Essential Skills and Attributes for Emerging CPAs

Mar 02, 2020
Pennsylvania CPA Journal
After four or five years of college, you’ve landed a great job – maybe even your dream job. It’s time to put all of your accounting education to work. You’re likely preparing for one or more certification exams, which means having to recall details from all of your previous coursework. “No problem,” you say. “I was a good student, and I know my debits and credits as well as anyone in this office.” Surely technical acumen is a necessity, but to truly succeed – even in your very first year on the job – your “essential skills set” requires much more than that.

College Carryovers

Certain skills that proved essential in college extend into the day-to-day world of the accounting profession. However, such skills often need to be enhanced beyond that which sufficed throughout your academic studies. Communication skills, both written and spoken, are one such example. While in college, a student’s ability to convey key points, and to do so with economy, often makes the difference between a happy professor and a frustrated one. This is true regardless of whether one is speaking or writing. After college, one’s managers, colleagues, and clients can be just as easily pleased or frustrated by the effectiveness of one’s communication skills.

Written communications might warrant special mention since so much of the emerging CPA’s daily responsibilities entails both e-mails and documentation of one’s work and analysis. A term paper that is quickly strewn together to satisfy a due date often contains glaring (and sometimes embarrassing) errors. Semesters come and go, but the workplace is a continuum. The degree of care that one applies to the development of even the briefest workplace document could have greater implications than it did in college. Relatedly, college students typically place significant reliance on software that identifies spelling and grammatical errors; in the workplace, complete reliance on such software is imprudent. Software coding is imperfect, and spell-check features can too easily replace a misspelled word with one that was not intended by the author. One must therefore carefully craft and review all correspondence and reports.

Minor Advantages to Major Assets

Some skills and traits that were not so relevant in college can be of paramount importance in the workplace. Timeliness is a good example. Habitually being late for class may have yielded scarcely more than disapproving glances from the professor and smirks from fellow students; such lack of punctuality (and broader lack of personal responsibility) within the workplace, however, can have negative career consequences. Many individuals manage to foster a clear sense of personal responsibility while in college; others do so less successfully. Some, in fact, have such little development that personal responsibility is viewed as more of a nicety than a necessity. Nothing could be less true. The “real world” is much less forgiving than the college setting.

Another difference between college and the workplace, which was alluded to in the communications discussion, is the latter’s insistence on conciseness. While college term papers are often assigned with minimum page length, economy is a greatly appreciated attribute in the workplace. The late comedian George Burns said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.” One’s colleagues and clients are likely to concur with the sentiment; they are typically not interested in reading documents of a minimum word count or page length.

The ability to work within a competitive yet collaborative environment is essential. Certainly college life entails both competition and collaboration, but the professional workplace is arguably more of both. With the abundance of overtime that constitutes the life of an accounting professional, a substantial portion of any given week/month/year is spent living with colleagues. These are people with whom we are often competing for specific roles and positions within the firm, but they are also people with whom we must cooperate to achieve the firm’s goals and objectives. Thus, the emerging CPA is again presented with the challenge of equipping himself or herself with an essential skill to manage the balance of a competitive nature with a collaborative one.

Emerging CPAs face a plethora of challenges as they begin forging their careers. Many challenges transcend the preparation provided by one’s academic experiences. Career challenges can be successfully overcome by seeking out the kinds of experiences and training that enhance one’s ability to communicate efficiently and effectively, and by making the effort to become known as an individual who possesses a high degree of personal responsibility. Cultivating these essential skills will lead to a successful start to your accounting career.

Brian W. Carpenter, PhD, CMA, and Daniel P. Mahoney, CPA, PhD, are professors of accounting at The University of Scranton. They can be reached at and, respectively.
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