Everything you need to know about life after the Big 4

You landed a job at Deloitte, EY, KPMG or PwC. While initially exciting, reality has set in. Grueling hours, a demanding workload, and a seemingly endless numbers of audits have taken over – and that’s not even during busy season. Sound familiar?

For me, landing a job in Big 4 seemed like a massive success – until I actually started working. Quickly, work-life balance became something I read about wistfully while browsing the web at 5am because I’d been stress-dreaming again, and why go to sleep anyway when my alarm is about to sound?

It wasn’t a surprise, really. I knew the arduous hours and lack of social life were a known part of the job. Yet even though some accountants thrive in this kind of environment, I – like many – found myself searching for something new, different, inspiring.

But where could I go, when my education and sense of success were so wrapped up in the Big 4 ethos? I often mulled the same questions over and over again – What are my options? Is leaving worth the risk? Perhaps most importantly: is life actually better elsewhere?

This article contains all of the information I wish I had when I made the decision to leave the Big 4 and become a Finance and Accounting Recruiter two years ago. If you’re up at 5 AM wondering about life after Big 4, this one’s for you.

Question 1: Should I stay or should I go?

The first thing you need to consider is your reasons for leaving. Will your qualms be alleviated by climbing the ladder in Big 4 – or can they only be addressed by taking a job somewhere else?

For example: for many, the inability to see a direct impact on other people is a deal breaker in the Big 4 environment. This only gets worse as you progress – though it may seem counter-intuitive, the more clients you have, the less connections you form.

The reality is, Big 4 accounting can be incredibly isolating. Not only is it solitary in nature, but the work itself is often met with little appreciation; auditors are notorious for being ‘annoying,’ even when simply doing their jobs. Add this to a distinct lack of work-life balance, and it becomes exceedingly clear – at least it did for me – that a major career shift is necessary. If isolation and under-appreciation are your issues, it might be time you also consider what’s next.

The scope and implications of this shift are entirely up to you. Some accountants will be perfectly satisfied moving to a boutique firm with a more manageable list of clients and services. Others will be drawn in-house, to play an active role in the success of an individual organization. Going in-house allows you to focus on contributing your efforts to – and forming relationships with – a single company.

Still others, like me, choose to move out of accounting entirely, seeking related opportunities with transferrable skill requirements. The key is in leveraging your assets – be they concrete ‘hard skills’ or more flexible ‘people skills’ – to your advantage.

Question 2: When should I go?

I’ve been in the Big 4, and I know the classic refrain – the longer you stay, the better the opportunities will be when you leave.

But for most of us, the “Partner Track” is the accounting equivalent to hiking Mt. Everest. Unless that is for you, it’s in your best interest to consider alternate tracks early on.

As a specialized Finance and Accounting Recruiter, who every day places accountants looking to transition out of Big 4, I can say with confidence that the ideal time to leave is as a Senior, after 2-3 busy seasons. I say this for two reasons:

Money. Once you make Manager or Senior Manager, you start to out-price yourself in the market.

Title. Companies often avoid recruiting Managers from Big 4 into Accounting Manager positions. Such candidates, though impressive in their own right, don’t possess the operational accounting experience necessary for the job – instead, they have only audit experience to offer.

You’ll find that it’s easier, faster, and less painful to make the jump from Big 4 Senior to Senior Accountant elsewhere (where you can then make your way up the ladder) than it is to transition from Manager to Accounting Manager elsewhere.

The one exception: if you’re looking to pursue a more technical accounting role, I’d suggest getting the Manager experience under your belt at one of the Big 4, where you’ll be focused on more technical areas (leasing, revenue recognition, derivatives, hedges, etc.).

Question 3: Where should I go?

At Proven Recruiting, we normally see people from Big 4 move into opportunities falling into one of five main buckets:

1. Operational Accounting. If you see yourself eventually becoming a Controller, this is your ideal route. Day-to-day work involves month-end closes, journal entries, etc.

2. Technical Accounting/SEC Reporting. Whereas SEC Reporting requires preparing 10Ks and Qs for public companies, Technical Accounting teams assist in the accounting of complex transactions such as business combinations, M&A, and derivatives.

3. Internal Audit. Coming out of audit at one of the Big 4, you may be quick to dismiss an internal audit position – after all, that’s exactly what you’re trying to escape. But internal audit actually has a lot to offer: It boasts a great work-life balance; there are no month-end or quarter-end closes, making for a steady, consistent schedule. You’ll have the opportunity to interact with people at all layers of the company as you conduct your audit.

4. Finance/FP&A. The majority of people leaving Big 4 are hoping to move into finance. But it’s not an easy journey; though finance roles do exist for CPAs, they are not only rare, but incredibly competitive to land. If you’re looking to get into finance, I would recommend finding a company you love where you can build your reputation as an accountant. From there, you can try to naturally work your way into finance.

5. Something else entirely. Outside of these four groups, your options are essentially endless. Maybe you’re ‘over’ accounting and looking for something entirely new – when I left, for instance, I knew I wanted to use the skills and knowledge I had developed at Big 4 and apply them to something where I could interact with people and flex my social muscles. For me, that meant Recruiting. It was the perfect combination of developing relationships, interacting with similarly-minded people, and putting to use my Finance and Accounting knowledge to help others. If you’re considering recruiting, I’d love to get in touch and share my experience.

Question 4: How do I make the leap?

Inside tip: as soon as recruiters receive an order for an accounting position, they filter their LinkedIn search results by ‘Big 4.’ With that experience in your resume, you’re already well ahead of the competition.

Big 4 and CPA are the gold standard – and they’re usually enough to get you noticed by recruiters and into that first interview. But what then? Selling yourself is difficult in any profession, and interviews are universally abhorred. But with Big 4 in your work history, you’ve set the bar high; now it’s time to exceed those expectations.

Your best bet is in communicating to your interviewer that, having gained valuable knowledge in Big 4, you are looking for somewhere you can build your tenure and grow in your career. Presenting your pitch in terms of long-term fit will help the interviewer picture your future at the company.

Ask questions that show your interest in the long game:

– ‘How do you see this position developing in the 2, 5, 10 years?’

– ‘What are the company’s long-term goals?’

– ‘How can the right candidate in this job contribute to the company’s continued success?’

Take a look at our Definitive Guide to Acing Your Interview for more ideas – we’ve got a hefty list of questions to be prepared for, questions to ask, and general interview tips!

In a perfect world, your job should impart meaning, purpose, and pleasure. In an acceptable world, your job should, at the very least, not impart dread. If you’re not getting what you need from work, consider making a change – even if the alternative is rife with unknowns. I’ve been there and come out the other side; it’s a lot brighter here.

I’d love to bring some clarity to your considerations – please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

About the author:

Kristen Funk

Contact Kristen >

Managing Partner, Finance & Accounting Recruiting

As a Partner in Proven Recruiting’s San Diego office, Kristen leads an experienced team of Finance & Accounting Recruiters.

Before joining the Proven Recruiting team, Kristen spent 2 years working in audit at PwC, where she focused on financial services clients.

Have a question for Kristen? Ask her below!