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Accountant

Overview  

Accountants are usually depicted as bookish, anal-retentive social outcasts with few interpersonal skills. That image is changing, though, as accounting becomes an increasingly lucrative field. Public accountants are more than mere bean counters; they must interface with clients and handle sensitive financial information. During tax time, personal accountants are even occasionally thrust into the role of psychiatrist, as stressed-out clients unburden both business and personal concerns.

Public vs. private accounting

The accounting industry is typically divided into two segments: public accounting and industry accounting. Public accounting involves working for an accounting firm that provides accounting and tax advisory services to client companies. Depending on the accounting firm, these clients may be large corporations, regional businesses, small companies, or individuals. Industry accounting refers to work for a non-accounting company as a staff accountant. Because accounting staff work in many areas within a company (such as treasury and corporate finance, financial reporting, cost accounting, internal audit, and business development), the potential job responsibilities for an industry accountant vary, especially when compared to a public accountant's role. There is also the chance of moving from public to private accounting or within the many sectors of public accounting. More rare, however, is finding someone who has made the switch from private to public accounting. Many accounting jobs are also available withing all levels of government. Regardless of whether one chooses to be a public or private accountant, one thing is certain -- come tax time you can kiss your spouse and kids goodbye and shack up at your job.

The Big Five

In the public accounting world, many accountants work for large professional services firms which in addition to accounting offer services such as management and IT consulting, financial advisory services, and even legal advice. Those with a true familiarity with the modern accountant think of young, driven individuals with a working knowledge of many key business functions. The large international accounting firms (the "Big Five") today call themselves "key business advisors," who do more than file regulatory documents and double-check the arithmetic on company financial sheets.

For the modern professional, the changing face of accounting means the chance to analyze and influence corporate strategies, evaluate new business opportunities, and develop a wide set of business skills. In addition, the robust economy has led to the development of many new businesses, all requiring accountants to keep track of their books or their treasure troves of VC funds.

Career Path  

The traditional title groupings that most large accounting firms use are as follows:

  • Staff. Usually has one to three years of professional experience. Responsibilities include performance of detailed audit work and completion of many of the administrative tasks surrounding an audit.
  • Senior. Usually has two to five years of professional experience. Main responsibilities include audit planning, supervision of audit staff and communication of those results to clients' managers and partners. As the primary "workhorses" of an audit, many long-term public accountants describe working more hours at this level of responsibility than at any other.
  • Manager. Responsible for overall client planning and interaction. Managers are required to identify opportunities for partners to sell new work as well as to oversee engagements at a macro level, while leaving the details to the senior. Tenure at the manager level is entirely dependent on the firm and the individual's position within a firm. The first partnership-level opportunity arises, at the earliest, after about five years.
  • Partner. The main role of the partner is that of a rainmaker, maintaining relationships with clients. Younger partners tend to be more sales-oriented.


Uppers  

Potentially high salaries;Partnership opportunities;Multiple career options;Wide variety of clients

Downers  

Long hours;High stress level;Possibility of burdensome travel

Personality Match  

Anal;Analytical

Personality Miss  

Creative;Disorganized

Hours  

Average 50+ hours per week

Salary  

First-year staffperson: $30,000 to $36,000 (depending on market and level of experience);Senior: $30,000s to the low $50,000s;Manager: high $40,000 to $100,000+

Skills  

Bachelor's degree in Accounting;150 hours of coursework for CPA certificate;CPA exam training

Our Survey Says  

The Big Five firms are becoming "less stuffy and hierarchical" than they used to be, "given the high turnover" and the "infusion of new blood" into the industry. Still, as one Big Five senior manager says, "I found public accounting to be a rigid and appearance-focused environment with many unwritten rules regarding mannerisms and work styles. However, I found this to be similar to many of the large corporate clients which I worked with during my tenure."

The merging of accounting with consulting at many firms has done much to polish the image of accountants," and they are becoming as "respected as investment bankers." The job requires "monster hours," but many employees are being offered "flexible hours policies" in exchange for outstanding performance." The job can be a "pressure cooker," and one auditor cites "being welcomed as warmly as a dental surgeon" as a still-prevalent attitude towards accountants. The accounting industry is a "dynamic" and "evolving" one, and the typical accountant is an "achiever" who is prepared for "hard work and long days." The training at the entry level is "intense but effective," and many accountants cite their "grueling beginnings" as "invaluable" learning experiences. "People joke about accountants," one quips, "and we laugh--all the way to the bank."

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