When it comes to starting an accounting career, we’ve looked at Big 4 vs. small firms. However, those aren’t your only choices. Mid-tier accounting firms have a lot to offer, both in terms of salary and work-life balance. Additionally, according to the Australian Financial Review, mid-level accounting firms have been growing faster than the Big 4 recently.
Life at Mid-Tier Accounting Firms
Not all mid-market accounting firms are the same. For example, working at RSM, BDO, or Grant Thornton will be quite a bit different from working at a firm with 1,500 employees. However, there are some commonalities to these jobs.
Before we get into details, it’s good to know what is considered a medium-sized firm in accounting. Essentially, the Big 4 are the top-tier firms in terms of size and revenue, and they’re in a field all their own. According to Accounting Today, the smallest of the Big 4, KPMG, had 35,736 employees as of 2019. RSM, the next-largest US firm, had only 9,670 – about a quarter of KPMG’s size.
Thus, you could classify the largest mid-size accounting firms as those with fewer than 10,000 employees. They also offer international services, but on a smaller scale than the Big 4. Additionally, they span multiple geographic regions and work with middle-market companies. If we consider the top 20 or so US firms beneath the Big 4 to be mid-tier, these are firms with between 1,000 and 10,000 employees.
On the smaller end, regional accounting firms typically operate out of one or two regions, though they may have multiple locations throughout that region. Below that are boutique and local firms. So, essentially, medium-size accounting firms are smaller than the Big 4 but larger than regional firms.
Since larger companies have more resources and tend to pay higher salaries, it makes sense that the average starting salary at a mid-tier accounting firm is less than a Big 4 but more than a small firm. You’ll typically start between $48,000 and $66,000 a year. As a junior CPA with 1-3 years of experience, you can expect to make between $57,000 and $81,000 a year. At a senior level with 4-6 years of experience, your salary will usually fall between $70,000 and $100,000. Finally, as a manager or director, you can expect to earn between $85,000 and $122,000 at a mid-tier firm.
Here’s a more specific breakdown of mid-tier accounting firm salaries by job title from Robert Half’s 2021 Salary Guide. Unfortunately, the guide no longer breaks down salary by firm size, but these represent the 50th to 75th percentile, which is about where mid-tier firms fall.
As for a medium accounting firm partner salary, that will once again vary based on the size of the mid-tier firm, but it typically ranges from $200,000 to $800,000 a year. In contrast, the typical partner salary of a small firm of 10-50 people is closer to $140,000-$150,000 a year. At the Big 4, however, partner salaries start around $300,000 for the first year and can go as high as $3,000,000 after a decade or more. Once again, a partner salary at a mid-sized accounting firm lies somewhere between the small firms and the Big 4.
Type of Work
It’s no surprise that the biggest international clients and richest individuals go to Big 4 firms for their accounting needs. Thus, you’ll work with slightly smaller clients at mid-tier firms, though they still may be international companies. Additionally, since fewer employees are at a mid-tier firm, you’ll be called on to fill more roles and thus gain a broader range of experience. These firms have fewer resources than the Big 4, so there’s less streamlining and systematization of work processes. Also, you may work with older technology or software.
The trade-off for the smaller salaries at mid-tier accounting firms is that you’ll work fewer hours than you would at a Big 4 firm. Indeed, many people choose to leave the Big 4 to find a better work-life balance. You’ll still work longer hours when it comes to busy season, but during the rest of the year, the hours are closer to 9-5. There’s a substantial difference between the normal working hours at a mid to large accounting firm vs. Big 4.
If small firms feel like families, Big 4 firms can feel like huge, cold corporate entities. A mid-tier firm is a good compromise. It won’t feel small enough to be claustrophobic, nor is it large enough for you to get lost. You’ll know and develop relationships with your co-workers, but you’ll also get to work with people outside your department.
Plus, employee turnover in medium-sized accounting firms is much lower than at the Big 4 since many people are temporarily working at the largest firms for the resume boost. There’s also the fact that advancement is so important at the Big 4 that it fosters a cut-throat environment. You’ll feel much less of that at a mid-tier firm.
Given the size of the Big 4, there are more opportunities for advancement there. However, there’s also the expectation that you’ll be more geographically mobile. That is, if the firm has a better job for you in another state or even another country, you’ll be expected to move there. Moreover, since the Big 4 have more partners than mid-tier firms, you stand a better chance of making partner there. However, you will also face fierce competition from your many fellow employees.
Overall, Big 4 firms are still unmatched when it comes to buffing up your resume. Smaller firms prefer to hire former Big 4 employees over those from mid-tier accounting firms. There’s a reason that medium-sized firms are sometimes called “second-tier.” That said, taking a job that doesn’t suit you just because it looks good on your resume isn’t the best career path for everyone.
Working For a Mid-Tier Accounting Firm: Pros and Cons
Ultimately, here’s what it boils down to when it comes to Big 4 vs. mid-tier firms.
Pros of Mid-Tier Accounting Firms
Better work-life balance. You’ll work less overtime, and you may not need to work nights and weekends outside of busy season.
Less pressure. While you’ll still be expected to produce high-quality work, there won’t be the same high-pressure environment you’d feel at the Big 4.
Decent salary. Although you won’t make quite as much as you would at the Big 4, you’ll still make a good salary compared to smaller firms, particularly as you advance.
Broader practical experience. You’ll work on a greater variety of things and stages in the auditing process, gaining good experience and helping you prepare to take the CPA Exam.
Cons of Mid-Tier Accounting Firms
Medium-range salary. Mid-tier firms make less revenue than the Big 4 and thus pay their employees less.
Less chance for specialization. At the Big 4, you may spend a great deal of time with a single client working on a single part of an audit, allowing you to specialize.
Less chance to make partner. Mid-tier firms have fewer partners and potentially more office politics, making advancement more challenging.
Fewer exit opportunities. A mid-tier firm, even a large one, doesn’t look quite as good on your resume as a Big 4 firm.
Mid-Tier Accounting Firms List
If we consider accounting mid-tier firms to be those with between 1,000 and 10,000 employees, here are the 20 firms that fit this bill. This data comes from Accounting Today’s 2019 list as ranked by revenue.
CBIZ & MHM
Dixon Hughes Goodman
Carr, Riggs & Ingram
Citrin Cooperman & Co.
So, why mid-tier over Big 4? Usually, it comes down to work-life balance. Most people who work at small to medium accounting firms do so because it allows them to spend more time with their families or pursue hobbies. However, a mid-tier firm will still provide a better salary and more opportunities than most small-sized firms. Your choice will come down to your career and lifestyle priorities.
What are the mid-tier accounting firms?
Generally speaking, the medium accounting firms size refers to the largest ten to twenty firms below the Big 4. RSM, BDO, and Grant Thornton are the largest and most well-known of these firms
Which are the best medium-sized accounting firms?
The best firm for you is, as always, the one with the work environment that suits your life and needs. You’ll have a different experience at, for example, Eide Bailly, which is headquartered in North Dakota, than you would at RSM, which is headquartered in Chicago. Finding medium-sized accounting firms is easy, so do some research into the firms’ corporate culture to decide which one is the best for you.
How many employees are there in a mid-size accounting firm?
Between 1,000 and 10,000 employees are working at a mid-tier accounting firm.
While working for the Big 4 is the dream for many aspiring accountants, this may not be an ideal job for your long-term career. Essentially, this comes down to the difference between small accounting firms vs. large accounting firms.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Big 4 accounting firms weighed against small firms so you can make an informed decision for your accounting career.
Big Firm vs. Small Firm: Specialist vs Generalist
At the Big 4, you work on big clients and are staffed on big teams most of the time. As a junior staff member, you will specialize in a specific part of the audit – for example, fixed assets. And if you work in tax, you might only work on state and local taxation (SALT).
On the other hand, at a small firm, you work with smaller clients, and junior auditors can work on an audit from beginning to end. Similarly, while working in smaller firms as a tax associate, you will work on individual and corporate returns and many types of returns in between.
Big 4 Accounting Pros
1. Working with the Biggest Clients
You’ll get great exposure in many aspects as a first-year associate in the Big 4. The breadth and the quality of the client base are unrivaled. Thus, you can get your hands on some complicated situations and learn how to deal with them with the help of senior accountants.
As you progress, you will be exposed to companies in many different industries. If you perform well and people generally like you, you can tailor your career within the firm and gradually move towards a specialized industry.
2. Good In-House Training
The Big 4 firms have the resources to provide numerous in-house training for junior accountants. It begins with a one- to two-week national training for new hires, then regular training and online webinars on special topics afterward. These classes are free and helpful for your career development, as well as for fulfilling your CPA CPE requirements.
3. Best Way to Get Your CPA Certification
Speaking of the CPA qualification, the Big 4 will help you get licensed quickly. These firms offer CPA Exam prep like Becker CPA Review for free or may reimburse the cost of another review course if you’ve purchased that already. After passing the exam, you’ll get a CPA bonus. What’s more, you will also have no problem getting your work experience verified by your manager, who by default is an actively licensed CPA.
4. Unrivalled Big 4 Exit Opportunities
When it comes to exit opportunities, Big 4 is hard to beat. Whether you want to stay with the Big 4 or move on to a smaller firm, this experience is seen as a seal of approval from a resume perspective. Your halo will continue to glow at your new company as people generally give more respect to those with previous Big 4 experience.
Big 4 Accounting Cons
1. Higher Pressure with Longer Hours
The Big 4 firms serve the biggest corporations in every industry. Therefore, it is understandable that the clients’ demands and expectations are higher. As part of the Big 4, this basically means that you will need to work hard (and fast) to deliver the product. Additionally, there will be extra pressure to make sure the product is of the best quality.
Many accountants find it overwhelming, but some perform better in a high-pressure environment. A Big 4 work-life balance can be difficult to achieve if you must work nights and weekends. A 40-hour workweek isn’t exactly something big 4 firms are known for, so expect that you will spend 60+ hours working each week.
2. Up or Out
The Big 4 is not a place for someone looking for a stagnant lifestyle. Staying in one level and not moving up is simply not a viable career choice. If you aren’t promoted within a certain amount of time, you may be forced to leave. That’s why many Big 4 accountants end up leaving the firm despite all the attractive qualities mentioned above.
Also, big 4 firms require you to earn the CPA certification to move you from an associate to a senior position. Therefore, you may have many things to juggle at once if you didn’t complete the CPA Exam while in school (if you met the requirements) or immediately after you graduated.
3. Getting Stuck with a Single Client
Depending on the nature of clients in your office, you may spend more than 80% of your time on one single client. This client is large and high-profile, which is great if you plan to stay and move up the public accounting hierarchy in Big 4. However, if you prefer variety, you won’t like it because the large client swallows up most of your schedule. Subsequently, you’ll have less exposure to other companies and industries.
4. Feeling Lost at a Large Firm
The Big 4 accounting firms have grown so large that you probably won’t know people outside your department. Also, in terms of client servicing, given the size of the clients and the audit team, you might get stuck with mundane work for the first couple of years.
Small Firm Pros
1. Close Knit Group
Regional and local CPA firms are often smaller, so developing a close working relationship with the partners is easier. Also, the audit teams are much smaller, so you will have more chance of working directly with the firm’s partner(s). Conversely, at Big 4 firms, your supervisors will be seniors and managers.
2. On-the-Job Training
Since you don’t have the luxury of formal training, you learn on the job at the client’s site or while preparing a tax return. This steeper learning curve can be exciting and satisfying (some may find this terrifying, though). You’ll get your feet wet earlier in the process, which can be a confidence-builder.
3. Less Pressure
Because your clients are likely private companies, you’re less likely to feel the pressure from deadlines and complexities from the publicly listed companies that the Big 4 are getting. This usually translates to better hours and work-life balance. While there’s still a busy season, there’s also the possibility of lighter hours once the busy season ends.
4. Great Help in CPA Exam Prep
Accountants working at a small CPA firm have the chance to perform entire audits alone and do taxes during the busy season. Your practical experience will cover the vast majority of FAR, AUD, and REG, more than 75% of the CPA exam content.
Small Firm Cons
1. Less Exposure
In a typical regional CPA firm, the client base is smaller, and you’ll have less of a chance to develop a broad base of experience. This could mean frustration if you get stuck in an industry you are not interested in. You may also have fewer networking opportunities.
2. More Office Politics
Competition to move up the ladder can be tougher and slower than in a large firm. A handful of partners decides your assignment and promotion. This can be very subjective and sometimes unfair.
3. Lower Pay
It’s safe to assume that the Big 4 can afford to pay more than the smaller firms. A small accounting firm’s salary typically starts at a few thousand less, and they may not offer a bonus after passing the CPA exam.
Small Accounting Firms vs. Large Accounting Firms: Big 4 Salary Comparison
Salaries are largely the same from firm to firm if you’re working in Big 4. In contrast, salaries at small firms will vary. Here’s a general breakdown of expected CPA salaries for tax services at small accounting firms vs large accounting firms according to the Robert Half 2021 Salary Guide.
Big 4 Firm
Small CPA Firm
Associate (starting salary)
$57,250 – $75,750
$40,500 – $49,000
$70,500 – $93,500
$49,000 – $59,750
$87,250 – $115,500
$62,000 – $73,250
$127,000 – $167,750
$88,500 – $107,000
$165,000 – $217,000
$114,250 – $137,500
The difference between small and large firm salaries increases over the length of a career. Additionally, small firm accounting tends to come with fewer bonuses. However, remember that Big 4 hours will continue to be longer and the work more stressful. Finally, you may have fewer exit opportunities after passing the manager level at a Big 4 firm.
What Do People Think?
People are generally well aware of the benefits of the Big 4 experience. Therefore, I would like to highlight the opposite — how local and regional CPA firms could be attractive. Here is a testimonial from an accounting graduate who started at a small firm.
Yes, I think it is better to start out with a smaller firm than a larger one simply because you will get a better chance to get to know your co-workers better and nothing will be a rush. You will also get to learn more about the career you chose with the one-on-one rather than being thrown out in a sea of sharks.
I know because I have work[ed] for a small company with at least five other people working under me . It was better for us because we got to know each other and what was expected of each one of us without all the drama.”
Here is another supporter of small CPA firms.
Joining a small firm always helps in gaining more experience faster. In the larger firms, the work is distributed into smaller chunks between more number of employees, and so you get to gain experience in just one small area.
In smaller firms, since they do not have the luxury of a large pool of employees, more work is distributed to small number of employees. So the breadth of learning is quite high. Survival in the initial days will seem to be difficult, but over a period of time, you get to learn more and handle stuff yourself.
One good way to cope up with difficult situations is to ask someone to mentor you (not train but mentor) so that you can go to them and talk about the problems you faced. They can in turn give you valuable advice in terms of managing such issues.
Another way is to network with as many seniors as possible and try to learn without eating into too much of their time. And once you gain experience, you will be surprised at how well you will be able to guide freshers.
But there is a downside to all this. Because your experience is only through field work and without proper training, sometimes the learning will be haphazard. But the pieces will fall into place in the long run. During your free time, you can also Google on stuff which you were stumped about in case there is no one to help you out.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Big 4 experience worth it?
Many people who spent a few years working at a Big 4 firm before moving into an industry job find that their time at the large firm opened many doors for their careers. However, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.
Why work for a small accounting firm?
After hearing all the benefits of working for the Big 4, you may wonder why anyone would want to work at a small firm. However, small accounting firms have several benefits, including a better work-life balance, broader job experience, less pressure, and closer relationships with co-workers. The decision between small accounting firms vs. large accounting firms comes down to your priorities and long-term career goals.
When should the Big 4 accountant leave to get the best exit opportunities?
As you acquire experience with the Big 4, you’ll likely find that job site head hunters begin contacting you about a wide array of other job opportunities. When you decide to leave may depend on whether you’re looking for audit vs. tax exit opportunities. Big 4 audit exit opportunities peak after about two to three years with one of these firms. On the other hand, your public accounting tax exit opportunities increase once you have hit the manager level after four or five years. At that point, you’ll be a highly sought-after tax expert.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share your view in the comment section below.
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!
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 the CPA 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. As of 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 of 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 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 need to 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 actually 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 choose to 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.
For small and local CPA firms, you will get a pat on the back. 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 types of bonuses may be issued based on important work milestones, the length of time that 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 amount of 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, it is unclear whether this mentor receives a bonus for this role.
For Your Further Reading
How to talk your employer into paying for your CPA exam
You are about to start your career at one of the big 4 accounting firms. Lots of things are going through your mind, and I know you are definitely wondering how you should dress.
Many people struggle with their confidence when it comes to business dress code, and even the most confident person can get confused about what is appropriate to wear. This is especially true if you are entering a new career or job for the first time, and you haven’t had the chance to feel it all out yet.
Is There a Big 4 Accounting Dress Code? What About an Accounting Dress Code?
Whether you are a new hire, an intern, or just planning for the day when you do get that job, it pays to know how you will be expected to dress. Most people can’t run out and buy a whole new wardrobe on the fly, so you can start picking out pieces now, or seeing what you have in your current closet that will be suitable.
Now, is there a Big 4 accounting dress code?
While there isn’t an official big 4 dress code, most public accountants dress in a certain way. Therefore, you’re going to be expected to do the same, or at least not to stand out in a very ostentatious way. You can be professional and within dress code guidelines and still explore your own creativity and individuality. However, it always helps to learn the “rules” first, before you learn when and how it is appropriate to bend or break them.
When it comes to accounting office attire, there are slight variations across the cities in the U.S., and the style could be quite different in other countries, especially those in Europe. In this post, we focus on the everyday office wear in the U.S.
First Day Tips
You may be the most anxious about dressing well for your first day at a big 4 accounting firm. We only get one shot to make a first impression and you want to get it right. You may be told to dress business casual, but I would go a tad more formal, with a tie and a suit (or a skirt-suit for women). In my opinion, it is prudent to be slightly more overdressed than underdressed. This is especially important for your first day until you familiarize yourself with the office you’ll be working in, your co-workers, and your clients’ offices.
Women’s clothing has a lot of variations and options when compared to men’s business clothing. For women, it’s hard to generalize. I would say dress respectfully, with an outfit that looks good in front of partners. You don’t necessarily need to be in a business suit, but you certainly don’t want to look like you’re going to the club, either. Again, business casual – with a slant toward more formal until you get to know the office environment more.
Once you settle in your office, you will find what you are comfortable with and how that fits in the “tone” of your particular office. But what happens when you travel, such as when you are sent to national training or seminars? You will be representing your office and firm, as well as yourself, so attire is important here.
You will be shipped out of town for national training for a couple of weeks, usually. Trainings are done in an informal setting and there are parties at night. The trainers are seniors and first-year managers, and the rest are your peers. This is definitely business casual.
Dress Code in Office and Client Site
After the training, you will start working either at the client site or at the office. In a typical office in the U.S., people usually go with a simple button-down dress shirt, dress pants, and dress shoes. You want to be sure you’re comfortable, too, so you can make it through a whole workday without feeling like you’re restricted or uncomfortable in your attire.
For first or important client meetings, you may want to see how your manager dresses on the day, but typically you might want to dress up a little bit — with a tie and full suit (pant or skirt-suit for women).
Junior auditors spend most of their time in the field in clients’ offices. For everyday work at the client site, business casual is usually fine. Having said that, and depending on the client’s corporate culture and style of your manager, you may have specific instruction to dress otherwise. I have a friend whose general rule for his team is to wear “at the level” of the client’s CFO.
No matter what the guideline is, it is prudent to have a suit ready for any ad hoc meeting with the company’s management.
Attire for an Accounting Firm Interview
Career center advisors and professors say to “always dress the part” and this goes for an accounting firm interview as well. You should show up for the interview dressed as you would for the job you want. Not only does this set a good impression, but it also shows that you are willing to put in the time and effort to look the part you are interviewing for. Therefore, when deciding how to dress for an interview, I’d go with the guidelines above but focus on the slightly more formal side of business casual.
What Kind of Suit for an Intern at Big 4 Firm
What if you’ve been lucky enough to get an internship at a Big 4 firm? You want to show up looking professional and fit for the part, but not like a little kid playing dress-up in their parent’s closet. What kind of suit is good for an intern at a Big 4 firm?
When interning, you probably won’t wear a suit every day. Most firms will go with more business casual (dress pants and dress shirts) rather than a full suit every day. However, it’s always better to overdress than to underdress so you can play it safe and wear a suit your first day and possibly even your first week, and then decide from there.
There is no hard-and-fast rule on what type of suit you should wear but here are some guidelines:
Make sure your suit is fitting properly – not too big or too small, and get alterations if needed
Go with common, neutral colors – this is not the place to pull out that bright purple blazer
Choose complementary colors
Always have nice business shoes (and matching socks for men)
Big 4 Accounting Firms Dress Codes
What do we mean when we say “Big 4” accounting firms? The Big 4 (KPMG, Ernst & Young (EY), Deloitte, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)) are the four biggest professional services networks in the world. They offer auditing, assurance services, taxation, advisory services, management consulting, corporate finance, and legal services. So, you can see that there is a wide range of services that they offer.
Is the dress code for Big 4 accounting firms different from other accounting firms?
KMPG Dress Code
For your interview, dress to impress. It’s always better to overdress (I keep saying it because it’s so important) than to underdress. Apparently, KMPG also spends a lot of money helping their interns know how to dress. The company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on gift cards to help their interns dress properly for the job.
EY Dress Code
EY has one of the strictest dress codes of all the Big 4. When it doubt here, always go for more formal. An EY spokesperson said, “EY provides broad guidelines about the standard of attire that our people, who represent the firm, should adhere to. Our people are able to wear formal or business casual, depending on their professional working arrangements.”
Deloitte Dress Code
The dress code at Deloitte is formals from Monday through Thursday and business casual on Fridays. Again, if you are a new hire, a new intern, or joining with a new office, always ask if you’re unsure. For an interview, always go with business attire. You want to make a good first impression.
PwC Dress Code
PwC’s dress code is now “dress for your day.” Employees still need to follow the dress code of the clients they’re working with, but if they are in the PwC office, jeans and sneakers are just fine. This is definitely the laxest dress code of all of the Big 4. I’d still play it safe and go business professional or casual to an interview and first day on the job.
Rule of Thumb for Big 4 Accounting Dress Codes
Rule number one is to adapt to the culture in which you work. This is true for any job anywhere in the world. If the culture only calls for button-down dress shirts and slacks, then do that.
If it’s your first day of work and you aren’t sure about the culture, try to recall how your interviewers dressed. The juniors, seniors, and managers you saw around the office are also a good reference. If you are still not sure, stay on the conservative side.
2. Dress Smart; Not Smarter
It’s pleasing to dress smart with good style and good fit. But you shouldn’t aim to dress “smarter” than your peers in order to stand out. Most people don’t care. And for the few who do, it will likely come out as negative.
Questions about Accounting Dress Codes
1. We have casual Fridays that allow khakis and jeans, but my managers and above always wear a suit. Should I do that?
Yes, this could be one exception. Try to find out the reason — do the managers wear suits because of frequent client meetings, but is this the preferred style of upper management? I would probably dress something in between — a tad more formal than the usual casual Friday outfit (i.e. no jeans, but khakis and a shirt with nice cut and fabric). As you pass your first year, you may dress more like the managers if you wish to.
2. I love wearing a vest suit and I wonder if it’s appropriate in the office?
If you are a new hire, I would say no, simply because you don’t want to be called “the vest guy.” People may think you are trying too hard to impress. However, if you really love vests, you could add it in every now and then.
If it were me, I would take it down a notch to a regular suit with a tie, or dress pants paired with a blazer, or something just a step above business casual. Alternatively, if you can’t live without your vest, maybe once in a while, on special occasions, it’s okay to wear.
3. I look really young and I might look better with a full suit in the more “mature” style. What do you think?
I suggest to pick a more conservative color (this usually means the darker color) or go for a slightly more upscale look, but I wouldn’t go all the way to a full suit in the old style. You can’t carry the suit well with a young face. What’s worse, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard to fit some sort of a mold that no longer exists.
As you may be joining the batch with other 22-year-olds, I wouldn’t worry about looking too fresh. Colleagues and clients expect you to be young as a first-year associate.
Do you have additional questions you don’t see covered here? Please feel free to post them in the comments and I will do my best to answer. I want this to be as comprehensive a resource as possible for you. It can be stressful and exciting at the same time when entering a new career, so I want to help you do so with confidence!
Big 4 Accounting Dress Code Summary
Now, let’s take a look at a quick review of all that I’ve covered here in this post:
1. Be yourself but stay within the code.
2. Dress to impress but don’t overdress.
3. If you want to stand out, stand out as a professional who does excellent work, not one who dresses uniquely.