Big 4 vs mid-tier accounting firms: Which path is right for your career?

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So, you’ve graduated college and decided to start your career in public accounting. It may seem like the most important decisions are behind you, but there’s still one critical choice you’ll need to make—should you start your career at a Big 4 public accounting firm or at a mid-tier firm?

The decision comes down to what’s right for you and your working style, interests and long-term career goals.

 In this article, we’ll examine the pros and cons of both choices to help you make a more informed decision as you start your accounting career.

Differences between Big 4 and mid-tier accounting firms

Let’s review the differences between these types of firms. 

Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and KPMG — often called the Big 4 — are the four largest professional services networks in the world and are considered very prestigious. They hire many graduates every year, but they receive even more applications, so you’ll need to have an impressive transcript or resume to get a position at a Big 4 firm straight out of college.

Mid-tier firms make up the list of firms that aren’t the Big 4, nor local small firms. Some have name recognition throughout the industry, but many don’t. Some are boutique firms that focus on a specific niche, and others are general service firms that perform the same kind of work as the Big 4, just on a smaller scale. A few of the biggest mid-tier firms include RSM, Grant Thornton, BDO, and Crowe.

Pros of working at a Big 4 firm

Working at a Big 4 firm gives you instant credibility. Even if you stay for only a couple of years, having a Big 4 name on your resume can open more career opportunities for you down the road. Working in a Big 4 firm may also allow you to network with a diverse group of accountants, including both entry level and partnership track colleagues. 

Big 4 firms also offer a broad range of clients. You’ll get the opportunity to work with some of the largest and most recognizable businesses in the world and perhaps even collaborate with their CFOs or CEOs. You also may work with smaller clients and individuals or a mix of both. 

You may also have more opportunity to concentrate on a specialty area like consultancy at the Big 4. Big 4 firms already have a strong presence in the consulting space, and they are constantly expanding into new territories to provide more holistic services to their clients.

And, you’ll have more opportunities to travel. With offices all over the world, Big 4 firms have the resources to send you to conferences and events in big cities and exciting locations.

 Finally, Big 4 firms typically offer larger salaries than mid-tier firms. And if you become a partner, you can often earn much more than you would at a mid-tier firm.

Cons of working at a Big 4 firm

Perhaps the biggest drawback to working at a Big 4 firm is that you’ll be expected to work long, hard hours and to hit aggressive targets in the amount of fees you earn and number of clients you serve. This typically means working long nights and weekends, which could substantially impact your personal life. Work/life balance may be incredibly difficult to maintain while working at a Big 4 firm. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Big 4 working environment tends to be very corporate, with strict processes and systems. There won’t be a ton of room for innovation, and you will likely spend a lot of time and effort learning new processes and systems as the firm rolls them out or makes changes to existing workflows.

Finally, while Big 4 firms have office locations all over the world, they typically prefer employees to work on-site at least some of the time, and they may ask you to relocate before you can start or even after you’ve been at a particular office for some time. While more adventurous types may enjoy this, for most it’s a burden. On the plus side, the Big 4 will likely reimburse you for relocation costs.

Pros of working at a mid-tier public accounting firm

Mid-tier firms offer more opportunities for specialization. You can find firms that focus on specific industries, like technology, healthcare or the nonprofit sector.

You also may find that you forge stronger, more personal relationships with your clients who value your services more. Rather than being just another member of a large team, you could become the go-to person for your clients’ accounting needs. 

In addition to feeling more valued by your clients, you’ll also likely be more valued by your firm. Mid-tier firms often go to greater lengths to keep their employees happy, as they don’t have the broad recruiting capabilities of the Big 4.  

You’ll almost certainly have more freedom for a personal and social life at a mid-tier firm than you would at the Big 4. These firms have fewer clients and usually have less strict targets you’ll need to hit. If you value a healthy work/life balance, a mid-tier firm may be the better choice to start your career.

Cons of working at a mid-tier public accounting firm

Starting pay at a mid-tier firm will likely be lower than at a Big 4 firm, and there’s less opportunity for advancement, as there are simply fewer positions to fill and fewer opportunities to become a partner.

Because mid-tier firms have fewer offices than the Big 4, you may need to relocate, and you’ll have fewer opportunities to travel.

Finally, at the risk of contradicting ourselves, work/life balance can actually be worse at some mid-tier firms than at the Big 4. With a smaller team, you may be expected to handle more clients and projects, and you may also have to take on tasks outside of traditional public accounting, since the firm may not have the resources to handle all aspects of the work. 

Advance your career with a CPA license 

Whether you choose a Big 4 or a mid-tier firm, there’s no right or wrong choice. But one choice that will boost your career is earning your CPA license. Becoming a CPA can help open limitless career opportunities

One of the hardest steps of becoming a CPA is passing the CPA Exam. You can count on Becker to provide the expert instruction and powerful practice tools you need to get the most out of your CPA Exam prep. Whether you’re still in college, currently working at a firm, or ready to make a career switch, Becker can help you get Exam Day ReadySM.

Learn more about Becker CPA Exam prep >

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