By Oliver Arthur, CPA
A CPA career is multifaceted and opportunities are virtually limitless, yet the public and potential CPAs only see the tip of the iceberg. Many assume we merely love spreadsheets and numbers or that we’re only busy in March preparing tax returns. As a CPA with only limited experience working on tax preparation, I still find it impossible to convince family and friends that I am not an income tax expert. They simply will not budge on their belief that all CPAs are steeped in tax law. That got me wondering: how do widespread public perceptions of CPAs affect the pipeline of future CPAs?
Perception is very much linked to awareness. Somebody cannot get excited about a career as a CPA without being aware of the varying aspects of the profession. Perception, fair or not, determines who will consider becoming a CPA and affects the talent pipeline. We work with individuals with a huge range of personalities: from spreadsheet lovers and tax law reciters, to penny finders and hands-on doers, to open-minded innovators and social butterflies. The variety makes being a CPA one of the most versatile professions in the world, with each of us determining the right fit for our career path.
If the only CPA applicants were furiously methodical, strictly data driven, and habitually chained themselves to a computer for 12 hours a day until the last penny was found, our profession would not be one of the key pillars of economic success. A methodical, data-driven, persistent applicant could be a great fit in auditing or preparing taxes, but flexibility, ingenuity, and patience are required to be a CFO or consultant. When I became a CPA, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. It took several jobs – including public accounting in the audit and tax departments, corporate accounting, and government internal auditing – to find the position that was right for me. Each of these paths felt like a different world. Not only was the work completely different in the various fields, but the environments were nothing alike.
The perception is that most CPAs in public accounting will be left-brain dominant, with mostly analytical and methodical thinking. Outside work, many people are surprised when they find out I’m a CPA. This is because I show my artistic and creative side when I’m on stage acting out a scene, dancing a foxtrot in front of a crowd, or hosting dinner parties for my neighbors. Is there a place for right-brained people in this profession? Of course! This is what I love about being a CPA: I am not limited to a job that requires me to stay in an office alone for hours staring at a spreadsheet. Working previously as an assistant controller and now manager of internal auditing, I can effectively use my artistic side as well as the analytical and methodical side. Auditing in public accounting was not for me, but auditing in government is a different beast, and I can’t get enough of the challenge.
Just like being a board-certified doctor doesn’t mean you can perform brain surgery, having a CPA doesn’t mean we are experts in every aspect of accounting. There are many areas of focus such as non-profit tax, government auditing, manufacturing consulting, etc., that most people outside of the profession don’t know about. Think back to when you started your first accounting job: could you imagine being where you are today with the years of experience in your niche? Did you even know this type of accounting existed?
Left-brained methodical and analytical people will be drawn to pursuing the CPA license because test taking is their forte. Right-brained artistic and creative people often become overwhelmed when looking at exam material. When I was preparing for the exam, I thought for a while this wasn’t for me. Why did I think that way? The idea that I needed to retain and continue to stay up to date on all of this terrified me. Like so many of us, I only later learned that after passing the exam I could focus on a niche that suited me.
Perception weighs heavy when someone is considering a CPA career, which is why it’s up to us to share the diverse positions, numerous opportunities, and our own good and bad experiences with future generations.
Oliver Arthur, CPA, is manager of auditing for Berks County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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