Just How Important Is Which Big 4 Firm You Work For Anyway?

There’s a lively discussion going down on Reddit this morning over this article I’m about to share with you, and I’d recommend checking out the thread if you love to bear witness to semi-anonymous spats about hiring practices on the internet. But we’re not here to talk about that, we’re here to talk about the article that got the fight started.

In a recent interview with the University of California Santa Barbara student newspaper The Bottom Line, Professor Bob Anderson was asked about opportunities that a degree in accounting might offer other than the track we’re all too familiar with. You notice that his answer steers firmly in the direction of making a pit stop in public accounting first.

With public accounting here at UCSB, our students have a huge advantage which is that the public accounting firms recruit heavily here. Public accounting is [also] a great springboard into all kinds of occupations. So we have students who are CFOs of large companies and CEOs running their own business doing something totally different.

I think that when you graduate college, that first job is really important. When you’re applying for your jobs, your GPA is going to be very important and then you’re going to get that first job and your GPA will never come up again. But the name of the company — it becomes your new GPA. So though I don’t think it should be the end of all, I think being able to say, “I have a 3.9 GPA from U.C. Santa Barbara,” demonstrates something significant to anyone who’s considering you as a potential employee. In my experience, people going to large firms get a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things.

With fewer than ever accounting majors sitting for the CPA exam these days — step 3 in the traditional accounting track of graduate, snag a Big 4 offer, take the exam, and GTFO for greener pastures — it got me wondering, is the idea of Big 4 or nothing next on the chopping block? Is it still Big 4 or bust? I mean, we heard all this talk a decade and a half ago about how millennials were going to fundamentally change the entire industry, and then they showed up and put up with the same things their Gen X predecessors did because that’s just what you do. OK, to be fair they did put in some work in at least getting firms to ask themselves if the way they’ve been shamelessly expecting staff to forego their personal lives for 150 years is really the best way of doing business. So that’s something.

For now, despite millennials’ best efforts to get firms to ask the tough questions like “are we being unreasonable in expecting you to live at work?”, the Big 4 or bust mentality is still in full effect. And it probably won’t change anytime soon either. Because, like having your CPA, as it stands, having that coveted resume item says to the rest of the world that you’re a glutton for punishment who doesn’t hesitate to toss your own needs aside for the sake of client service. What future employer wouldn’t love that?

As far as we can tell, what Tony Nitti wrote in 2014 still rings true: For you soon-to-be graduates deciding on your first employer, however, recruiting season isn’t all fancy meals and free pens. It’s stressful, dammit; and generally speaking, the greatest source of consternation is whether the accounting industry boils down to “Big 4 or bust.” While I’d love to tell you this distinction is overblown, it’s simply not true. Because despite what I’ve been told by a long line of sympathetic yet clearly disappointed women, size really does matter.

Let’s be clear, which Big 4 doesn’t matter. No one in the real working world is going to get the “Big 3 + KPMG” joke nor do they care. Maybe they’ll get the Grant Thornton digs, though — those are always pretty universal.

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