Straight from the Students’ Mouths

Accountants-in-training share perceptions about their education, the business world, their career prospects, and their mixed feelings about landing a job at a Big Four firm.

They are secure in their awareness that they are in high demand. Their sights are set on learning a lot in a hurry. They view the financial crisis as being full of opportunity. Most of all, they like to keep their options open.

Those traits came through loudly and clearly from a group of accounting students from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who visited CFO.com’s New York offices on Thursday. The eight students showed little evidence of possessing the sense of entitlement their generation has been reputed to have. They know they are going to work hard.

Still, if you are going to hire from this crowd, you had better be aware that they will not take kindly to being pigeon-holed into a role that does not interest them. The opportunity for flexibility in their careers is largely what drove them to take up accounting to begin with.

Joseph Leuchter started out taking history, in which he is now minoring after switching his major to accounting. “If I had kept with history, I would have had to become a teacher,” he says. “But with accounting, I can go into auditing or tax, or go to law school, or work for a corporation or the SEC or the FBI — I can go anywhere I want.”

Accounting offers the ability to go into whatever kind of business one finds interesting, notes Sarah Krug. “Accounting is everywhere,” she says. “No matter what kind of company — biotech or health care or filmmaking — you can get in there without actually being a scientist or filmmaker.”

Five of the eight students say they expect their first jobs after graduation will be with public accounting firms. Even there, though, flexibility is a key. Sonam Shah says her preference would be to grow within one of the Big Four firms by working there for several years, but she cites those firms’ broad spectrum of practice areas and clients as the chief appeal.

Even so, Shah acknowledges she’ll be keeping her eyes open to possible career twists. “I say now that I want to work at a public accounting firm, but I might find opportunities elsewhere that are more attractive,” she says.

For Hareesh Nandipati, going to a Big Four firm and working with a variety of clients will provide not only a solid business background but also a valuable way to build his social and professional networks. He calls that “a key ingredient” of career development.

And Victoria Benech says the appeal of the big accounting firms lies mostly in her expectation that she will “get a lot of step-by-step training that will be beneficial in branching out to other areas.”

Certainly, at a public accounting firm the level of commitment and hours worked probably will surpass anything in the students’ experience. And some of them make no apologies for viewing a short tenure there as something to be endured, not savored. “I’m thinking about going to the Big Four, but I’m not excited about that,” says William Jeffries. “It’s an unfortunate necessity. Everyone has been telling me you need a strong background in auditing for anyone to take you seriously.”

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