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Careers in Public Accounting: Beyond the Big 4 and Other Biggest CPA Firms

Most students pursuing an accounting degree aspire to land an entry level public accounting position with one of the members of either the Big 4 (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) or of the other biggest CPA firms (Grant Thornton, BDO Seidman, McGladrey & Pullen LLP, Crowe Horwath LLP, Mayer Hoffman McCann P.C., etc). Although we all are entitled to dream big, the reality is the talent pool far outstrips the recruiting needs of these big accounting firms. To put this in perspective, according to BusinessWeek.com, KPMG has received over 24,000 entry level job applications for the current fiscal year however only 2,100 applicants have been hired so far. The point I am trying to make is you must cast a wider net over the pool of CPA firms you can potentially work for. There are scores of third tier firms that can provide you with a career as challenging and rewarding as the one you would expect from one of the biggest CPA firms.

I would love to throw a few CPA firms’ names out there, however I would rather have you do your own research then draw your own conclusions as to which CPA firms could constitute suitable alternatives to the biggest CPA firms. The objective of this post is to provide you with the tools to search for CPA firms that have enough scale to give you plenty of opportunities to build a successful career in public accounting. At the end of the day, what really matters is that you are the most successful you can be in whichever professional career you end up pursuing. The following is a listing of sources where you can find potential CPA firms that you can target in your job search.

1) Accounting Today 2011 Top 100 Accounting Firms(Comprehensive and interactive rankings of U.S. public accounting firms on a national basis, regional basis, by services, etc…you are going to love these rankings)
2) Top 100 Accounting Firms (This is an “unofficial” list maintained by James Cave, CPA. Although the list is unofficial, most of the CPA firms featured in it are indeed among the largest in the country)
3) Practical Accountant Magazine’s 16th Annual Survey of Regional Firms (This list is somewhat similar to the previous one. You get a regional breakdown of the public accounting industry)
4) Accounting Today 2010 Best Accounting Firms to Work for (The list is not very exhaustive but it can be beneficial to those of you who want to work for an accounting firm that promotes work/life balance)
5) INSIDE Public Accounting 2010 Top 100 Accounting Firms (This might be one of the most authoritative sources you will find on public accounting firms rankings. INSIDE Public Accounting  is “the only publication to report and analyze the news, strategies, trends and politics that affect the accountant, his firm and the profession”)

I hope these resources help you locate your next employer. As you pursue your search for an employment within public accounting, always keep in mind that you only can affect the level of success you can achieve.

20 Comments

  1. Comment by Big 4 Accounting Firms:

    Yea, I think the Top 100 accounting firms list is pretty helpful because sometimes the big 4 cpa firms just aren’t located in the city that you want to work in. Combing through the top 100 list shows the largest firms and what cities/regions they are located in. You can often also see which cpa firms are growing the fastest in case you want to grow with them.

  2. Comment by Bill Meador:

    I the posts that you have included cover at large portion of the larger accounting firms. But if someone want to get into a midsize or small firm then they need to take advantage of LinkedIn. It is simply the best way for an accountant to find someone they know personally or who has a contact at a firm that they want to work for. If anyone want additional help on using LinkedIn then visit me at my blog at https://profiles.google.com/102226550371121801684.

  3. Comment by CPA Beyond:

    Very informative post. I request you to please share more posts like this. Thanks for sharing this post.

  4. Comment by Brian Huber:

    I realize this is a blog post from a few years ago, Narcisse, but I have some information to add about accounting grads I’ve known recently who were dissatisfied with their career choices. They either had difficulty finding jobs or did not find audit work in the Big 4 suited them. Transitioning to the tax industry with a small local firm often delivers better alignment with an accountant’s character. This is why many CPAs start their own local practices that focus on tax matters. However, that requires some financial resources and business management skills. Younger accountants simply need experience at this level.

    Fortunately, smaller local accounting practices have difficulty filling staff positions. Work history in tax is obviously desired, but CPAs with substantial tax ability are also hired. A young CPA may need to brush up on tax subjects to have expertise for preparing all types of tax returns under supervision. I know a provider of an online CPA exam review course that also has tax courses for the Enrolled Agent exam. Passing the EA exam is much easier than the CPA exam and it’s focused on tax subjects. A free test bank of sample questions is available at http://fastforwardacademy.com/enrolled-agent-exam-prep.htm.

    I’ve advised several CPAs who were not happy in their careers about trying tax work. They all ended up enjoying the work at a smaller operation outside the Big 4 where they had contact with many interesting tax clients and situations.

    • Comment by Narcisse:

      Brian,

      Thank you for chiming in. You make a very good point. Your opinion is always valued. Let me know if you would like to guest post on this blog.

      • Comment by Brian Huber:

        Narcisse,

        Thanks for the invitation to provide a guest post on your blog. I’m working on a few pieces of personal correspondence to accounting students and newly licensed CPAs that I might expand into articles. Your blog seems like a better place for these than my blog, which is more aligned with helping established independent accounting practices grow into great successes.

        I make a living providing practice advisory services and staff training to tax practitioners. But I also give free consultation to accounting students and recent grads.

        I’ll probably need to get you any guest posts before January because I also work seasonally for several practices as a tax preparer. This helps me remain knowledgable about tax preparation as well as stay close to operational matters within the industry.

        You can email me at TheFinanceWriter@gmail.com

        Thanks!

  5. Comment by Lola:

    Do you have more great articles like this one?

  6. Comment by Albert:

    I like your post, I’m a student who just completed his CPA exams and would like to know if you can offer advice for someone trying to get their foot in the door? I’ve been applying and networking and not much progress seems to have taken place. Any feedback and advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • Comment by Narcisse Dansou:

      Albert:

      Thank you for your comment. Congratulations for passing the CPA exam! I must say that you are not alone in this situation. A friend of mine got a public accounting job three months after passing the CPA exam. Not knowing the specifics of your situation, it wouldn’t be wise for me to administer any particular advice. That said, I would recommend that you possibly rethink your job search strategy. Questions you might need to ask yourself or any trusted adviser would be: Does my resume need a makeover? Am I using the right tools to look for work? Are my salary expectations a little on the high side? Am I writing cover letters specific to each job I apply to? Do I need to expand my job search to other industries? Do I need to expand my job search to other cities, states…?
      Last but not least, never despair. You are always one submission away from getting that job.
      I wish you much success in your job search.

    • Comment by Albert:

      Thank you for the warm wishes and motivation Mr. Dansou. I’ll try to expand my job search and improve my resume and cover letter as you have mentioned. Hopefully something will come along soon. May I also request that I add you on my linkedin network? It would be a great honor.

      • Comment by Narcisse Dansou:

        Albert:
        You are very welcome and there is no need to refer to me by Mr Dansou, just Narcisse will be fine. I am very flattered by your LinkedIn invitation. However I am gonna have to take a rain check on this one. If you wish, you can follow Me/TheStudentCPA on Twitter or you can become a fan of TheStudentCPA’s Facebook page. If you wish to keep in touch with me, those would the two best ways to do it.
        Again, good luck with everything!

  7. Comment by Barbara Ayer, CPA:

    There are definitely both advantages and disadvantages to a career with the Big 4. As Sheila stated, the professional development opportunities are excellent. Training is typically sponsored by the company and completed during working hours. The disadvantages are the long partner track, “slave-style” working environment, and their tendency to pigeonhole professionals into a particular line of work. In my experience, a smaller firm can offer a more diverse range of assignments and a less-regimented career track.

    • Comment by Narcisse:

      Barbara:
      Thank you for taking the time to provide your very valuable insights. I like the fact that you were absolutely impartial in your remarks. I was hoping that this blog post would spark some good spirited debate. I thought all hope was lost when you and Sheila jumped in to make some pertinent remarks. Let’s hope many other groups members follow you and Sheila’s lead.

  8. Comment by Sheila [Moran] Keefe, CFE, CPA:

    Agreed. Big 4 experience is not necessary in having a satisfying accounting career. Big 4 firms are great. I worked at PWC for a couple of years. I also has the advantage of working for three other CPA firms in my travels. I can say that all the firms I worked for provided excellent oppportunities for professional development. The Big 4 have immense resources for research and development of proprietary practice manuals. However, there are other providers of practice materials available for regional and local CPA firms that allow all CPA firms provide quality work.

  9. Comment by Janice:

    It seems like the accounting firms have plenty of people sending in resumes for their co-op. But what I see is that after the co-op many of them do not want to stay in a CA firm because of the long hours of auditing. What can the firms do differently to keep these people engaged?

    • Comment by Narcisse:

      @Janice:

      Thank you for taking the time to submit a comment. There are a few things CPA/CA firms could do differently to improve employee retention. For instance, they need to have the audit teams large enough to complete the audits so that staffers don't find themselves stretched too thin too often. If the work is too much for the audit team to handle, the staffers are likely going to work a good amount of overtime (without additional pay) to have the work completed within very tight deadlines. CPA/CA firms might need to find ways to incentivize their staff. For example, compensating junior level and senior levels staffers for overtime work would be a good way to keep them motivated. What do you think?

    • Comment by Dernell:

      This piece was a like life jacket that saved me from drowning.

  10. Comment by Aprajita:

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