The accounting internship is one of the many aspects of the CPA experience that has been changed dramatically by COVID-19. Still, it remains a great way to set a would-be CPA’s career on the path to success, whether it is conducted virtually or
in-person. Get tips for ensuring an internship becomes a full-time offer and learn about skills that can be acquired during an internship from our guests, Eryn Conard and Tara Heller of Baker Tilly US LLP.
By Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
The state of the accounting internship has changed immensely in recent years, especially because of the complications brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the right accounting internship, whether it's conducted in person or virtually, still has the ability to set a young would-be CPA's career on the course for success. This episode's guests, Eryn Conard and Tara Heller of Baker Tilly US LLP, will discuss why an internship was beneficial to them, tips for ensuring an internship becomes a full-time offer, skills acquired during the internship period, and more.
Before we get into the benefits of accounting internships, I guess I'd be curious to know from each of you when you knew that you were interested in a career in accounting.
[Conard] I actually started out college going to nursing school and I did a semester there and I found early on that it wasn't a good fit. I actually ended up transferring to Penn State Berks. I took a few accounting courses. I had always enjoyed math and I was always very organized in high school. I figured some accounting courses would be a good idea. I took a few accounting courses and absolutely loved them. I had some fantastic professors. From that point on, I knew that a career in accounting was where I wanted to be.
[Heller] I had always felt I had an interest toward the business side of things. I had the opportunity in high school to take a bunch of different courses and different subjects. So, marketing, management and accounting. Out of those options that I took, accounting kind of made sense to me. Things clicked. I was able to apply my math background and my personal interest aligned with accounting. I majored in it in college and then, like Eryn, great professors and the subjects were just interesting to me, and it made sense. I stuck with it and decided that was my career path.
Once you've decided that accounting's the career path for you, why did you decide that an internship would be beneficial, especially one in the area of tax?
[Conard] I ended up doing my internship my senior year of college and was really hoping that internship would turn into a full-time hire. I took the internship because I wanted to see what the profession was like and make sure that this was the career that I did want to go into. Specifically, I ended up going in the area of tax because I knew tax was more of an individual-based type area. Audit is more group work, you're working together, you're traveling a lot, and I've always been more of a homebody type person. I always like to be at the same place, at the same time, every single day. So, I knew tax was probably going to suit me more. I took my tax internship and absolutely loved it. It ended up becoming a full-time hire.
What was the interview process like for your internship? Any tips for making those interviews as beneficial as possible?
[Heller] The process started with doing a “meet the firms” type night, networking, trying to make contacts at different firms, learn about different firms of different size in my area. Then usually, the process starts with kind of an informal phone interview where you're meeting with someone in human resources and learning about the firm and trying to establish if you're interested in taking that next step in the interview process. Once you get through that hurdle, you usually move on to in-person interviews, or in COVID, they're just virtual.
At that point, you usually have two sets of interviews, an informal process where you're meeting with staffs and seniors and learning about their perspective, and then you have a formal interview with manager level, or maybe even a partner. In order to make those interviews as beneficial as possible, I think it's really important to come prepared. Do research on the firm or the company that you're interviewing with, try and come up with some questions. What industries do they work in? What does the growth opportunity look like? Ask the people you're interviewing with how you can become a successful intern, if you would obtain the position? Questions like that will show the people you're meeting with that you really are taking it seriously, and that you genuinely put some thought into your interview.
Once you're into the internship, what tips do you have for ensuring that that internship becomes a full-time offer down the road?
[Conard] This may sound like a silly answer, but take it seriously. That's the obvious answer, but it is for real. Essentially, it's an interview for you to see if it's a good fit. If you like the profession, if you like the firm, if you like the people that you work for. It's also an interview for the people that are working with you to make sure that you're a good fit for their team.
I'd also say to have an open mind when you go into your internship, be willing to jump on any type of job that somebody assigns you to. Be constantly asking questions and have a willingness to learn. There's so much to learn between tax and audit, and things are constantly changing. If you can show that ambition, that you want to learn and you want to be a part of the team, that will definitely set you apart from other interns.
What skills did you find you learned during your internship that you were then able to have translate into the full-time job once you secured that?
[Heller] There are many things that you learn in an internship. I think the most obvious one is the technical side of things. When you're interning, you're in school and, if you're doing well in your courses, you're learning a lot, but what you learn from a course perspective is different from the skills you need as a professional. You might learn what a tax return is in college, but how to fill that out and how to complete the work papers, those are all things that you're going to learn on the job.
Getting that real technical knowledge of how you apply your college courses to your work is a huge benefit of an internship. Outside of the technical skills, you learn a lot of communication skills too. You go from a college setting where you communicate kind of informally with your friends or however, with your professors, but in a professional setting, you need to learn how to communicate as a professional. How to respond to emails and make sure you're communicating with your coworkers and your bosses appropriately. Those are all things that you get to learn before you're in that full-time position. It can really set you up for success.
What advice would you give to individuals who are going to be starting an internship in the immediate future?
[Conard] Like Tara had mentioned before, during the interview process, you want to research the firm. I would definitely say if you're going to be starting an internship in the immediate future, you also want to research the firm on what's going on. Are they in the office? Are they not in the office? Reaching out to somebody that you may have had contact with during the interview process or a buddy to get that information just so that you're prepared if you're going to have to be online or if you're going to be in the office. Our jobs have significantly transferred to being at home, being virtual. I would also say, get up to date with technology. We use email, we use Teams, Zoom, all that kind of stuff. Also, just read about any type of upcoming accounting changes. With tax law, that's always changing. Just read up on that and know some basic facts that'll help you with the internship.
As you look back at it, what were the most positive aspects of your internship and how do you feel that it shaped your career in the accounting profession?
[Heller] I think some of the most positive aspects were that I got to build relationships with my team. I didn't have to worry about, on my first day as a new staff, not knowing anyone or not having any relationships. I already knew my partner and knew my managers. That was really a great benefit for me. I also got to learn about tax and start figuring out what I did and didn't have interest in. As an intern, like Eryn mentioned before, I took advantage of as many different projects as I could. If I was working on individuals or trusts or corporate returns, I got to get a good foundation in my interests as an intern. That way, during my first year as a full-time team member, I was able to express an interest and continue growing in the aspects of tax that I was most interested in. I feel like it really helped me get a good groundwork in my career to kind of accelerate my path faster than maybe someone who might not have interned before.