Climb The Big 4 Accounting Career Ladder

How Long Should You Stay At A Big 4 Accounting Firm?
16 Comments

Working at a Big 4 Accounting Firm is the goal of a lot of accountants. It’s probably why you’re reading this blog. While most aspire to be a Big 4 partner when they start, the reality is that most Big 4 employees don’t last until that level. Usually most leave by choice, but the difficult part can be determining when the right time to leave is.

It’s something to consider when you first start at the Big 4 and also while you work your way through your career. Having a certain level of experience in big time public accounting has great benefits, but for some though, these benefits are not worth staying long-term.

Right away, I believe it is best to stay at Deloitte, PwC, KPMG, or EY for at least two years. This gives you a solid level of experience and looks great on your resume. After you have completed two years, you have been exposed to quite a few different areas of audit or tax and should have been given some leadership responsibilities. Lastly, this amount of time also gives you a solid understanding of whether or not public accounting is for you.

Now I am not saying that you have to stay for at least two years. If you’re miserable at your job after only a few months, I certainly recommend looking into leaving. I knew people who did this and were happy they did. Their careers were largely unaffected.

But before making the leap, I caution you to think about your long-term career goals. Staying until at least the two year mark can be a great benefit for your career well down the road.

After the two year point, each year you stay is only going to help you. Becoming a senior is a great feather in your cap. This level really allows you to come into your own as an accountant as well as a leader. Companies love individuals that have been seniors because it means they were able to lead a team through the long and difficult process of an audit or tax busy season.

Those who make it to senior set themselves up for senior accountant or financial analyst positions should you choose to leave the firm.

For those looking for more of a boost, then stick it out until manager. Managers do more of what the title indicates, they manage audit or tax teams. No longer solely focused on one engagement, managers often juggle multiple clients at a time. This can be a big adjustment from senior.

In addition, you’re now expected to be active in your industry and community. Selling the firm and promoting the brand are part of your duties. Some can handle this, some can’t. Either way, it’s a great challenge, and you will learn a lot.

Once you make manager or senior manager, you can expect to find quite a few opportunities outside of the Big 4. Smaller to mid-size companies will offer you Controller or even CFO positions. Big companies will want to hire your for Assistant controller and high-level finance positions. With any of these positions, you’re looking at a great salary and more than likely fewer hours.

Reaching partner at a Big 4 Accounting Firm is great, but for most, this is not a reality. At some point in your career, you will find yourself asking: is it time to go? should I take this position? These can be tough to answer, but in the end, your experience at the Big 4 will prove beneficial to your career no matter if or when you decide to leave. Just remember to leave gracefully and not during the middle of busy season.

Photo Credit.

Russell

About Russell


Hi, I'm Russell, author of The Big 4 Playbook and a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in Texas.

Before writing The Big 4 Playbook, I had the privilege of working as an auditor and tax consultant for several years for a Big 4 Accounting Firm. I am one of the few CPAs to serve as both an audit senior and a tax senior for a Big 4 Firm. During my time at the Big 4, the clients I served included Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies, government organizations, hedge funds, and more.

I earned my Bachelor of Science in Accounting from Boston College and my Masters in Accounting from Vanderbilt University. I experienced the rigors of the Big 4 recruiting process at both levels of my college career, and I created The Big 4 Playbook to share the lessons I learned along the way with you.
Climb The Big 4 Accounting Career Ladder

How Long Should You Stay At A Big 4 Accounting Firm?

16 Comments

  1. Scott Barbour

    Just a disclaimer to start: I am a recruiter and I am compensated for placing Big 4 professionals with my private industry clients.
    Based on 10+ years of recruiting Big 4 and National firm professionals, I can agree with the statement that it is important to stay with the firm for a minimum of two years. I’ve worked with many young professionals who left the Big 4 prior to two years and they have essentially created a “wart” on their resume that will never go away. This is especially a problem when their resume is presented to an ex-Big 4 hiring manager who spent 2+ years with their firm. They will look at the person’s background and say, “I made it 2+ years, why couldn’t you do it?”. This raises questions about mental toughness, commitment, and follow through. If the person is hired, are they going to bail on the job in six months if every detail isn’t perfect?
    I have counseled many auditors to hang on for another 4,5, or 6 months to make the two year mark. They always come back any thank me for the advice.
    Based on my experience, I have to disagree with the assumption that staying until Manager or beyond will provide a significant benefit for most Big 4 professionals. I have found that 2-4 years of experience is the “sweet spot” for maximizing exposure to to new opportunities in private industry. At this experience level, I can help a candidate find a position in Audit, Accounting, Financial Planning, or Internal Controls. Once a candidate makes Manager (and above) in the Big 5, the bulk of opportunities they will see in the marketplace will revolve around Audit, Sox, or SEC Reporting. Many of these candidates end up taking jobs with their clients (Where they are a “known commodity”) For Manager-level accounting positions in private industry, most of my clients want someone who has actually closed the books. They don’t want to pay someone $100K+ to learn on the job.
    In the Southern California market, I can usually place a 2-4 year Big 4 person in one month or less. However, it can take 3-6 months to find a position for a Manager or Senior Manager.
    This is based on my own experience and I understand that hiring practices are different in other areas.

    Reply

    • Jordan

      Hi Scott,

      I appreciated reading your comment as it gave a unique insight being an outside recruiter. I am soon going into a big 4 tax position in Irvine and I was wondering if you could shed a little light. I am not planning on leaving soon after I start by any means nor am I planning for failure in any sort. However, I like to plan ahead and I have to realize that many people leave the firm after a few years to broaden their career. My question to you is, in your opinion, will my career be hindered if I plan to stay in tax as opposed to starting in audit? I am speaking in terms of career progression (with respect to responsibility as well as compensation). Thank you if you get around to this question.

      Reply

      • Scott Barbour

        Jordan,
        You can achieve a high level of success (and income) in tax or audit. It all depends on your future goals. In terms of opportunities, working on the audit side will open up more opportunities when it comes to making the jump to private industry, I place straight audit professionals in accounting, financial reporting, internal controls, financial analysis, and internal audit positions. You will not have as many options with a tax background.
        If you like tax, stick with it and be successful. If you want to move into one of the areas I mentioned above, it would be wise to transition to audit at some point.
        Good luck!
        Shoot me an email and connect to me on Linkedin!
        Scott

        Reply

  2. End of training contract question

    I’m coming to the end of my training contract at a mid-tier firm in audit. I always planned on travelling for 6months to a year post qualification. I need to work another 9 months or so to save money, then quit and have fun! Will see about industry or back to practice when i return.
    I could also move now to the Big 4 and earn significantly more, and get a busy season there under my belt. I’d still look to travel next year though so probably only a 9 month employment. Would this be useful to have on my CV, or look bad, or just not worth it?

    Reply

    • Russell

      Russell

      I always think having Big 4 experience is great for the resume but 9 months seems a little short. It would bring up a red flag to me if I was reviewing the resume. But if you’re ready to start traveling, I say go for it! You only live once. Accounting will always be there and if you have a CPA, you’ll always have a job.

      Reply

  3. Fred

    Wow…this is a very great and insightful write up. Welldone Russell.
    Would you advise someone with significant industry experience (say 7-8 years financial service experience) to spend up to 2 years with one of the big 4 before moving on? I am in that situation right now. I worked in the financial service industry for 8 years before joining one of the big 4 and my plan is to spend one year here and get an MBA with focus in Finance. I have spent close to a year already and my dream is to be a CFO of a MNC someday.

    Reply

    • Russell

      Russell

      Thanks for the comment. This sounds like a unique situation. I suggested two years for people who are fresh out of college and new in their careers. In your case, I would say it’s ok to leave the firm after a year. You already have years of experience and you’re looking to focus more in finance. Hope this helps.

      Reply

  4. Ryan

    Hi Russell,

    Thanks for the blog. It’s very reassuring for me, as I am an audit staff transitioning to senior. I am about 4 months from my two year mark and I’m starting to become frustrated with the atmosphere at my B4 firm. I was actually planning on leaving after busy season next year, but I seem to always hear that we need to try and stick it out until manager or we will sell ourselves short. I don’t want to compromise my future but I also don’t have a passion for my B4 job anymore. I don’t think it’s worth the stress and anxiety. Why do you feel many believe we need to stick it out to manager? I think one senior busy season is plenty of experience for someone’s first job out of college and I think I could get a decent offer on the street (I audit hedge funds and I feel as though my colleagues who leave receive much better comp packages). I’m mostly just venting a little but I would appreciate any advice you could lend.

    Thanks again,
    Ryan

    Reply

    • Russell

      Russell

      Hey Ryan – Thanks for the message. I’ve heard the manager thing before too. My college prof really harped on it. I think they mainly suggest staying until manager bc it gives you a lot of opportunities beyond the Big 4. Managers are able to receive more higher level jobs (more $$) than say some 1 year seniors. But lasting 3 years as a senior can be tough for some. I know plenty of seniors who lasted only one year but then got great gigs – just not high up managerial accounting/finance jobs like some managers can get. If you enjoy hedge funds, I’m very confident you can get a great in house job with one of them. I spent some time in tax hedge funds and felt it was a great place to be if you enjoy that industry.

      Reply

  5. Tony

    Hi Russell,
    I work on a mid-size accounting firm where work life balance is not bad, promotion & salary is decent. I just got an offer with one of the Big 4 but the hours are what’s scaring me. If I want a life in public accounting do you think I should stay where I am or move along with KPMG. (I know its not an easy question and really depends on a lot of things but I would appreciated your opinion)
    Thanks,
    Tony

    Reply

    • Scott Barbour

      Tony,
      While you await Russell’s reply, I wanted to offer my 2 cents. You will never regret getting a Big 4 firm on your resume. As a recruiter, I have a number of clients that will only hire people with Big 4 experience. You may be smarter and more talented than your Big 4 peers, but some companies will insist on the Big 4 pedigree. If you can tough it out for at least one year at a Big 4 firm, you will gain experience with more “name brand” clients and also become part of an amazing professional network (There are quite a few CFOs out there with Big 4 ties). Put in the work now and you will be rewarded BIG TIME in the future.
      Good luck!
      Scott

      Reply

  6. Micah

    Good evening all,

    I have multiple friends and my fiancé stayed with the big four about 4-6 years (senior level). We currently live in the dc area and my fiancé is very happy she left. She is currently a accounting consultant now and loves it! There are so many perks to her current company and the need for employment is great due to the companies growth. If anyone is interested in learning more, send me an email at accountingsearch@mail.com.

    Reply

  7. Sania Saeed

    Thank you Russell, this was a very interesting read. I’d like your opinion on my situation. I have not yet graduated from accounting (I have a year to go) and I’ve received two very different job offers. One is from a film production company, and the role is of an assistant accountant (very broad role because it’s a small accounting team). I have artistic hobbies, and film production is a passion of mine, so I am very attracted to the company and it’s product. The other offer I have is from Deloitte in their Tax Services team. The role is para-professional and they’ve told me it could lead to a grad position, but they can’t make any promises. The tax partner and manager who interviewed me seemed very down to earth and supportive of my studies. The salary is very similar. Any advice for me on which is the better job for someone in my position and with my background?

    Reply

    • Sania Saeed

      Sorry, just to clarify, it’s a film production company. And thanks in advance!

      Reply

  8. Harry20

    Hi Russell,
    I have 3 and a half year audit experience in one of the big 4 (start with E) and have joined another big 4 (start with P). I cant stop thinking about resigning especially during this crazy busy period. Previously what keep me going through all these was due to I need 3 years of practical experience to get my chartered qualification. I have gotten my chartered and I dont have the drive to keep going anymore. Especially in new environment and new working culture , kindly share with me your journey due to I noticed you mentioned you were an auditor. I guess you are no longer in this field now. Thanks

    Reply

  9. Jacinta Aaron

    This question is slightly off-topic. I’m just about start my career in the coming year, after interning at the largest corporate in my country (not USA or UK) I was offered a position on their leadership development program. However, wanting to keep my options open I still applied for the Big 4 and was offered positions in both Audit & Advisory. My dilemma now is that I am unsure what to choose. The benefit of the corporate is that I know and love the culture. Plus, it is possible to work across multiple industries in that role namely manufacturing & FMCG – as you get rotations within 4 different business areas. Benefits of big 4 are obvious – but what would your 2 cents be?

    Reply

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