Considering a Career Change? – 5 Alternative Career Paths for CPAs

Have you ever considered the many career paths for CPAs? In college, many accounting students naturally gravitate towards one of the big four accounting firms. The big four accounting firms have a major presence on many college campuses and they operate a really efficient recruiting process at those schools. Starting out in an entry level auditing or tax role at one of the large public accounting firms is a great way to start your career. Most large accounting firms will either pay for your CPA Review course or reimburse your expenses for using a high-quality prep provider like Surgent.

The job will allow you to meet your CPA work experience requirements and you will have an opportunity to work directly with a variety of large corporate clients as you build up your accounting experience.

The Right Time to Consider a Change

However, after the first few years, you’ll start to notice that getting that next promotion gets a little harder and fewer of your original peers are still with you at the same firm. You also might realize that you may not really want to become a partner in the long term. This is about the time when many people begin to consider their next major career move.

This article will highlight 5 alternative career paths for CPAs to consider when they begin to explore other opportunities.

Corporate Banking

At first glance, it might seem like corporate bankers and accountants have very different personality types. Corporate bankers often have very outgoing personality types and accountants sometimes have more reserved personalities. However, this is really a major oversimplification that shouldn’t be a consideration for anyone considering a career change.

The technical skills you developed as an accountant at a public accounting firm are highly valued in the banking industry. Corporate bankers have to evaluate the credit quality of prospective borrowers. This requires a strong understanding of financial statements and general market conditions.

Corporate bankers are required to understanding the financials as well as make a compelling argument to internal management as to why it makes sense to extend credit to a particular borrower. This requires strong technical knowledge as well as strong writing and verbal persuasion skills.

Public accountants have all the technical skills to be successful in this role. Additionally, the prospect of developing new skills in a different environment might be a great way to re-energize your career if you feel like you’re just going through the motions in your current role.

How to Make the Transition

The easiest way to make the transition from accounting to banking is by looking for credit analyst roles within a corporate banking group at a bank or one of the larger non-bank lenders. In this role, you will have the opportunity to get exposure to all aspects of the deal structuring process, from origination to closing. You’ll also be exposed to how these deals are monitored and evaluated as their financial performance changes.

The difference between successful credit analysts and those that never get promoted often comes down to accounting. Your ability to verbalize important nuances in a company’s business and being able to explain the relationship between business conditions and financial statement impacts often wins you favor among the relationship managers who originate new business.

Credit analysts will get promoted to either relationship managers or loan officers. The relationship managers are responsible for generating new business opportunities for the bank. Loan officers are responsible for deciding whether the bank will commit capital to that transaction.

Credit analysts are the bridge between those two roles as they document the transaction and present the final product to loan officers as part of the decision making process.

Buy-Side Financial Analyst

The world of investment management is highly competitive and can be challenging to break into. However, with public accounting experience, you have credibility and knowledge that can give you an edge over candidates without an accounting background.

As a buy-side financial analyst, your financial analysis and accounting skills are critical. If you already have a strong understanding of how to prepare financial statements, your ability to anticipate how future events will be translated into next quarter’s earnings would be invaluable.

Making the Move

If your serious about trying to break into this industry, you might also want to consider pursuing the CFA charter. Although taking another series of challenging tests might be the last thing you want to do, your accounting background will be a major benefit in your studying.

Accounting is frequently considered the hardest section on the CFA exam. If you already have a CPA and a few years of public accounting experience, the amount of time required to study will be reduced compared to other candidates that haven’t worked in public accounting.

If you look at some of the prominent portfolio managers of large mutual funds, it shouldn’t come as a shock that some of them actually hold both the CFA charter and the CPA designation.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

Sometimes when you’re at a career inflection point, choosing a very different path could be exactly what you need to break out of that rut. When most people think about the FBI, they associate it with career field agents that resemble traditional law enforcement officers.

You might be surprised to discover that CPA’s are some of the most highly valued employees in the FBI. In order to successfully prosecute criminals, the FBI is required to compile evidence and prove very challenging and often complex financial cases. This frequently involves analyzing and auditing large amounts of business and financial records.

Benefits of Public Service

A CPA with a background in public accounting has the perfect skill set to tackle this type of role. In addition to providing you with a very different work experience, you also have the opportunity to experience a different type of pride in your work product that can only come when you know your contributions have made a major difference in preventing harm to innocent victims.

Be prepared for a lengthy application process if you want to make this transition. If you are selected for an interview, you will have to provide extensive documentation and go through a background check. However, if you have the patience to go through the screening process, you’ll discover your skills will be highly valued.

Corporate Accounting / Finance

After spending a few years in public accounting and enduring the extra hours required during tax season, you might be ready for a role that requires fewer hours and less stress. This might be a good time to start exploring opportunities in the corporate world within an accounting or finance department.

As a public accountant, you have a unique advantage for making this transition because you likely already know a variety of firms that you have previously worked with as your clients. The major decision makers at those firms most likely already know you and have a comfort level with your abilities.

An Inside Track on Opportunities

The best way to make this move is to keep your eyes open for opportunities and try to network with your client contacts. You’ll be able to get a sense of which firms are growing and might offer the best chance for advancement.

If you already have a professional relationship with your future boss, you will already know whether you would like to work for this person or not. That’s the easiest way to avoid any unpleasant surprises when you start working for a new boss.

Financial Planning

After spending a few years working for someone else, you might be ready to start working for yourself. Although it requires some extra risk and maybe a few lean years at the beginning, in the long term, the satisfaction of working for yourself could make a major difference for your job satisfaction.

Many people associate financial planning with investments. However, tax planning might be even more important than selecting the right investments. Many people also hate doing their own taxes and have a much easier time delegating tax planning to someone else.

If you already enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to maximize deductions, you’re in a great position to offer this high demand service to others. You might find out that your tax planning services represent an easy way to generate new client leads.

Generating Leads & Building a Practice

After providing excellent tax services to those clients, it would be a natural fit to offer additional financial planning services to those same clients.

One of the best ways to transition into financial planning is by starting with one of the large firms. You also might want to consider working with a smaller boutique firm that offers specialized tax planning services within their practice.

Just be prepared for a challenging first few years in the business as you learn how to market your services and build up a client base. However, once you find your groove, you’ll have more freedom and the ability to make your own schedule.

After you have a few successful years, you could make the leap to opening your own independent firm or you could stay within your existing firm and build your business with the benefit of a large brand name.

Final Considerations

Deciding when and if you should make a career change is one of the most important and challenging decisions you can make. Ultimately, you’re the only one that can make the best decision for your career. However, by holding the CPA, you have put yourself in the enviable position of being in high demand with many promising career paths to select.

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This article was written by Lou Haverty, CFA. Lou is the Founder of Financial Analyst Insider which is a resource for aspiring finance and accounting professionals to advance their careers.