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 workplaces, 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 conclude 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 teamwork. 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 requirements 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 love 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 to a big team, you may work on tasks so specialized that you may never be 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 a 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 a 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 who 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 people quit 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 it looks 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 ponytail, 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 a change of weather. Somehow the hair was tamed after cutting it short.
An alternative is to straighten your hair every day using a straightener, or even go to the salon and get one of those Japanese Straight Perms. 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 manicures 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 manicures of some sort. The general rule is:
Keep the color conservative – Black and other fab-color nail polish is a 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 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 to 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 work for the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 individual State Boards of Accountancy in the U.S. 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 is 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 a 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, 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 from different perspectives; firms get to publicize the best aspects of their organizations.
In a nutshell, a career fair is a mile wide and an inch deep; an information session is the other way round.
What do Big 4 Information Sessions Cover?
The firm starts with an overview of 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 into 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 are 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 🙂