Choosing A Public Accounting Firm: A Guide For Accountancy
by Mark E. Steadman, PhD, CPA, CMA
The job market for accountancy graduates is particularly strong at this
time, especially in the public accounting field. Several students are
receiving multiple job offers and are having difficulty deciding which
type of firm (Big 5, regional, or local) to enter upon graduation. In
the past, every student's career goal was to work for a Big 5 firm upon
graduation. Today, some students are bypassing these firms to start their
careers in regional or local firms. The decision is difficult, and this
guide is designed to assist you in your decision. Ultimately, the choice
is yours, but you should have some insight into the firms and the work
environment at each.
The content of this guide was developed through various speakers in class,
conversations with CPAs, my personal experience, and the experiences of
several close friends. Also, a caveat is needed: these observations are
generalizations and may not be true in every case. Ask the recruiters
questions to clarify any uncertainties that you may have.
The Big 5
The advantages of working for the Big 5 are:
Prestige---These firms have national and international recognition. Everyone
in the business world will recognize experience from a Big 5 firm if you
ever change jobs.
Training---Big 5 firms have extensive training schools for all their personnel.
You will be sent to school for 2-4 weeks early in your tenure, and you
will receive additional formalized training each year. The training at
these firms is well known and highly respected in the profession.
Exposure---Working for the Big 5 can expose you to the inner workings
of some of the world's largest firms. Every job is a learning experience,
and learning how a Fortune 500 firm does something provides excellent
professional development. Who knows, you may be invited to a party at
Bill Gates' house someday.
Marketability---These first three factors (prestige, training, and exposure)
allow you to be highly marketable in terms of changing jobs. PUBLIC ACCOUNTING
ISN'T FOR EVERYONE!!! Some people love it, some people hate it. You won't
know which category fits you until you've worked for a while. Therefore,
stay prepared to change jobs. Big 5 experience will provide excellent
preparation for moving on.
Salary---In most cases, Big 5 firms will offer you a higher starting salary.
Most, if not all, of the Big 5 incorporate overtime into the starting
salary (a key point when comparing salaries at other firms). Pay increases
are usually based upon merit, and a raise of 10% a year is not unusual.
Also, excessive overtime can earn you a bonus at the end of the year.
SALARY SHOULDN'T BE YOUR PRIMARY DECISION CRITERION!!! Having a job that
you hate or working with people you dislike will drive you crazy, and
no amount of money can help.
Specialization opportunities---The Big 5 can make you an expert in a specialty
area through training and work assignments. If you like the idea of being
on CNN and talking about income taxes, this is the way to do it. Also,
if you want to open your own firm someday, specialty consulting can be
Mentor programs---Most of the Big 5 firms have a formalized mentoring
program to assist newly hired individuals in their transition to the working
world. This program can help you learn the ropes and plan your career.
Family issues---The Big firms are starting to take family issues seriously.
For too many years, they lost some of their best professionals due to
pregnancy, day care, etc. In the big cities, they have day care centers.
In smaller cities, they may assist with the cost of day care and help
you locate an acceptable provider.
The disadvantages of working for the Big 5 are:
Travel---The Big 5 recruiters are saying that the amount of travel is
less than it used to be. That's probably true. Still, because of the client
base, overnight travel with a Big 5 firm will be more than with a regional
or local firm.
Assignments---The old story goes that a professor ran into an ex-student
one day and asked her how she liked auditing with a Big 5 firm. The student
responded that she didn't know; she had only examined the cash account
at three firms over the past year. Entry level persons working on large
audits typically will only audit one or two areas (cash and accounts payable
being the favorites). You may do this for your first year.
Overtime---Comparatively speaking, overtime at a Big 5 firm will be more
than overtime at a smaller firm. Also, the timing is more unpredictable.
In regional/local firms, the overtime is mostly during tax season. With
the Big 5, it can occur any time during the year, and you may not have
much warning (see stress/pressure).
Professional competition---Watch your back. Some people who work for Big
5 firms are very competitive and will do anything to get ahead. With a
large number of staff, getting noticed by the partners may require shafting
Stress/pressure---Relative to smaller firms, this factor will be greater
with a Big 5 firm. When IBM wants a report, IBM gets the report regardless
of the stress endured by the audit firm personnel to prepare it. This
adds to the unpredictability of overtime.
Specialization---Along with the advantages of becoming a specialist comes
a disadvantage. What if you're that tax expert on CNN and the flat tax
is passed? Being a specialist also makes it harder to open your own CPA
firm that offers a variety of traditional services.
Regional and local (r/l) firms vary dramatically in terms of size. Regional
firms can have 50-200+ professionals, 3-8 offices, and several million
dollars in revenue each year. Some are listed in the Top 100 CPA firms
in the country, in terms of size. The larger local firms can have 20-100+
R/l firms can provide excellent employment opportunities for students
who can not relocate to larger cities (where the Big 5 are often located)
because of family or other factors. Also, the relatively higher amount
of travel and overtime at Big 5 firms may deter students with family commitments.
R/l firms have several advantages and disadvantages also. The advantages
Salary---In order to hire the best and brightest candidates, regional/local
(r/l) firms are having to increase their entry-level salaries. Not only
are starting salaries competitive with the Big 5, but raises and bonuses
are increasing in order to keep their professionals from leaving for other
opportunities. In some r/l firms, any differences in starting staff salary
compared to the Big 5 may disappear as you advance through the ranks.
Assignments---The assignments at r/l firms usually provide more overall
exposure to the auditing process. You may start in cash and accounts receivable,
but if you do a good job and seem to understand what's going on, you'll
progress to other areas very quickly. In some cases, you may be doing
an entire audit of a small client within two years.
Training---Regional and local firms rely primarily on AICPA, state society,
and university programs to train their staff and to earn CPE each year.
These programs are excellent and provide you with current technical updates
and important information. Also, many of the firms have in-house training
sessions for their staff.
Recognition---Compared to a larger Big 5 firm, it is easier to really
stand out and get noticed. There is a quicker recognition of your abilities
and skills earlier in your career with r/l firms. You are performing a
wider variety of assignments and have a better opportunity to excel. This
opportunity can translate into quicker advancement, higher raises, and
Specialist/generalist---Many of the firms will let you do audits during
the year and prepare tax returns from January to April. This helps you
decide which area you like the best and increases your knowledge in all
areas of accounting.
Family issues---Most smaller r/l firms are very attuned to family issues.
Some allow you to work at home, part-time or flex-time.
Clients---One thing you will notice in all r/l CPAs is their attitude
for their clients; they are almost like family. Watching a client grow
and prosper is very rewarding both financially and emotionally.
Camaraderie---At r/l firms, the professional competition is not as big
a problem---there is more of a "team" feeling among the professional
staff. The staff and your fellow employees usually become your friends
and encourage you personally and professionally.
See Big 5 disadvantages---Most of the disadvantages of working for the
Big 5 are advantages to working for smaller firms. Travel, overtime, and
stress are relatively lower.
The disadvantages of working for a regional/local firm are:
See Big 5 advantages---As you can see, there are tradeoffs and compromises
which must be made in choosing a firm. Your job is to weigh each of these
factors and make one of the most important decisions you've had to make
in life so far---a decision that will affect your life for your remaining
years. Just kidding. You really can't go too wrong working for any of
these firms. It all depends on your long-term goals, family concerns,
ability to move, etc.
Audit vs. tax?
If you are certain you want to go into tax, go there. If you are unsure
at this stage of life, go into auditing first. You'll learn more accounting
in three months than you did in three years of college, and you can always
transfer to tax later. Don't even consider consulting at the entry- level---very
few firms will start you in consulting without several years of previous
When you go on an office visit, you should be assessing how well you fit
in with the current professional staff and the support staff. You will
be working very closely with these people and you want to feel comfortable.
By the way, that's what they're looking at too---how well you'll fit in.
You wouldn't be there if they didn't like you in the interview.
Big 5 firms in large cities can have 500-1000 professional staff members.
Large offices can make it hard to get noticed and promoted; therefore,
the professional competition factor is increased. Big 5 firms can offer
the possibility of transferring to another city or for an extended international
tour (two years in Sydney, Australia or London or Tokyo might be neat).
Enjoy---for a while.
Each of you is in an enviable position. Unfortunately, there will be few
times in your life when you will feel so wanted. Enjoy it. You've worked
hard to get to this point and you should reap the benefits. Too bad you
can't rest on your laurels. For those who haven't passed it yet, the CPA
exam is the next step. Take it as soon as you are eligible, your knowledge
base will decrease over time. And you just thought your studying days
Good luck! When you're rich and famous, don't forget to give back. Give
back to your community, to the profession, and to your alma mater. If
you've had a scholarship during college, think how much it has helped.
If you haven't, think about how much it would have helped. Either way,
remember the scholarships at your university or state society scholarship
funds. Also, stay in touch. Professors love to hear from graduates so
that they can keep up with your career progress. One final point. If you
ever need to change jobs, give your ex-professors a call. They usually
have a good feel for the current job market in the public, private, or
Mark E. Steadman is a professor in the College of Business at East Tennessee
State University, Johnson City, Tennessee.