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.”

But Hakob Stepanyan, who is exploring several possible career entry points, says he doesn’t expect to find it much different anywhere else. “I definitely expect the hours to be long — that’s pretty much across the board for any entry-level finance positions you’re looking at,” he says, adding, “That’s one of the last things I’m worried about.”

Stepanyan is one of two students who raises his hand when the group is asked, “Anyone want to be a CFO?” His view of business starts with accounting, but it doesn’t end there. “The thing that stood out about accounting for me was that, when you’re done learning the technicals, it’s about telling the story of the company,” he says. “You get a sound understanding of how to play out the company’s history and its business plan, and you have to communicate that effectively.”

The other aspiring finance chief, Leuchter, says he likes that a CFO has ownership for the success of the business. That path may be open to him if he puts his accounting education to work for his family’s call-center business, which already employs many family members. “I feel that while public accounting would be good for the technical aspects, you’re not making a business, and that’s what I would like to be doing,” he says.

Meanwhile, the students are acutely aware that there is a chronic shortage of accounting talent and of what that means for their job security, not to mention pay.

“You have a good future in accounting, because there will always be a need for accountants,” says Shah. “It’s secure. When thinking about a career path you have to think about your financial stability, and accounting does provide for that.”

Jeffries says the fact that accounting is “a profitable career path” accounted for probably 75 percent of his decision to take it — “especially in this economy, when everybody is talking about how difficult it’s going to be to get jobs, and especially high-paying jobs.” He relates watching his sister graduate from college and struggle to make a career in journalism. “I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if I could graduate and have a job already? Accounting seems to be one place where you can do that,” he says.

But Jeffries views accounting as far more than a means to an end — at least, he does now. He says his initial impression of accounting was “rather negative,” and he was pleasantly surprised when he got into the William & Mary program, which he says presented “a clear picture of how it is useful.”

Old perceptions of the profession as boring and monotonous are anachronistic, according to Jeffries. More apt terms today, he says, are “interesting and full of opportunity.” He especially likes the ability to travel — “to move to the big city or move overseas.”

Stepanyan agrees that historical perceptions are outdated. “Even though accounting will always remain practical, we’re not introverted nerds,” he says. “I’m in the grad program, and you’d be surprised how exciting everybody is. We’re all very social.”

They’re even excited by the financial crisis. “It certainly makes things more interesting for us; definitely more of a challenge,” says Krug. “That’s appealing, because if you can survive that, you can survive anything.”

While Leuchter allows that the crisis “is not a good thing for the world,” he says “it’s good for learning — you learn that business isn’t all just profit, making money. There’s definitely loss and bad times, and it makes you more skeptical. When you’re young you’re aggressive, and I think this [crisis] has restrained some of that.”

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