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Accounting Career Conundrums: The Path to Becoming an International Accountant of Mystery

This week, a newb discovers GC and solicits career advice. Which is pretty much every day around these parts. If you just happened to Google the right combination of words to land in our lap and need career advice, first please look around a little to see if your question has already been asked. Then, if you’re sure you are a special little flower in need of insight, you can email us for help.

Dear Going Concern Editors,

I just stumbled across your website yesterday and must say I really enjoy the blunt and somewhat irreverent glimpse into the world of public accounting. I was hoping you might be able to give me some brief advice on my atypical situation. Sorry if this is a bit long or rambling.

I am trying to do decide on whether to enroll in an MBA or graduate accounting program. I have been accepted in what is widely recognized as the #1 accounting grad program as well as one top 10 and one top 25 MBA program.

Background: 30 yrs old; California native

Originally I had always been aiming for a foreign affairs position in the U.S. State or Defense Department. I received my BA in International Relations from a top 10 LAC, I then went to work in China immediately after graduation to build solid international experience and Mandarin language proficiency (1 year teaching English, 4 helping managing international exchange programs for a top Chinese University). I then returned to the U.S. and completed a 2 year IR related M.A. at one of the HYP schools.

The problem is, because of sequestration and other issues, federal hiring continues to collapse (especially DOD) even as the rest of the economy starts to claw its way back. I have passed the Foreign Service exam and expired off the hiring list once already because not enough new positions opened up.

I have decided to refocus on the private sector and try to enter the world of business. However, my research focus was international security rather than international economics and I have almost no business related coursework apart from a couple undergrad econ courses. An top  2 year MBA program seems like a good way to gain some private sector bona fides, but because I have no business or U.S. work experience, it seems like there would still be some uncertainty in terms of employment outcomes (coupled with a massive amount of debt).

On the other hand, the accounting MA could be completed in about a year and would give me specific technical proficiency in an in demand field. The recruiting process is also fairly straightforward and it seems I would be almost guaranteed a job and halfway decent starting salary (important because I have a wife and baby). My goal would be to aim for a position where I could gain specialization in international taxation within a few years. Long-term I would hope to work for a multinational with operations in China or a Chinese company expanding into the U.S.

An MBA seems like it would offer more diverse job and salary opportunities but with the possible risk that I might still struggle to find employment. A top accounting MA seems like it would guarantee a job but I worry about finding opportunities to use my language and international experience. I also wonder if being 31 and having a HYP grad degree would be a positive or negative with public accounting recruiters.

What do you think?


Dear Overachiever,

Damn, boy, you’ve done a lot in your life and have big dreams. I am impressed. If I was your coach, I would not tell you what I think and instead would support you to get clear on what you really want out of life. Read the next few paragraphs if you are open to some coaching. If not, skim to the end of this message and there I will tell you what I think.

From coach, I invite you to take a step back and get clear on the big picture and what you want to create for yourself and for your family.

For yourself, take sometime to reflect on these questions: What is the dream job? What got in the way of letting go of the foreign affairs vision? So what if positions started drying up. Where did you stop? What are the elements of a career that you can’t live with and can’t live without? How do you see yourself weaving in your language and international experience? How many more certifications and/or degrees will it take for you to feel smart enough? (And I put that out there will love and respect from one certification whore to another.) What will be the emotional cost of playing it safe?

For your family: What work fills you up? What work drains you? The answers to these questions relate to your family because daddy isn’t going to feel like a man or a provider if the Man at work is sucking out his soul. Do you want to raise a family that travels the globe all the time or do you see yourself living in ‘Merica with a white picket fence for a few chapters of your life?

Now on to the advice: I believe that people who live in foreign cultures are attracted to excitement, adventure, and enjoy opportunities to get outside their comfort zone. Accounting is not exciting, even an Elijah Watt Sells award winner knows that. My sense is the years between a masters in accounting and that gig with a multinational with operations in China or a Chinese company expanding into the U.S would bore you to death.  I can almost envision you asking your colleagues if they have seen your stapler. However, if you want to be settled and play house here in the US for a few years, maybe it would be a good bridge.

Your request was whether you should enroll in an MBA or an accounting program. If you want to play it safe, the MA in accounting program is likely a guaranteed j-o-b that can parlay into something exciting a few years out. Since you asked, recruiters will care less about your fancy HYP degree and more about your accounting GPA and your ability to communicate. An expensive MBA likely has a solid alumni connection and recruitment opportunities.  If you go that route, I would inquire about which companies recruit from the school and what, if anything, the school does to support your international dreams. When I did my masters, I went to Thailand, Spain and China twice as part of my studies. Make sure the program will match you and your aspirations. There are also many cost effective business schools that could accompany your HYP and solid experience thus far. Although my sense is anything less would be uncivilized.

You’ve got big dreams and loads of ambition. Based on what you have done so far, I have no doubt that you will reach any goal that you set for yourself. The year of the horse begins on Friday. Saddle up and figure out where you are headed. Gong Hey Fat Choy.