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Report: The Best Time to Leave Public Accounting Is Within 3 – 6 Years

Though most of us consider the 2 year mark the perfect time to leave public accounting (it would be 3 or 4 if CPA licensure rules required that much experience, surely), a new report from Minneapolis-based recruiting outfit Coenen Brothers suggests that the real sweet spot is somewhere between three and six years.

“During those years I never really paid attention to what was out there. I wish I would have kept my options open during that time," said one audit manager who left PwC at 4.5 years. "You should stay at least 2+ years, 2 – 4 ½ years is a great time to go, there are a lot of opportunities! The longer you stay the tougher it is to make that next move. You want to make your move out of public before you hit manager, unless you want a career in Audit." Anyone else think he relied a bit too much on his personal experience to make that astute observation?

Another interviewee who left a Big 4 post as a second year Senior four years ago suffered a little delayed regret sticking around an extra busy season. This guy is now a Senior Audit Manager at a large financial institution:

“I feel as if I could have left one busy season earlier. Although things have worked out great, first and second year senior are ideal. It is better to leave prior to a manager title; and, Senior Managers just come in as Managers. A CPA is also a must have, or CIA; something professional!

The big four is a great place to start. It is a great training resource. You get the opportunity to see a lot of different operations which is very beneficial down the road. You also learn a lot of the best practices. Public accounting is a great place to start a career. However, the longer you stay the more of a subject matter expert you become and start missing operational areas. A big difference between public and industry though, is that public is very black and white where industry is greyer.

Ultimately, the best time to leave public accounting is when you have 3-5 years! You can work hard at a new company and be promoted quickly!”

One poor shlub who hung around for 5 whole years brings up an important point: the longer you stay, the more painful your inevitably separation will be to both sides:

[Mistake I made:] Kept it secret talking with a company. Would have brought partners in earlier. It came as a shock to them and some feelings were hurt. Chance to explore options but there are risks in doing this. Asked for forgiveness later and the relationships are great now. People remember bridge burners. Be honest when leaving firm. Keep the bridge intact.  My thought was to give it a year, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to public accounting.

Audit is entry point. Learn the business, then write own ticket. Company makes it happen and has a track record of doing this. Audit group extremely respected. Audit says something, business does it. The business sees them as trusted advisors.

What's the lesson here? Keep leaving at 2 years.