Welcome to the dead-seven-Irish-guys-in-a-garage edition of Accounting Career Emergencies. In today’s edition, a future Big 4 auditor wants to get into forensics ASAP but is concerned about appearances. How should he broach?
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Back to our unsatisfied auditor du jour:
I’m starting with a Big 4 firm in October. I had an audit internship last summer where they spoke about all of the ‘flexibility’ within the firm. I was always more interested in the fraud/forensics side of accounting than audit; however, I felt that I had a better chance of getting an internship in audit due to the larger number of positions available. After taking a fraud course in my masters program this year, I confirmed my initial thought that I would much rather work in that field instead of audit.
How realistic is it to try to switch from audit to forensics within a Big 4 firm? How long should I wait until I ask about switching without burning any bridges? I feel like I already know about the normal downsides of a career in auditing, are there any unique differences (good or bad) from a career in forensics?
-Confused New Hire
We’re impressed. It was quite the sly move on your part, playing the numbers game. And per usual for a new associate, you’re thinking WAY ahead, which is fine but don’t forget you haven’t even set foot on hallowed Big 4 ground yet.
Regarding the “realistic” question, we’d venture that it falls somewhere in between “somewhat” and “not very” given the fact that your start date is months away. It’s closer to “not very” at this juncture because you have no work experience whatsoever. Forensics involves turning over lots of rocks and that simply takes time and it’s helpful if you have experience in another investigative career. Now, a switch is “somewhat realistic” for you because you know exactly what career path you’re interested in taking. You have many of your future colleagues (and some superiors) beat in this regard. To appropriately address this with your firm, discussing your interest in forensics with your career counselor and mentors is the best way to go. Simply asking about a transfer in your first year or two at the firm is coming on a little strong. Besides, a few years of auditing will serve your skills well as you prepare for a career in forensics.
As for pros and cons in forensics versus auditing, you’ve already discovered one advantage – the work is far more interesting. It’s also a specialized area, so it can be potentially more lucrative and is a unique skill set. As for disadvantages, forensics is a hot area right now and the groups are relatively small. The groups and demand for services may be growing but lots of people have are exploring this area and spots will fill up quick.
Another big disadvantage is that there’s an intangible quality that forensics experts have, that some people don’t and that is an inherent skeptical attitude and investigative intuition. Here’s what forensic expert Tracy Coenen told us last year:
It’s common for people to think that a good auditor makes a good forensic accountant, and that’s simply not the case. Some people have a gift for thinking outside the box and can get a gut feel for what’s wrong. Others only have a gift for reconciling numbers and using checklists. The [AICPA] survey addressed investigative intuition, but it didn’t even make it into the top five of core skills. I think that’s wrong on many levels.
In that same post, GC friend Sam Antar talked about having additional qualities:
An effective forensic accountant must have a pair of double iron clad balls and a triple thick skin. Prospective forensic accountants can count on making many enemies in the course of their work and must be unhinged by the retaliation that normally follows uncovering fraud and other misconduct. […] Effective forensic accountants must at least think like a scumbag to understand criminal behavior, techniques, and countermeasures.
So, in other words, you need to have raw talent and instincts. You may have wanted to be a professional baseball player when you were a kid but still couldn’t manage to hit a ball off a tee or catch a cold.
So to wrap it up, express interest in forensics but we don’t think you should come on too strong. If you do some time in auditing and perform well, you’ll give yourself a better chance of dipping a toe into a forensics group down the road. Good luck.