The Definitive Guide to Accounting as a Second Career

accounting as a second career

Ed. note: this article was originally published October 8, 2013. Despite its age it is still accurate for anyone thinking about a second career in accounting. We updated a few small details in June, 2022. You may contact the editor if you have any questions about the information below or would like more resources on accounting as a career, second or otherwise.

Since the whole 2008 financial collapse debacle, accounting has become a popular choice for a second career by many people who realized that their first had them going nowhere. Deciding to change careers when you’ve been out of school for a number of years takes guts. For starters, it’s a confession of sorts. You’re more or less admitting that you made a mistake. Or for those of you that live by the Bob Ross ethos, it was a “happy accident.”

But really, even if the last five to ten years of your career been excellent life experience, how often do you hear someone say, “I sure enjoy my uncertain job prospects, lower-than-average salary, and two roommates. I’ll bet I can do this well into my late 30s!”

What’s that? Never heard anyone say that?

Look, it’s cool. People change careers all the time and although no really knows how many times you’ll shift gears, life has a funny way of forcing you down different paths. Plus, since you’ll spend a lot your life working — sorry for the reminder — keeping an open mind about your career is smart.

We know you probably have many questions about changing gears at this stage in your life and we’ve created this guide on accounting as a second career to hopefully answer all of them. We hope you’ll read the whole thing but because this article is long (you have a lot of questions after all), here are some handy shortcuts to specific topics we’ve covered:

Without any further ado, let’s try to answer the question “is accounting right for you?” You being an adult with a couple (or perhaps many) years of job experience under your belt who is thinking about making the jump to accounting.

Why consider a second career in accounting?

Our guess is that you’re reading this post because you are interested in making accounting your second career and speaking entirely in generalities based on average outcome for all accounting graduates, that is a smart choice. Why? Well, there are all kinds of reasons including:

  • Better than average pay (over a lifetime*, that is)
  • The job outlook is good
  • It provides you with a flexible and transferable skill set

Now you’re saying, “That’s great and all, but is a career in accounting right for me?” Good question. Let’s try to figure that out first.

A career in accounting gives you options

The good news about choosing accounting as a second career is that it gives you a lot of choices. The list of jobs that accountants can have is endless: auditors, tax professionals, consultants, managerial, cost, financial, analysts of all kinds, etc. Public companies, private companies, small, large, and everything in between. Any good business will need an accountant; someone has to count the money, after all. But there are so many ways to count (i.e. account) for it; that’s why accountants enjoy near full employment. Even with bleak predictions about robots taking all the accounting jobs by the year 20-whatever accountants will always be in demand, professional judgment and client service will be difficult to automate even for the advanced AI scientists of 2077.

Are you good with numbers?

Right! The counting/accounting. For those who haven’t picked up on it, we’ll explain — there are lots of numbers in accounting. I know, you’re floored. If you aren’t a fan of numbers then I suggest you stop reading here, click on the ‘X’ in corner of your screen, and see yourself out. No judgment. We’ll wait.

Okay, now that we’ve completed weed-out, round one, we need to proceed with weed-out round two.

Just how many numbers are we talking about here?

Liking numbers in a math kind of way is not the same thing as liking numbers in an accounting kind of way. Every accountant we have ever known (it’s a lot) has a calculator on their desk. Lots of accountants suck at math. Lots of accountants got into accounting because they suck at math. If you are good at math, by all means, study math, become an engineer, invent some stuff. The world needs you. The accounting profession does not, though you’re welcome anyway, far be it from any of us to gatekeep.

Liking numbers is essential for a career in accounting; reading balance sheets, income statements (aka P/Ls), cash flow statements, 1040s, 1065s, 1120s, ledgers, journal entries, SPREADSHEETS THAT EXTEND INTO INFINITY, internal reports that have made-up names; you’ll have to make sense of all of them.

“No problem,” you might say, “I’m up for the challenge. Accounting is the language of business and I want to speak it. Just so long as I don’t have to talk to anyone else.”

Oop. About that.

Accounting is the language of business and you will have to speak

Communicating with your co-workers, clients, regulators, and anyone else that you may come across during your career as an accountant may be the most crucial skill you’ll need. And lots of young accountants start their careers with severe lack of effective communications skills, particularly writing skills.

“But I’m getting into accounting because I don’t write good!” you might say.

Uh huh.

One of the biggest cliches in the accounting world today is the importance of communication. “As an accounting professional, you must be able to convey complex information in terms that everyone can understand.,” says the American Institute of CPAs (the AICPA, Benevolent Overlords of the profession in the United States). Nearly ten years ago when this post was first written, the Maryland Association of CPAs put communication at the top of their Top 5 skills CPAs need now list. Communication remains a necessary skill for CPAs today.

Professors in some of the top accounting programs across the country say what they keep hearing from accounting firm recruiters, year after year, is that candidates lack the communication skills necessary to excel. (Lowercase excel, uppercase Excel is an entirely separate issue and competency in it is also in high demand)

What does all this mean for you, the non-traditional accounting student, the person taking another lap on the career track? It’s an opportunity, naturally.

If you have real-world experience of any kind — in a business setting or otherwise — you have real-world communication experience. You’ve probably had to drop what you’re doing to put out five-alarm fires without starting more of them all while massaging egos and not hurting feelings. Sometimes this is done over email, sometimes over the phone, but it’s not the type of skill you learn in a college classroom.

One annoying trait among fresh-faced recruits is their tendency to show off their smarts. They try to do this by writing long, elaborate emails that explain things in excruciating detail. If you’ve had ANY job that relies on email to a significant degree, you know that NO ONE has time for that. If you don’t get what I’m driving at, then here’s the only post on email you’ll ever need to read.

Here’s a quick list of some other attributes that you see in a lot of successful accountants, according to people who talk about these things (or that MACPA skills list we just linked above):

  • Flexibility
  • Leadership
  • Tech aptitude
  • Entrepreneurship

Now that you have an idea what a career in accounting is, let’s debunk some popular myths about accountants.

Busting myths you’ve heard about a career in accounting

Myth #1: You prepare tax returns — NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. Taxes are a common career path for many, but there are plenty of accountants who would rather chew broken glass than work with taxes.

Myth #2: You follow the markets/You’re a personal finance/investment advisor — We aren’t sure how some people get the impression that accountants are market experts, but it’s a misapprehension made by many. It’s not a bad way for a CPA to differentiate him/herself once a business is built, but investments/personal finance advice is NOT a primary knowledge base for accountants. [Ed. note: since this article was published in 2013 client advisory services has become the hot new thing in accounting practices and does involve a little bit of this, we have the technology to make it a lot easier on the CPAs providing these services to clients though]

Myth #3: Locked in an office, working long hours with a bunch of introverted nerds, little contact with the outside world, and thankless work — You’re picturing characters from Office Space aren’t you? Some combination of a frumpy, middle aged guy trapped in a dark, dingy basement. Or painfully bored people in grey cube farms.

Actually, there is some of that… but don’t despair! Every company needs accountants which means there is a wide variety of work environments, people, industries, and exposure to different elements of business. Plus, lots of tasks performed are value-add so there are plenty of grateful moments with clients and co-workers (some of them show it in funny ways, though). If you’re an auditor you might even get sent on a fun inventory count! Or at least you’ll get to see a roadside motel in Omaha and count widgets in the client’s dark, dank warehouse.

Running away scared yet? No? Good. Hang in there. The hard part is next.

What it takes to build a career in accounting

Okay you know what a career in accounting is and what it isn’t. So what will it take?

First things first — if you don’t have a degree in accounting, it’s likely that you’ll need to get one. In some rare cases you might be able to talk yourself into an accounts receivable/payable role, but those positions have limited career growth and earning potential (and some are also ripe for being automated out of the hands of flesh-and-blood humans by technology). You want options, remember?

The good news is, accounting is a widely offered degree so you won’t have to go far to find a school that has an accounting program. And unlike law school, the school you choose makes little difference. If you get a four-year degree, you’ll have the necessary background to get many, many accounting jobs.

That said, many, many accounting jobs do require previous experience and many, many people get their start in a public accounting firm. The advantages to starting your Plan B career in a public accounting firm are numerous, but the short version is that it will expose you to a variety of businesses which will, in turn, allow you to pursue a path that is of interest to you. We cannot emphasize that point enough — a career in accounting gives you options. LOTS OF THEM. The best way to maximize those options, IMHO, is to start out in public accounting. This means that you should seriously consider obtaining your CPA designation and this means having 150 credit hours to your name to qualify for it. Since this is a second-career post hopefully that’s not a problem, but it’d be remiss of us not to mention it.

Do not misunderstand, we are not saying — WE ARE NOT SAYING — that you must start in public accounting to have successful career in accounting. You will, however, be exposed to a number of different businesses and you will have the opportunity to understand various aspects of their operations, particularly if you work at a smaller public accounting firm. And the good news is there are small public accounting firms all over this great land, virtually in every city, hamlet, village, and one-horse town. This means your local D-III school degree will be perfect for you if you want to stick around and serve the businesses in the area. With post-Covid remote work a thing nowadays, you don’t even have to live within convenient commuting distance to sign on at a public accounting firm; barring travel to the client site, in-office meetings, and perhaps the yearly holiday party, that is.

Okay, moving on.

What to expect in your accounting program

If you’re new to our website, you’ve probably taken a spin around and thought, “Wow, there are sure a lot of whiny twerps on this site,” and you’re right! Some people are unhappy, but if you were ask them they don’t know how good they have it. Many young accountants suffer from a paradox of choice. They run blindly into the arms of large public accounting firms after school because they are bombarded with messaging from parents, professors (especially professors), and the firms themselves that this is what they should do without contemplating really what they want to do with their versatile accounting degree.

Why am I telling you this? Think of it as a word of caution. Enrolling in an accounting program will mean that you will be SURROUNDED by earnest, wide-eyed overachievers that want nothing more than to land on the roster of one of the Best Places to Launch a Career or the firm perpetually sitting at the top of Vault prestige lists. They will irritate you. Every time they open their mouths you will want to crush their naivete with the scepter of experience and crush their ideal with tales of reality.

Resist this urge. Stay focused on your goals, whatever they may be for your accounting aspirations, and those grasshoppers will soon be a distant memory. Persist! Persevere! Public accounting! Wait, what?

Actually, accounting programs will test your resolve. You will hate certain classes (probably tax). You will hate certain teachers (probably Intermediate I). You will ask to yourself, on more than one occasion, “Jesus, what did I get myself into?” All of these things are perfectly normal.

One final thing to consider in your “Accounting Is My Plan B career” quest is that if you’re interested in starting at a Big 4 firm, then you’ll want to be sure that those firms recruit at your school of choice. They do not visit every campus so check with the professors at your prospective school to find out if the Big 4 recruit there. And if they do, check with your professors about campus events like Meet the Firms which is, as its name describes, an opportunity for the firms to meet you, for you to meet the firms, and for many handshakes to be exchanged in the process. These handshakes will come in handy (heh) later when it comes time for you to choose which firm you are going to bless with your wide-eyed, eager presence.

Moving on…oh, wait…yes, I see a hand. Go ahead, please.

“Uh, yeah. What’s a Big 4 firm?”

OH, RIGHT! Lots of new people. Sorry about that.

A Big 4 accounting firm is one of the following: Deloitte (aka Deloitte & Touche), EY (aka Ernst & Young), KPMG (aka The House of Klynveld), and PwC (aka PricewaterhouseCoopers).

These four firms…yes, another question?

“Uh, yeah. Isn’t KPMG a radio station west of the Mississippi River?”

No. I assure you, KPMG is not a radio station west of the Mississippi River.

We good? Great.

These four firms are widely accepted as the most prestigious in the accounting industry. They have hundreds of offices across the globe, employ 150k+ people each, and have rosters full of clients with the brand names you’ve all heard of. Their internship programs are some of the most coveted in the world, they pay their people quite well and offer generous benefits packages and attractive perks. [Ed. note: we aren’t sure how the previous sentence slipped through our rigorous editing process back when this article was written in 2013, pretty sure our editor was drunk for the entirety of that year. Low pay is one of the #1 reasons given for why young accountants are quitting their Big 4 jobs in droves during the Great Resignation of 2022. The trade-off for this is experience and a highly-marketable resume item that will always be attractive to employers, if you can make it in Big 4 you can make it anywhere.]

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, get over it because it’s unlikely that you’ll end up at one of these four firms. Why? Well, the short version is you’re old. The slightly longer and more PC version is your maturity and life experience to date isn’t a good fit with the rest of Big 4 recruits that would make up your starting class. Big 4 firms want to mold (read: chew up, spit out) young, distracted minds that will buy into their culture from the beginning. That’s a difficult thing to do with a person that has already made a run at the working world and might have a family and other responsibilities.

I do not want dissuade anyone reading this to completely dismiss the Big 4; by all means, if they recruit at your school, visit with them at Meet the Firms, interview with them on campus, and if you still like what you hear, go on the office visit and accept their offer if you get one. It may be for you. I just don’t think it’s all that common with Plan B accountants.

Up next: jobs!

What kind of accounting jobs are out there?

As we’ve already said, opportunities will abound in small public accounting firms. If you’re interested in small business, a small public accounting firm is a great place to get exposure to lots of them. Some of the businesses you work with will hand you receipts in shoebox. You will want to strangle them and set that shoebox on fire. You will use your communication skills mentioned many, many paragraphs ago to gently encourage the client to practice better recordkeeping.

Some of the businesses you work with will hand you meticulous reports and answer your questions clearly and concisely and you will want to run through brick walls for them. You might even want to go work for them. It’s not an uncommon path for many accounting professionals and it’s why I suggest starting out in public accounting.

If everything written here about public accounting sounds AWFUL and you get your degree and you are still convinced that you have zero interest in going that route, that’s okay. As we said before, your accounting career won’t be an utter failure if you skip public despite what your professors have said. There are plenty of  jobs out there that don’t require any public accounting experience or a CPA designation and pay well and will set you up for a nice career.

But know this — if you happen to be up against one other person for a promotion or as a candidate for a job that has a CPA and has public accounting experience, it’s unlikely you will be promoted or offered the job. On paper, you get beat every time. It’s as simple as that.

Compensation

FINALLY. The good stuff, right?
The good news is that you can expect to start your new accounting job with a decent salary. The most recent data from the BLS shows a mean annual wage of $71k. That will vary by geography, industry, and experience of course, so your keep your expectations realistic when you start out. Get some experience under your belt and the money will take care of itself. [Ed. note: although Big 4 compensation is a large negative for many early-career accountants as you may have heard or probably read elsewhere on this website, the data is correct in that lifetime salary potential for an accounting career is quite high and, as mentioned above, the profession is relatively recession-proof]

The experience you gain is priceless

Speaking of experience, this is really what a career in accounting is made of. Sure, you can get a great education, a couple degrees, and land an internship with a prestigious firm, but none of that guarantees a successful career. These things take time; one of the first partners a writer here worked for said, “You have to turn over a lot of rocks to get good in this business,” and that’s why pure smarts never wins out.

This isn’t like those cheapskates who email artists to create huge murals for them and say “pay? No, there’s no pay. But think about the experience!” You will also get paid, of course. But the experience, and especially the kind you are exposed to at large public accounting firms, will be critical to your future success. It can help you figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life (hopefully the last time you make such a decision considering you didn’t do so great the first time), or at least in what area you want to concentrate your rich bucket of CPA skills.

Getting that experience can be fun! No, really, building your knowledge around this stuff can be interesting; the key being you have to find what you like and stick to it. A lot of people bounce around, wanting to try different things, but if you have a knack for something and you enjoy it, don’t mess around. Dig in and in a few short years (and long busy seasons), people will be coming to you because you’re the expert. I know, it’s a scary thought.

What are accounting jobs like?

Generally speaking, public accounting jobs are deadline driven. Whether you’re working in audit, tax, advisory, or any of the derivatives of those main areas, your engagements/assignments will have deadlines attached to them. Deadlines are usually a driver of stress, so manage yours — deadlines, stress — well and you’ll be fine. Manage them poorly and you’ll drive yourself crazy.

If you’re more interested in an industry job (that is to say companies not accounting firms), the same can be true with the month-end closing of the books being a monthly routine as the name suggests. Depending on the size of your company, you could be responsible for one or many aspects of keeping the books. The advantage to a small company is that you’ll learn more, faster; often trial by fire. In a large company, you’ll be given a narrower set of responsibilities, often with explicit instructions. If you prove capable, you might earn more responsibility. Either way…yay?

Popular certifications for accountants other than CPA and other considerations

There are a few other nuances to accounting careers that you should know about:

1. Professional Designations There are numerous certifications out there that are a great way to differentiate yourself from your peers and earn more money. Of course there’s the most popular for accountants, the CPA, but some others to familiarize yourself with as you progress in your career include: Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Certified Management Accountant (CMA); Certified Financial Planner (CFP); Certified Internal Auditor (CIA); Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA); Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA); Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).

2. Non-accounting experience Were you a mechanic? An engineer? An artist or musician? All of these professions can be enhanced with a background in accounting. If you were one of these or had another occupation but wanted the stability of an accounting career, the good news is that you can couple that expertise with a prior passion that can lead to…

3. Entrepreneurship Accountants are trained to understanding how capital moves in and out and around a company. This makes for a great background for those looking to broaden for prior professional pursuits or anyone that simply wants to own their business. Nowadays quite a few accountants, many of them friends of Going Concern, have taken everything they learned at Big 4 firms and applied it to starting tech firms that serve accountants, perhaps taking some aspect of their former job and automating it to take it off some poor Big 4 auditor’s plate. For anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, a foundation in accounting can ensure a strong foundation for whatever business they decide to venture into.

So there you have it. Our guide for becoming an accountant for people who don’t want to be what they are right now. They only thing left to do is get off the Internet and make it happen. OH LOOK, KITTENS!

Sorry! Did we mention that it’s extremely important to focus? If you have any problems or other questions, we’re here for you. Reach out any time no matter your issue and we’ll do our best. Good luck.

*the first few years at a Big 4 firm can be rough salary-wise. This eventually does pay off once you have that coveted Big 4 resume item stamped on your CV for all of eternity.

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