Key Career Guidance For Aspiring Accountants
Large or mid-size firm? Tax or audit? For many accounting students, these career-defining decisions are just around the corner. Other accounting students have more time before these decisions are made but still must start to consider the right career path. The problem is that determining the right position at the right firm can be tougher than finding cold water in The Caf. Luckily for us, others have been where we YU accounting students stand today and have come out on the other side with long, successful accounting careers.
In an attempt to sort through all of the career possibilities, I recently interviewed four YU alumni in the accounting field, three of whom have over fifty years of combined public accounting experience, and one recent graduate who not too long ago was making his own major career decisions. We broke down the key factors YU accounting students must consider before arriving at the right position at the right firm.
Jonathan Sicklick (JS): Sicklick (YU ’98) is a director in audit at Deloitte, concentrating on technology and media companies as well as law firms. He has been at Deloitte his entire career.
Nachshon Block (NB): Block (YU ’05) is a senior manager at EY in the Banking and Capital Markets group within the Financial Services office. He has been at EY his entire career.
Jeffrey Resnick (JR): Resnick (Brooklyn College ‘83) is a partner with a focus in tax at WeiserMazars, a top 25 accounting firm. He started his own practice in 1990 and has subsequently merged three times, most recently with WeiserMazars in 2013.
Benjy Blumenthal (BB): Blumenthal (YU ’15) is a first year audit associate at Frost Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, a well-respected, mid-size Chicago accounting firm.
What is the path from YU graduate to partner at your firm?
NB: The general career path is staff for two years, three years as a senior, three years as a manager and then senior manager until partner. There are opportunities for early promotion, but I would say the overwhelming majority of EY employees follow that career path.
Author’s Note: The large firms generally follow a path to partner along these lines.
JR: Within ten to twelve years, if someone stays on the track, they will be a partner at WeiserMazars (2 years as a staff accountant, 3 years as a senior, 2-3 years as a manager and 3-4 years as a senior manager)
What are some of the advantages of working at a large firm?
JS: At a large firm, there is a much larger client base, so you get varied experiences. I’ve worked on start-up companies and was exposed to full audits as a young staff member. As a manager, I began working on larger publicly traded media companies and one of the largest privately owned media companies. My experiences as a staff allowed me to adjust and be able to see the big picture on larger audits. An additional advantage of a large firm is that it comes with a lot of (scheduling) flexibility, which is key when you’re leaving early every single Friday for the majority of busy season.
Author’s Note: Other advantages include, but are not limited to, the tremendous resources, as well as the network of YU alumni and distinguished professionals.
What are some of the advantages of working at a mid-size firm?
JR: If a student coming out of YU goes to a tax or audit department at one of the large firms, the likelihood is that he or she is going to be working (significant) hours. To try to have a life where you also have family time and religious studies is very difficult. WeiserMazars stresses work-life balance. If someone wants to stay in public accounting, a mid-size firm is a great option. You will work with great clients and make a nice income for your family.
BB: The advantage of a mid-size firm is that the firm is like a family. My mentor and I have meetings and lunches to keep track of my progress, and I am comfortable asking questions. The firm is very accommodating to Jews and all religions with flexible holiday scheduling.
Audit or Tax?
JS: In tax, you are working with the company and can bring clear tax savings that translates directly into dollars, while in audit you are working for the shareholders and the public at large, where these third parties and the capital markets as a whole rely on us.
NB: I believe that audit provides one an opportunity to fully understand the inner workings of a company, such as how the company is looking to create efficiencies and how and why they are making their business decisions. I believe that if I would run my own business, my audit experience has provided me with the required foundation needed to be successful. On the other hand, I believe there is an appeal to the tax practice as well, as one can analogize tax consulting work with learning Gemara. In both cases, a text is analyzed (in tax it would be the tax code) with an attempt to identify a certain phrase or application of a specific phrase that can be applied to benefit your client.
JR: I don’t know if there’s really a benefit to either one; it’s what you like. There are people who are more inclined to choose one over the other. In my opinion, if someone doesn’t know where they want to go, it’s easier to start in audit and switch to tax. By selecting audit, you will gain an understanding of how the numbers flow and a general understanding of how a business operates.
What are some misconceptions about working at accounting firms?
JS: Your goal should be to make manager in whatever firm you’re in and then assess your career and decide what you want to do next. You do not learn enough being in a firm for only two or three years. If you leave before you’re a manager, you are making a mistake and not taking advantage of the opportunity that you were provided.
NB: A big misconception is the type of people that work in accounting. The people I work with are fantastic, engaging, entertaining and interesting, as opposed to the general stereotype of accountants (being boring people).
JR: There is a mindset that only if you cannot get into a large firm, then you should go to any of the mid-size firms. I believe that a disservice is being done to YU students; the students should be looking at mid-size firms not as a secondary choice but as a conscious choice. Think it out. Why do you want to be in a large firm? Why do you want to be in a mid-size firm? The top students should be applying to all of them depending on their choices.
BB: In terms of mid-size and small firms, there exists a major misconception about compensation. Salaries at mid-size firms and small firms are competitive with the large firms.
Author’s Note: The Robert Half 2015 Accounting Salary Guide supports Blumenthal’s findings about public accounting salaries. Though the large firms offer the highest salaries, there is not a steep drop-off in mid-size and small firms.
What are the characteristics you are looking for in an associate at your firm?
JS: For me, success as an associate is a product of three things:
A) Always have the right attitude. Give everything and seek additional work.
B) Know what you don’t know. There is nothing wrong with saying “I do not know” to a client. Do the research, and get back to them.
C) Be responsive. My clients all know that I get back to them ASAP. I once got an email from a client and it took me more than a few hours to get back to them. They were (genuinely) concerned something was wrong.
JR: Work effectively, ask questions, and take ownership. I want that next student who comes out of school to be the best and the brightest so that they can eventually be my partner. That would be the best thing in the world for me.
What advice would you give to a YU accounting student?
JS: Try to get the CPA done before you start work. It will make your life so much easier, as you will not have to worry about starting work and studying at the same time.
NB: Being an observant Jew in corporate America is not so easy and requires hard work and dedication to be successful. One must realize that while everyone understands that you are not available on Saturday when the team is working, it might require working on a Sunday when the team is not working. You don’t want to be viewed as the type of person that’s taking advantage of being a Sabbath observer, one who disappears at 3:00 (on Friday when the team is working Saturday) and comes back Monday morning.
JR: Keep all of your options open. Explore all firms and what the pros and cons are. Where do you think you are going to be down the road and will that firm offer you what you want? It could be that a large firm is better for you; it could be that a mid-size or small firm is better for you.
BB: Form as many good relationships as possible. If you are looking for a job, make sure to use all of your contacts as well as go to every job fair. When you start working, ask as many questions as possible to your mentor or senior. They know it’s your first year, and they don't expect you to know everything.