This Is How A Soon-to-Graduate Accounting Major Makes An HR Rep's Head Explode

GCers – we love your contributions and could use some more to get us through these first few weeks of “not really busy but not 9-to-5” season. But be advised: advice emails that meet the qualifications of #longreads drive us to our breaking points. Caleb overdoses on steamed carrots, Adrienne takes her frustration to the roads of D.C., and I start crafting out-of-office messages from the comfort of my office. 

Which brings us to today’s advice column.  We have a soon-to-graduate senior in college debating between a career in Big 4 or a spot on the bench with a second-tier national firm.  The thing is, our budding CPA wants to build a customized, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure career path in order to satisfy her interests in “(cost) accounting, auditing, business valuation, and tax services--along with the consulting aspects of these positions.” I figured I’d give you guys and gals the ability to choose your own adventure when reading her email as well. For the full thing, just keep o' reading.  Or, save yourself from brain freeze and just read the bolded parts for the highlights. 

I am a undergrad senior majoring in accounting and looking to obtain an entry-level accounting position within the next 10 months. I have a 3.7 overall GPA and a 3.9 concentration GPA. Out of all the accounting specializations I've been exposed to, I am interested in accounting, auditing, business valuation, and tax services--along with the consulting aspects of these positions (when you get further down the road). I would love to get a position with the Big Four. But from what I know, if I were to get a position with them (or a second-tier national firm), I will most likely have to choose only one specialized accounting area, such as tax, auditing, or advisory, to focus on, and not really cross-train unless I started at square one in a new specialty. I know they can offer the bigger salaries, but I don't want to miss out on gaining knowledge in the other areas--I have a strong interest in them and might want to start my own practice in one of those areas in the future.

I'd like to acquire the skills of a cost accountant that works in, say, a major airline company or oil/energy/utilities company. And I want the skill set of someone that concentrated in auditing or tax or business valuation with the Big Four. But I don't necessary want to switch around companies to get these skills, and I don't want to go backwards in my career to have the learn these skills. (I want to be skilled enough in these areas so that I could be a consultant or a manager for a large company in any of these departments if I wanted to.)

Some of the lesser known accounting firms intrigue me because employees can acquire experience in multiple areas and do not seemingly "specialize." That would definitely help me to become a well-rounded accountant.  In larger firms, I might be forced to choose one specialty, and may never be sufficiently acquainted with other areas I'm interested in. A setback I have read about not specializing though is the small opportunity to stay current on deeper developments in a specialty area and the small chance for in-depth skills in one area. Also, I've read that the Big Four force specialization so their employees can be expert-skilled in that specialty--being expert-skilled, they philosophize, will be much more difficult if an accountant is a jack-of-multiple-trades. 

DWB: (Head aches).

What upward career path do you suggest to obtain real-life, specialized, expert understanding in all these areas of accounting? Can I get all of this experience with one firm? Should I work for a small firm or a large firm? An accounting practice or a corporation? Or a mix of both? How do you get deep knowledge in these areas if your company forces you to specialize? Do I have to be a cost accountant to learn cost accounting skills? Can I learn cost accounting by doing something else, such as being an auditor with an accounting firm or being an internal auditor?  How long typically would it take to acquire such expert skill sets? Right now, I want to give myself 10-13 years in accounting to obtain these advanced skills.

 Thank you very much for your assistance with these questions!

DWB: (Head explodes).

If you’re counting at home, that was nine questions and 247 generalizations/assumptions.  Still with me? Good. Let's help out this lost accounting puppy.

First off..."of all the accounting specializations I've been exposed to..." What have you really seen?  You're an undergrad. I'm sure you've been exposed to a lot (get that rash checked, PS), but detailed accounting practices and industries (like airline companies!), I sincerely doubt. 

You need to make up your mind.  In one breath, you say you would "love" a job with a Big 4. Then you talk about being a cost accountant in a dying industry.  Then you talk about working at a small, lesser-known accounting firm. Well, which is it? If you turned to GC to be your Magic 8 Ball, good luck - we're wayyyyy to cynical/grumpy/bitter to give you the ol' pat on the back and "follow your heart" bullshit talk.  Sure, the economy is showing signs of life. But it's still a ridiculous market out there and I firmly stand by the fact you should be interviewing everywhere you can.  Sure, you have high hopes of starting your own firm a decade from now (I'm working on a food truck idea, FWIW), but do you have ANY idea of what's going to happen between now and then?  Of course not. So pry your way into any Big 4 firm you can.  Start your career (and résumé) off with a brand name, be cognizant of the opportunities in-house, and work your ass off to figure out what you really want to do.  Become an expert in a few things rather than just being familiar with many. I suggest starting in public for the benefit of earning your CPA and the chance to see different industries without changing actual jobs.

GC Crew - what do ya'll think? Throw out your comments below.

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