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The pros and cons of a career in accountancy

Emmanuel Payne

No job is all upside. As you prepare to go into the world of full-time work, it’s worth considering how much you’ll enjoy the pros and how disheartening you’ll find the cons of an accountancy career.

The world is full of accountancy grads who aren’t working as accountants. Some are musicians (Mick Jagger), some comedians (Eddie Izzard) and some novelists (John Grisham). Believe it or not, some are even mixed martial arts cage fighters (Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell). Of course, most accountancy grads do go on to become accountants, at least for a period of time. But before you do so it’s worth doing a little accounting of your own about the benefits and costs involved.   

The benefits

  • Interesting work. Forget the clichés about bean counters toiling over stacks of musty financial records in sunless offices. Today’s accountants work on many different types of tasks. They often work in teams and many work in clients’ offices. Advances in technology mean many mundane activities have been automated, allowing accountants to focus on more challenging issues.
  • An exciting work environment. Your colleagues will – most of the time – be clever, motivated, and share your passion for accounting.
  • No career ceilings. A variety of career paths are available to accountants. These range from public accounting, to government and non-profit careers, to corporate accounting and academia. There are also many specialities such as tax, healthcare and environmental accounting. Accounting can also serve as a launching pad for careers in business, consulting, law, education, government and non-profits.  
  • Travel the world. Accountants are in demand everywhere meaning it’s relatively easy to get a work visa for, or even citizenship of, a foreign country. If you work for one of the globe-spanning accountancy behemoths, you’ve got a good chance of being able to arrange a tour of duty somewhere like New York or London. 
  • Autonomy. If you tire of working for The Man and want to be your own boss, you can join the heaving ranks of those accountants who’ve started their own firms.
  • Work in your tracksuit pants. Even if it’s something the big end of town has been slow to embrace, accountancy is a job that lends itself to telecommuting. Many self-employed accountants work from home offices and make themselves comfortable while doing so.
  • A healthy income. While salaries vary depending on the field and employer, Australian accountancy grads can expect to start on a salary of around $50,000. There’s the very real opportunity to double or triple that within 10 years. Should you continue to climb the greasy pole, it’s possible you could end up earning hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of dollars a year. 
  • On-the-job learning. The accounting industry champions continuing education, which will help you keep your skills updated.
  • A free business education. Accountants get an inside view of how businesses operate and the mistakes business owners commonly make. This can come in handy as you move into the ranks of management. Or if you decide to hang out your own shingle.
  • Plentiful opportunities for career advancement. The bulk of the baby boomers—many of whom are in top management positions—are expected to retire in the next decade. This means Gen Y accountants should have many more opportunities for rapid advancement than their long-suffering Gen X counterparts did.
  • Increasing diversity. While once associated with middle-aged Anglo males, the industry in Australia has taken great strides in encouraging women and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds to get involved. 

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The costs

  • Long hours. You can expect to work a minimum of 40 hours a week and a lot more than that if you’re trying to climb the career ladder. Even if you’re not a career-obsessed workaholic, you’ll still be expected to burn the midnight oil during busy periods of the financial year.  
  • Travel. Roaming across the country and globe can seem exciting when you’re young and single but it can get draining when you’re not so young and trying to raise a family.
  • Stress. Some accountants help manage multimillion-dollar enterprises. Even the humblest of suburban accountants is likely to be playing a crucial role in monitoring the financial viability of many small family businesses. So pressure will always be part of the equation.  
  • Never-ending study. Ever-changing tax laws and certification requirements mean that accountants must continue to learn throughout their careers. As a graduate, you’ll probably need to combine long hours on the job with getting a qualification from an accountancy body such as CPA.
  • Office politics. Of course, this is an issue in every industry. But put a lot of ambitious, high-achieving types together and you’re going to get ego clashes and turf wars.   
  • Conformism. Individualists may have a tough time in the industry because of its focus on teamwork and rules-oriented best practices.
  • Sedentary work environment. Accountants—especially those in more junior positions—spend a lot of time seated in front of their computers.  
  • Competing demands. Accountants are usually assigned multiple projects at any given time. (You’ll need to learn how to prioritise and, when needed, learn to say no.)
  • Conservative culture. Other industries may have loosened up in recent years but the accountancy industry maintains a well-deserved reputation for staid respectability. Given the nature of the work and the expectations of clients, the industry is unlikely to change. If you’re looking for a workplace with ping pong tables and a casual dress code, you should consider other options.