There are many reasons to join the fast-paced and exciting world of public accounting after college. Whether joining an audit team with a large multi-national firm or a small tax practice with a more local presence, the work is undoubtedly rewarding. Working for a CPA firm allows unparalleled opportunity to diversify your experience as an accountant and a professional—and the experience goes beyond the treatment of debits and credits found in a textbook. While you’ll certainly put to use the technical aspects of GAAP accounting and FASB rulings, the professional and personal skills you’ll gain through client interaction and engagement management are beyond compare.
For these reasons, it is an easy decision for many college students to choose the wonderful world of public accounting over private (industry) accounting. As a professional navigates through their public accounting career, however, the decision to make public accounting a lifelong career may not be as easy. The highly technical skills, work ethic, and professionalism of a public accountant make them very marketable and highly sought after in the private sector. Companies from every industry are constantly looking to hire the best and brightest from the public accounting talent pool, especially Senior Associate and Manager level candidates.
“A serious misconception I often hear is the move to industry will allow for a better work/life balance.”
As a recruiter in the accounting industry, I walk people through their career decisions on a daily basis. The motivations to leave public accounting vary from candidate to candidate. For some, it is the extensive travel schedule or busy season hours. For others, it could be a problem with their specific firm or managing partner. Whatever the case may be, I always want my candidates to define their underlying motivation. This is important in determining whether a switch to private industry will ultimately lead to career progression and overall happiness. As the saying goes: the grass may not be greener on the other side. A serious misconception I often hear is the move to industry will allow for a better work/life balance. While this may be true in certain circumstances, it is certainly not true across the board. The same can be said about travel and management styles.
However, a switch to industry can be a great career move if the process is thought through carefully and the motivations are in the right place. A strategic move out of public accounting will often lead to great opportunities with growing, stable companies. In evaluating opportunities outside public accounting, I always want my candidates to look at the industry first. Look for growing or progressive industries that have sustainable advantages into the future. Then, try to find companies that align with your core values and have strong upper and mid-level management teams. Finally, look at opportunities within these companies that will lead you toward your ultimate career goals. For example, if you want to be a Director of Internal Audit for a Fortune 500 company, it makes most sense to look for a staff internal audit role within a large, well respected company. If you are looking to ultimately be the CFO of a mid-size local company, an accounting manager position with a small to mid-size company in your industry of preference would be the best path.
At the end of the day, it is really all about self-reflection. Before you decide to leave your public accounting firm for greener pastures in private industry, it is important to look at the underlying motivations for the move. Is the opportunity in an industry that is growing and progressive? Do the company’s values and management style align with your own? Is this position one that will lead to your ultimate career goals and happiness? If the answer is yes to ALL of these, it may be time to look at the great world of private accounting. Just remember, as they say, the grass may not be greener on the other side. A career in public accounting can be both personally and financially rewarding. In fact, many Partners and Senior Managers who chose to stick with public accounting may argue there is one thing that is greener…their bank accounts.
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