Should I Focus on the CPA Exam or an Internship with the Big 4?

By | September 23, 2010

Because I never check my LinkedIn messages, this is the first I’m getting to this particular question. That goes for Facebook, Twitter DMs, and/or @s because if it doesn’t land in my inbox directly I’m probably going to get to it last. That being said, if you have a question for either Caleb or myself (we have the industry somewhat completely figured out between us), get in touch with us directly and we’ll try not to steer your entire life wrong.

This ended up coming to me after I told the boyfriend of a would-be accounting major that his girlfriend could probably find a gig in public if she got her CPA. Like any major life decision, it’s a commitment and as any of you who have whined about failing the CPA exam know, it isn’t an easy career path to take. Our asker today wants to know if he should jump too:

I really liked your response to Matt, regarding his girlfriend (who was taking ACCT 101 at the time he sent you a message). You had some great advice on things to consider before making accounting the career to devote one’s time to. I understand the importance you mentioned in having CPA next to your name when applying for jobs; because of this, I wonder if you think it would be better to get experience/internship first or invest the time into studying for the CPA exam and pass it before persuing [sic] any other obstacles of life?

I tapped Caleb for his thoughts first since he knows better than I do what it takes to be a Big 87654 grunt having done it himself.

If you want a job with The Big 4, go for the internship. The recruiting is far more competitive than in the past few years so if you want a job with one of those firms, than the best way to make that happen is to intern with them.

From a more general perspective, the work experience is invaluable as opposed studying for the exam. Sure you might have a jumpstart on your peers getting the CPA but an internship is individual experience that cannot be duplicated. The CPA exam is just at test that many of your peers will pass at one point or another during their careers. However those with internship experience will be able to point to specific experiences and accomplishments that other candidates may not have, setting you apart from them.

In my view, it appears as though the CPA is much easier to get through before you actually commit to A) a career B) a family C) just about anything else that you might be thinking about taking on at this point. Work experience is awesome but who can just grab that? You might get sucked into the public accounting whirlpool and 5 years later wonder why 5 busy seasons have gone by and you still haven’t passed the CPA exam.

Then again, your best chance to hit the Big 4 is as a new associate is right out of school – you might be the fluke who manages to get their attention at 35 once you’ve “figured out what you want to do with your life” but by then it’s likely too late for you to suddenly warm up to the Big 87654. It’s worse than trying to get into the military at that point, you’re flabby and already set in your ways, they need someone young and hungry and not yet jaded by a career in accounting. Good luck with that.

I say pass the exam now while you can (if you can). Then again, with passing CPA exam scores from the beginning you’re also a threat to the firms as you can easily bail for a real work-life balance in private accounting once you meet the work experience requirement. Who would continue to put up with the sort of abuse some of these firms put you guys through? Someone who has taken 3 years to get through FAR or made the mistake of starting a family AND a career in public before getting through or even touching the CPA exam.

If you don’t really want it (which it sounds like you don’t), be careful because it’s going to be harder for you if you’re just going through the motions. My advice.