)
Big 4 Advisory
Better known as the “transaction” group, this team advises clients on corporate finance activities, such as mergers and acquisitions, spin-offs and other changes in company structure.
Big 4 make great advisors because they are among the best people to identify accounting and tax implications from the transactions.
To provide a more holistic service, the advisory team often provides full service such as identifying acquisition targets, performing analysis with complex financial models and due diligence. This put them in direct competition with investment bankers.
This is how the Big 4 call their respective transaction / advisory department:
Deloitte: Financial Advisory
PwC: Deals (under Advisory)
The Big 4 accounting firms are constantly evolving to meet new needs in the business community. For example, PwC and EY have a Climate Change and Sustainability service; Deloitte has a Human Capital group serving clients’ HR on talent retention and development; and KPMG has a group called Enterprise to provide a combination of consulting and transaction service to small and family business owners.
Even if you aren’t keen on audit, tax and consulting, there are lots of other opportunities within Big 4 that may match your interest.
You know what’s considered the appropriate corporate attire for female in accounting and finance. The problem is…
Where exactly can you get them? Here are the popular brands among female financiers.
1. The Most Important Corporate Attire for Women: The Suits
If you have no idea where to start, you can pay a visit to these shops first:
Theory (featured above) is quite popular and they have lots of discounts in the major apartment stores. So, do time your purchase. Having said that, it really depends on your build and style so please feel free to pick other brands as long as they look classy and professional.
BCBG could be a good choice as well.
A Note on Suit Color
Black is the default color and it’s great in hiding any “accidents” at lunch; but if you have black hair and black eyes, together with a black suit and shoes… you look like you are going to the funeral.
What to do? 2 recommendations:
Break up the black with tasteful accessories e.g. a brooch (but risk of looking like your mom), or separate it with a nice white blouse.
Get something off-black, e.g. charcoal and dark maroon could be quite nice.
Suit vs Separate
Suits are convenient, but it could look “pre-packaged” and boring. So it is totally fine to mix and match to create your style. With that, let’s go into…
My take on the popular brands:
J Crew and Express – I did get a bunch of clothes / blouses from these stores, but you have to be quite choosy.
Banana Republic and Victoria Secret – warning from my buddy in my bull pen: bad quality! Beware!
Ann Taylor – I got a bunch of these but it could get you a “mom” look. I need that though because I look younger than my age which doesn’t help in client-oriented business.
Bennetton – good selection of colors; good alternative to button-down shirts
Uniqlo – this Japanese store is a big hit in Asia, and increasingly in America. Similar to Benneton but a lot more affordable.
How About Button-Down Shirts?
I used to think button-down shirts is a must for professional look, but it doesn’t fit very well, and I stop buying after realizing that gape at the chest… In short, wear at your own risk.
Zara and equivalent is good enough for that in my opinion. Having said that, nothing sexy, fancy and flashy in the office setting. Save that for night parties and weekends.
Unlike the men, Shoes are pretty important considerations for business attire for women. Men need only to worry about color and style, but women have to pay attention to the heels – the height, the style, the material.
In fact, I think the height of the heels is the #1 consideration when you buy a pair of shoes for your work.
Obviously, it depends on your height, your personality and your style, but generally I wouldn’t go for heels beyond 3 inches. Well, if you are short and are wearing pant suits, then yeah, maybe 3.5” is ok… but long legs and high heel will only attract dirty looks for your fellow female colleagues.
With that, I would recommend:
Height: stay conservative with 1.5 – 3” inches. The style of the shoe matters too, e.g. for round toes shoes it does look better with higher heels
Width: no chunky heels and platforms please. Stick with classic pumps, and if you can handle, stilettos is great
Materials: same as the rest of the shoe (i.e. covered with leather). Avoid metal and loud embellishments
Peep toed ok? Some offices are fine while others are not. Please observe for a few weeks before you test the water. If go ahead, don’t forget to pedicure!
Be sure the shoes don’t make a big clacking sound when you walk
No need for designer shoes. People notice only if you go overboard.
What I wear:
Mostly 1.5-2.5 inches. All very plain and/or classy. My most “admired” pair at work was a burgundy 2.5” high-heel from Ann Taylor. I have many female colleagues asking where I got the shoes from.
Other than that, I had a couple of really plain black or dark color Nine West shoes with siloutee heels. Also, similar ones from Manolo are good.
I notice that Dior and Prada have tasteful and appropriate shoes for female bankers / accountants as well.
With the office culture and see what others are wearing, you can accessorize accordingly.
Tips: get a pair of flats in case you twist your feet or the heel breaks.
I don’t like tights especially in the summer. But on your first day you definitely want to wear one for a more professional look – some offices are pretty okay without tights but you need time to make a thorough observation. I would also think that wearing tights is the proper, “expected” business attire for women when you go to client meetings.
Tights Related Complaints And Solution
“Man it’s hot!”: I know. But the office is always in winter and so this shouldn’t be a concern
“I hate nude tights I look like my grandma”: If this is you, try dark-color tights
“I always get runs”: Same here. So unfortunately I have to stick with the nude color. Also, stock at least two extra pairs in the office in case of an unlucky day.
The general rule should again be classy. In my opinion it’s worth investing a bit more on one good bag, because your attire gets instantly upgraded with a right classic handbag.
It’s my personal preference, but I like no-brand bags because it’s probably the only thing I can be more creative and give me a character.
But if you look for branded handbags, here are the popular choices:
Longchamp – pretty safe if you work in NYC
I see lots of LV too – but better to skip those with colorful monogram-print.
When it comes to makeup, remember this: cut it down. You never want to overdo it because you’d look like someone heading for a clubbing or a flirt.
Here is the general rule:
Use high-quality make-up: it’s well worth the investment because it doesn’t get smeared easily and you don’t need to fix it every couple of hours.
Concealer is a must! Keep an extra set in the office. Comes in handy after a long night.
You can get everything at Sephora. Popular brands among my banker / accountant friends include Bare Minerals and Make Up Forever.
“How should I wear my hair? Should I cut it / straighten it?”
I am quite surprised at the number of questions I got on hair.
The day when I got an offer for the internship, I cut my hair and I didn’t grew it long until the last year of my banking career. You don’t need to follow my drastic move, but here are 2 things to bear in mind:
(Good) junior bankers and accountants are always busy. So you need a hair style that is easy to maintain.
You are fine as long as you look professional.
On Whether To Wear Your Hair Up
A lot of female finance professionals have long hair and many wear them down. It is perfectly fine as long as they look neat and professional, but if you have a habit of playing with your hair especially when you are tense or bored (read: in a client meeting), it is better to wear your hair up. Having said that, some people look quite “childish” with a pony tail, so make sure you get a nice classy hair band or clip.
How To Deal With Curly Hair
Curly hair is wonderful as long as you have time to take care of it. But the reality is that you don’t’. In my case, I got naturally curly hair and it could get frizzy during change of weather. Somehow the hair was tamed after cutting it short.
An alternative is to straighten your hair every day using an iron straightener, of even go to the salon and get one of those Japanese Straight Perm. I’ve tried one of those and it looks great, but please note that this kind of chemical treatment can hurt your hair and it can get really frizzy at the roots if you are unlucky.
I have to say nails are pretty important too because as an accountant / banker you handle documents and so people can easily notice your hands and fingers.
I don’t manicure or paint my nails, because manicure can’t last for more than 3 days (it’s just me) and I have no time to go get it fixed. Obviously clean and “bare” nails are better than half-painted ones.
Having said that, I would say more than half of the girls have manicure of some sort. The general rule is:
Keep the color conservative – Black and other fab-color nail polish is bad idea
No red please! Vintage doesn’t go well in terms of a professional finance look
Ballerina pink nail polish and French manicure are among the most popular.
At the End of the Day…
This “dress code” is important because it gives a very positive first impression, and it may make a subtle difference when the VP / manager is deciding whether to take you to the important client meetings and so on.
However, whether it is expensive or designer-brand does not matter. The focus should be on fit, quality, and tailoring.
What Is Considered Overboard?
Obviously, you don’t want to be labeled as the sexy-and-lazy girl, i.e. the girl whom the guys go after for THAT other than work.
But what does it exactly mean? Again, it depends on the culture at the office. Just dress as if you are ready to see a client every day. The goal is to look at least normal and your boss won’t be embarrassed if s/he brings you to meetings.
While observing the female colleagues, please take note of the difference between junior and senior people, because the MDs/partners obviously have more leeway when it comes their version of professional attire. It goes without saying that you should stick with the junior one’s attire.
Business Attire For Women: 5 Rules Of Thumb
Stay neat, conservative, professional
Time your purchase during department store sales
Get more fashionable when you move up the line/your reputation is well established
Prepare an emergency set of clothes, shoes and tights in the office
Big 4 neither pays the best nor offers great work-life balance. So why Big 4? Here is my take.
1. The Prestige
Let’s face it. Most 22 year olds want to get into Big 4 because of the wow factor. But the prestige you get from Big 4 is more than vanity — the brand name accelerates your path to build a powerful professional network.
Within Your Social Circle
The respect you get from peers, family, friends and business contacts make networking much easier right from the start. Anyone in your circle working in accounting and finance gives you more attention simply because of the firm you are now associated with.
Within Big 4
Big 4 hires smart, hardworking people with good social skills. After a few years, your peers will move on to different companies and industries. Because of firm’s reputation and their own likeable personalities, Big 4 graduates tend to get good jobs and lead successful careers. The friendship and contact developed “back in the old days” at Big 4 will help immensely in your long term career.
You will be working closely with the client’s team on a daily basis. As a junior auditor, you stay longer and work harder than the clients, and people respect that. If you have a good attitude and stay in touch with the team, chances are that, when there are openings in their department and you are ready to leave the Big 4, the job is yours.
Even if they aren’t hiring, the senior guys in the client’s team would be happy to forward your resume to their contacts in other companies. This is probably the best referrals you can get for corporate jobs.
2. Invaluable Exposure
You may have learned about business operations and marketing at school, but it’s nothing when compared to seeing it first-hand on how actual businesses are run.
Investment bankers get to see how CEOs decide on big matters; but auditors are the ones knowing the tangible, operational side of the business — how each business unit functions, how they relate to each other, problems that these companies face and the strategies they employ to overcome such problems.
Now imagine the amount of knowledge you will gain auditing several different companies, with different product lines in different industries. These are very applicable skills and exposure to have if you aspire to become a CEO or a business owner someday.
3. Military Training
People leave Big 4 mostly because of brutal hours and intense pressure; I am sure you are well aware of that. However, if you determine to fly high in this profession, you should see this as a great opportunity.
Training for Knowledge
Some of us may think the national training is an oversell, but the ongoing in-house training and seminars are one of the best ways to get updated and upgraded.
Training to Work Long and Hard
Working 80 hours and pulling late nights may sound insane, but we did that in college — for fun and parties of course, but we have the stamina to do it. So, first of all, tell yourself that this is doable. Then, make it acceptable by taking on this challenge to build a successful career.
Training to Deliver Under Pressure
Because you work with big and important clients, the audit /tax work is more complex, and expectation is high. Therefore, you are trained to face tough issues with hard deadlines on a daily basis. You are also trained to check your work meticulously because errors and typos are less tolerant in front of big clients.
Both John and I used to work in global financial firms (He at PwC; I at Morgan Stanley). We still somewhat retain our ability to deliver high quality product, because we are so used to triple check our work and spot our own mistakes, no matter how small they are. We used to complain how anal the whole industry is; but then, after 10+ years of seeing how the real world functions, we are grateful for the opportunity we had.
CPA, which stands for Certified Public Accountant, is an accounting qualification granted by the US government (State Board of Accountancy) to individuals who fulfill certain education and experience requirement as a public accountant. The CPA title is one of the most globally recognized professional qualifications, and arguably the most prestigious in the accounting field.
Only CPAs are allowed to own (either as sole owner or as partners) a public accounting firm, and only CPAs can sign the audit report on behalf of the firm.
While there is no requirement for CPAs in private business, many big corporations strongly prefer their senior financial professionals to have a CPA qualification to show their knowledge and expertise in the accounting field.
What is CPA, and Why Become One?
Now that you understand what is a CPA, you may want to know why people want to join the CPA family:
To find out the details for each requirement, please click the link how to become a CPA here. You may also need to apply to a master’s program to fulfill the educational requirement, so you should learn everything you can about master’s degrees and the CPA license. If this is the case, you’ll want to consider taking the GMAT exam as most programs require a GMAT score.
While working for the Big 4 is the dream for many aspiring accountants, this may not be an ideal job for your long-term career. Essentially, this comes down to the difference between small accounting firms vs. large accounting firms.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Big 4 accounting firms weighed against small firms so you can make an informed decision for your accounting career.
Big Firm vs. Small Firm: Specialist vs Generalist
At the Big 4, you work on big clients and are staffed on big teams most of the time. As a junior staff member, you will specialize in a specific part of the audit – for example, fixed assets. And if you work in tax, you might only work on state and local taxation (SALT).
On the other hand, at a small firm, you work with smaller clients, and junior auditors can work on an audit from beginning to end. Similarly, while working in smaller firms as a tax associate, you will work on individual and corporate returns and many types of returns in between.
Big 4 Accounting Pros
1. Working with the Biggest Clients
You’ll get great exposure in many aspects as a first-year associate in the Big 4. The breadth and the quality of the client base are unrivaled. Thus, you can get your hands on some complicated situations and learn how to deal with them with the help of senior accountants.
As you progress, you will be exposed to companies in many different industries. If you perform well and people generally like you, you can tailor your career within the firm and gradually move towards a specialized industry.
2. Good In-House Training
The Big 4 firms have the resources to provide numerous in-house training for junior accountants. It begins with a one- to two-week national training for new hires, then regular training and online webinars on special topics afterward. These classes are free and helpful for your career development, as well as for fulfilling your CPA CPE requirements.
3. Best Way to Get Your CPA Certification
Speaking of the CPA qualification, the Big 4 will help you get licensed quickly. These firms offer CPA Exam prep like Becker CPA Review for free or may reimburse the cost of another review course if you’ve purchased that already. After passing the exam, you’ll get a CPA bonus. What’s more, you will also have no problem getting your work experience verified by your manager, who by default is an actively licensed CPA.
4. Unrivalled Big 4 Exit Opportunities
When it comes to exit opportunities, Big 4 is hard to beat. Whether you want to stay with the Big 4 or move on to a smaller firm, this experience is seen as a seal of approval from a resume perspective. Your halo will continue to glow at your new company as people generally give more respect to those with previous Big 4 experience.
Big 4 Accounting Cons
1. Higher Pressure with Longer Hours
The Big 4 firms serve the biggest corporations in every industry. Therefore, it is understandable that the clients’ demands and expectations are higher. As part of the Big 4, this basically means that you will need to work hard (and fast) to deliver the product. Additionally, there will be extra pressure to make sure the product is of the best quality.
Many accountants find it overwhelming, but some perform better in a high-pressure environment. A Big 4 work-life balance can be difficult to achieve if you must work nights and weekends. A 40-hour workweek isn’t exactly something big 4 firms are known for, so expect that you will spend 60+ hours working each week.
2. Up or Out
The Big 4 is not a place for someone looking for a stagnant lifestyle. Staying in one level and not moving up is simply not a viable career choice. If you aren’t promoted within a certain amount of time, you may be forced to leave. That’s why many Big 4 accountants end up leaving the firm despite all the attractive qualities mentioned above.
Also, big 4 firms require you to earn the CPA certification to move you from an associate to a senior position. Therefore, you may have many things to juggle at once if you didn’t complete the CPA Exam while in school (if you met the requirements) or immediately after you graduated.
3. Getting Stuck with a Single Client
Depending on the nature of clients in your office, you may spend more than 80% of your time on one single client. This client is large and high-profile, which is great if you plan to stay and move up the public accounting hierarchy in Big 4. However, if you prefer variety, you won’t like it because the large client swallows up most of your schedule. Subsequently, you’ll have less exposure to other companies and industries.
4. Feeling Lost at a Large Firm
The Big 4 accounting firms have grown so large that you probably won’t know people outside your department. Also, in terms of client servicing, given the size of the clients and the audit team, you might get stuck with mundane work for the first couple of years.
Small Firm Pros
1. Close Knit Group
Regional and local CPA firms are often smaller, so developing a close working relationship with the partners is easier. Also, the audit teams are much smaller, so you will have more chance of working directly with the firm’s partner(s). Conversely, at Big 4 firms, your supervisors will be seniors and managers.
2. On-the-Job Training
Since you don’t have the luxury of formal training, you learn on the job at the client’s site or while preparing a tax return. This steeper learning curve can be exciting and satisfying (some may find this terrifying, though). You’ll get your feet wet earlier in the process, which can be a confidence-builder.
3. Less Pressure
Because your clients are likely private companies, you’re less likely to feel the pressure from deadlines and complexities from the publicly listed companies that the Big 4 are getting. This usually translates to better hours and work-life balance. While there’s still a busy season, there’s also the possibility of lighter hours once the busy season ends.
4. Great Help in CPA Exam Prep
Accountants working at a small CPA firm have the chance to perform entire audits alone and do taxes during the busy season. Your practical experience will cover the vast majority of FAR, AUD, and REG, more than 75% of the CPA exam content.
Small Firm Cons
1. Less Exposure
In a typical regional CPA firm, the client base is smaller, and you’ll have less of a chance to develop a broad base of experience. This could mean frustration if you get stuck in an industry you are not interested in. You may also have fewer networking opportunities.
2. More Office Politics
Competition to move up the ladder can be tougher and slower than in a large firm. A handful of partners decides your assignment and promotion. This can be very subjective and sometimes unfair.
3. Lower Pay
It’s safe to assume that the Big 4 can afford to pay more than the smaller firms. A small accounting firm’s salary typically starts at a few thousand less, and they may not offer a bonus after passing the CPA exam.
Small Accounting Firms vs. Large Accounting Firms: Big 4 Salary Comparison
Salaries are largely the same from firm to firm if you’re working in Big 4. In contrast, salaries at small firms will vary. Here’s a general breakdown of expected CPA salaries for tax services at small accounting firms vs large accounting firms according to the Robert Half 2021 Salary Guide.
Big 4 Firm
Small CPA Firm
Associate (starting salary)
$57,250 – $75,750
$40,500 – $49,000
$70,500 – $93,500
$49,000 – $59,750
$87,250 – $115,500
$62,000 – $73,250
$127,000 – $167,750
$88,500 – $107,000
$165,000 – $217,000
$114,250 – $137,500
The difference between small and large firm salaries increases over the length of a career. Additionally, small firm accounting tends to come with fewer bonuses. However, remember that Big 4 hours will continue to be longer and the work more stressful. Finally, you may have fewer exit opportunities after passing the manager level at a Big 4 firm.
What Do People Think?
People are generally well aware of the benefits of the Big 4 experience. Therefore, I would like to highlight the opposite — how local and regional CPA firms could be attractive. Here is a testimonial from an accounting graduate who started at a small firm.
Yes, I think it is better to start out with a smaller firm than a larger one simply because you will get a better chance to get to know your co-workers better and nothing will be a rush. You will also get to learn more about the career you chose with the one-on-one rather than being thrown out in a sea of sharks.
I know because I have work[ed] for a small company with at least five other people working under me . It was better for us because we got to know each other and what was expected of each one of us without all the drama.”
Here is another supporter of small CPA firms.
Joining a small firm always helps in gaining more experience faster. In the larger firms, the work is distributed into smaller chunks between more number of employees, and so you get to gain experience in just one small area.
In smaller firms, since they do not have the luxury of a large pool of employees, more work is distributed to small number of employees. So the breadth of learning is quite high. Survival in the initial days will seem to be difficult, but over a period of time, you get to learn more and handle stuff yourself.
One good way to cope up with difficult situations is to ask someone to mentor you (not train but mentor) so that you can go to them and talk about the problems you faced. They can in turn give you valuable advice in terms of managing such issues.
Another way is to network with as many seniors as possible and try to learn without eating into too much of their time. And once you gain experience, you will be surprised at how well you will be able to guide freshers.
But there is a downside to all this. Because your experience is only through field work and without proper training, sometimes the learning will be haphazard. But the pieces will fall into place in the long run. During your free time, you can also Google on stuff which you were stumped about in case there is no one to help you out.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Big 4 experience worth it?
Many people who spent a few years working at a Big 4 firm before moving into an industry job find that their time at the large firm opened many doors for their careers. However, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.
Why work for a small accounting firm?
After hearing all the benefits of working for the Big 4, you may wonder why anyone would want to work at a small firm. However, small accounting firms have several benefits, including a better work-life balance, broader job experience, less pressure, and closer relationships with co-workers. The decision between small accounting firms vs. large accounting firms comes down to your priorities and long-term career goals.
When should the Big 4 accountant leave to get the best exit opportunities?
As you acquire experience with the Big 4, you’ll likely find that job site head hunters begin contacting you about a wide array of other job opportunities. When you decide to leave may depend on whether you’re looking for audit vs. tax exit opportunities. Big 4 audit exit opportunities peak after about two to three years with one of these firms. On the other hand, your public accounting tax exit opportunities increase once you have hit the manager level after four or five years. At that point, you’ll be a highly sought-after tax expert.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share your view in the comment section below.