Leaving Public Accounting? Here’s What to Look for in Your Next Job

People leave public accounting for a number of reasons, but chief among them is a desire to do something new and take on a more challenging role. That’s why there’s nothing more sad than seeing ambitious professionals leave one sector only to languish in another. 

I’ve witnessed this time and again. Accountants stop building their technical expertise when they take a new job, or they jump at positions that offer a high salary and sexy title but little in the way of professional development. 

Others become complacent, and they stop building their professional networks, don’t seek out challenges, and fail to connect with people who are doing innovative work. But you don’t have to fall prey to this career kiss of death! By taking a holistic view of your job options, you can make smart, empowered choices about the companies with which you work. 

How Do You Know When It’s Time to Leave Public Accounting?

Changing jobs can be tough. How do you know when the time is right? Is your itch to move on just a passing feeling, or is leaving public accounting the best option for you? 

When work becomes a low-energy, boring, going-through-the-motions experience, it’s time for a self check-in to see what’s really going on. It may not be that you’re miserable and hate your job, but you’re just not feeling passion and interest in a way that you did before. 

Also, take a look at your recent conversations: 

  • Have you asked your boss for new clients or to move to a new industry group? If so, it could be that audit work itself is the issue — not the clients or the industry. It could be that you’re looking for work that better fits your personality and interests. 
  • What conversations have you had with other people? Maybe you’ve found yourself in conversations with friends outside of public accounting about how much they like their work. Maybe you’ve had some discussions with coworkers about if they’ve considered leaving. Maybe you’ve even reached out to someone who’s already left. 

If you’re having these conversations and feelings, it’s time to consider leaving public accounting. By nature, accountants tend to be pretty conservative and risk-averse — which means they might stay in the job even longer because they don’t want to take a chance on something new. 

Do what you do best — evaluate the signs objectively. Ask yourself: 

How long have I been experiencing these feelings? One month? Six months?

Sometimes, feelings fade. But if the feeling of discontent isn’t passing with the season, you may be ready to consider leaving public accounting.

“By nature, accountants tend to be pretty conservative and risk-averse — which means they might stay in the job even longer because they don’t want to take a chance on something new.”

What do I like about my job? 

If the main thing you enjoy is the people you work with (not the job itself, the headspace you’re in, or fulfillment), that’s a major sign it’s time to move on. Everyone wants to like the people they work alongside, so dig a little deeper. Are you passionate about your day-to-day work duties?

What Are the Biggest Reasons People Leave Public Accounting?

Long hours during the busy season (especially with double busy-seasons) make it even more tempting to move on if you’re experiencing a lack of enthusiasm about your work. 

Other accounting and finance professionals may love the technical aspects of their work, but realize they don’t enjoy being a part of a large corporate entity. They feel they don’t fit into a big corporate-structured environment, so they may want to explore startups or professional service firms that operate with a structural different model. 

What to Look for In Your Next Job

Use the following criteria to assess whether or not a company will further your ambitions and deliver dynamic, fulfilling opportunities.

Look for Smart, Engaged Supervisors

The person to whom you report regularly can make or break your job experience. If you’re coming from public accounting, you want to work with a supervisor who understands what you did there. She’ll know how to accentuate your strengths and improve your weaknesses, and she’ll have a keen sense of the projects that suit your experience when you first join the team.

You don’t want to land at a company where the supervisor doesn’t value finance and accounting. Not only will you miss out on valuable mentorship opportunities, but you’ll probably find yourself doing boring work in a cramped back office. That kind of set­up is bad for morale and can cause career stagnation. Inquire about your immediate supervisor’s background. If she’s worked in accounting and finance or has a track record of hiring and developing CPAs, you’ve found a plum organization.

Research the Company’s Growth and Reputation

The finance and accounting industry in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area is small, so it’s not hard to research a company’s reputation. If few people have heard of the business or negative rumors are flying around, proceed with caution. When you interview at any company, talk with as many people as possible about the culture and workplace environment. A few good questions to ask:

  • Are employees happy here?
  • What is the turnover rate?
  • How many people stay longer than a year or two?
  • Where do people get hired after they leave this company?

The last question is an especially strong indicator of a company’s status. Well­-regarded businesses typically see employees move on to challenging roles at top companies. You want to know that this position fits into your desired career trajectory. Look for companies that have at least 5-10% annual growth. You want to work at a company on the rise, especially in your first job outside public accounting.

Leaving public accounting

Use Your Passion for the Industry

Here’s where you can really draw on the specialized knowledge you gained as a public accountant. If you have a lot of experience in asset management or a passion for consumer products or biotechnology, you can go after positions in these industries. 

Recruiters will help you find the right opportunities and present your experience in a way that works for the new job. At BVOH, we assist public accountants who want to move into a wide range of industries. If you’ve cultivated the right experience as a public accountant, you can use it to your advantage when you’re ready to take on a new role.

A Word About Startups

Startups offer exciting, challenging environments and fantastic finance experience. However, there are some advantages of working for a large company before joining a startup

Bigger organizations have larger finance departments, meaning there are greater opportunities for learning many skills and receiving valuable professional guidance. You’ll also learn about implementation strategies and standard best practices, which will help you if you join a startup later on. 

When you work with a more established company, you develop a broader network of contacts in financial planning and analysis, corporate development, and other areas. These contacts will help you land jobs in the future. 

If you still decide that the startup world is a better fit than a large corporation, consider the following questions to find the right opportunity.

Who Are the Investors?

Research their past investments and whether or not those were successful. Ask around about the investors’ philosophies and personalities. Their reputations and track records will speak for themselves.

Is the Company Well­-Funded and What Is Its Burn Rate?

Working for a startup can be incredibly thrilling, but it’s essential to understand the financial landscape and risks before you sign a contract. In some cases, the founders may say they have a year’s worth of capital, but when you look at the books, you find that there’s significantly less than that. 

Know how stable the company is and the likelihood of its success.

Who Will You Report To?

Again, it’s important to know your boss’ or manager’s background. A CEO who doesn’t have a background in finance won’t understand that if you’re coming from public accounting, you won’t have hands-on experience closing the books and will have a significant learning curve when you start. 

However, if you’re working under a controller who also has a public accounting background and can train you in operational accounting, that could be a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow your skills.

Prioritize Culture Over Compensation

A high salary and glamorous­-sounding title often lure public accountants into unfulfilling and stressful positions. Being well­ compensated is important, but you need to take a big picture approach to your job search if you’re leaving public accounting. 

“Always come back to your core career goals, and focus on the quality of the experience versus short­-term financial gain or ego gratification.”

Some of the best companies in the Bay Area don’t pay the highest salaries because they don’t have to. Their great reputation and admired cultures bring them the pick of the litter when it comes to job candidates. Working for one of them might mean taking less pay for a more enriching professional experience. 

Beware of companies that offer disproportionately high salaries. They may be compensating for a negative work environment, long hours, and poor work-­life balance. The same goes for impressive­-sounding titles. They matter less than your actual job duties, so don’t be swayed by the money and supposed power. 

Always come back to your core career goals, and focus on the quality of the experience versus short­-term financial gain or ego gratification. You’ll make more money and see more success long­-term if you take jobs that have integrity to your values and goals. 

Two Easy Steps for Leaving Public Accounting the Right Way (Without Burning Bridges) 

When it’s time to resign, there’s a right way to move on. 

Be “Short and Sweet” in Your Resignation, but Confident and Firm in Your Decision. 

Say, “I’ve accepted another offer. I’m ready for a new direction with my career.” This makes it more about you than about the firm. 

Express Gratitude and Positivity.

Show that you’re grateful for the opportunity and maintain a positive attitude. If you’re resigning to someone you directly work for, come to the meeting with a transition plan. If you’re resigning to a counselor at the firm, express gratitude for how they have invested in your personal growth and for what you’ve learned from the firm. 

The goal of this conversation is to “do right” by the person you’re resigning to.

Interviewing for an Industry Job

Public accounting and industry jobs are very different, and you can see that difference right at the very beginning — at the interview. 

First of all, when you interview with a public accounting firm right out of college, there are often as many as 50 open positions depending on the size of your start class. Your interviewer will most likely ask you standard questions about your education and your GPA, and why you chose to get into accounting.

“You don’t have to have it all figured out, and there’s room to pivot as you learn more about yourself and your passions.”

When you interview for industry jobs, you’ll find the environment to be much more competitive, and you’ll have to sell yourself. There’s only one open role. The questions will focus on your accounting knowledge, what you’ve learned, and how you can add value to the company. You don’t have the operations skills yet, so you have to convince them that you can learn their systems and procedures quickly. 

In addition to company research and interview prep, be sure that you know your own resume backward and forward. That may sound basic, but in an interview, people often have trouble articulating their skills well. Be sure that you can clearly and concisely describe what you have done in your work life up to that point. Rehearse talking about it, so that you have it fresh in your mind. 

Finally, remember to use specific examples. Generalities don’t give comfort to hiring managers that you can actually do the job.

Final Thoughts on Leaving Public Accounting

Whether you already have a 20-year plan or you’re still discerning your professional calling, prioritize your career development as early as your first job. You don’t have to have it all figured out, and there’s room to pivot as you learn more about yourself and your passions. By making conscientious choices at every step, you prepare yourself to take advantage of the right opportunities when they arise.

Note: This article was originally published in August 2015 and has been updated for accuracy.

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