By Rich Singer, CPA, MBA, Senior VP and Director of Permanent Placement, Robert Half
One of the best things about my job as a recruiter is working with college students. In my 35 years working in this business, I’ve given hundreds of university presentations and advised thousands of students. It’s a privilege to help the next generation as they work toward a degree, gather experience and prepare for their professional career.
I’ve noticed a trend that concerns me, however: Students seem to be losing interest in pursuing the accounting major and CPA. They’re shifting to other majors in business or finance, or they’re taking the “undecided” route instead. This is happening primarily for two reasons: Lasting misconceptions about the accounting field and the advice these students are getting from others.
Misconception 1: Accountants are ‘bean counters’
One of the most common misconceptions is the notion of accountants as “bean counters.”
Over the years, manual processes involving calculators and cumbersome workpapers have been automated with software, enabling roles to be more analytical and concept-driven than ever before. Job descriptions have expanded significantly to account for this strategic focus.
Misconception 2: Accountants must have a CPA
Another misconception is that the CPA license is required to succeed in the field. While it’s preferred, I’d estimate that only 25% of accountants are certified.
While many individuals do well in the field without certification, I strongly recommend pursuing it for the career benefits it provides, which I will outline later in this piece.
A constant wave of misinformation
Students, of course, have every right to change their minds and pursue the major that’s right for them. I have no issue with people choosing a different path — accounting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s the reasons they abandon an accounting major that concern me. Students are receiving a great deal of misinformation about the major and the profession at every turn.
Tell anyone you’re an accounting major, and here’s what you’ll likely hear:
- You’ll work terrible hours during the busy season.
- The CPA exam is impossible to pass.
- Getting 150 credits to sit for the CPA exam means staying on for a fifth year.
- Accounting professors grade more harshly than others. You’ll get a higher GPA if you choose something else.
And it’s not just what they’re hearing — it’s who is doing the talking. Many students I meet say the comments from professors, mentors and even parents are fueling their decision to leave the program. The very people who should be supporting their choice and helping them pursue this path are scaring them away from it.
Stay focused on the long-term game
The accounting degree is getting a bad rap, and I want to reframe the conversation.
College is a long-term game. It’s about finding your strengths and choosing the right path. It’s also about building a strong foundation for your career that will give you plenty of options to develop and grow. People’s negative comments about majoring in accounting aren’t focused on the long-term game; they’re all about the short term.
You take the exam once. Tax season hours are tough, but there are other times of the year with greater schedule flexibility. (Not to mention your career may take you in a different direction where this is no longer a concern.)
Students who enter college with AP credits or through a community college program may not need to face the full expense of an extra year. And if they do, I’d argue that taking one year to benefit a professional career that could last 40 or more is a good move.
Many companies will help subsidize an advanced degree, such as an MBA, as well as additional credits required for CPA exam eligibility. People don’t need to get into their fifth year of study right away.
Investments with significant ROI potential
Based on all of my years in accounting and recruiting, I can tell you that pursuing an accounting degree and earning a CPA are among the very best investments you can make in your career. Simply put, it places you in an elite category of professionals and gives you excellent career options. Consider the following:
People with accounting degrees are in short supply and very high demand throughout the United States. While the national unemployment rate is 3.9%, the rate for accountants and auditors is 3.7%, according to recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
I’d estimate that number is closer to 1% in the market I serve: Unemployment in accounting is virtually nonexistent. Every day, I see firms fight over each other to attract and hire great people. If you’re an accounting graduate with a CPA and some public accounting experience, you can write your own ticket in the current job market.
Download the latest Salary Guide from Robert Half to see the average national salaries for a wide range of accounting and finance roles.
An accounting background opens up several options for your career. You may find a great opportunity in public accounting and seek advancement opportunities there. Or you might decide to shift to the corporate side.
You may also opt to pursue finance. Note that having an accounting degree opens up both the accounting and finance paths. With a finance degree, that choice often isn’t available.
Many large corporations prefer their financial analysts to have some accounting credits or an undergraduate major or minor in accounting. Hiring managers believe that accounting serves as an excellent foundation for the finance path: Once people understand how the numbers are derived, it is easier to analyze them.
Also, keep in mind that accounting is a universal language applicable to all businesses. While some majors are highly specialized and targeted to certain industries, companies of all types value an accounting degree.
Pursuing the accounting degree and passing the CPA exam both take hard work. Facing these challenges head-on and succeeding speaks volumes about your skills and abilities to hiring managers. Taking this route — which also requires continuing education to maintain your license — projects your commitment to the field over the long term.
Maintain a balanced perspective
Is accounting a tough major? It can be. Is it rewarding? Absolutely. I took the accounting major and CPA route myself, and I’ve watched many others take on the challenge to realize positive and fulfilling career paths.
As you make decisions about your major and professional career, don’t place limits on what you can or should do or give too much weight to those who say something’s too difficult or not worth the extra effort. Maintain a balanced perspective, gather as many viewpoints as possible, and focus on the long game.
Keeping the doors open — rather than closing them too early — might just lead to your best career path.
Are you in the market for entry-level accounting jobs? See this post on the Robert Half blog.
About Rich Singer
Rich has been a financial recruiting expert with Robert Half for over 25 years. He has a CPA and MBA and worked for 10 years in public and private accounting, including as an accounting manager for a worldwide leasing company and a controller for a major construction company. Rich, who is based in New Jersey, frequently provides his insights on career planning through public speaking engagements and published articles.
Follow Rich Singer on LinkedIn.