So, what's the skinny on accountancy?
October 28, 2006 3:59 AM   Subscribe

So, what's the skinny on accountancy?

In a lot of updated/newly published career pamphlets and books I've read about about accountancy, they all seem to have this air of despiration - they're throwing around phrases like: "Well after Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley, accountants are now dynamic, efficient and at the driving core of any business!!!", "To be an accountant today, means to be at the forefront of impelenting the best practises blah blah blah", "Accountants get all the girls!" - stuff like that [okay fine, not the last one, but damn close enough to it].

To me it sounds like BS, or at the very least, a whole heap of waffle. In all the literature I've read lately, it's like they want to inflate the position of an accountant beyond anything I've ever imagined [and to the point of sniggering in my case]. Maybe to encourage more to study in that field - I don't know.

I'll have the option soon of specializing in an accountancy degree, so I'm asking the hive mind what's it really like? Accountants out there, are you "dynamic, efficient and zomg teh bee's knees in your organization"? [I'm guessing the answer is no. I trust your portrayal in Dilbert than what career guidance tells me].

What's it really like to qualify as an accountant, or to study to degree level as one? Yes, I could ask career guidance, but you see the kind of propaganda-esque info they're spreading.

Am I somehow set up for life with an accountancy degree? What are the pitfalls of the field?

I'm a serious student and aim for the top in every class, I'd be aiming for a Big Four firm in the future if I were to get into accounting at all [which I've only discovered that I enjoy immensley while doing my generic 1-year entry-into-a-degree business course].

So what's the skinny? Are these career pamplets and books BS?
posted by Chorus to Education (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Twenty years ago, when I graduated, I saw the best minds of a generation go into accountancy. I still have a bad taste in my mouth over that.

Accountancy is fundamentally bean counting. At high levels (audits of major corporations, forensic investigation of massive fraud) it can be a very, very stressful and demanding job. My father-in-law, for example, became a partner at (the old) Coopers and Lybrand, audited household name companies, and subsequently became chairman of the board of large corporations. Another friend specializes in forensic investigations and regularly flies to warzones to audit frauds on UN funds, has investigated biker gangs, and so on.

However, when we get together, it's mostly the accountants who end up complaining about their jobs (on the other hand the rest of us are mostly entrepreneurs or self-employed so factor that). Few people seem to be happy being a vanilla accountant... however the degree opens up some interesting avenues if you step sideways.

My father-in-law made a lot of money but still regrets that he didn't become a math professor instead.

My question would be, when you look back at your work life in forty years time, do you want to see an accountant?
posted by unSane at 4:20 AM on October 28, 2006

It's a career path with many options. If you find that you do not like the job you can switch over to management fairly easily. If you find that you do not like working for someone else you can set up solo shop. Most accounting types I know seem to enjoy their jobs.
posted by caddis at 6:34 AM on October 28, 2006

If you can handle the detail-orientation, you're golden. It's like any other career -- it's not the plain vanilla right-up-the-middle guys that make the money, it's the guys that step to the side and can look at the career field and figure out their own path that will have interesting times.

But if you can handle finance -- go finance instead of accounting. Good financial guys, guys who have such a deep understanding of time value of money that they can warp and twist the physical laws of finance and bend financial markets to their will ... those guys make assloads of cash, clank when they walk because their balls are large and made of adamantium, and get all the girls.

Personally, I have a degree in operations/logistics fields, and I'm writing computer software to handle inventory and workflow in companies.
posted by SpecialK at 7:00 AM on October 28, 2006

Oh, and SOX compliance *can* be fun. It's kind of bridging the career of traffic cop, lawyer, and bean counter. Some of my software is used to track SOX stuff.

A similar-to-accounting but very unknown career is actually College Athletic Compliance, another group of people I work with regularly. All of the compliance people I know were originally accountants. They make sure that coaches and student-athletes follow all of the NCAA rules.
posted by SpecialK at 7:02 AM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

A lot of people have this view of accountants as evil, money-grubbing, soulless automatons. That seems to include you. If you're going to enter this field, you'll be miserable if you feel that you have to apologize every time you say you're an accountant.

I'm an accountant. Number crunching and problem solving suits me well. I've worked for about 8 years in hotels doing payroll and bookkeeping. Easy hours and good pay. Now I'm back in school to get my CPA.
posted by saffry at 7:05 AM on October 28, 2006

Saffry - I dont have that view of accountants at all, it was really the language of the career brochures I was digging at, as it seemed soooo fake and misleading.

I'm glad the hivemind is able to set me straight and give me the "real world" experience of what it's actually like. I've only just realized how much I like accounting, and having never ever thought of it as a career for myself, I'm naturally concerned about where this newfound ability/interest could take me.

I'd never appologise for being an accountant - a lawyer, perhaps, but never an accountant...

And SpecialK? Fabulous imagery.
posted by Chorus at 7:15 AM on October 28, 2006

I think the truth is that SOX has sent the demand for accountants sky-high. Here in Canada, the Big 4 are recruiting like crazy. My sister was just recruited and several firms did an absurd song and dance to try and get her to sign. However, life in the big 4 is fairly stressful and turnover is high. Once you get your CPA you can easily go into management at a good non-accounting company and make tons of cash.
posted by lemur at 8:49 AM on October 28, 2006

Big four accounting involves long hours, idiot partners, and decent pay-- a good place to start, and a crappy place to stay.

Of course, going into "finance" right out of school isn't really easy. Investment banking jobs are hard to get and internal corporate finance jobs (at companies) are also rare and a wee bit limiting.

As far as a ten-year plan goes, if you're interested in business school (and a really good career henceforth), a big four job is pretty good. Consultancies, investment banks, and investment managers generally like accountants because the analysis and use of financial statements are crucial to those three professions, and they figure you can learn the rest of the important stuff.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:56 AM on October 28, 2006

Many IT guys start in accounting, and find they are more interested in information systems than the books. An IT guy who knows accounting, and will work with accountants to bail them out when things get clinkered is golden. His budget proposals will be greased, his policy decisions, however ridiculous, supported, and he'll get lots and lots of goodies on holidays.

Many accountants are afraid of change, and reluctant to implement systemic improvements, unless there is no other choice. I've seen unbelievable closing processes, posting fixes, detail files, and auditing procedures, simply designed to prop up flawed charts of account, and bad automated accounting systems. But a lot of accountants would rather work 18 hours on monthly closings, and 70 hour weeks for annuals, than fix things, for once and for all, because of the potential for period discontinuities. So, again, a systems guy who comes along and gives them a peg to hang a new hat on, in the form of a "mandatory software upgrade," is golden, particularly if he cheerfully absorbs the wrath of users in the change managment process.

And, if you really want to see some kick ass business types add value, look for high profile sales guys with accounting backgrounds. They are an extremely rare breed, because a top sales guy with an accounting background is a tough, tough cookie at commission reconciliation time. A guy like that is worth his weight in platinum, too, if he can apply his knowledge in the sales cycle, because he won't bring back unprofitable deals, or doggy clients who can't pay, and he'll measure his own efforts and adapt his strategies, without much managment oversight. In fact, having worked with 2 such people, and seen the fear and admiration they created in the eyes of their own top managment, I'd say that the super sales guy coming from an accounting background is inherently the kind of over-achiever liable to scoop corner suite jobs in their late thirties.
posted by paulsc at 10:20 AM on October 28, 2006

In the past accountants were not allowed to advertise. They used recruitment brochures as a way around that restriction and those brochures were masters of hyperbolic overstatement. Sounds like nothing has changed.

Just understand that although accountants work in some of the most dynamic and exciting companies in the world, they work in the Accounts Department of those companies. The Accounts Departments of J Walter Thompson, Texaco, the BBC ... {your name here} are remarkably, horribly similar. You've seen one, you've seen them all.

Some people do well and thrive. There's a less visible army of drones who do not. Make sure you are on the right side of that leger.
posted by grahamwell at 10:41 AM on October 28, 2006

As someone who works with accountants, it seems like a job that would make you "set" as you say. I always tease the accountants about how I hate numbers and I don't know how they do it; they're quick to tell me a calculator knows all the math, they don't. :)

I work for one of the top 10 firms in the nation and yeah, the partners tend to be asses and they work the underlings like dogs. But if you've got the stuff and you can handle them dumping all the work on you and do it with a smile, you'll be climbing the ladder in a hurry. We're always hiring because a lot of people can't take that kind of workload.

You could always work in tax. Slammed for a few months but then it seems to level out pretty well workload-wise.
posted by CwgrlUp at 6:01 PM on October 29, 2006

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