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#VACPAWeekSpotlight: Tom Rosengarth, CPA

September 30, 2018

My high school yearbook states that my career goal at the time was to become a “business administrator” — whatever the heck that was to an 18-year old — but it had a pragmatic sounding tone that worked for one particular college’s application request for a theme paragraph. The college I attended had its business majors take accounting principles as first term freshmen. Mine was four days a week at 8 a.m. The guy who taught accounting at 8 a.m. was animated, funny and sufficiently irreverent to capture and keep my attention at that undesirable hour. So much so that I enrolled in his intermediate accounting series the next year (required for business majors). That was half-way to an accounting major, so why stop when the reputed hardest classes in the business department were in rear view? The outcome was a degree in accounting, some interviews with “Big Eight” firms (equivalent to the Big Four now), but no job offers…. I had a Big-Eight-or-bust mentality, so on to grad school — and a “teaching scholarship” to foot the tuition bill.

Opting for a masters in accountancy over the MBA program to avoid much of the writing MBA programs entail, imagine my surprise about creating 88 pages of accounting “thought” (and no spreadsheets!) during the initial masters trimester... Two more trimesters and a MAcc degree later found me starting a career with a large regional accounting firm instead of accepting the offer from a Big Eight firm. Why? A personality of one of the regional firm’s managers reminded me of a favorite uncle — and taking a crack (... or two) at the CPA exam.

While progressing in responsibility at the regional firm, a college buddy, an alma mater basketball game, and a bit of personal brashness all had a part in what was intended to be a “spontaneous temporary diversion” into teaching — what a lark to teach classes at my alma mater! After all, there was that grad school teaching scholarship experience …. Some more schooling and a couple more certifications ensued and the teaching diversion morphed from its whimsical “side trip” to a long-term professional commitment.

What became apparent from the serendipitous teaching junket was that I was lured by the luxury of having time to pursue more-or-less spontaneously those topics that appear to be “interesting” in a landscape that is not so bound by a framework of time, billing, task profitability and the long-term personal trade-offs that accompany increasing professional responsibility in public accounting. Much satisfaction comes from the looser reins of the college environment that not only allows but encourages experimentation with alternate approaches to things and to exploring new thought. Throw in a servant leader orientation to college responsibilities and you get a representative picture of the perspective.

To be effective, the professional time commitment for college teaching goes beyond a 9-to-5 routine, but it feels different from the professional time devoted to public accounting. College teaching allows many of the thrills of entrepreneurial self-determination without many of the entrepreneurial risks.

Is college teaching a career to consider? Very likely it will not happen for today’s professionals as casually as it did for me. Most academic tracks worth having (aka “tenure”) demand in-hand earned doctorates or all-but-dissertation (ABD) status. Your public accounting experience has allowed you to become technically competent but sufficiently humbled through navigating the practicalities of relating to clients and managing staff. If you find the professional fabric of public accounting cut in a style too snug, then consider exploring the looser fitting cap and gown garb of a college educator. Take heed about this, though -- the transition to academics for most entails an acute initial personal commitment associated with the pursuit of a doctorate along with the significant opportunity costs in foregone income and crimped personal time during that initial phase.

But should the siren of serendipitous pursuits become increasingly loud, exploring a return to college on the delivery side of the classroom might be a valid response to that siren’s clarion call.  William Shakespeare’s boisterous character Polonius in Hamlet renders among his other prolific and pithy sayings “to thine own self be true.” So should you as you consider the academic path less travelled.


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