Advice for Accounting Graduates and Students

Dear accounting graduates – Way to go!  I’m sure you are receiving an abundance of advice from your friends, family and faculty, but that won’t stop me from throwing in my two cents.  Why do you need one more opinion? I think its good for you to hear from those in the business you are joining as you make decisions and navigate these first steps outside of school.  I’ve also gathered advice from my accounting colleagues so you have many industry perspectives all right here.

The top two things I would advise:  First, bite the bullet and work in public accounting.  Second, don’t wait to sit for the CPA Exam.

Bite the bullet and work in public accounting.  Public accounting is a springboard for your future.  For those who have done this, the rewards of the experience outweigh the challenges it brings.  I worked at a medium size local firm and had a great experience in public accounting.  I liked this combination of firm because it allowed me to work on all aspects: tax, consulting, and audit start to finish.  While I didn’t prefer tax then and still don’t now, the exposure I received over my 5 years in public accounting equipped me for the future, and developed competencies I would otherwise have missed if I had gone to a larger firm where you chose either tax or audit.    

Don’t wait to sit for the CPA exam.  I know, I know, you just finished school.  You just finished studying and exams and maybe have even sold your books back already.  If you started in public accounting, the hours will be long.  But you JUST FINISHED SCHOOL.  Your foundation for the CPA exam won’t ever be this solid – don’t let it crumble before you start studying for the exam.

Ok, thats enough from me.  🙂 I’ve gathered advice from my accounting colleagues and want to share it with you.  We all have different backgrounds and experiences, but I value their perspective and know it will be important to you as you begin in your career. 

 Get your CPA licence and keep it active.  Even if you don’t want a long-term career in auditing, get some experience in this area.   It will give you a better perspective on how different businesses operate which will help you better determine what  you like (and don’t like) about the accounting/finance field.

– Stephenie

 My advice to accounting graduates is to not be afraid to be picky while choosing their first job. With the way the economy is, there is a lot of pressure to take the first job that is offered, because there is fear that another job may not come along. Although it is true that finding a job today can be difficult, it does not mean that it’s impossible. Spend time to think about what type of position and industry interests you, then pursue that type of position 100%. Focus on two or three jobs to apply to instead of many at once. By focusing on only a few job possibilities at once, you will be able to build real connections with the recruiters and employees in those companies. If you don’t already have connections within your target companies, you can build these connections by finding recruiters and other employees on Linkedin or at networking events, and asking them what type of applicants their looking for. Once you know what they’re looking for, you can determine if you’re a good fit, and how to present your skills in a way to help them understand why you are a good fit. Most professionals enjoy helping new graduates, and appreciate the initiative it takes to contact someone you don’t know.

– Rachel

 The main thing I would advise an Accounting graduate in a new job would be: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is an important concept as many accounting graduates, myself included, are afraid to ask questions because we don’t want to appear to be wrong, or appear to be incompetent. However, it should only be after you really have dug into a problem and need help arriving at a solution that you ask for guidance. Also when asking questions, make sure you thoroughly know the issue at hand.  That way, when a question is asked in connection to yours, you have the knowledge for an appropriate response. Additionally, it should be noted that it is okay to make mistakes at first, because the best way to learn is through trial and error.

– Stephen

There are many paths within the accounting field.  Find a job at a place where you can try out things like tax and audit.  And within those two broad paths, find out what interests you, and specialize in that.  In whatever job you find yourself, be smart, do great work, and get along with others, both co-workers and clients.  Be a team player. 

– B.W. 

My number one advice to any accounting graduate is to try out public accounting for a few years. Public Accounting gave me a wide range of exposure to different industries and improved my technical skills. It helped shape my communication skills and strengthen my ability to become a better team player. My second advice is be open minded about different accounting tasks. There is no job that is too small and too “immaterial.” For example, footing financial statement may seems like a boring job as a new associate but it gave me an opportunity to read through many companies’ financial statements. As a result, I got to ask lots of random questions I wouldn’t otherwise dare to bother managers or partners about during busy season. This in turn helped me build my technical skills and relationships with other managers who I may not have otherwise worked with.

– M.K.

Top 10 thoughts from E.W.:

1. Work for a CPA firm straight out of college – It fast tracks you to better jobs, gives you a variety of experience, and gives you time to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your career while quickly advancing your career.

2. Know what you’re getting into – Working at a CPA firm is tough and the rumors are true, you will face hard times and long hours and little respect, know what it is and work through it.

3. Apply to jobs appropriately – Tailor your resume specifically to the job you’re applying for, use keywords from the ad. Before the interview, research the company/firm you’re applying to, reach out to your alumni network, read every word of the website (that alone can land you a job). At the interview act interested in the job, ask appropriate questions.

4. Take the CPA exam as soon as possible – You may think you are busy now but you’re not. Your life will only get busier from here, take it while you have the chance.

5. Build a good reputation – The reputation of a CPA is probably more valuable than actual job skills, especially while working at a CPA firm. There are tons of resources available for tax and accounting issues, but no available resources will save your reputation.

6. Work on non-accounting skills – Technical accounting will probably make up less than 10% of your job in your career. Figure out how to use the accounting resources available to you then focus on other skills: sales, speaking, writing, relationship building, leadership, project management, etc.

7. Put in your hours – Putting in hours matters, particularly billable hours, and will carry a lot of weight for promotions and raises. If everyone else is staying late, stay late too. Don’t be the one leaving early.

8. Work hard and do what you’re toldThere’s a time and place for innovation and you’re going to need to innovate eventually. At first, though, no one want to hear about what the first year associate learned in their cost accounting class. Work hard, do what you’re told, build your reputation and respect among your peers.

9. Get involved in out of work activities with your co-workers – Play on one of the firm/company’s sports teams (but only if you’re good). Go to the happy hours and parties (but don’t get sloppy drunk, and yes, CPAs can drink A LOT, beware). You’ll need to be friendly with people to help build your reputation.

10. Build a relationship with a decision maker – At some point your firm will gather a group of managers/decision makers and they will decide the raises/promotions for the year. You need to know that there is someone in that room advocating for your promotion. Build a relationship with a manager or higher (without kissing up) who you can stick with and get pulled to the top, choose wisely.


And finally, an interesting perspective from an art school dropout:

Creativity > Intelligence

Let me explain: After receiving my accounting degree, mastering my technical competencies, moving through my career as an accountant, and later controllership, I realized I didn’t have just one narrowly focused talent. I wasn’t just good at math, I wasn’t just good at presentations, I wasn’t just good at understanding complex matters, I wasn’t just good at exercising my intelligence and critical thinking, but everything I learned to that point said that intelligence was paramount, and I had all the measures to prove it.

But I always thought… I have many talents and I want to know how to apply them to the fullest in my work. My epiphany came during graduate school MBA studies. I learned that everyone invited into the MBA cohort was smart, in fact, everyone was exceptionally intelligent. A GMAT in the 700′s was fairly normal, and everyone was a type A over-achiever, just like me.

But you know what truly differentiated us, what set us apart? It was creativity and the ability to summon it during critical times, right when it was most needed to get you out of a complex spot. This is what moved some ahead with momentum. That’s what I want to remind accounting graduates about. Don’t down play creativity in our work: creative problem solving, creative solutions to help the business achieve its goals, creative sessions and openness to innovation. Carve out time to innovate. Place a premium on creativity as you look forward in your career.

Unfortunately creativity, is not something that we encourage in accounting, it is not something that is lifted up as a rule, and there are many jokes about that. However, if you do not practice creativity, like anything that is not used, it will wither, and I think it is essential to lift up this competency and practice. Ideation and creativity is so important as you move down the continuum of your career.

– B.D.


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