Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: A College Student’s Assessment of Public Accounting Job Opportunities
Jordan Sakowitz is a senior at Lehigh University, majoring in Accounting and Management Information Systems. He also serves as the editor of the Brand-Yourself.com Blog. While he currently resides in Bethlehem, PA, he will be moving to New York City this summer when he will begin his career at Capital IQ.
Somehow, they manage to make accounting look sexy. It starts when they roll into campus career fairs with their nicely tailored suits, bundles of pens and tote bags to give away, even informational cards which can be planted in a pot and sprout as flowers. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the massive packets of information about the companies that you probably have five copies of already from previous events. Without the names and logos, could you tell which is which? Then there are the interviews- friendly smiling faces, dinners at that trendy new restaurant you could never afford to eat at, hotel stays that would cost more than your monthly rent-wow, you’re not in Kansas anymore! This is the big leagues, and guess what? You made it!
So let’s assume that you’re a smart kid, you worked hard in school, were active around campus, and have nerves of steel. You totally ace the interviews. A full-time position at a Big 4 firm has been offered to you. Congratulations! Now what?
This is the position that I found myself in recently. Now, if you had told me a year ago that I would have this offer on the table, it would’ve been a no-brainer. Great company, great benefits, friendly people, challenging work, what more could I ask for? All I had heard during my 3.5 years as an accounting student was that the Big 4 was the place to be. Professors, peers, the cute and charismatic HR reps who seemed to be on campus at least thrice a week… “just follow the yellow brick road!”
Well, I had done some research. As with any major decision (buying a car, choosing a college, etc.), I felt it was important to get all sides of the story. In addition to flipping through the info packets, browsing corporate websites, and chatting up company reps on campus, I sought out some external sources.
I started with blogs, because that was easy. Some quick Google searches led to this one, and soon I was hooked. The things Francine was saying about my beloved Big 4! Blasphemy! But I couldn’t stop reading, nor could I ignore what she was saying. It just…made so much sense. Later on I started becoming a regular reader of Going Concern, which I quickly found out was the favored hangout of disgruntled Big 4 employees. So many harsh words…the hours…the pressure…the anger…the incompetence…What would I be getting myself into? These people were unmasking the wonderful wizard Big 4 as labor camps, with the partners sitting behind a curtain pulling levers and pressing buttons to manipulate the eager-to-please associates, all while maintaining a student-facing façade of utopia.
But of course, this was just another biased side of the story. The writers and commenters are drawn to these sites because they have some sort of bone to pick with the establishment. I should mention here that all of the Big 4 employees I had interacted with during recruiting were incredibly friendly and helpful, and they treated me phenomenally.
As is usually the case, the truth can be assumed to lie between the two extremes. Talking to current and former employees (outside of the recruiting process) also provided me with some valuable information, which tended to be more centrist. (Note: This is a great time to take advantage of those alumni connections!) In the end, the most important thing for me was to gather as much information as I could, and then make a decision (if necessary) when the time came.
Fortunately for me, when recruiting was over and all offers were on the table, I actually did have a decision to make. It ended up being between a position in IT Consulting at a Big 4 firm and a spot as a Business Analyst at a software company which, frankly, I had never heard of before I interviewed with them.
Each had its pros and cons. After some serious deliberation, I opted out of the Big 4 in favor of the other position. In the end, it came down to motives. Let’s examine a few:
Money: Big 4 pay is entirely adequate, given that it requires a lot of hours. For me, money wasn’t a dealbreaker in either direction, as I told several people I would be willing to accept less money to work at a job I thought I would enjoy more. Turns out I’ll actually be making more at my non-Big 4 gig, although I have no idea what the time commitment will be.
Prestige: There is a certain aura surrounding people who work, or have worked, at the Big 4. These firms have some serious brand equity, and are recognized as leaders around the globe. Whether you want to work there your entire career, apply to grad school, or relocate internationally, having Big 4 on your resume is a Big Deal. Basically, for anyone with ambition, there are major benefits to be reaped.
This was one of my major concerns about accepting a position at a lesser-known company. They may in fact be very good at what they do, and garner recognition within their own industry. But if/when it comes time to look for other opportunities, will my tenure there serve me well? That remains to be seen, but I’m banking on the fact that my work will speak for itself. While grad school admissions and corporate HR departments are notoriously opaque about their operations, I imagine that they are capable of drawing the line between employee and employer.
Paying dues: This issue builds on the previous one. A considerable chunk of associates leave Big 4 firms after only two years of labor. Let’s assume we all acknowledge that these two years will be considerably less festive than the party we were promised. Well, you’ve already put in four years of hard work in high school, and four more in college. So what’s another two years of toil to get on top of your chosen industry, build a great network, and have a great resume item?
The way I approached this issue was by considering each professionally self-improving activity (school, job, etc.) as an opportunity to build equity in myself. At some point in the future, I would be able to cash out that equity, maybe in the form of a big raise, maybe in the form of free time, or maybe something entirely different. Doesn’t matter. The question now is, how long do I wait to cash out?
Some people wait their entire lives, working their asses off for some potential future benefit, only to realize that their entire life has passed them by and they never really got what they wanted. Maybe two years doesn’t sound like a lot of time to you. But maybe two years will just be the beginning. As my good friend Jerry Garcia once told me, sometimes the cards ain’t worth it to have if you don’t lay ‘em down.
That’s why I’m opting for happiness now. And, all things considered, I decided I would be more happy outside of the Big 4. Mostly, this judgment was borne out of my evaluation of the cultures of my two candidate employers. The entrepreneurial, laid-back feel of a software company felt much more like home to me than a dimly lit room filled with endless stacks of paper awaiting my review.
But that’s just me. I’m a laid back, creative person with a bit of a spiritual bent, and I place a lot of emphasis on my own happiness. And what I’ve found is that joy is not derived from fantasizing about some future benefit or outcome which may or may not ever manifest itself. Rather, fulfillment can be found in liking what you’re doing right now. Why wait to be happy?
Of course, this is all speculative. Maybe my choice of career paths will lead to some unforeseen disaster, and I’ll be miserable my entire life. It’s impossible to say. Regardless, I invite all of you to examine your own motives should you be fortunate enough to have a choice between several employment options. I’m not going to try and tell you which of them should take precedent over the others. That’s for you to decide. Moreover, I am not saying that you can only be happy if you do this, and not that.
In Big 4 Accounting, regional and local CPA firms, and industry, the job that is right for you can be found. You may even want to consider government work, non-profits, or taking some time off to volunteer if you really want to satisfy your soul. There is no one right answer. Just remember to maintain a critical eye and make an informed decision. Think about what’s really important to you. Contrary to what they taught you in accounting class, life isn’t just about following someone else’s rules.
If you were to work as an IT consultant, and you were to find yourself with “endless stacks of paper”, then someone’s Doing it Wrong. 😉
Having nitpicked that, good luck with your new gig!
It’s awesome to hear you’re examining your career motives this early in the game. I think it’s easy (especially when we’re young) to enter a career path that society assumes we should take, because the only person who can do soul searching is ourselves, and we often don’t know better because we aren’t taught to. Like you said, there is definitely a herd mentality, especially with little job security today.
P.S. I often point job applicants to Glassdoor, which is a great resource to read reviews of companies from real employees who work there (http://www.glassdoor.com/index.htm).
– Pete Kistler
Krupo- thanks for the kind words! i don’t actually know what being an IT consultant entails on a day-to-day basis, but I assume it’s more reviewing reports, charts, diagrams, etc. than actually playing around with computers.
Pete- I’ve actually spent a lot of time on Glassdoor, there’s some really good stuff there and I too would recommend it as a resource. Also, reading Ola Rynge’s blog on a weekly basis has given me a new outlook on professional passion!
I remember when I was recruiting (just for an internship though, not for full-time hire…also, not in MIS, but for tax), and I went through much of the same process (down to finding re: The Auditors and learning what professional skepticism really means)…I ultimately had a choice between a middle market firm and a Big 4 firm I both really liked, but I went with the Big 4 firm. The real issue was the question on prestige. I went in with little to no care about prestige. However, as the process went on, what I began to think more was, “Hmm…what if I do want to look for different opportunities? What if I do want to look at a different city?” (The mid market firm in question had a great presence within the one city, and did have other offices elsewhere, but the firm was more of a conglomeration of different regional firms. My feel for the one office represented my feel for one firm that just happened to be part of a larger amalgamation…)
I had originally been strongly against the idea, “Go 2 years for the resume experience and leave” (and still don’t want to do that). But I feel like if I were going to do something like that (or something comparable), it would be easier to start with B4 experience and go elsewhere than start elsewhere and go B4. Even from all of the critical comments about the B4 from various accounting sites, I’ve gotten a strong undertone that paying dues is valuable and recommended.
Another good reason to work for the Big 4 (my big reason) is the lack of drug test. Almost makes the long hours worth it, just being able to toke at home and not worry about anything. There’s a lot of corporate stoogery that goes on that I don’t agree with, but it’s hard to argue with a company that lets me be myself. At least for the 3 or so years I’m planning to stay.
I went through the EXACT same thing. Like to the T. Obviously, I agree 110%. Great post.
I worked on a few recruitment “events” as I’m sure most of the readers/contributors here have.
I often speculated to myself as to how it looked from the other side (given that I, as a “lateral hire”, had never gone through the process).
Now I know what it looks like to the sort of candidate the firm(s) should have been trying to attract. Question is, did the process you were going through at the Big 4 firm reveal the qualities you display here? What do you think Jordan?
I opted out too working for a big accounting firm (2 offers) because it came down to the grunt work I was most likely going to do. I didn’t want to spend two years going around the country counting inventory and filling in spreadsheets. I decided to get my MBA in the evening and work days as an analyst.
I started out with B4 and moved to the Corporate side after about three years. I have not regretted either of those decisions till date.
I feel B4 experience is rewarding and provides a bird’s eye view of different industries out there. I was part of the Energy Sector team while at The Firm but I got to be a part of audit teams on various other sectors like mortgage, insurance, banking, governmental & not for profit etc. That experience helped me in deciding which sector I wanted to move on to once I decided to leave B4. “Big Four make accounting sexy” is true. Another truth is that sexiness stays with you even after you have made the move from B4 to the dark side.
Agreed the hours are long and pay is lower than what corporate sector pays out in the beginning but the learning curve makes up for that pay lag. I feel and I have been told that my analytical skills far exceed those of my peers – especially the peers who started out as Internal Auditors right out of college. I attribute my “thinking outside the box” skills to my tenure at The Firm. I will never trade my B4 experience for anything else in the professional world.