The Career Path Guide for Accounting Professionals

When you start out as a public accountant, the finance and accounting world is your oyster. You have your pick of top career paths­ if you strategize appropriately. The key is to make every career move with your long-­term goal in mind. Maybe you already know what your dream job is and you just want to learn how to get there. Or, like a lot of people, you’re unsure of what you want to do in the future. You don’t have to have it all figured out when you start as a public accountant, but you should expose yourself to as many projects and departments as possible to get a sense of what interests you. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, make decisions that allow you to build on your experiences and strengths so you can leverage them later to get the job you want. Let’s take a look at some of the potential finance and accounting career paths you can follow, and what you need to do to get there.

Chief Financial Officer

CFOs must excel at every area of finance and there are various paths to achieving this long term goal. CFOs typically build the foundations of their career by 1) working in public accounting for 10 ­ 15 years, 2) working in a variety of FP&A roles at large, well established companies, or 3) working in investment banking or consulting for 10+ years. This foundational experience is usually followed by experience working for high growth and complex companies where they rotate through positions to learn the business.

“You don’t have to have it all figured out when you start as a public accountant, but you should expose yourself to as many projects and departments as possible to get a sense of what interests you.”

Once you’ve landed at a top organization, develop relationships with the right people to get on the CFO track. An MBA program also prepares you to take on a more strategic role. If you start your career in public accounting, consider pursuing your MBA to hone the necessary skills to become a CFO.

Controller for a Small Company or Startup

Small companies and startups value operational experience. Their accounting and finance departments tend to have minimal staff, and their CFOs don’t have time to train new controllers on how to close the book. They want someone with experience in budgets and forecasting, managing an operational accounting team, and doing systems implementations and process engineering. It’s very difficult to transition from public accounting into a controller position. We suggest moving to an operational accounting position after 3­6 years as a public accountant, and trying to get at least one year of managerial experience in during that time. Small companies and startups like to see operational experience at both small and large organizations, so consider working at both to bolster your credentials.

Controller at a Large Public Company

Big companies want to see strong technical accounting experience in candidates for controller positions. If this is the job you want, stay in public accounting until you get at least a year of management experience. Then look for a technical accounting position with a large company that allows you to rotate into an operational accounting role as well. You’ll need a background in both to qualify for a controller job.

Financial Planning & Analysis

We often hear from public accountants that they’re interested in FP&A positions because they want to take on a strategic and forward­-looking role. However, the FP&A opportunities available straight out of public accounting are often focused only on budgeting and forecasting rather than strategy. Talk with your clients’ FP&A department, and ask friends in these positions to describe what exactly they do. Research the different focuses an FP&A position can take, and ask about the specific responsibilities before you apply for a job in this area. Also find out how well­-regarded or poorly perceived the finance department is within a given company, as that is an important indicator of the quality of the job. Transitioning from public accounting to FP&A is challenging, but not impossible. You can leverage your public accounting job into an accounting role at a good company, and then use that as a springboard to a finance position. Alternatively, you can go to business school, then take a job in finance or investment banking. It’s very rare to go from a public accounting position directly into a finance job, so don’t be discouraged if it takes some time to get there. Good companies want to see at least two years of finance experience, so focus on building the right body of work to ultimately land an FP&A job.

Corporate Development/Mergers & Acquisitions

Corporate development jobs don’t exist for people who only have public accounting experience. If that’s the career path you would like to take, you need to transition out of that sphere after three years at the latest. Then use your public accounting experience to get a job with a good company From there, you can rotate into the corporate development division.

“Look beyond the glamour or excitement of different positions. Sure, being a CFO might seem like your dream job, but make sure that path aligns with your personal goals and values.”

If your goal is to work in mergers and acquisitions, make the most of your time in public accounting by rotating into your firm’s M&A department or transaction services group. You’ll get exposure to those jobs, and by excelling at your public accounting duties, you’ll create important relationships that will help you get onto the corporate track. You can also take the business school route, earning your MBA and working in finance or investment banking as a path toward corporate development or mergers and acquisitions.

Choosing a Career Path

When deciding which professional route you want to take, look beyond the glamour or excitement of different positions. Sure, being a CFO might seem like your dream job, but make sure that path aligns with your personal goals and values. Ask yourself the following questions to take a bigger picture look at the career you’re considering:

1. What industry captures your interest?

You need to figure out what drives you, then look for opportunities to support your passions. For instance, if you want to work for a biotech company that helps improve people’s lives, you’ll need relevant work experience in that field. All of your career moves should center around getting the necessary expertise to land a job in your sector of choice.

2. Do you value flexibility and travel?

A lot of people enjoy accounting but are turned off by the idea of working long hours and being tied to an office. Consulting affords you the opportunity to do work you love while retaining the flexibility to travel and pursue other interests. At BVOH Finance & Accounting Search, we offer consulting opportunities that allow accountants to work for three months, travel for six, then come back for another three­-month project. Consulting is a great way to achieve work- ­life balance.

3. Are you considering a career switch?

I started out as a public accountant, then took my career in an entirely new direction after I realized accounting wasn’t for me. I’ve built a 15-­year career in recruiting, which I love. If you’re interested in pursuing a new career path, such as sales, you can frame your public accounting skills as assets in your new position. And if you’re interested in recruiting, BVOH is currently hiring outgoing, energetic finance and accounting professionals who are looking for a career change.

Working with a Recruiter

Building a relationship with a recruiter by your second year in public accounting significantly boosts your chances of landing the job you want. Recruiters don’t just shop your résumé around; they learn about your personality, values, and strengths. Once they know the professional path you want to take, they look out for those jobs that best suit you. Our recruiters become part of our candidates’ mentor networks, informing them of what opportunities are out there and helping them grow professionally. Recruiters serve as important allies for job seekers. Long­-term strategizing is essential for building a rewarding, stimulating career. Once you know your interests and lifestyle priorities, you can choose a professional path that suits you and make decisions that will take you where you want to be.

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