Is working at a large firm right for you?

Large firms offer many opportunities for growth and development.

Many accounting majors assume that the best course of action is to work for a Big Four or other large firm immediately after graduation. At some schools, joining a large firm is almost a given. “The majority of our students go to the Big Four firms, because they are considered to be the top-tier employers,” noted Rebecca Johnson Chase, associate director, market readiness and employment at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

However, large firms are not always the best fit for everyone. Prior to accepting job offers, accounting majors need to have an honest conversation with themselves about what environments are appealing and what types of clients they want to serve. They should ask themselves, “What are my opportunities for growth? What type of impact will I have in this environment?” noted Mike Baron, talent acquisition leader for the U.S. and Canada at RSM US in Philadelphia.

To answer those questions, it helps to know some of the advantages and downsides to working at employers of different sizes. Here are some aspects of joining a large firm to take into account:

Opportunity and variety. Large firms undeniably provide opportunities that may not be available at regional or smaller firms simply due to size. “The larger the firm, the larger the client base and opportunities to be able to engage with a wider variety of them,” said Baron.

University of Miami alumna Liane Acosta, CPA, interned at a smaller, local firm before accepting a full-time post with RSM US LLP in 2016. Both experiences have been positive, but she quickly saw the value of working for a global organization. “My network tripled or quadrupled in size the moment I stepped into RSM,” said Acosta, a senior audit associate in Miami.

Large firms can give CPAs with a desire to travel the chance to work with clients domestically and abroad. They also give accountants the opportunity to specialize, or to gain experience in the various aspects of the firm’s business, often by moving to a different office or department.

“In our world you get exposure to a lot of different industries, and our individuals get put on multiple projects,” said Rod Adams, the U.S. and Mexico talent acquisition leader at PwC in Chicago. For example, he noted, at large firms CPAs can work with many different clients across various industries, such as retail, health care, and financial services, in numerous locations.

“This exposure to different engagements and types of work is what really helps our people to learn and to grow,” he added.

Depth of training. Large firms also have bigger budgets for training and often cover the cost of CPA exam review courses and fees, Chase said. PwC recently launched a training initiative to provide “digital upskilling” to all of its employees. Adams said. During this initiative, employees will learn 27 digital topics, including data analytics, blockchain, 3D printing, and robotic process automation.

Social support. Large firms like PwC and RSM offer new employees assigned mentors and coaches and have strong support networks for both new recruits and seasoned employees, said Baron, who previously was the US tax talent acquisition leader at PwC.

“You find in large organizations more of an opportunity to be able to interact with a larger group of people who have diverse thoughts and offer help and guidance,” he added. Acosta said she was assigned a mentor as soon as she joined RSM.

Long hours. Not unexpectedly, CPAs working at large firms work long hours, particularly during busy season. Large firms often serve publicly traded clients, and deadlines need to be met. But with those hours comes a chance to build trust and camaraderie with one’s immediate team.

“We do put in a lot of hours during our busy season, but we make the best of it and we enjoy each other’s company,” Acosta said. “It is fast-paced, but when somebody needs to learn something new, we slow it down.”

A good fit for proactive types. While large firms attract varying personalities, those who are proactive, involved, and open to feedback are mostly likely to thrive and excel in these environments. “You have to know what you want and have to be a go-getter,” Acosta advised.

It’s also possible to “get lost in the masses” at a large firm, noted Adams, which makes it important for new employees to identify and articulate opportunities that appeal to them. They need to “be vocal” to make sure they are noticed, he said.

Before choosing to work in a large firm, advised Acosta, students should invest time to cultivate relationships with firms during the recruiting process. “You will have a better understanding of the culture, and if it is a right fit for you,” she said.

By Cheryl Meyer, a California-based freelance writer.

Editor’s note: Look for similar articles on what it’s like to work at small and midsize firms, coming later this year. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, senior editor for newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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