Thoughts

Why You Should (Probably) Avoid Public Accounting

Shawshank - In the Rain

I’m a CPA with a Master’s degree in accounting.  And I’m truly glad that I understand how to read financial statements, prepare a tax return, and manage and invest my own money.  I’m even more glad that I don’t work in public accounting anymore.

Looking back, I originally liked the idea of a career in public accounting — good job prospects, decent pay, a steady and predictable career path, educated co-workers, transferable skills (geographically/across industries), and intellectually interesting work.

But the reality didn’t even come close to living up to what I had hoped for.  My time in public accounting wasn’t enjoyable; it was something to be endured.  Tolerated.  I kept telling myself, “Suck it up.”  “It could be worse.”  “Just take it one day at a time.”  “You’ve come this far.”

Yet no matter how much I tried to pump myself up, it always felt like a grind.

Reality Set In

Office worker collapsed on desk

Eventually, I realized this wasn’t how I wanted to live my life.  After each brutal tax season, I would swear this was the last one.  But I kept getting lured back by the decent salary, the inertia of incremental career advancement, and my own protective amnesia that set in once the tax season ended — I would rationalize that I was just being dramatic about how much I didn’t like it.  Was it really so bad?

Then I would do it all over again: I’d sidle up to my familiar triple monitors, my ten-key, my Excel spreadsheets.

10-Key

And regret would instantly wash over me.

It wears thin daydreaming about what you’d rather be doing every single day at work, looking around the office and wishing you could be literally anywhere else.  Envying the cleaning crew at night because you’d happily trade places.  Hating the morning drive to the office because you know what’s waiting for you there — the Same. Old. Shit.

I spent my lunch hours developing detailed plans and fantasies about how to super-charge my savings.  I wanted to optimize my investment strategies in hopes of retiring early and then being able to finally do something I enjoy with my life: to build up enough “FU” money to give public accounting the middle finger and walk away peacefully into the sunset.

The upshot to all this is that I learned a ton about investing, personal finance, and how to obtain financial freedom.  Hating what you do for a living is a powerful motivator.

The other upshot is that I’m finally out.  I’ve escaped.  And I feel way happier, healthier, and more excited about what I do each day.  I just wish I would have gotten out of public accounting way sooner.

So, if you’re on the fence…

Here’s why you should probably Quit Public Accounting or just Avoid It Altogether:

1) It’s Soul-Crushing Work

When you’re on the outside, you want in.  But once you’re in, you realize nearly everyone wants out.

Whether you choose audit or tax, you’re in for a boring, stultifying ride.  I chose tax.  And I spent my first month in public accounting shell-shocked in my cubicle, looking around in disbelief thinking, “Is this it?  Is this what I worked so hard for in school?  Holy shit, how am I going to bring myself to spend each day doing this?”

Silhouette crumbling

It’s even worse in the beginning.  Because on top of the work being boring, you don’t even know how the hell to do it.  Most training programs, at least in my experience, are woefully inadequate for new employees no matter which company you end up working for.

I had a shiny diploma proudly declaring to the world that I was a Master of Taxation — I got nearly straight-A’s in college, won a few accounting scholarships, wrote in-depth research papers on inscrutable portions of the tax code.  And yet, here I was in my first few months on the job fumbling my way through basic 1040’s and low-level corporate returns.  I was too slow, review notes piled up, and every new assignment filled me with doubt and dread.

That was a gut check.

It was demoralizing.  I was embarrassed by how little I actually knew about accounting — in the real world.

Slowly and painfully I inched my way up the steep learning curve and found my groove.  Concepts clicked. I became more confident navigating the tax software.  And I could methodically work through complicated corporate tax returns quickly and accurately.  I understood how everything flowed.

But you know what?  Even as my knowledge and proficiency blossomed, I still found it all incredibly dry and boring.  I kept wondering, “When does this get interesting?”

To be sure, there were brief interludes of “a-ha” moments and flashes of “hey this isn’t so bad.”  But for me, the answer was, essentially, never: The job never got interesting enough to live up to my expectations, at least not in a way that ever made me happy to spend eight hours a day (minimum) doing it.  No accounting or tax concept, in and of itself, is overly difficult to grasp; it’s more a matter of mental fortitude and grit in the face of monotony.

Do you have the ability to focus on something that’s almost designed to induce overpowering boredom?

If you made it far enough to get a job in public accounting then I’m sure you can harness the intense concentration necessary to succeed.  But it comes at a price for most people: your soul.  As in, your vitality, your zest for life.  Your humanity is depleted, eroded, and replaced by arcane tax and accounting rules that calcify over time.  You think I’m joking?  Go talk to a handful of lifelong accountants and report back to me on how charismatic and happy they seem.

Now, the real question is: Were they always this way or did accounting cause this?  See next point.

2) It’s Not for Most People

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that certain people are actually built for public accounting.  I’ve met them.  They’re a different breed.  I’ve silently studied these “true” accountants and marveled at their ability to absorb every negative thing public accounting throws at them  — all with a big, toothy grin on their face:

You want us to crank up our work-weeks to 70 hours minimum?  No problem, boss — I love this stuff!

You have a really difficult client that’s unresponsive, demanding, and didn’t fill out the Tax Organizer we sent them?  Awesome, gimme that!  I’ll get to the bottom of it and put pressure on ‘em til we get what we need.

I think I’ll just stay late tonight and put in a few extra hours to get a jumpstart on tomorrow.  Oh, and I’ll be the first one here in the morning too, of course — wanna bang out a few extra tax returns.  Hoo-ahh!

“Why would anyone complain about a career like this?” they wonder.

Accountant "thumbs up"

These people live, breathe, eat, and sleep accounting.  They’re the accounting equivalent of Ultra-marathoners in a world of 5K bumper stickers.

They have a natural advantage over everyone else.  Public accounting willingly becomes the central, primary focus of their lives.  They’re impervious to burnout and they don’t mind the extra hours because work is where they want to be.  They have an extremely high stress tolerance.  And they’re genuinely happy devouring any and all manner of esoteric accounting minutiae that will allow them to one day become a “subject matter expert.”

Or, if they don’t go the “expert” route, they’re at least technically proficient enough to keep advancing, year after year, until they get a chance to bring in clients of their own.  These types are just okay at the nuts-and-bolts of accounting, but they demonstrate a superior sales ability and become “rainmakers” capable of generating enormous amounts of new business (and revenue) for the firm.  They’re also typically far better than average at playing the game of office politics.

Now, take a moment to reflect — and be honest with yourself.  Do any of the above descriptions apply to you?

If they do, then bravo!  You might actually have what it takes to thrive in public accounting.  Stick with it — you might be a big-shot partner one day.

However, if these descriptions don’t apply to you (and they won’t for most people), then you’re probably not going to enjoy public accounting.  Sure, you might grit your teeth, buckle down and make it to the manager level (or even the senior manager level if you’re a stubborn masochist).  But you won’t thrive the way someone who is truly built for this will.  It’ll be drudgery for you.  Trust me.  I mistakenly thought I’d prove to be the exception to the rule.  And I wasn’t.  I was just more grist for the mill — someone who finally came to the realization that, “nope, this is definitely not for me.”

3) It’s Not Intellectually Fulfilling

When I was in college and grad school, I spent a lot of time studying managerial accounting, information systems, tax, and auditing.  But I also spent time focusing on philosophy, entrepreneurship, corporate finance, literature, investing, and keeping up with current events and politics.  And amidst all that, I still had the spare time and mental energy to read for fun, engage in thought-provoking discussions with friends, and pursue other unrelated intellectual endeavors.

The Thinker

This all went right out the window once I was full-time in public accounting.  There’s so much to learn at first that you’re way too worn out and overwhelmed by the time you get home to want to do anything requiring brain power.  Plus, you probably have to start studying for the CPA exam, which takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort.

Life Post-CPA

Then, once you’ve become a CPA and are fairly comfortable with how to do your job, it never gets much more intellectually interesting (at least it didn’t for me).  Everyone is so focused on deadlines, meeting clients’ needs, billable hours, and keeping people above and below them off their back, that there’s little time left for deeper thinking.

Sure, you can run a tax projection and tell clients how much contributing to an IRA or 401(k) will change their tax liability.  Or you can advise a company that owns real estate to look into the benefits of a cost segregation study.  Or you can quantify the implications of a new tax rule for someone’s particular situation.

But at the end of the day, preparing a tax return or completing an audit is just not all that fulfilling.  Once you do a few hundred tax returns in a busy season, you realize there’s a big difference between something being mentally demanding and intellectually fulfilling.  Completing a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle (with a handful of pieces missing) is mentally demanding; coming up with an innovative solution to a problem is intellectually fulfilling. Maybe it’s different at the highest levels, but for the most part, public accounting involves a lot of the former and not much of the latter.

Let’s put it this way, no one ever looks over an accountant’s work and goes, “Wow, this tax return was filled out brilliantly.”  Or “Whoa, this audit team really audited the hell out of this company; that’s one well-deserved unqualified opinion.”

4) Your Relationships Suffer

There’s only so much time in a day.  And maintaining relationships requires at least some amount of quality time with the people you care about — your significant other, your children, your best friends, your family, your pets, whoever.  It’s hard to squeeze it all in when work becomes all-consuming.

Businessman alone on boat

So you better hope you like your co-workers and bosses, because you’re going to be seeing them more than anyone else in your life for a while.

I once overheard a tax partner tell someone during lunch that his teenage kids were emancipated from him.  Multiple other partners were on 3rd and 4th wives, or they had spouses who literally lived in a second house in another state.

Family, friends, relationships — these things end up becoming lower priorities than work if you’re not careful.  Most public accounting firms pay lip service to work-life balance, but it’s up to you to set the boundaries and actually protect your non-work time.  Companies will happily take advantage of your perfectionism and Type-A, workaholic tendencies if you let them.

The public accounting default “work-life balance” equation:

Work = Life.  

There.  Solved it for you —now it balances.  Get back to work!

And even though I was fully aware of this and did my best to keep it in check, during busy season I would still come home completely drained and not want to do much.  My free time usually consisted of me wandering around exhausted and stressed out in a dazed stupor.  I wasn’t exactly my “best self.”  Luckily, my wife understood.  But be forewarned, it can be quite the challenge to maintain a healthy social life outside of public accounting.

5) Time Sheets

They’re terrible.  No matter how long I worked in public accounting, I always hated having to keep track of my time in fifteen minute increments.  I know the conventional wisdom is that they’re necessary for billing purposes, and lawyers track their time in a similar fashion, and really, what’s the big deal?

Well, I simply loathe them.  It’s like having Big Brother’s thumb on your head all day making you stress and worry about how you’re spending each precious moment on behalf of the company.  And most people would just cheat or guess how long they spent on each task anyway.  Or they would “eat hours” (e.g. actually work for 11 hours, but only input 8 hours) to look better and more efficient come their annual performance review.

And at the height of busy season, as much as I hated the damn time sheets, I would begin to internalize them.  I automatically began chunking my day into these 15-minute blocks even when I got home — watched TV: 0.75 hours; prepared and ate dinner: 0.50 hours; vented to wife about stressful day: 2.25 hours.

Clock-face over silhouette

Not.  Cool.

6) It’s Bad for your (Mental and Physical) Health

Public accounting doesn’t exactly have much going for it if you’re into living a healthy lifestyle.  With long hours, lots of stress, unforgiving deadlines, office politics, lack of sleep, junk food in the break room, endless coffee and energy drinks, fast food at your desk, sitting and staring at screens all day — you have to be very disciplined and assertive to counteract the myriad forces conspiring against you.

I’ve always been into health and fitness, and I could never quite reconcile my desire to maintain healthy habits with being successful in public accounting.  Something always had to give.  And it was usually my health — it took a backseat to the demands of the job.

Planned workouts became increasingly sporadic.  I treated myself to high-calorie lunches at nearby restaurants as an excuse to get out of the office.  My eyes always felt strained and tired from staring at screens, spreadsheets, and tax forms all day long.

Then there was the mental toll.  The stress.  I admit that I have an absurdly low stress threshold compared to most people.  It’s just the way I’m wired.  And the varied pressures of a tax season would inevitably cause my anxiety levels to creep up and stay elevated.  My mind would start spinning.  I would ruminate about all the work I had to get done, the rigid deadlines I had to meet, the relentless pace that would be required for months at a time.

Public accounting affects people in mysterious ways.

After a while, I literally started dreaming about spreadsheets and tax returns at night.  How pathetic is that?

And as the tax season wore on, my anxiety would give way to depression, and I could feel my mental health faltering.

Mercifully, once the tax season was over, things typically normalized and I’d regain a healthier balance again.  But this unhealthy cycle is baked into the very nature of public accounting.

Jack Nicholson in The Shining

I’ve seen people cry, have meltdowns, shout at co-workers, turn into abusive assholes (there was a stapler-throwing incident), or get fed up and spontaneously rage-quit.

I remember one senior manager who literally looked like he was dying for months on end — bags under his eyes, ashen face, a deep hacking cough, nervous tics, a thousand-yard stare, always sweating — but he worked brutally long hours every day anyway in hopes of making partner.  (And in case you’re wondering, he did eventually become a partner.  But it was a pyrrhic victory: Who knows how many years he shaved off his life reaching for that brass ring.)

So, ask yourself: Are you truly the kind of person who can handle — or who even wants to handle — this lifestyle?

Only you can answer that.  But if you come to realize, sooner or later, that public accounting is not for you, don’t beat yourself up too bad.

You’re decidedly not alone.

 

9 Comments on “Why You Should (Probably) Avoid Public Accounting

  1. Graduated in May. Job offer with big 4 starting in January. Currently studying for CPA. Tough spot because I can’t just back out now without ever actually starting (bad look.) Thoughts/recommendations?

    1. So you are having doubts before you even start? That is a bad sign. Well, IMO, if you are fairly certain that this is not what you want to do, the “bad look” is not necessarily the biggest thing. If you have another direction you are interested in, it may be better to start to gain experience in that field. The business degree, with accounting background, does lend itself to certain management type positions.

      If you do decide to give it a try, do not post any negativity on any of web/social sites with a username that can be traced back to you. It can backfire. Don’t know your situation, student loans, etc, but may need the steady income for a while, and can give it a try while your at it. Just as long as you have any doubts keep an exit plan in mind and best not to stay past 2-3 years if you still have doubts. Meantime learn some more about yourself, and figure out what you may want. If nothing else your experience at a larger firm may give you a leg up if you want to opt out of bigger firm rat race and find a smaller firm with more of a life balance(less money, more free time).

  2. It’s personality. Not everyone’s personality is really built for it, regardless of their aptitude. I would gather the author of the article is INTP, mainly because I can thoroughly relate to what they are saying. Except it’s not as much the job as their fit to it. The thing is the job is highly geared towards the highly task oriented, detail oriented people. Some problem solving skills are needed, but deep thinking is not an attribute that is helpful in the field for the most part, it can often be a hindrance after several years when the work becomes so routine. I’m sure there are INTPs who are more built for it, but their P and J are likely more balanced, and likely also their N and S. If your T and F are more balanced, it likely makes it harder.

    There is nothing wrong with the people who it is their thing, who love it. They just chose the right career for themselves. I know many of them and they are great people, funny at times, and don’t have any of the issues we may have with it.

    The tricky thing that he alluded to is that it seems like a fit at first. There is a theory to learn, there is some challenge, etc. But not unlike a lot of jobs, for many of us the grind becomes the main challenge as the years go by.

  3. Hi I’m about to graduate with an accounting degree. I only have an internship at a CPA firm and want out already. Would you recommend private auditing or accounting instead? I love the accounting theories I learn in class because they’re mentally challenging and stimulating, but was very disappointed at the real world job.

    1. Public accounting is a great learning experience and you get involved in more industries than you ever thought you would. Besides that its pretty awful. Find a large private company with good benefits and good people. You will likely make the same money and it will be a much better culture. I went back to public accounting because I missed the variety and challenge after a year, now I realize its more stress than anything. Trust your gut, nothing is set in stone, value your own happiness above all else.