What I Did with My Degree: Adventures in Accounting
In 2002, I graduated from a small public college with a bachelor's degree in finance. Coming out of school during a recession was a difficult thing to do. The only job I could find was in sales. I quickly decided to return to school and pursue a master's degree in accounting.
I hoped to secure a stable position using financial analysis and to work in a corporate setting. I wanted a stable income with benefits. In school, public accounting is the profession of choice for almost all accounting graduates, and that is the direction that my professors pushed me as well.
With the Sarbanes-Oxley Act increasing the oversight of publicly-traded companies, the demand for accounting majors increased significantly. When I graduated with my advanced degree in 2005, the economy had recovered and the accounting industry was experiencing a boom. All of my classmates found a position somewhere. I ended up at one of the Big-4 Accounting firms.
As an entry-level auditor, my role was to learn the audit profession and study for the CPA exam. Entry-level auditors are often required to do the simple jobs that have a low-risk audit approach, including audit procedures over accounts such as cash, fixed assets, loans or inventory.
Challenges on the job
An auditor must be prepared to meet and work with many different types of people. Oddly enough, introverts are usually drawn to the accounting profession, but in public accounting, you are forced to talk to people every day. Some clients will use aggressive tactics to try and manipulate you into giving them what they want. Other clients will use flattery to win you over. In rare cases, a client will shift purposely to different strategies, one day being pleasant and agreeable and the next day hysterical and angry. It is a completely new experience.
One of my biggest goals in my first year was to pass the CPA exam. The pass rate on the exam is approximately 50 percent per exam window. I took one exam per offering time slot and studied for the next section while awaiting my scores. I was disappointed when I did not pass all of my exams on the first try, though very few candidates pass all sections the first time. (In fact, some of my supervisors in public accounting had not passed the exam, even with five years of working experience.) Passing the CPA exam increases the possibility of promotion and gives you more options if you want to leave your firm.
As an auditor, I performed over 30 inventory observations, some of which occurred on New Year's Eve. These observations usually take place at the end of a company's fiscal year. My first observation involved watching a full retail store inventory count at a national chain that eventually went bankrupt. Other assignments included observing inventory counts over a one-million-gallon diesel fuel tank, a grain silo for chicken feed, a supermarket chain and batches of chemicals at a manufacturing plant. On each of these visits, I was the only representative of my firm on site -- which can be nerve-racking for recent college graduates.
Climbing the ladder
After two years in public accounting, it is normal to be promoted. After promotion, you usually run an audit team in the field. You will be expected to collect evidence and document the audit according to your firm's standards. I ended up as the senior on a small publicly-traded telecommunications company. After participating in both large- and small-company audits, it's my opinion that small-company audits are more stressful because the scope of work differs dramatically and the number of deliverables per team member increases. This is because the audit fees are smaller but the required documentation is the same.
In public accounting, you may be expected to travel frequently because you typically work at your client's corporate location. My main client was a three-hour trip from my home. I spent one quarter of my time with this client and decided that I needed to make a change when my wife became pregnant with our first child.
Public vs. private
When you leave public accounting, expect to take a step down in terms of responsibility and a step up in compensation. In public accounting, I managed a team of four people on audits, but in the private sector, I became a staff accountant, managing myself. With this change, my salary increased about 10 percent. The extra compensation makes up for the expected loss of career advancement opportunities.
In my new position, I learned new skills for more advanced financial reporting. My company sent me to several software conferences to learn SQL Server, SQL Reporting Services and techniques to manage our accounting software. I used search engines to increase my understanding of programming and managing processes within our accounting system. My previous hobbies included Web page programming with PHP, which I have also used to enhance processes in my current position.
If you are a recent college graduate, one of your biggest strengths will be your technical skills and knowledge of gadgets and computers. Use these skills to further your career.