Episode 3

Looking at the Accounting Landscape and Deciding Where You Fit Best

Learn from accounting recruiters about key considerations to make when deciding between public accounting and corporate accounting as a career. Learn some tips from accounting educators about interviewing for a job or internship, and hear from recent successful candidates about their personal experiences with interviewing and job transitioning.

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By: Mylin Batipps Jr., PICPA Member Engagement Administrator

Podcast Transcript

When you graduate with a degree in accounting, there are so many career paths. You can go into public accounting or corporate finance. There are opportunities in nonprofits, governmental accounting, and education. Choices are a good thing, but sometimes the sheer number of opportunities makes it tough to make the right decision. No worries. The Pennsylvania CPA foundation can help guide your decision. I'm Mylin Batipps Jr., and on this episode of “Work Your Way to a CPA” we will discuss some accounting career considerations as well as some interviewing tips to keep in mind while you're on the job hunt.

In a survey the PICPA conducted of CPA candidates who have successfully passed all four parts of the CPA exam, 65 percent of the takers indicated public accounting as their current place of work. There is no doubt that public accounting is a popular option for recent accounting grads. Accountants of all ages love an opportunity to provide direct services to clients and to get an inside look at a variety of industries and entity types. And, according to Stefanie Deiter-Printz, human resources generalist for the accounting and business consulting firm, RKL – a corporate sponsor of the Pennsylvania CPA Foundation, by the way – a big component of public accounting is the ability to travel to different clients.

[Deiter-Printz] One of the big things that we encounter in public accounting is travel. Travel and actually working one-on-one with clients is one of the big differences you find in public accounting. I think that students who are trying to decide between one versus the other should consider: do they want to be client facing and do they want to travel? Travel can be local travel, it can be statewide travel, it can be international travel, depending on the public accounting firm that they're interested in. But I do think that those are just some of the key things that they should think about when they're trying to decide between one versus the other.

Kristin LaRosa, senior campus recruiter for another Pennsylvania CPA foundation sponsor – the public accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly – says an additional thing that draws many people to public accounting is the ability to move up quickly in the workplace.

[LaRosa] What I see what public accounting is you put the work in. You work really hard for those couple of years. It is easy and available for those to kind of step into the manager level within a five-year track. And I think that what I see is when people go into public accounting first before then stepping into more of that corporate environment is they have that experience in public accounting, and they've seen a lot, and they've worked with a lot of individuals, and I think it would make them more successful than going into corporate.

With the opportunities that public accounting provides also comes challenges. Traveling out to clients, whether locally, statewide, or even internationally, can be exciting to the young candidate looking to get his or her foot in the door. But, what does it mean in terms of the number of hours that those in public accounting are logging per week? Brandon Saylor, partner in the Philadelphia Office of leading recruiting agency Atlantic Group provides insight.

[Saylor] One of the challenges you run into with public accounting is great experience. You're out there in front of companies, you're working directly with the controller or CFO and other accounting professionals within that client organization. You're getting all types of experiences and such, but some of the challenges that you run into are the travel or the hours because in the busy season time periods you may be working 50, 60, and if you're within the Big Four public accounting world, even more hours than that.

Corporate accounting has his own unique benefits. It provides opportunities to really get to know and understand a specific company and dig deep as you prepare financial statements and analyze data. Different from public accounting, corporate accounting tends to have a more traditional and structured work week, and not much travel is required in most cases. Saylor explains a little bit more about the corporate accounting environment.

[Saylor] I think a corporate accounting role can be a little bit more structured. On a daily basis you're at your desk putting together schedules and reports and working transactions through the system and so forth. There are regular meetings and so forth as well. But there are potentially days that you may be in  your office at your desk for most of the day without as much interaction.

Saylor adds that you can really get to know a company when you work for it in a corporate environment, as opposed to juggling many client interactions in the public accounting atmosphere.

[Saylor] I felt going into the corporate industry that I could work for one organization and get more deep experience in that company and learn more of the inner workings of that one particular company. When in public, if you're working with 20 clients in a given year, you only have so much time with each company.

LaRosa from Baker Tilly, who also has had experience recruiting for corporate accounting positions, says that she has noticed a difference in management between the two environments. Because of the nature of the work, public accounting staff work with multiple managers, and that does change the dynamic of the managers in their direct reports.

[LaRosa] I think, especially within Baker Tilly, just in terms of our structure and how we are laid out in terms of our managers, our performance counselors, a person's particular manager or performance counselorwe we call them PCsthat person may not be on every single project that the person is working on. It's up to that individual to kind of give that feedback or give their manager an update on where they are in a project and be very vocal along the way because that manager or PC may not always be on the same projects that they're working on. But when you're in a corporate structure, it's more so laid out for you. An individual is, for instance, in internal audit entry level position, an entry level position in internal audit, they will have a manager who is directly in internal audit above them. It differs between public accounting and in corporate accounting just in the structure of the organization.

A CPA candidate must really analyze the key differences between corporate accounting and public accounting to determine which environment fits his or her personality over the other. Deiter-Printz with RKL says they must ask themselves the following questions.

[Deiter-Printz] Do people enjoy working in that setting where you are out of the office and are working one-on-one with clients? Do they enjoy that team environment? Because public accounting firms tend to be very team focused with their approach to work where corporate accounting has a team component to it, but I believe that the work is more individual and tends to be more focused on certain tasks that are everyday versus public accounting where there is variety.

Another way CPA candidates can determine which career path is right for them is to work or intern in both environments as soon as possible. There are all kinds of internships in both corporate and public, and accounting professors are helping students find those positions. Joe Hagardon, professor of accounting, undergraduate accounting coordinator and former chair of the department of accounting, economics, and finance for Widener University, explains.

[Hargadon] What I try to encourage them to do, Mylin, is enter our co-op or internship program, because although I can describe the differences, I think it's best for them to actually do an internship one time in corporate accounting and one time in public if they can, and that's where they're going to see what those two career paths are really all about. I strongly encourage that. We don't require a co-op at Widener, but we do require them to do one experiential learning opportunity. Most of our accounting majors do participate in internships or co-ops, which are a little different at Widener. Our internships are for credit, co-op is noncredit, but I think that's the best way. Then I also like to ask them about their interests, where they see themselves, do they like to go to work at the same place every day, or do they like traveling and meeting different clients. Sometimes you get a feel for which of those areas they might be more suited for based on how they respond to those questions.

According to Carlo Silvesti, assistant professor of accounting and business at Gwynedd Mercy University, "In addition to Gwynedd Mercy students being able to complete internships for credit, they are also encouraged to obtain membership at associations that expose them to both the public accounting and corporate accounting worlds.

[Silvesti] We encourage them to not only become PICPA student members, which is a requirement of all of our accounting majors, but we encourage them, too, to become student members of the local IMA chapter, so they can be exposed to what goes on in business and industry.

Whether interning in public accounting or the corporate world or working full-time in either field after graduation, CPAs and CPA candidates should not stress about whether they've chosen the right path. Valerie Williams, assistant accounting professor of practice at Duquesne University, says that no matter the path you find yourself on, it's OK to make a change later. And if you don't think this information is important, it's even accompanied by sirens!

[Williams] When I talk to students about it, I do tell them to kind of remember that they shouldn't really get too obsessed about making the right decision because you're going to try something and if you like it, great. If you don't like it, after a few years of trying it out, maybe you'll try something different. There's some statistic out there that says people have seven jobs in their lifetime, or something like that. So, I tell them that they really cannot make a wrong decision.

I've talked to a few successful CPA candidates who have passed the CPA exam and are now working in various roles within the profession. Each one has either experienced a couple of job transition since entering the workforce or are expecting to transition into another role down the line. They've told me that their first job was considered their good dream job, but as will, their dreams changed. And they say there's nothing wrong with that!

Matt Nehoda, CPA, is corporate controller of Active Day, an adult daycare service provider. Before Active Day, Nehoda was director of accounting for AdaptHealth for about three years. And before that, he worked in public accounting right out of college. He says Marcum was his dream job when he first graduated.

[Nehoda] That was my dream job. But now I'm at my dream job and I could still relate back to those old conversations and think, "Oh yeah, I do remember doing that." If you're within the field of accounting, which I understand is very broad, as long as you're trending in the right direction and never getting complacent, and always thinking, "Okay, I'll be here for a little bit, but I really want to be in public or vice versa" as long as you keep that mind, I think accepting a first job outside of your (I'm air quoting) “dream job” is certainly okay.

Erin Dumm, CPA, has been with the CPA and consulting firm Barnes, Saly & Company, for over a decade and received her CPA license in the spring of 2018. Within the firm, Dumm has moved up from staff accountant to senior accountant. Now that she has her CPA, she has her sights set on a new dream.

[Dumm] I think I'm definitely on the track to maybe making partner someday. That is my dream.

Whether you plan to move up within a company or transition from one company to another, there is no one formula to follow to progress in your accounting career, or any other career for that matter, according to Dumm.

[Dumm] I think it all depends on your situation in life. For some people it comes down to: you graduated from college and you just need a job right away. I don't feel there's anything wrong with accepting a first job and looking and aspiring to do something else, because every job you're in, you're going to learn something that will help you in your next job and help you for your entire career.

Shannon Sabourin, CPA, staff accountant with the accounting, tax, and advisory firm, Kreischer Miller, which is also a Pennsylvania CPA foundation sponsor, thought her dream job would be working at a small firm close to where she lived. Sabourin was previously doing personal financial planning and tax planning. After a while, she realized that her interests were more aligned with financial reporting, and eventually she transitioned to Kreischer Miller, where she gets to do that and so much more.

[Sabourin]  I think you can always change down the line. My first job, at Independent Tax and Financial Planners, we also did a lot of financial planning, so I basically just did tax. And where I'm at now, in public accounting with Kreischer Miller, I do tax, I do financial statements, reviews and compilations, which I had never done before. I do a lot of accounting, bookkeeping tasks, so a lot of what I did in my first three years, on the financial planning side, I'm no longer using and I'm learning a lot of new stuff, and this is my third year in my career. I think you can always make that change down the line as long as you get into a position that's in your industry or accounting. I think that's great. I think between corporate and private, you could always switch.

Research suggests that many accountants graduating from college and those who recently graduated tend to dive into public accounting before transitioning over to a corporate accounting role later in their career. Whether that's the case for you or whether you're moving from a corporate accounting role into public accounting, recruiters agree that it's OK to allow wiggle room in your career for transitioning into different roles within the accounting landscape. In fact, it's expected. Be patient, says Saylor of the Atlantic group.

[Saylor] That amazing job is not necessarily going to be your first job. You really need to build your career to get to it. Accounting is a great field to start in because you get to see a lot of inner workings of a company and a lot of people we hear from say they want to do mergers and acquisitions. They want to do financial analysis. I think it takes a few years of an accounting or audit type of background to really understand how a company functions and how the world of accounting and finance works before you can really move into those roles where you're helping companies generate more revenue or profits by doing the analytics on a new product or a new office, going into a new venture, or doing an acquisition of a competitor, or something to that effect. Stay the course and make sure you set yourself up in your career for the long term by the initial jobs you take.

Developing a career map where you have an idea of where you want to be is key for students who are beginning the job search process, according to LaRosa from Baker Tilly.

[LaRosa] Coming up with that plan, where do you see yourself going in 10 to 15 years or where do you see yourself? Whether that's in a public accounting firm or whether that's in more of a corporate environment, look within yourself and try to figure out what’s the best career path for yourself and where do you want to be. Then, if you create that career path for yourself, you'll know where you will want to be at every step. How many years out of school do you want to be a manager? Do you want to be a senior manager? Do you want to become a partner? I think that that's something that new grads and students should put together a roadmap. And also with that, put together a roadmap of when you want to have your CPA and what that’s going to look like to get there. I think that's very crucial. Or even if you want to obtain your CPA, I think that's really crucial to put that together and start thinking about that now.

And wherever you plan to begin your career, it's important to adequately prepare yourself for the interview process. Interviewing is not something you can just go in and do after you get the call from a prospective employer. As a matter of fact, before you even apply for your position, invest some time into learning about the company you're interested in. Deiter-Printz with RKL says this is essential to come into the interview showing that you've done your homework.

[Deiter-Printz] I think that candidates should be very prepared in terms of knowing who it is that they're going to meet with and knowing more about the company that they're going to interview with by visiting a company's website, looking up interviewers profiles on LinkedIn, asking questions related to the content that you see. For example, if a staff candidate is coming in to meet with us and they've spent some time on a website and maybe they have a strong interest in our auditing division, asking questions, not just related to the auditing division, but questions related to other service lines or our business as a whole, is a really good way to show that you've done your homework, that you are interested, and that you are trying to learn more about the company as a whole because good employees know more than just what their business line is. They know the company, and what we do, and all the services that we offer.

Accounting educators I've talked to have all told me that two interviewing mistake students often make are neglecting to adequately research the company they're interested in and neglecting interview preparation. Recognizing this, Williams of Duquesne University, who chairs the School of Business’s internship and job placement committee, conducts mock interviews. Her theory is that corporate and public accounting interviews are different and students need prep for both.

[Williams] There is a big difference, in my opinion at least, between how an accounting firm conducts an interview versus a corporate interview. And what tends to happen is students may go on a couple of accounting firm interviews and think all interviews will be like that. And then they go on a corporate interview and it's totally different. And what I have found is a lot of the firm interviews ask more behavior-related questions. How do you work on a team? How did you resolve a conflict? How do you prioritize things? Corporate interviews may ask some of those, but they also ask technical questions. And so a student may not be prepared for technical questions if they've had three or four firm interviews prior to a corporate interview. So I do try to let them know that it really is up to that company or that firm and maybe even that individual interviewer in regards to what they ask.

Job applicants also needs to be prepared to speak to their résumé. Joe Hargadon from Widener University advises that you make sure that what you've included in your resume is something that is meaningful and that you can elaborate on when asked to do so.

[Hargadon] Just to give you an example, what happened once to one of her students was he put down one of his interest was reading, which is fine, but the interviewer asked him, "Well, what's the last thing you read?" And he didn't have a good answer. We don't want them to put things down that they think sound good because they're going to be potential questions that the interviewer can ask. When I go through this, as well as our career services, I make sure that if there's something on their résumé, they better be able to elaborate on it and be articulate and substantive, not something where it would look like, "They just put that on there. They don't really have an active involvement in."

Many colleges and universities host career fairs where employers come to schools to offer internships and employment opportunities. Silvesti's students at Gwynedd Mercy University are exposed to a career fair at the university every year where over 30 employers visit and inform students of various opportunities including those in the accounting field. Silvesti says a common misconception that students have about career fairs is that they think it's as easy as handing over a résumé.

[Silvesti] They think they should just prepare a résumé, hand the résumé, and wait for a question.  And I tell the students, “You're not going there for an interview. You're going there for a meeting. You're to look at that company, you're to go out and research it, find out what's there. Then, turn around when you hand the résumé saying, and not necessarily this, but, "Hello, my name is so-and-so, here's my résumé. I'm looking for an internship. I've found by looking at your website that you do a lot of work in this area of, lets say, healthcare, and I've got a very strong interest in healthcare. I was in our nursing program at Gwynedd before I switched to accounting and I'd like to be able to combine the two together." Now you've opened the door and begun a dialogue with people, and I think that's one of the biggest things.

Successful CPA candidates who are now in the workplace share insights from their personal experience. Sabourin of Kreischer Miller says candidates should treat going into an interview like they would when getting ready to take an exam.

[Sabourin] It's really just like preparing for an exam. Just think about your experiences, because a lot of people want to know. You can't just say, "I do have experience." They want examples. It's just really important for before an interview to sit down and prepare for those types of questions.

Nehoda of Active Day says not only should the interviewers be asking questions, but the candidate should be asking questions to the interviewers as well.

[Nehoda] My advice would be to think of questions at the end. They always say, "Oh, yeah, well do you have any questions for us?" You need to make a comparison in your head about which one of these firms assuming you get offers from all of them you want to choose. My best advice would be to lay out questions and make sure you ask the same exact question to all of the firms. That way you can make some comparisons and draw on your experience from both and say, "Oh, these are the kinds of questions. These are their kind of answers to these same questions.” And you get a gauge for what the corporate culture is like. Assuming you're interviewing with partners, what are they like? How is HR run and operated? That way you can do comparisons.

According to Dumm of Barnes, Saly & Company, candidates should not hold back when it comes to asking questions about the company.

[Dumm] I would say ask more questions. It's so important to find the right fit of work culture, not just job. And if you don't enjoy going to work, and you don't enjoy the environment and the people you are working with, it's going to be hard for you to go. And, don't be shy. Ask the questions, be yourself, and practice for interviews.

In the next episode of “Work Your Way to a CPA,” these successful CPA candidates and accounting recruiters will be giving insight on how to evaluate a job offer, and educators will provide guidance in the transition from student to professional.


Other Career Resources

  • Networking Starter Kit: Prepare to wow employers at your next career fair, interview, or social event!
  • Mentor Match: The right mentor could have a profound impact on your career. Connect with like-minded members in the PICPA Mentor Match!
  • Career Center: Post your résumé and browse opportunities from local employers!

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