“Wait! I Was Just Getting Started…”

This was originally written as a guest blog post for blog sponsor at the time, Roger CPA Review in September 2009.

I thought it may be interesting to someone now…

“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Henry Miller

Some of the most difficult emails I get, (and heartbreaking comments to the blog) come from professionals at the beginning of their career in public accounting who have lost their jobs after less than two years of experience. The largest accounting firms have a very efficient recruiting machine that gets fired up at least two years prior to graduation and starts with internships. The recruiting initiatives are organized geographically because that’s how the firms are run and partners are rewarded. The geographic element is what throws a monkey wrench into a plan to interview at your university for a position in another part of the country that may still be hiring, for example, or to change your placement when things change.

Organization by geography also makes mobility very difficult for still employed professionals. When one office suffers a loss of clients or a more severe economic environment, firms won’t pay to move lower paid, lower billing rate professionals to a busier part of the country nor will they incur significant travel expense that clients won’t pay for. It’s easier to bring in new, cheaper staff locally. The big firms continued to flood the cubicle farms with new recruits as a result of this pipeline effect, even as they started to cut in mid-2007.

It’s never easy to lose your job involuntarily.  Notice, I am not using the term, “layoff’ because I think it’s not only a euphemism but entirely inaccurate.  The term “lay off” originated in the blue-collar world and connotes a temporary reduction of production staff – a seasonal reduction in the numbers to address temporary low product demand. When the time passes, workers are recalled back to their jobs.  That doesn’t happen anymore.

The largest audit firms are cutting professionals at all levels but it’s especially hard when it happens during your first two years.  Some may say that’s the easiest time.  No responsibilities, no family, no house, typically.  Just loans. It’s easy to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and find a new job, wherever that has to be. But in this economic environment, it takes more than a good haircut and a big smile to get the next job.

That’s because the overall market for accounting/audit professionals depends, in large part, on the accounting firms taking responsibility and paying for the training necessary to turn a textbook accountant into a practical accountant or auditor.  Most corporations and government agencies are not set up to initiate new graduates into the accounting profession in quite the same way.  They count on the firms to deliver the burnt-out, family-track, and otherwise “not cut out for partnership” refugees from public accounting, training wheels removed, ready to ride the two-wheeler in the world of internal audit, finance, and accounting.

Losing your Big Firm job before you’ve gained 3-5 years of experience puts you in a “limbo” of sorts.  You’re no longer a new graduate and, yet, you’re not qualified for an “outside” job, at least according to the traditional criteria. Many ask me, “Will I ever have a chance to go back to Big 4? Do I have a black mark on my permanent record?” I won’t assume that everyone is meant to return to the Big Firm or even wants or needs to. You can move forward, develop your career, gain experience, and maybe even find yourself outside of the Big Firm.

Here are some options to consider.

1)    Study for and pass the CPA exam – Whether you intend to return to public accounting or not, passing the CPA exam is an accomplishment that will enhance your resume for the rest of your career. It’s also the best time to do it well, when you’re not also working 80 hours a week.

Don’t let your firm take back any money they gave you for passed exams or study materials or days off.  Tell them you’ll file a claim with your state’s Labor Department: Wage and Hour Compliance Enforcement.  If you were let go for anything other than “cause” (which means you seriously breached policies or did something illegal,) you deserve every penny you have already been paid or promised even if cut for “performance.”

If you have the interest and aptitude, the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) , Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) certifications are also highly interesting and marketable. All, like the CPA exam, require a certain amount of experience before becoming fully certified, but getting the exam out of the way is a big first step.

And, of course, if you have the money and haven’t done so already, going back for your Masters in Accountancy or Masters in Taxation is always a good idea. The biggest immediate benefit is the opportunity to take advantage of the new recruiting process. More importantly, a graduate degree enhances your intellectual life (and your resume) for the rest of your days.

2)    Consider the smaller, regional firms – From Rick Telberg’s CPA Trendlines Blog, October 2008:

“INSIDE Public Accounting named…the 2008 Best of the Best firms [They] range in size from $6 million to $275 million in revenue; represent nine states; have practice mixes ranging from audit specialists to tax specialists and everything in between…With revenue growth of the group at 24.2 percent and income growth at 27.8 percent, Best of the Best firms turn in a scorecard that is the envy of their peers… Not only are their growth rates strong, but they are able to pay partners on average 75 percent more than their peers – with average partner compensation crossing the $700,000 threshold for the first time in IPA history.”

Many of the regional firms also audit public companies and are, therefore, registered and regulated by the PCAOB. Check out their track record as part of your due diligence. They often have strong, nationally recognized specialties based on their geography or history. That bodes well for future moves either back to a larger firm or to industry.

3)    Demand support from your university placement office – Put your group of recently terminated graduates together and organize a meeting with your university placement office. Demand renewed job search support for their graduates.  Your school took credit when you were placed with the firm that threw you to the wind. They also continue to allow those firms to come to campus and hire interns and graduates under rosy, unrealistic pretenses. Call them on it. They owe you.

4)    Consider serving your country – No, I don’t mean serving in the military unless, of course, you are already in the reserves and would like to step up that participation while there’s no civilian job to interfere.

What I meant is perhaps you should look at the new jobs created to manage all of the US taxpayer’s investments in public companies.  The federal government is teeming with opportunity at all levels and I know people who have found jobs quickly.  Search on www.usajobs.gov for “audit” and 717 results show up, all over the country, some quite interesting and exciting.  More than 20 of the listings had salaries over $100,000 per year. And once you “report for duty” with the Federal government, you’re “in like Flynn” for the duration.

5)    Take some time off – Back in October of 2008 I wrote a post about things you can do if you have some extra time to relax.  I think the suggestions are still valid, assuming you don’t have to find a job immediately and can enjoy the break.

6)    Rethink your choices, in general – In my first post for the blog, Going Concern, I wrote:

“Sarbanes-Oxley pushed you to accounting. When you started college, the professors and the media said accounting was booming, tons of accountants needed. Do four years and get a job no prob, rather than an MBA right away. Might as well put a couple of years in as an excel jockey, easy schmeezy, and then head to Stanford. Anyway, an art history degree is not what it used to be. And a 3.9 wasn’t so tough once you remembered debits to the left, credits to the right. Or was it the other way around?  Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?“

Some of you may not, to borrow unfortunately a line from your firms’ HR people, be “cut out” for Big Audit Firm life.  It takes a certain interest and aptitude and it’s not “just a job,” especially when you audit public companies.  The post was written tongue –in-cheek, but like everything I tell you, there’s a more than a hint of bitter truth to it.

Don’t stay in the profession for the money (?), fame (?), or easy life of the partner (??), that they promise.  None of it was entirely true and certainly not true at all anymore.  Make sure you’re committed to this vocation or take the golden opportunity, at a fairly early stage of your career, to reinvent yourself.

23 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    This is a very well-written and thoughtful post which I’m surprised has not generated more responses. For those individuals who major in accounting and who strive to build a good career, the recent rash of layoffs and cutbacks at the Big4 hit these newer graduates particularly hard, as they try to understand 1) what they have done wrong, and 2) how to re-gain traction in their careers. It’s unfortunate that senior partners at the big 4 have not considered the longer-term implications of reputation damage and the difficulty in rebuilding trust in the very people who expected to be in this profession for a very long time.
    It’s one thing for mid-career financial people to be cut off unexpectedly and without adequate explanation, but they have some ability to get some useful experience, make network connections, and attempt to re-position themselves, but why through lack of action let this happen to those whose only exerience and perspective is from their current (only) employer?. Same kind of very short-term thinking that other industries have paid the price for later.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:


    Having just gone through recruiting on the firm’s side, I can say that any negativity to which you refer has not affected the number of accounting students herding in to leave a resume, interview, etc., etc. Nor has it hurt the quality of said students. Regardless of the threats of layoffs or damaged reputation it does not change the fact that the Big 4 offers a great name on the resume and good experience for an individual fresh out of school. Keep it real!

  3. Johnson
    Johnson says:

    Well, of course not. What are accounting students going to apply to besides accounting firms? Investment banks and consulting firms?

    #3, your post is kind of like a writer penning a biography of Obama’s presidency right now. The long term effects of this economy (which despite mixed media messages lately of recovery, which are pollyannaish at best), and I think this country is heading towards prolonged stagnation, will not be fully felt even a decade from now. Young people’s attitudes toward career choices may take even longer to manifest. However, if it’s not the recent layoffs that will slowly start turning students away from pure business majors such as accounting (and hopefully back into productive fields such as math and engineering), it will be the streamlining of the industry. Outsourcing and automation will undoubtedly play big roles in continuing to reduce the need for human capital in the field (at least in the States).

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    “Well, of course not. What are accounting students going to apply to besides accounting firms? Investment banks and consulting firms?”

    Hmm…well let’s see.

    There are industry opportunities with, say, Fortune 500s.
    There are opportunities in the non-profit space
    There are also accounting job opportunities with governmental agencies (i.e. CIA, FBI)
    And yes, there are even opportunities in consulting firms for accounting grads if they choose that path (i.e. Accenture)

    While a Big 4 does offer great grounding for an accounting grad starting his/her career, it’s obviously not the only career track in the accounting field. Whoever thinks that has probably been misled by some closed-minded accounting professor or perhaps some kool-aid drunk recruiter who promotes nothing but ‘golden gospel’ about the big 4 in the name of “Keeping it Real”.

    Roll down your window folks, the accounting field as a whole is much bigger than the big 4.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Industry, nonprofit and government jobs are for those who don’t land a gig at Big Four. Open any Wall St Journal for a top position and it’s going to require Big Four experience. You may fool yourself into think it’s a better opportunity but you won’t fool those down the road that require it in a job description. Business Week had each of the Big Four as the absolute best places to launch a career. Granted it might not be the ideal place to stay your entire life – but turning down an opportunity to work at a Big Four is suicide.

  6. De Minimis
    De Minimis says:

    I sure wish I had turned down that opportunity for a government gig. I would be in a much better position right now.

  7. Anonymous (Mr. @5)
    Anonymous (Mr. @5) says:

    @6 – Yeah it could be possible that those who end up in the paths I listed couldn’t make it through the hoops of fire to land a Big 4 gig, but it also could be possible they chose those paths on their own. I had a friend who graduated at the top of undergrad class and held a summer internship with PwC – very sharp, very articulate, also very likeable – she declined the opportunity to come back for a second internship with the firm between her senior and graduate year. She instead chose to do an internship with a second tier firm because she valued work-life balance and the opportunity to connect with everyone inside a smaller firm.

    And who’s to say the friend I mentioned, or anyone else for that matter, won’t be very successful in a ‘top position’ 10-15 years from now. Yes, there are some big boy/big girl roles that desire and prefer someone with Big 4 experience but not everyone necessarily requires it. And not everyone who’s now in a top management position or big decision-making role started out with a Big 4 or even in public accounting. Some stayed in industry all the way, some may have taken a more entrepreneurial route (Bill Gates, Micheal Dell, Zuckenburg??). Heck, some top roles don’t even require accounting experience (although it could be a plus). I’m just saying there are many directions, routes, detours, roundabouts, and lattices people take in their lives…with the hope that they ultimately find a role that’s fulfilling for them professionally as well as personally.

  8. fm
    fm says:

    Anyone who keep s pushing the Big 4 as the only way for “best and brightest” to fulfill their destiny ignores reality in three ways:

    1) Not everyone at any time had the choice of big 4, for many different reasons, not always having to do with whether or not they could “cut it”
    2) Now even those who can make the cut for grades and other “qualitative” factors may not be able to stay for long, through no fault of their own
    3) The Big 4 are taking fewer and fewer “qualified” candidates starting all the way back to the internship process. Even if you make it all the way through to the end and graduate with an offer, in many cases now that”s no guarantee that you will start or get to stay longer than a yaer or two.

    Other options must be considered. Whether you like it or not.

  9. Tony Rezko
    Tony Rezko says:

    FM’s point # 3 is big with our Fall interviews. I’ve heard from partners out on the recruiting trips that there are many more people now competing for fewer positions. Many have great resumes, impressive interviewing skills, etc., but you still have a lot of people you would hire in a normal year, who won’t make the cut. How do you decide? Some of the deciding factors are much more arbitrary than you’d think.

    And even if they weren’t, the “Big Four or suicide” mindset is short-sighted.

  10. Philip J. Fry
    Philip J. Fry says:

    I don’t care what anyone says, the Big 4 pedigree on your resume will always be a plus for anyone looking for a job. I’m not saying that Big 4 veterans are any better or smarter than those who chose different paths, I’m just saying that having that name brand on your resume will open up doors that would have otherwise been closed….period. It’s not fair, but that’s just the way things work and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  11. Former Big 4
    Former Big 4 says:

    Although I worked at a Big Four firm, my most meaningful experiences came from a smaller regional firm that I worked in prior to joining the Big 4. What I learned in the smaller firm gets the day to day job done and it is a prestigious, pretty heavy duty job. Don’t knock the smaller tier firms, they are a great path to take and produce many capable business people.

    I will admit that my Big 4 label probably got me in the door for the interview but it was my small firm experience and know-how that ultimately got me the job and made me a success!

  12. Philip J. Fry
    Philip J. Fry says:

    Agreed. The actual work experience at a smaller firm can make you a more well rounded and better professional. However, I’ve been through enough hiring cycles to know that when some HR hiring manager is sifting through dozens of resumes the first thing they do is separate the Big 4 resumes from the others and usually the others get tossed out without a second glance. I don’t condone that practice but I’ve seen it happen many times, which is why I saw it’s better to have the Big 4 pedigree.

  13. Chuck Sarahan II
    Chuck Sarahan II says:

    I think you are right on. I was in the honor society and got my CPA (certificate and all) before I joined the federal government. When others in the honor society heard I wanted to join the feds, they thought I was nuts. The reason I joined is family time. I work 40 – 50 hours a week and was home when my kids were young. Could not do that in private practice. Also, the federal pay is better than it used to be so on a per hour basis, I earn more or better than the private sector (base salary only). The only downside is this is slowly disappearing once you reach the GS-12/13/14 levels where the fed enviornment is slowly becoming like the private sector in that working 40 hours a seek is not enough to move up the ladder. Been creeping in that direction since 2000 or so.

  14. Oversight for the Better
    Oversight for the Better says:

    I totally agree with what Philip J. Fry said a couple of years ago. Most of the requirements I see for accounting positions require Big 4 experience. I say, if you can get a job with the Big 4, go for it, but be ready to be tossed from the pitching boat at any time.

  15. Laura Berthiaume
    Laura Berthiaume says:

    I agree with ‘Former Big 4’, it’s going to be the small to mid-sized firms that will give you the well-rounded experience that’ll be truly beneficial to your career (rather than just technical skills acquired though 80 hour work weeks). Now if the HR reps would just recognize that…

  16. De Minimis
    De Minimis says:

    I’ve posted here on and off over the years, especially my disastrous year in the Big 4, where I was let go after one year and became one of the “long term unemployed.”. I just landed that “government gig” I spoke about back in 2009—hoping my second chance to get started in accounting will work out.

    Had to relocate and go through a long term situation from my spouse to do it, which is tough, but I am hoping it will be worth it in the end. The good part is that the salary is pretty good and this new area has a fairly low cost of living compared to where I lived where I worked for the Big 4, so in some ways it is as if I got a raise.

  17. Me
    Me says:

    Meanwhile most accountants will never get hired into public accounting, much less a big four firm. Most accountants will end up competing against a hundred other applicants for a staff accountant position that pays $35k. This is why the accounting career is so overrated. Everyone thinks oh, you get 5 years big 4 experience and then become an assistant controller. But the truth is, only a small percentage will have that picture-perfect career. There’s a whole underworld of lost accountants that you don’t hear about in the magazines or on the internet.

  18. You
    You says:

    LOL. I remember in 2009 how all the accounting firms were showing up at college career fairs even though they were laying people off. There is zero ethics when it comes to accounting recruiting. With all its high turnover and other baggage, accounting is the trashy ghetto of all professional careers.

  19. Daniel H
    Daniel H says:

    I have never worked for a Big 4 in my 15 year career, and I believe staying away from the Big 4 was the right decision. (I wasn’t about to put myself through three years of workplace Heck just to get some highfalutin’ name on my resume.)

    If you’re looking for a place to start, why not the local accounting firm? You’ll have more responsibilities, more well-rounded experience than becoming an expert in one minute part of a large audit (as often happens in the Big 4). You’re also likely to avoid much of the political nonsense that the Big 4 is known for. I would recommend this to young people who are very bright, but don’t have the personality fit for a Big 4 gig. The clients you’ll deal with couldn’t care less whether you’ve worked for a Big 4.

    There’s plenty of opportunity for people who aren’t Big 4 material. People sometimes miss opportunities because they’re looking at large Fortune 500 companies and not the no-name companies that offer tremendous growth potential.

  20. Options
    Options says:

    Re: “Me” and “You” comments

    This is why I tell those studying accounting to use the accounting degree as a “launchpad” for career paths other than just audit or tax. I’m surprised how many professors, students, and even accounting professionals don’t even talk (or even think) about other interesting career paths that someone with an accounting background can pursue (ex: Finance, consulting, IT, actuarial). There are those who say someone with an accounting degree can perform other business roles but not everyone with just a business background can do accounting. I have an BS/MS in accounting plus the CPA, worked for big 4, hated it, even questioned whether accounting was the right choice altogether, then later I landed a role in Global Real Estate which involves a nice mix of accounting, finance, and consulting (and no I dont have the proverbial 5 years of big 4 experience).

    Message to all accounting majors/professionals: There are better opps out there! Step out of the Audit/Tax bubble..I think your career (and life) will be better for it!

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