To 4 or not to 4

03/03/09  I had an interesting email conversation with an associate on LinkedIn, a student working an internship asking about joining a Big 4 firm.  I have permission to repeat the conversation here, though I have masked some information in the interest of privacy and to keep on topic, and I think my advice was useful – for what it’s worth:

The query:

Hi everyone,

I am a recent transfer student to {place}. I am going to get my bacholers in accounting and then get my CPA. I currently work at {firm} as an accounting intern. I was just curious about a carrer path. I am trying to get into of the big 4 accounting firms. Are there any firms that you suggest or advice that you can give me.





My response:


Hi, Brian. First and foremost, if you become a CPA, remember that your first duty is to the public – that’s why it’s in your title. Choose to work with the highest of ethical standards, and you’ll enjoy the work more.


Second, to avoid getting lost in the shuffle of a Big 4 firm, this I can offer: choose a specialty. That could be accounting for derivitives, non-profit taxation, construction accounting, internal audit of health care companies, stock option audits, just about anything that you enjoy. Become the go-to expert in a particular area, and make yourself valuable and useful. This specialty can follow you everywhere, even into the private sector or another public firm.


The third piece of advice I can give is make sure that whatever you end up doing, do what you love and love what you do. Your work will never be a chore.


Good luck!


The rest of the conversation:


Thanks for the advice. I was just curious if you worked for any of the big 4 and if you did, could you tell me what you liked and didnt like.





No, I never worked for a Big 4, or a Big 10 (yes, there were 10 when I finished school…back when dinosaurs walked the earth…), but I really don’t think that has any bearing on my advice. What I told you will be true no matter where you settle, Big 4 or tiny partnership alike. Know in your own mind why you want to choose to work for a Big 4. I didn’t choose to work for a national firm when I left school because I didn’t expect to live in one place very long (married to a military guy), and at the time – well, I’ll be frank – women just didn’t rise up the ranks easily like men did (and still don’t) and I wanted much more as far as professional responsibility and management/ownership potential much more quickly than I would have gotten in a large firm. And I didn’t want to audit for a living (realizing that there are other areas to work in a Big 4), though in hindsight, I’m sure it would have helped me generally to know the practical side of it.


But just for your knowledge and for entertainment value, I have been following a first-year in a Big 4 through posts on Accounting Web – check them out:




What’s the point of all this since I had no experience in a Big 4 firm?  To get him thinking…about why he would choose a Big 4, what else is out there, why I made the choices I did – which were for very different reasons than his, and the value he might find in a niche and in a large firm.  If everyone really thinks about what they might eventually do for a living while they are still young, they may actually find that they choose to work at something that really interests them, and in dong so, find that work can be fun and exhausting and fulfilling all at the same time.


How can that be a bad thing?