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, such as 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, working in smaller firms as a tax associate, you will work on individual and corporate returns and many types of returns.
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 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.
You will be exposed to companies in many different industries as you progress. 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 and 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 sign 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 at one level and not moving up is simply not a viable career choice. If you aren’t promoted within a certain time, you may be forced to leave. That’s why many Big 4 accountants leave the firm despite all the attractive qualities mentioned above.
Also, Big 4 firms require you to earn the CPA certification to move 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 the 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 chances 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 is 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 most 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 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 decide 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.
Big 4 information sessions are the first events for those interested in a public accounting career. Most attending students are juniors and seniors, but it is never too early to go as a sophomore, or even a freshman.
Information Session vs Career Fair
Before we begin, I’d like to clarify a common misconception, that information sessions and career fairs are the same. What’s the difference?
A career fair is a recruiting event where you can meet tens if not hundreds of potential employers at one place.
An information session is a detailed presentation of one firm (or a small group of related firms) organized by your school. Students get a more in-depth look at the firm in different perspective; firms get to publicize the best aspect of their organizations.
In a nutshell, career fair is a mile wide and an inch deep; information session is the other way round.
What do Big 4 Information Session Cover?
The firm starts with an overview on market size, geographic reach, service lines and industries they cover. Honestly the Big 4 sound pretty much the same and you can get this info on the Internet. This introduction isn’t particularly value-add.
2. Local Presence and Industry Focus
It gets more relevant when they talk about local presence. For example, if your school is in the Bay area, the representatives are likely from San Francisco or San Jose. You will then learn about the industry niches and top clients in their offices. This is all valuable information to impress people when you have interviews in their offices.
Also, if you have an industry preference, you will be able to decide whether this office is your top choice. For example, if the San Francisco office’s niche is technology, and you’ve set your goal in financial services, you might want to look at opportunities in other places.
3. Unique Programs
The info session also highlights programs designed for students and young employees, such as internships for sophomores and juniors, and international assignments for senior associates and above.
4. The Hiring Process
Last but not least, the firms go through their hiring process, including the schedule of resume submission and campus interviews.
You are welcome to raise your hand to ask questions, or show your face with recruiters and representatives afterwards.
What to Expect at Big 4 Information Session
Info sessions vary from one place to the other. In top-target schools near a big office, the firm sends lots of associates and seniors to attend and therefore the staff: student ratio is pretty good. Also, there are many alumni which makes the conversation more meaningful.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are info sessions with only a few reps. Those are mostly for gathering info rather than making connections.
Many students find info sessions marginally useful (if not totally useless), because:
They are generally promotion events and not the easiest place to impress recruiters.
There are so many students. Too difficult to have a one-on-one conversation with any Big 4 people.
They are held right before the resume drop — a bit too late in the recruiting process.
Having said that, if you fall in these two categories, info sessions could be very helpful:
If you are a sophomore or junior, and your main purpose is to collect business cards.
If you come from a non-target school and somehow able to attend this info session at a target school. Because otherwise it’s pretty hard for you to break into campus recruiting.
How to Make the Best Use of Big 4 Information Sessions
1. Target the Associates, not Recruiters
The main purpose is to develop firm contacts as a source for advice, interview and case prep, and potential reference in the future. If you attend a big info session with lots of associates and seniors, it is the most efficient way to collect business cards.
Recruiters are helpful but you can get to know them in other events.
2. Don’t Mess Up
You don’t want to leave a negative impression. Dress sharp and don’t ask stupid questions.
3. Don’t Hang out with People You Know
It’s comfortable to mingle with your friends and catch up with the alumni you know. But back to point 1, your main purpose is to meet and collect as many Big 4 contacts as you can.
Follow this advice and you’ll never regret attending any info sessions.
But then, you will have an even better chance to shine at the campus fair…
What exactly is the first day at Big 4 like? What happens in the weeks after, and how to get prepared to meet your first client? Your adventure is about to begin.
First Day at Big 4
You won’t go through anything technical on the first day. Bring yourself, the necessary paper, and great attitude.
In most cases, you will be going through orientation the whole day. This includes introduction to your new peers and colleagues, ice breaker exercises and training seminars. This may last for 1-2 days.
First, the admin necessities such as getting your picture taken for your badge, hand in the paperwork, order supplies, and reimburse your expenses.
HR will issue the laptop, work assignment, schedules and possibly a company credit card. If they haven’t already, they will provide travel and accommodation details for your national training.
First Month at Work
Depending on the start date, some associates go straight to national training after their first day of work, while others linger in the office for a few days.
Before National Training
The best you can achieve these few days is to fit in socially. This means going to group lunches, group dinners and group social events. Try your best to be outgoing and make friends early, as it will make the experience more enjoyable once real work starts.
Many firms have official programs where they pair you up with a mentor. I had one of those and it didn’t really work. It’s just like relationships — you parents can’t put a boyfriend on your lap simply because he signs up for it.
It’s a good idea to start looking for a second year who has the potential to be your true mentor. If you know someone from school working there, it would be the best. Otherwise, anyone friendly with a bit of things in common would be a good start. This should be a person whom you feel comfortable asking any questions with.
First years across the country take part in 1-to-2-week national trainings held in big cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Dallas. Hundreds of people get trained in any given time although in most cases they are divided into groups of 20-30. They get together again in team building activities and social events in the evening.
The most (and probably the only) important to do is to learn about the firm’s accounting software and auditing methodology. Specifically, on how to use the audit database, practice documenting your work and go through various case studies. There will be some team building exercise and depending on the group you are with, could be quite fun, lame or a complete waste of time.
The trainers are usually seniors and managers. They are often approachable and helpful, and try their best to make things fun — a mission impossible I have to say.
My suggestion during the training week is to take notes. It helps to retain the information much better, and practically, if your trainer (and later on, the audit in charge in your team) sees that you make the effort in taking notes, they are more willing to help and answer questions that you may have.
Most people zoom out during the actual training, then wake up at extravagant meals and parties afterwards. Don’t go too wild and show up late, hungover, unshaven and without shower the next day. I heard crazy stories of drunk trainees hitting on managers and falling over company yacht.
If you aren’t a drinker, you should still go occasionally in order not to look socially awkward. Life is miserable without a friend in Big 4.
After the Training
Depending how busy your office is, you may get assigned to a team right away and sent off to a client site. Otherwise, you remain unassigned and report to the office. I suggest that you show some initiative early on by offering to help. Don’t creep up on people every morning and beg for work though.
Your First Client
People warned you of dreadful hours and you are still excited for the first job. Typically you will be given a keycard or ID badge for access to the client’s building. For big clients, there is a room for the audit team with printer, a quiet place and use of coffee machine. For smaller clients though expect to crowd around a table… Look on the brighter side — nothing is permanent in public accounting 🙂
You are super pumped to start your new job. Now, what are the qualities to become the top performer in Big 4? Is it through hard work, butt kissing, or pure luck? Here is my finding after talking to Big 4 seniors and mangers who have consistently been rated 1 or 2 in their firms.
1. Never Get Yourself Overwhelmed
Everyone agrees that Big 4 is a stressful place to work. Life as first year is pretty intense, but as you approach your second year, you don’t have excuses of a newbie anymore and it will be worse with mountains of things on your desk staring at you. The thing is, the more you worry about it, the less you get it done.
What you can do is to stop the vicious cycle. Divide the work into smaller, doable tasks. Tackle one small task at a time. Completing one round of tasks means you get some major work done, and it’s a great feeling. It’s the same strategy for any big challenges — such as the CPA exam, when tackling one study unit at a time is the best way to go.
2. Improve Efficiency with Technology
In my previous job, I went through an excellent training on how to manage Outlook. It cost my firm $399 for each participant (and we filled a big room), so you can imagine how well-regarded this method is.
The main takeaway is effective time management using the “4D” system. Incoming emails are divided into 4 categories:
Important + urgent
Important + not urgent
Unimportant + urgent
Unimportant + not urgent
Then, assign action appropriate to the categories:
Do the important + urgent
Delay (file to task list) the important + not urgent
Delegate the unimportant + urgent
Dump the unimportant + not urgent
This system has vastly improved my productivity at work and beyond.
I encourage that you find a way to efficiently manage your outlook in terms of email, appointment, to-dos and followups. This way, you can multitask with ease, a crucial skill to excel in professional service environment such as in public accounting and finance.
3. Take Initiatives
Now that you work well under stress (point 1) and are incredibly efficient (point 2), people take notice and request to put you on their teams.
You’ll be really busy, and this is great for your long term career, so don’t be jealous of the few who are constantly unassigned.
Instead, I suggest the opposite and get more involved in other capacities within the firm. Volunteer to campus recruiting events such as Meet the Firms, take part in resume screening and interviewing, lead firm community initiatives, find opportunities to help on sales pursuits, and take advantage of new opportunities and stretch assignments.
4. Jump for Unique Opportunities
As you move on to seniors and managers, there are other unique opportunities such as the international assignments. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth to explore.
5. Learn How to Say “No”
Before we get too excited, accept the fact that we are human beings and can’t work 24 hours. So, don’t be afraid to say “no”. It is easier said than done, but we have to understand what our limits are and what we can feasibly accomplish at the level of quality that we typically deliver.
Under-promise and over-deliver, and build your brand one audit at a time.
People have different ways to achieve success, but all paths centralize around key themes of hard work, perseverance, dedication, and ability to multi-task and prioritize seamlessly. The same rules apply whether you aim for the corner office in Big 4, or for C-level positions in Fortune 100. All the best!
Finally, you have an offer. Now, on salary negotiation — Can I do it, should I do it?
The Art and Science of Salary Negotiation
First Year Associates in Big 4
The Big 4 generally has pretty set salaries so there isn’t much variation among its staffers. Also, they have so many people willing to work for them for less than what they offered you.
You can still give it a try, but be realistic what to expect. At the same time, unless you are super arrogant your offer won’t be withdrawn or affected by the negotiation.
Experienced Hire in Big 4
If you have excellent rating, work in a hot industry, and are actively poached by recruiters, you should be able to negotiate. In fact, the competing Big 4 will likely offer a considerably more attractive compensation package than what you currently have, even before you ask.
In my opinion, the smaller the firm, the more flexibility you have on salary negotiation. Smaller firms have fewer rules and each partner has more say on hiring for his team.
Similar logic applies. A local company who needs an accountant with your expertise is more open to discuss than a Fortune 100 company looking to fill a vacancy in their 100-strong accounting department.
My Accounting Salary Negotiation Tips
1. Understand Your Worth (with Research)
Think about why you think you deserve more and be honest… if what you can offer them is justified, they will do it. If you got nothing special, they will just hire one of the other hundred candidates.
Let’s figure out how much people are willing to pay you. It is fairly straightforward in the accounting industry. Check out salary.com, glassdoor.com or download the latest guide from Robert Half, and determine your salary level based on your education (bachelor or master’s), years of experience and location.
Your current compensation is another indicator, although if you are looking for a job you might be underpaid.
Depending on how eager you want this job, you may adjust your target compensation package to be higher, on par or below the industry average.
2. Make Sure They Offer First
As a negotiation tactic, ask them to give you a number, or at least a range. Their first number is unlikely to be their best number, and you can start to counter offer from there.
Note that no one can force you to disclose your salary information (although they will know during background check). If asked about the target compensation package, you can say “competitive, but I am really excited about the opportunity at your firm”. You may also say “based on my market research, someone with my education and experience is paid around X to Y.”
3. Be Confident and Stand Your Ground
Your contact point is usually HR. While you may be uneasy with salary discussion, HR does it on a daily basis. So don’t be embarrassed to tell them what you think you are worth, backed up by market research and solid demonstration of your value from past experience.
4. Be Respectful
At the same time, you should discuss with the employer with professionalism and respect. Try to understand the constraint the HR is facing. For example, you need more free time for the upcoming CPA exam, but realize that vacation days are fixed for all employees at your level. In this case, you may explore with HR on more PTO (paid time off), unpaid days off or other alternative working arrangement.
If you have a spouse that has insurance, you could negotiate not to take benefits in exchange for a higher salary. I did that with one of my previous jobs.
5. Be Willing to Walk Away
There is always a risk that they withdraw an offer if they think the gap is too wide to close. If you are dying for this offer, your may want to reconsider the tactics.
What You Should Never Do in Any Salary Negotiation
1. Lie about Your Current Salary
I have readers who told me they have been grossly underpaid in the current job, and they want to inflate their salary numbers to get a upper hand in negotiation.
Don’t do it.
Most company guidelines state that lying about your salary is the same as lying about your GPA. It is grounds for withdrawal of an offer or immediate termination if somehow it is found out after the fact.
Don’t tell the employer that you need a certain salary. The company has no obligation to pay more because you have student loan and mortgages. They do so if only they see value in you, either how much you are worth now, or as a long-term employee.
3. Ask to Speak to Person-in-Charge
I heard a story on how a candidate wasn’t happy with the offer and asked to speak to a higher up. This is plain arrogance. Pissing off the person who handed out the offer will lead you nowhere. It may even cost you the job.
4. Negotiate for the sake of Negotiating
This is just annoying and greedy and people know it. It doesn’t work, and the bitterness lingers if you decide to take the original offer.
5. Ask for Too Many Changes in Counteroffer
Target one or two areas to maximize your bargaining power. For example, you want more base salary and vacation days because of your master’s degree. If they don’t budge, you may counteroffer one more time, such as a one-time signing bonus or CPA bonus. It could also be intangible benefits such as a company phone or professional development opportunities.
Be systematic and don’t spread yourself too thin by going for every reimbursement opportunities you can think of.
6. Take the Negotiation Personally
This is also common sense. If negotiations break down between you and the employer, move on graciously, thanking the employer again for the opportunity. You never want to burn any bridges.
For undergraduates, accounting career fair is likely the first time you meet with official representatives from these firms. Career fairs range in size: it can be as small as a handful of reps in a function room, or it can be held in a resort with hundreds of local, regional and national companies across many industries.
General Career Fairs
These are big recruiting events organized by your college, or jointly with other nearby colleges to attractive more employers to attend. You will be able to meet not only Big 4 and other accounting firms, but also Fortune 500, regional and local companies.
Meet the Firms
Meet the Firms are smaller career fairs for the accounting and finance profession. Organized by your college’s accounting club or Beta Alpha Psi, they are usually bi-annual events: one during fall for full-time recruitment; another in winter to early spring for summer internships.
Typically an invitation-only event, the format varies from BBQ to a rather formal dinner. The firm rep to student ratio is higher and you can consider this a pre-interview event. BBQs are more casual, but at dinners you make polite small talk, partners and managers pimp their firms, while associates attend for free food, and you get to talk about why you are interested in that particular accounting firm.
Why are You Attending the Career Fair?
People go to these fairs for different reasons. For those who are starting out, this is a good place for initial research. You can talk to recruiters and employee representatives from many firms and industries, and ask honest questions you might otherwise avoid in formal interviews. You can even ask some of them to review your resume and seek for their advice. From there you can narrow down your preference when it’s time for interviews.
For others who know which firms they are interested in, it’s a pre-interview process and a chance to leave a good impression.
What You Should Bring and Wear at Accounting Career Fair
Most organizers specify the dress code, but it is most likely business formal. Whatever people say, I would go for conservative business formal because this is what the recruiters and attending professionals expect to see.
I would also bring a nice leather resume holder with at least 10 copies of your resume; blank paper, pen as well as a place to hold all the business cards you will be collecting. For guys this means the suit pockets but ladies may need to think about where to put them.
What If My College isn’t a Target School?
If big accounting firms don’t attend your school’s campus fair, you might want to contact nearby schools and see if you can participate their fair. If you manage to get in (or sneak in), be honest to recruiters and tell them why you are there.
Your Steps to Success at the Career Fair
Most students are inexperienced in attending career fairs. You have a great advantage if you follow these steps and mentally go through what you will see and whom you will meet on the day.
1. Research Ahead
You don’t have time and energy to visit all attending firms. You must prioritize, and research helps narrow down your choices. I would pick 4-6 companies to allow sufficient time for you to chat with the representatives and leave a good impression.
2. Be Likeable
You have two goals in this fair:
Get your target firms to like you
Show them that you are serious
The first goal is more important than the second in my opinion. Accounting firms host these recruiting events to scout candidates that are a good fit for their firm. If they like you, it’s good fit.
Part of your job as a public accountant is to talk to people on a daily basis, may it be your client, team or interns. Therefore, CPA firms look for candidates who can hold a decent conversation. I have suggestions below on questions for the associates and managers. If you run out of questions, you can also talk about your hobbies, sports, or whatever that click with that person. Just don’t get too carried away or else you’ll miss goal #2 (show them that you are serious).
3. Start with Your Least Favorite Firms
It is pretty normal to get nervous, and this affects your ability to converse naturally and be likable. To calm yourself down and boost your confidence, start chatting with people in the firms that you don’t really want to join. It could be the last choice among your 4-6 firms in mind, or it could be any company with friendly looking representatives. Once you are settled and excited to meet people, move on to your target firms.
4. Target the Associates, not the Partner
Your peers would naturally want to talk to partner or senior manager, since these guys are more important and have more say in the recruiting process.
While this is true, I don’t prefer this strategy.
I suggest that you talk to the junior accountants first. First, you don’t need to queue up and talk to them, and they are usually eager to talk to you because they want to appear to work hard.
Second, they are closer to your age, and are more helpful in answering your “real” questions (by that I mean questions you really want to get answers for, not those to impress).
Good questions include:
How is your transition from school to working full-time?
What type of training you received at the firm starting out to prepare you for work?
Any advice on what to accomplish before starting?
What should I focus on in school during my last semesters?
Don’t ask these bad questions:
Technical questions, especially those above your own experience — don’t pretend like you know more than you do
Specific questions about the firm — wouldn’t it be embarrassing if they don’t know
Recent scandals of the firm — always stay positive
Another important reason is that many attending associates and seniors are alumni of your school. That’s why they are at this career fair and not elsewhere. There are so many things in common that you can bring up and start an interesting conversation. Back to point #2, being able to carry a good conversation is the key to impress.
Once you think they like you enough, you can ask for their business cards, and even ask them to introduce you to their manager or above. It’s much better (and faster) to approach the partner this way.
5. Get Introduced to the Manager+
Being introduced by the associates is equivalent to a stamp of approval, and yes, the manager/SM/partner should pay more attention to you. To take advantage of this opportunity, don’t chit chat about random things with the partner. He is busy and easily distracted by the 20 students around him each trying to ask a question.
Begin by saying how helpful the associates have been telling you about the everyday life as a first year. Ride on that and ask similar question related to the senior guy. For example, if you have been discussing the various industry groups, ask about how the partner got into his group, or how life was like back then when he was a first year. Something that stirs his fond memory and hopefully connect his old self with you.
6. Wrap Up the Conversation
Be considerate and don’t talk to the partner for an hour. Besides, you have other firms to meet. Wrap up the conversation gracefully as soon as you think you’ve left a good impression. Get their contacts for follow up, thank them and leave.
7. Take Notes before Your Forget
Lots of things are going on at the career fair. It would be such as waste (or disaster) if you forget or mix up the details of whom you have talked to. John used to jot down tiny notes on the back of people’s business cards. I used to laugh at him but this is actually a quick and effective way to get organized.
8. Shoot Our Your Thank you Emails
While memory still fresh, write thank you emails to the people you had 3-5 minutes of good chat with. Customize each email with the sparks and highlight of the conversation. Express yourself as someone who is interested not just about a job, but the people who are representing the firm.
Some readers suggest to connect them using Linkedin. I haven’t tried sending thank you notes via Linkedin, but it’s a great idea to explore.
Campus recruiting is the easiest way to break into Big 4 and big accounting firms. It’s hard to stand out from the crowd with so many students there, but if implement the above strategies, you give yourself a great start. Good luck!
Check out Roger CPA Review’s Tips on Meet the Firms
Some of you may be worrying your Big 4 offer being rescinded for different reasons. Here are the most common concerns from my readers, and how I think you should react:
1. Big 4 Offer Rescinded after Negotiation
The firms will not revoke the offer simply because you try to negotiate. Don’t worry, you have the right to do it.
Whether there is room for negotiation is another story. For first year, the pay is pretty much standard depending on location and your education. For experienced hires, you may have some leeway based on how urgent the Big 4 needs you (mostly because of your industry expertise).
2. Offer Rescinded after Background Check
Some of you might be worrying about offer withdrawal due to unfavorable background check.
If it is a relatively minor offense such as DUI (driving under influence) and that it is not related to finance and integrity, it should be fine. You might still get a call from HR requesting an explanation. I would say be honest about it, and try your best to explain why it happened back then, and why it will never happen again.
3. Offer Rescinded due to Grades
Your GPA should have been clearly stated on your resume. If not, one of the interviewers should have asked you. If you believe your grades are low but somehow they extend an offer — congratulations, they must have liked you enough.
However, if you have been lying about your GPA, you are in bigger trouble. HR usually requests that you send in the transcripts upon graduation and therefore your grades would be clearly shown. At this point, there isn’t much you can do.
4. Offer Rescinded due to Incorrect Salary Information
I have seen lateral hires inflating their salary numbers hoping to shoot for more in the Big 4. They might not be lying exactly, but they estimate their bonus and quantify benefits that weren’t actually paid. Not a good idea.
Lying about your salary is grounds for withdrawing an offer. Once you give a salary number that is recorded and depending on the company they may or may not verify your salary. So it’s a risky game, you can’t change your answer once you have given it and if they request that your salary be verified you are pretty much done.
From what I know, the Big 4 as well as most Fortune 500 companies participate in and use a company called The Work Number which provides employment verification and salary verification. There is another similar service known as HireRight. If your current company participates in either of these two services, the Big 4 can pull your salary history.
The Work Number and HireRight verification reports are very detailed. They list all the companies, positions held, annual salary numbers, bonuses paid, bi weekly gross pay figures, and vacation balances.
Your offer will most likely not be revoked due to negotiation, minor offenses and low grades. The killer is dishonesty. Let’s stay truthful and honest as public accountants. Ethics is highly valued in our profession.
One attraction of working in a global firm is the opportunity to work overseas for a few years without disrupting your career. At the Big 4, they are known as international assignments. Are you ready for that?
Timing of the International Assignment
Big 4 international assignment, also known as international rotation, is arranged when there is a need of technical skills in overseas offices. Because they mostly want US GAAP expertise, only seniors and above are qualified, with most going at manager or senior manager level.
The terms of your global mobility contract is usually negotiated between home country, host country, and possibly also the client. Your home office pays a minimum expat benefits, such as basic relocation and storage expenses.
The better your industry and skills match with what is required in the host office, the more likely they will pay for extra benefits. This may include housing (rent and agency fees), full relocation expenses, meal allowance, education allowance for children, and assisting your spouse to find work in the host country. The higher your level, the higher the benefits.
Nature of Assignment
Given the nature of work, there are more international rotations in assurance than in tax and advisory.
There are exceptions, of course. My husband John started at Financial Advisory Services at PwC at the New York headquarters. A few months into his job, he was sent to Tokyo for a 6-month international assignment. He stayed at the Imperial Hotel for the entire time and ate so much sushi (on company’s account) that he got food poisoning… It was however very tedious work. There was a reason to send him there.
There are two types of international assignments: strategic and non-strategic.
Strategic Rotation: The Pros
Strategic means value-add in the eyes of the firm, but they try to align your interest. This means the opportunity also matches your industry and technical expertise. For strategic assignments, the firm will take care of you in the host country and make sure you come back to broadly what you want to do.
You may express your preference in terms of location, but for top performers willing to be placed in any office to add the most value, the firm has the most incentive to keep you happy with a generous expat package and a good position when you return to the US.
International assignments are great personal experience, and may help your career, particularly after the Big Four. The experience is invaluable from a resume perspective and shows to your firm and prospective employers you are willing to take risks for the right opportunities.
Strategic Rotation: The Cons
This isn’t for everybody, especially those with family and kids.
At the same time, some people have a hard time integrating back to the US office after a couple of years. Lots of client and staff turnover may have happened in past 2 years, and you may not be able to get back to your client and your team.
These are more random temporary relocations without much strategic value to the firm, nor do they offer long-term career development. John’s Tokyo assignment mentioned above is non-strategic.
If you are able to return to your own team after a few months, it could be a cool experience and an interesting stint to mention in the resume. However, you do run a risk of doing random, mundane and tedious work all day, with local staff whom you don’t click.
Compensation and Tax Issues
For most people I talk to, the compensation remains the same, with adjustment due to the difference in cost of living. For strategic assignments, the adjustment is usually favorable. For example, if your children need to attend expensive English-speaking schools in the host country, the firm will pay for that. You may be given a driver and housekeeper if that is the local custom.
For tax, you won’t be better or worst off. The firm pays your actual tax, then calculate the portion you need to pay them using a tax equalization mechanism. HR personnel specializing in expat arrangement will take care of this.
Does Big 4 International Assignment Accelerate My Path to Partnership?
It depends. Most strategic international assignments are jobs with large clients, which is always helpful in your track record within the Big 4. If the client is not only big, but also complex and generates lots of revenue, it is the best one you can get. If you are lucky enough to work under a popular partner in the host office, even better.
On the other hand, if your client isn’t meaningful and you work under an unknown partner in a small office, you are better off just getting to a big market in the US (New York, Chicago, Silicon Valley). From there, get on a high profile client and work as hard as you can.
If you like the idea of traveling, working with large clients give you enough opportunities to travel to their regional offices. Short trips to many different places could be a more interesting experience than one big international assignment.
How to Increase Your Chance of Success
Okay. You still want to do it. What should you do?
1. Strive to be Top Performer
Your are normally eligible to apply with an above-average rating, but those rated a 1 or 2 have the highest priority for strategic assignments.
2. Plan Early
Once you hit senior (or second year for high performers), discuss with your performance development coach, who can get additional information from HR.
3. Make Your Business Case
If you are interested in a specific country or region, identify the strongest industry there. For example, if you are interested in a Hong Kong rotation and banks are the highest-profile clients there, you should start manage your career and get financial services experience. The better you prepare, the stronger your business case by the time you are eligible to apply.
4. Brush up the Local Language
Many offices are fine with English alone, but some do prefer you speak (and even read) the local language. Again, it could only help your case.
5. Stay in Contact with Your Colleagues in Home Office
This is what you should do after getting the assignment, but very important. Keeping regular contact with your team and colleagues in your home office will help your transition back to the US much easier. Simple gestures such as emailing to say hi, sending Christmas cards to important people, and dropping by the office whenever you are back to your home town for vacation… there are many ways to keep people from forgetting you.
Let’s say you met a Big 4 senior manager at a networking event, and through persistent follow ups, you are finally invited to have lunch with her near the office.
You really want to turn this into an opportunity at the firm. How do you make the best use of it?
Informational Interview over Lunch
1. Identify Common Topic(s) in Advance
First, this is a lunch. I bet the senior manager wouldn’t want to talk about accounting principals and latest changes in GAAP. You can let her choose a topic, but it’s better if you can initiate a conversation.
During the follow ups, you should have done something right to lead to this lunch. Most likely you two have something in common — Did you come from the same town? Do you have common friends, favorite movies, kids, dogs, etc. These are all great places to start the conversation.
2. Be Likeable
You never know the true purpose and outcome of this meet up. It could simply be a nice gesture on her part, or this could be an informal first interview.
In any case, present yourself as a likeable person. Everyone wants to hire cheerful, easy going and positive people as colleagues. Also, as a client-oriented business, the Big 4 looks for candidates who can carry a good conversation with clients.
The last thing you want to do is getting too nervous. It looks awkward, and gives a bad impression that you are thinking way ahead of yourself.
3. Be Prepared to Talk about Your Career Goals
Assuming she is older than you, it’s pretty normal for her to ask about your career aspiration. Be prepared to say something for medium to long term. You should definitely express your desire to work in her firm. For Big 4, the standard would be the training, exposure and prestige. You can also talk about the desire to continue your career in audi, tax or whatever you are doing right now.
4. Ask for Advice
A good way to take pressure off your shoulder is to turn the table and ask for her advice. After expressing your interest in the firm, ask for general advice of getting into the firm as an experienced hire (assuming you are one), or any specific tips you would like to get for your own situation. You can also ask for her experience and how she came to be successful. A subtle flattery is fine.
5. Offer Help
You can end the lunch by offering help. It could be anything e.g. helping her to follow up on the vet you mentioned earlier. The main purpose is to create a reason to contact her at a later date, and at the same time leave a great impression as a helpful and likeable person.
What Do You Think?
What are your suggestions? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
If you work for a Big 4 firm, you may have heard what is referred to as the “Big 4 bonus.” However, while the Big 4 CPA bonus is significant in dollar value, your overall Big 4 salary is also important to consider. Therefore, we are going to cover not only the bonuses but also Big 4 salaries and other perks.
In the U.S., as of 2020 the average Certified Public Accountant (CPA) earns a yearly salary of $67,909. For comparison’s sake, the average accountant without a CPA license earns a yearly salary of $51,577. Clearly, having those three letters on your resume gives you a financial advantage.
PayScale further breaks down CPA salary data. According to their findings, entry-level CPAs earn an average salary of $54,429 a year, while mid-career CPAs draw an average salary of $70,661 a year. The most experienced professionals make an average salary of $95,866 a year.
Big 4 salaries are typically higher than mid-tier and regional accounting firm salaries. Therefore, many accounting majors strive to become employed by the Big 4 due to the higher earning potential (among other things).
However, CPAs also have earnings potential beyond their base salaries. For example, many CPAs are eligible to receive bonuses based on their performance. In fact, some companies even provide accountants with a public accounting bonus when they receive their CPA designation. Among these companies are the “Big 4,” or the largest accounting firms. They include Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC.
The Standard Big 4 CPA Bonus
Typically, you will receive $5,000 upon passing the CPA Exam within the first year of joining your firm. The amount is lower if you take longer to complete it. Most Big 4 will give you $3,000 if you pass within the second year and $1,000 if you pass within the third year. If you pass the exam before your first day of work, you will receive the CPA bonus one to two months after the start date.
Here are the exact wordings from each of the Big 4 on their CPA bonuses:
PwC offers significant incentives to those who obtain their CPA and other primary credentials (CFA, CISA, CIA) early, as well as reimbursement and educational programs to help you achieve this goal.”
PwC no longer publishes specifics on its CPA bonus. A year ago, it had reportedly been raised from $5,000 to $6,000. However, with pay cuts due to the pandemic, we’re unsure whether this is still the case.
KPMG awards $5,000 when you join KPMG with your CPA exam passed, or if you pass all parts of the CPA exam within your first year of employment or CPA exam eligibility, whichever is later.
KPMG awards $3,000 when you complete and pass your CPA exam during your second year of employment or CPA exam eligibility, whichever is later.”
We provide upfront reimbursement for one certification review course and associated exam registration fees for first-time exam takers for required certifications. We also offer a professional certification bonus to reward you for attainment of required professional certifications early in your career.”
Deloitte recognizes that the key to success goes beyond learning and coaching support. As they work to achieve their professional designation, our students receive ample study time (through both paid and unpaid days) and financial support for annual fees and CPA tuition. Candidates also receive a professional designation cash bonus upon successful completion of the CFE.”
Like PwC, Deloitte does not offer specifics, but according to accounting forums, this firm offers the standard $5,000 within one year and $3,000 within two years.
Other CPA Related Perks, Sponsorships, and Reimbursement
Exam Fee Reimbursement
In addition to the bonus, firms will cover the application and exam registration fees as well. Most Big 4 firms will pay whether you pass or not, but they will only reimburse your first attempt at each part of the exam.
Review Course Payment
The Big 4 has direct billing with Becker, which will send you the self-study course. One of the Big 4 gives you the choice of Wiley CPAexcel as well. If you have already paid for the review courses, you should be able to negotiate a higher signing bonus equivalent to this amount.
The understanding is that Big 4 auditors can only be promoted to manager after they pass the CPA exam. Normally, they expect you to have passed by the time you become a senior.
According to the standard rule, you are entitled to the above bonuses and perks if you work for the firm for at least a year. Be sure to check the disclaimer in your offer letter or contract. If you leave the company after less than a year, you may have to pay back your bonus.
Additionally, PwC used to offer a $20,000 bonus to winners of the Elijah Watt Sells Award for the highest scores on the CPA Exam. However, as of 2020, this is no longer the case.
What You WON’T Get Immediately After Passing
At the Big 4, you don’t get a salary raise right after passing the exam, but you will likely receive a bigger salary bump at the next annual review.
Automatic money transfer into your account
You must take the initiative to contact HR, fill out the necessary paperwork, and provide proof of your passing. Processing time can range from a few weeks to a few months — please expect two to three pay cycles before you get it. Also, be aware that the clock on your year at the firm may begin when you receive the bonus, not when you file the paperwork.
Tax exemption of any sort
This bonus is taxable. Period.
CPA Bonus in Local and Regional CPA Firms
For mid-size to large regional CPA firms, you can expect a bonus of $1,000 to $2,000. Additionally, some firms may offer a salary raise or even a promotion. The amount largely depends on the size and location of the firm. You may be able to negotiate the reimbursement of exam fees and review courses as well. These benefits are repayable if you leave the firm within a certain period, typically within one to two years.
You will get a pat on the back for small and local CPA firms. I’m not too sure about the bonus, though. Fortunately, a salary increase is always negotiable…
Anyway, the Biggest Bonus is…
You don’t need to study for this gruesome exam ever again!
When considering CPA Exam bonuses, remember that this is a one-time payout. It’s nice, but it’s a short-term financial perk.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Big 4 accounting firms pay bonuses? Do you get a signing bonus at a Big 4?
Traditionally, yes, Big 4 firms have offered a number of bonuses to employees. The CPA Exam bonus is just one of many. If you’re specifically asking, “do Big 4 firms offer signing bonuses?” the answer is also usually yes. However, the presence of a signing bonus may vary from year to year or even location to location. Additionally, with the economic effects of the pandemic, bonuses may be smaller or put on hold entirely.
How much is the Big 4 signing bonus?
I get this question a lot, phrased in many different ways, including:
What is the typical Big 4 bonus?
What are bonuses like at Big 4 accounting firms?
How much bonus can an associate earn at a Big 4 firm?
While situations may differ by candidate and region, the typical signing bonus at a Big 4 firm is $2,500 to $5,000. Because each member of the Big 4 tends to follow the lead of the others, this is standard across all four companies.
As for other bonuses, the median is around 8% of your Big 4 salary. However, if you perform well, you will likely receive a higher percentage as a bonus.
When do Big 4 accounting firms issue a bonus?
If you’re asking “when do you get a signing bonus at a Big 4 firm?” the answer is, usually, along with your first paycheck. Other bonuses may be issued based on important work milestones, the length of time you’ve been with the firm, or the holiday season. However, the important thing to remember about bonuses is that they are, in fact, a bonus – that is, they’re not guaranteed income.
Does Big 4 let you keep your promotion bonus if you leave?
For most signing and CPA bonuses, there will be wording in the contract that says you must repay the bonus if you leave the firm within a set time. This is to prevent candidates from signing on for huge bonuses and then leaving for another employer. Typically, you must stay with the firm at least a year or pay back the bonus. The answer is the same for most promotion bonuses, as well.
Does your mentor get a bonus if you accept an offer at a Big 4 firm?
When you begin a job at a Big 4 firm like PwC, you’ll usually be paired with a partner or director to help mentor and guide you. However, whether this mentor receives a bonus for this role is unclear.