October 23, 2018

Take It From a Former Public Accountant: Having a CPA/MBA Makes Sense

It’s a tale as old as time here on Going Concern. Your career in public accounting probably looks a little something like mine did: slog your way through 150 credits, pass the CPA exams while working, keep near-investment banking hours (yet still pack lunch to make the salary work), and then sit back and watch the gradual-yet-inevitable attrition of your favorite Big 4 colleagues.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ve reached your second, third, maybe fourth year only to find you’re restless in public accounting. The learning curve is steep at first (and much steeper if you prove capable of handling the very worst projects). But, eventually, you start to think that the skills you’ve gained might be surpassed by the fact that the reason you’re good at your job is that you know who to ask to get what you need.

So, you start to look around you. You look to your partners to see if that’s the life you want. You look to old managers who’ve moved to industry but are discouraged by the number of people coming back or taking cozy, predictable (see: not exciting) roles where they can buy a house and settle down. You eventually decide to answer the daily cold calls from recruiters who tell you how the bodega on the corner is hiring for a once-in-a-lifetime position. You seriously consider this. Finally, you look to your peers. All of your friends have switched jobs, if not careers, at least once already. It’s far more rare for this to be false than true.

For me, this was a crossroads and a critical point of inflection. On one hand, you can ride out a career you’ve invested a lot into and have a virtually guaranteed good life. There are, most definitely, roles in the industry where you can adapt your skill set to do something new and exciting. For instance, a number of friends took their public accounting experience and rolled the dice on trendy startups or tested out firms’ in-house consulting arms. Thinking through the options was something I did nonstop.

On the other hand, I found that no matter what the company was, I’d end up doing the same work I did in previous jobs. I considered the path I’d need to take to reach a rewarding end goal. Sure, it’d be fantastic to be a CFO, but I couldn’t stomach six years as a senior manager or director until my superior retired or got fired. For as much as I appreciated the relationships and personal development I took from the Big 4, when I left I never looked back.

This is why I considered getting my MBA. A quick Google search led me to believe that I could flip the script and be well-prepared for positions I would’ve otherwise never known, such as banking, consulting, operations, or buy-side roles. While this was true to a degree, it was necessary for me to believe when facing multiple GMATs, school visits, essays, recommendations, and (even more) student loans.

See, an MBA, in particular, is directly at odds with your life as a CPA. None of your peers have one, they don’t want or need one, and, as a result, you have limited inroads to actually get one. On top of this, upon leaving public accounting, you learn very few people can grasp what you did while you were there. For as many times as I explained it, my own family couldn’t have told you if I did audit or tax, even while I was doing it. This proved true throughout the MBA process as well.

In transition, the reactions I’d get were both frustrating and amusing: an accountant can’t possibly have a personality, an accountant can’t possibly be creative, an accountant can’t possibly be an engaging classmate … which is not to say that I am! But amid my ups and downs—giving up nights and weekends for over a year of testing and applications—I believed in my background and was focused on finding what I knew was right for me.

This, in a nutshell, is my biggest takeaway as a CPA/MBA. Nothing is handed to you, and the path is unmarked. But assembling the right profile of test scores, extracurriculars, advocates, and a thoughtful pursuit of schools can and will bear fruit. The thing that helped me most (which was, obviously, the most difficult) was crafting my story as it pertained to my goals. If you’re anything like me, you’ve worked on 20 different clients across as many industries and can sort of speak to what’s going on in each of them at any given time. This makes you a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.

For those who have found this article for the very same reasons I was looking for it years ago, let me say this: there is no bigger reward than finally figuring it out and landing in a place where you are, unquestionably, willing to do what it takes to finally reach that end goal. This is the paramount pursuit—a millennial’s Super Bowl, if you will.

As busy seasons have come and gone, I’ve found that one way or another, the midnight Starbucks runs I took with my teams to and from windowless conference rooms is something that will help guide me forever.

About the author:

Chris Jung is a mentor for BeenThere Technologies, a Wharton/Kellogg MBA-founded startup providing application mentoring services to potential MBA applicants. He previously worked at KPMG and KKR before Columbia Business School. Chris has spent the past six months working for Casa Verde Capital, a venture capital firm investing in the ancillary cannabis ecosystem.

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