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The Delicate Balance Between Looking for a Job and Studying for the CPA Exam

This particular question is a bit beyond my expertise in this uncertain economic environment, so let’s try to plot out the various ways this decision could go after the question from the mailbag:

Hello Adrienne,

I chose to study abroad for my last semester of university. As a result of this, an unfortunate set of hiring/interview timing differences (and I’ll admit, a temporary lack of motivation) I am essentially unemployed when I return to the US this weekend. I’ve had phone interviews with a couple of companies, but they never progressed because I was out of the country. My double majors (Accounting & Economics) have allowed me to accumulate more than enough credits to be eligible for the CPA exam. I plan on sitting in July for BEC, August for AUD, October for REG, and November for FAR. Mainly because I currently don’t have job offer to look forward to and because I want to finish the exam as soon as possible. I already have the financing for my exam materials and the entire exam and plan on starting my studies next week.

My question to you is how much time should I dedicate to studying versus looking for a job that fits my intended career path? I know there is no magic number of hours for studying, but I don’t want to burnout/distract myself being too focused on one area. I’d like to start in public accounting in advisory or auditing in most major cities, but don’t care where. My main concern is getting preoccupied with a job that doesn’t fit my interests/skill set. Maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse with my plans, but I’d appreciate your advice.

An April 2008 CNN article (we know their track record for rock solid, completely realistic reporting on how kick ass the accounting profession is) cited the following good news for new finance and accounting grads:

Offer amounts are up 1.9 percent for finance and accounting graduates, to $48,795 and $47,413, respectively. Salary offers for business administration and management graduates rose by less than 1 percent to $43,823

If accounting didn’t offer you any desirable opportunities in 2008 (I expect you’ll get better, more specific feedback on that in the comments), you might expect a starting salary of $52,926 to show off your econ degree. Sounds decent right?

Fast-forward to 2011, which we assume is more relevant to you than ancient fluff pieces. In some markets, you will find no shortage of jobs given the correct useful skills (in some jurisdictions, useful skills are defined as SOX 404 experience or desire to screw LLP partners for bonuses), but you’re definitely missing the point here by worrying about whether or not you will get obsessed with whatever career path you take. I doubt you’re beating recruiters off with a stick, mostly because it sounds like someone missed recruiting season.

This is why people intern. You either fall in love with it (unlikely), hate it (somewhat likely) or don’t not like it enough not to do it for the next few years while you finish the CPA exam (note: finish is not the same as perpetually sit for) and get the hell out. Unless you are overachieving, drinking the Kool-aid or end up becoming one of those guys defending PwC on the Internet, chances are you’ll be lucky to find something you mildly enjoy early on.

The likeliest scenario is that you will end up like this guy, who is itching to make his break from public for something but hoping it won’t be mind-numbing. Does that sound like the career you’re looking for?

Have you fantasized about burning out in public accounting altogether? It isn’t pretty. You’ll have to ask yourself “if you’re a top-ranked staff member with your CPA and on track to be a lead senior in the fall” or a “middle-of-the-road-and-I’m-studying-for-BEC type” before you take that route. You probably don’t want to be the latter, so you’d be wise to get the CPA exam over with when you have the chance.

You admit to “lack of motivation,” code to me for “fuck, I didn’t think I’d actually have to plan any of this” so get on figuring out what’s going to make you want to get out of bed in the morning. The usual suggestion applies here: 3 hours of studying at a time for as many weeks or months as you feel you need to feel somewhat prepared (you’ll never feel completely prepared so don’t expect that). If you need 400 hours per section, you may want to consider using your econ degree instead.

If it is required in your jurisdiction, check with the state board of accountancy you’ll be sitting in to see if interning counts as experience toward your CPA license (or try your state society or association of CPAs, they usually have all this information specifically for graduates and exam candidates). It’s an option.

The short answer is: neither delude nor pigeonhole yourself into a situation you’ll struggle to get out of later. The best way to avoid this is to a) get your CPA out of the way as early as you can and b) keep your expectations very, very low.

In the best case scenario, you end up partner and have lots of free time to extort your ex-mistress with an alleged sex tape while the minions do the paperwork for you. Actually, I’m not sure that’s the best case scenario.