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Public Accounting Myth Busters

April 22, 2019

New accountants deciding between public accounting and private industry for their first jobs shouldn’t believe these accounting profession rumors.

By Michael Watkins, CPA
Senior Assurance Associate
BDO USA, Richmond

Flashback: Your accounting studies in college are ramping up. The first exam in a core course is behind you and more challenging subject matter lies ahead. It’s also recruiting season and the lobby of the business school is abuzz with employers networking with future entry-level staff. The selection of public accounting firms represented there is dizzying. “Should I start in public accounting or go straight to private industry?” is still a big question.

Let’s reconcile some of the hearsay of the accounting industry from the perspective of accounting students with our wisdom as career professionals. Successfully articulating our profession’s value and breadth of opportunities with future CPAs often gets lost among our clients’ many needs.

Myth: Joining an accounting firm after college requires me to fit into a box (personally and professionally).

False. While public accounting is a great place to start a prosperous accounting career, joining any firm, small or large, does not mean your individual personality and interests must be left at home. Millennials have, in a way, tasked accounting firms and all large employers with innovating and evolving office culture to stand out among their competition and attract business schools’ best and brightest graduates. Public accounting firms promote job satisfaction and comradery by facilitating team-building activities, hosting happy hours, encouraging professionals to join office recreation leagues and empowering staff to launch fantasy football leagues or March Madness brackets, just to name a few popular “extracurriculars.” 

Furthermore, public accounting firms foster an exciting professional growth environment in which employees at all levels can develop their personal brands and specializations. While firm cultures vary by firm and by office or region, all are committed to hiring students with the drive and capacity to someday lead their firms. Stand out and firms will notice. Public accounting firms further increase curb appeal by touting factors like flexibility or the “work-life balance,” a variety of exciting career paths and opportunities, and being a part of a regionally, nationally or globally recognized professional services firm. The key takeaway here for both new and seasoned professionals is to understand what gives your firm that competitive edge over the others and translate that into a concise and attractive pitch that piques interest among accounting grads. 

Myth: Accounting firms perform a service that rarely changes or innovates.

False. Accounting firms, like any business enterprise, must compete within their industry. In doing so, firms are developing new skill sets and innovating existing service lines — getting better and more efficient at what they already do. Many firms have already evolved their tax, assurance and risk advisory practices to successfully respond to a largely electronic and digital world. With these developments, firms have boldly adopted data analytics techniques that utilize fundamental principles to more intelligently assess financial data. Firms empower professionals at all levels to engage creatively in this mission. Without a modernization of the audit profession, firms’ value to end users would steadily decline. Consider discussing how your firm innovates and how this transition phase is an exciting time to begin a career at your firm.

Myth: Public accounting looks like the only thing I can do with an accounting degree.

False. Public accounting is a great place to begin a career. New recruits are surrounded by like-minded, driven young professionals, with whom we growing professionally and challenge each other as peers. We gain experience by dissecting clients’ financial information, evaluating the level of rigor to their already fraud-averse systems and more. Professional judgment takes shape over time, becoming a key indicator of value in competitive job markets. Public accounting can serve whatever career purpose is desired, whether it be just a job, somewhere to earn promotions and manage others, or more of a tool that can define career potential outside of public accounting.

If a professional someday leaves public accounting, they are not necessarily leaving the accounting profession. Our proficiency and expertise gained over time make for an exceptional foundation to take on new challenges in the corporate world. An infinite number of possibilities and career opportunities exist whether you start out in public accounting or corporate finance, transition from one to the other or enter the accounting profession at another point in your career altogether. Each of us has the power to do anything with our accounting degrees; drawing the roadmap for achieving your dreams in our field will always be a unique and exciting challenge.

Myth: The accounting profession will challenge me to learn new things throughout my entire career.

This one is true! An accounting degree provides a foundation of principles to be used in solving complex business problems and developing new skills. As accountants, we must challenge ourselves every day to learn something new and use that newfound knowledge for personal, professional and intellectual advancement. The accounting profession offers great potential to either specialize or develop highly diverse competencies. In public accounting, for example, professionals can gain experience in state, local or federal government; in public or nonpublic business entities; and in industries like manufacturing and distribution, financial institutions, health care, real estate, consumer products and private equity, just to name a few. As we all know, clients in each of these industries operate in very diverse ways. Make sure to encourage recent accounting graduates or new staff to research some industries or service lines they want to explore, and from there the opportunities will be nearly endless.  

The accounting profession is a great environment for a world of intellectual growth and career advancement. Public accounting, likewise, is the best foundation to build an accounting career, wherever it may lead. Perhaps someday that career culminates in leading a public accounting firm — one that executes its commitment to exceptional client service through internal, organic professional development. Another attractive goal is to serve in a vital corporate accounting/finance role, driving the company to achieve greatness by applying principles and techniques to implement a strategy.

Conversely, the profession supports the desire to master a position or a specific industry and stay there long-term. Some of us are driven by consistency, where we can practice specialized consulting, tax or bookkeeping services without the pressure to constantly challenge ourselves with new roles or responsibilities. Develop long-term goals early on, adjust them as needed and see where the profession takes you. Seek out a mentor for advice and even serve as one to help tailor others’ goals for their interests and aspirations. Lastly, a strong network aids each of us in leveraging the accounting profession’s most distinctive merits to make your mark on the world, wherever the profession leads you.   

Michael Watkins, CPA, is a senior assurance associate in the Richmond office of BDO USA, LLP, serving clients primarily in the industries of manufacturing and distribution and private equity. He serves on the Young Professionals Advisory Council (YPAC) of the Virginia Society of CPAs. 

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