“Right-Sizing” Your Accounting Career

Congratulations, Class of 2022! The exams are complete, pencils are down, mortarboards tossed, and diplomas received! Now, the next adventure begins.

As you enter the workforce, you may find yourselves in a unique position in the wake of the Great Resignation: it has never been easier for accounting majors to have the opportunity to pick the firm that is right for them rather than having to accept the first firm that comes to call.

Having had the benefit of working multiple busy seasons both for a Big Four firm as well as a couple of smaller firms, I thought it would be of some use to share my perspective. It might help narrow down the choices in a field that has been facing staffing shortages long before the coronavirus arrived on the scene and where everyone is clamoring for your attention and acceptance of their job offer.

I started at a Big Four firm, and I’ll admit, I was super excited. It was my top choice from the firms that recruited students from my university, and the interview process went smoothly from start to finish. It was a wonderful kickoff to a field that I very much enjoy working in.

The Big Four Highlights

  • Strong team & firm identity: they have your back and are motivated to help you move forward in the field
  • Intensive training process to transition from college to the workforce
  • Brand name prestige: even people who don’t work in accounting will likely recognize the firm
  • The ability to become a super-specialist: the best in the field in your area of work. Similarly, you are also working with a large network of super-specialists. There’s always someone who knows the answer, no matter how obscure the question.
  • Lots of fun little work perks and de minimis benefits (Snack drawer and free cell phone coverage, anyone??)

“But wait,” you might say. “With such opportunities, why did you leave?” Well, no firm is perfect, and at least from my perspective, these were some of the drawbacks:

The Big Four Lowlights:

  • The hours: the odds are very good that there will be three to four months of the year where you will be expected to put in 70+ hours a week, every week. The good news is the rest of the team is doing it, too, so there’s plenty of support, but it is a commitment.
  • High turnover: larger firms tend to lose about 50% of their new hires within the first year.
  • Busy season timing: those larger clients tend to file later than those at smaller firms, which may often lead to busy season (and busy season hours) during the summer months rather than winter. This timing can vary dramatically depending on the team and engagement you’re assigned to, but generally is a factor for the larger tax teams.
  • Narrow focus: you will become the best in your field at what you do, whether partnership tax, foreign corporation reporting, planning for high-net-worth individuals, or another area entirely, but you will likely not be exposed to other areas of the field.

This now brings us to my smaller firm experience. A lot of these firms (those with <100 employees for the sake of defining a “small firm”) tend to lack the recruiting arm of their super-sized counterparts, which may lead to them being overlooked as you go through your firm selection process.

Small Firm High Points

  • Strong team & firm identity: these firms tend to be more like family. They tend to care about you as a whole person.
  • More partner time: due to fewer layers in management, you will often have the opportunity to work directly with partners and directors with decades of experience.
  • Broader experience: in a smaller firm, everyone tends to do a little bit of everything. You get a chance to see what you really enjoy in the field before picking a specialty.
  • Community: many of the clients tend to be the local businesses located near these firms. They’re often the restaurants, indie shops, local developers, and other enterprises that form the heartbeat of so many small towns. You will have the opportunity to see how your work has a direct impact on those around you.
  • Work/Life Balance: for the most part, the smaller firms manage to deliver on this promise. Need to leave early to pick a child up from soccer practice? Want to take an impromptu long weekend during some nice weather? Generally, not a problem for these firms.

Again, this has just been my experience, and everyone’s accounting journey is different. Much like the Big Four earlier, no firm is perfect, and these tend to be some of the drawbacks with a smaller practice.

Small Firm Drawbacks

  • Broader experience: if there is a specific area that you’re really drawn to, chances are you won’t be able to work in it exclusively because your talents will still be needed elsewhere. However, as these practices grow, opportunities may open for you to develop that area for your firm.
  • Smaller firms usually mean smaller clients, many of whom may not have dedicated accounting departments. This may mean the financials are not initially presented as cleanly as in accounting textbooks.
  • Training: smaller firms lack the designated staff time or budget for a true training arm, much like they lack the recruiting arm of their larger competitors. This may mean that more of your development will occur on the job or be self-driven rather than formalized in a classroom setting. The upside to this is that the training at a smaller firm tends to be tailored to your needs rather than being taught to a class average.

Big or Small, the beauty of the accounting industry is that there is always plenty of work to go around, and the ability to change practices has never been easier. So, dear reader, as you stand on this threshold between study and practice, pause and reflect. Think about what drives you and move in that direction.

With best wishes and sincerest congratulations on your academic achievements,

Alexi T. Galica-Cohen, CPA, MSA