Looking at the bigger picture based on marketability, money and mental health
If you’ve completed your second year in Big 4 public accounting, now is the time you should start thinking about when you’re going to make an exit to the accounting industry. You’ve no doubt completed your audit hours and your CPA is right around the corner or already completed. You’re hearing from more recruiters in the Los Angeles accounting and finance industry than you ever thought existed. And yet, you’re still unsure whether to stay at that Big 4 firm or move into the private sector. You are not alone.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’” –David Foster Wallace
Conventional wisdom in the Big 4 accounting industry says that you’re going to make partner… or at least have a real good shot at making partner. This “wisdom” is the water around you. The truth is Big 4 firms actually need you to transition and eventually become one of their clients. However, no one would work another busy season after hearing that, so they keep towing the party line to make sure you do too.
So, if you’re not going to become partner, what are the factors you should consider when deciding when to leave public accounting?
You are the most marketable in your career when you combine your public accounting experience with hands-on experience in industry. The longer you delay this move, the more likely you will leave public accounting for a lateral position or even a pay cut – usually at the Senior Manager level.
Why? From a hiring manager’s point of view you’ve never done the job they need you to do. As in-demand as the coveted public accounting experience is, when given the choice between someone who’s done the job and has public accounting, and someone straight out of public accounting, someone with the combination of the two will get the job 90% of the time.
If you leave public accounting with two years of experience under your belt, you are going to get a bump in pay. However, you’ll get a bigger pay bump when you have industry experience in addition to your public accounting experience. The sooner you leave public accounting to gain those ‘combo’ skills, the sooner you will be able to command top dollar.
Thinking of staying in Big 4 long enough to become a Manager? You can still move into the private accounting industry with a modest salary bump. However, it will take longer for you to get up to speed with day-to-day accounting tasks that weren’t a part of your manager role at the Big 4 firm.
Beyond Manager, your options are fewer and farther in between once you’re ready to transition into the private accounting industry… and you may see an increase in salary when you make the move as a Senior Manager or above, but it won’t be as nice as it would’ve had you left sooner.
The long hours and pace of public accounting definitely take a toll on your mental health. This is something that not only gets easily lost in pursuit of your career goals, but is also something that can be uncomfortable to discuss, especially with those in the trenches with you.
While you may have been told what to expect going into public accounting, nothing quite braces you for the experience itself. When the water all around you consists of people you respect acting like this is normal, it can be difficult to admit how it is affecting you. But the long hours and the intense pace are anything but normal. It can be hard to recognize this while you’re in it, and you may not realize it until long after you’ve left public accounting when you have something to compare it to.
Even CPAs working in the most demanding parts of industry, such as SEC Reporting or tax provisions, have said that their overtime is at least more predictable, with the flexibility to structure their work. Similiarly, a monthly or quarterly close cycle with a lot of overtime can be managed when you know that the rest of the month will be reasonable.
It is not a sign of weakness if you are feeling like the workload is unbearable or that you cannot take the stress of another busy season. It’s also not a sign that the accounting profession isn’t for you. Public accounting is not designed for longevity, and there are other options where you can balance your wellbeing with your career goals.
Everyone’s path and career goals are different. We see this first-hand as we talk to clients and people like you looking to make a career move from the Big 4 into the accounting and finance industry. If you’re curious about what’s out there and how best to make your move, give us a call. We’re here to help!