There is no debating that the best career route post-graduation for an aspiring accounting professional is to jump head first into the world of public accounting, especially the Big 4. Why is this you may be wondering? There are several key elements you gain from Public Accounting that are difficult to obtain elsewhere. This here is what I refer to as the Beauty of Big 4 and similar size public accounting firms:

  1. The ability to work multiple engagements at once: Not only does this give you an opportunity to test out different industries and learn the intricacies of each one, but with the sheer volume of your work load, you are essentially doubling your experience. I have heard it said before and tend to agree that one year in Public can be compared to two or three years of experience in Corporate. In addition, this opens multiple doors as you have more opportunities within the industry to choose from down the road.
  2. The ability to gain large company exposure: Since my very first day as a Recruiter, I was taught that the complexity of one’s work in accounting and finance is often judged based upon the size of company one is working for. Whether right or wrong, when our larger clients are looking to add talent, especially at a higher level, they are typically only interested in candidates who have worked with other companies of equal or greater revenue size.
  3. The ability to work with smart people: Before you slam me for saying this, I am not saying that accountants from public accounting are the ones with all the brains, but chances are in public accounting you are working for a Manager who has truly earned the promotion. They have put in their time and have a vast array of knowledge to share with you. They have multiple client experiences to draw on vs a Director in the industry who has only been with a few companies throughout their career. They have been through the long days and difficult clients and have the guidance to provide necessary for success. As a plus, many of these professionals will also be Certified Public Accountants (CPA’s).
  4. The ability to remain marketable: The reason I know, or at least think I know, so much about public accounting is because 90% of my job is dedicated to calling these professionals every day. In almost any job spec you read for an accounting position these days it is typical to see Big 4 or Public accounting listed as a requirement or highly preferred. The number of doors opened from public accounting is second to none, especially if you have gained public company experience as nearly any company is available to you.

While there are other elements that fall into the “Beauty” category, these consistently stand out as the top. As for the “Beast”: based on my years in recruiting and evaluating the market place, in my opinion, while Public Accounting is your best choice after school, you should be smart about when to make the transition to Corporate. The topic of the best time to leave Public has been discussed numerous times and I suppose it really is a matter of opinion. However, from an outsider’s perspective, these are the factors of the Big 4, and the like, that I refer to as the Beast:

  1. These days it seems like busy season is 24/7 and less defined. While there may be some down time, it does not seem to be as luxurious as it has been in the past. If we face facts, accounting, especially in the DC area, is not a 9:00am to 5:00pm job. Certainly, I contend that in the first few years of any career you should be prepared and expect to be burning the midnight oil at some points to advance in your career, but from conversing with Public Accounting professionals, it seems these expectations have become a constant year-round.
  2. The promotion cycle of Big 4 holds many people back from making a move even if interested. Certain times of year it feels as though every candidate I call is simply waiting for an increase and promotion. Once you hit the two or three-year mark depending on the firm, you are eligible for promotion to Senior. Between the four-and-a-half to six-year mark Seniors are most commonly promoted to Manager. As candidates have these potential promotions on the table, they continuously turn a blind eye to other opportunities even if they could more quickly lead to a promotion and increase. By the time the results come in of these internal promotions, another audit cycle begins so if you didn’t quite get the promotion or increase you wanted, it is typically hard to make an immediate exit without burning a bridge.

The longer you wait to make a move, the fewer opportunities in the market place exist. There will always be more Senior roles than Manager positions. If you wait till you’re a Senior Manager or Director before deciding to make a move, you may find there to be limited opportunities in the market place. See pyramid below to illustrate:

Additionally, when corporate firms are hiring for Senior Manager’s and above, the candidate with the mix of public and corporate tends to be more attractive to the respective client.

Overall, there is a ton of reward and benefit to be gained from a career in the Big 4 and similar public accounting firms. You gain a vast amount of knowledge and experience in a relatively short amount of time and lay the foundation for a career with almost endless avenues. With all this, I truly find the key to be identifying early if you believe the Partner track is something that will excite you as a career moving forward. If it is not, be cognizant of when to leave.

While there is never a one size fits all solution or a perfect time to make a move, I truly believe that leaving at the three to five-year mark will provide you with the most opportunities to explore. At this point you have hopefully soaked up a great deal of knowledge, gained exposure to multiple industries, and may or may not have a better idea of what direction you wish to take your career.

Perhaps I am just a lonely recruiter tired of hearing the dreaded “I’m not interested”. Maybe even baffled by people’s lack of natural curiosity. That said, take advantage of the Beauty and get out before the Beast is unleashed.