How to navigate an accounting career change
If the average American spends roughly 90,000 hours working in their lifetime, you can bet that at least several of those hours will be spent considering different career paths before you retire.
This can feel unnerving, particularly if you’re an accountant who has invested significant time and resources into earning your degrees, developing niche expertise (e.g. cost accounting), or cultivating relationships within your specialty. So if your potential career pivot requires additional credentials, it’s hard not to wonder if starting over will be worth the effort and feelings of uncertainty.
But here’s the thing: it’s natural for your needs, priorities, and career interests to evolve. Maybe you enjoyed auditing early in your work experience, but are ready to try a different type of accounting as you approach the second or third decade of your career. Luckily, your accounting training is valuable, even across other professions. Read on to help you decide if you need a recalibration or a more substantial career shift.
How to navigate career changes as an accountant
1. Reflect on where you are right now
We don’t always need a complete overhaul to breathe life back into our jobs. To help you pinpoint your needs and create a plan of action, start by making a list of what’s working and not working for you. Ask yourself:
- What parts of my job energize me? What drains me?
- What’s preventing me from reaching my professional goals?
- What do I wish I had or could do that would help me feel more fulfilled at work?
For example, if you’re feeling stagnant and unchallenged, start by seeking out stretch projects that will develop new skills or align more closely with your interests. You might also consider switching to a different industry or a totally new type of accounting to expand your expertise within the same role. For example, if the audit path isn’t aligning with your initial professional goals, try tax or another functional area like financial or managerial accounting.
The simple act of identifying and organizing what’s advancing your development and what’s missing from it can inform your best next steps.
2. Get to know your skills, interests, and strengths
Sometimes we don’t know what we want next, just that what we’re doing right now isn’t “it.” When you’re feeling out of alignment, it’s time to create a matrix of your professional traits and desired outcomes. You’ll start to see themes emerge when you write everything down in one place:
- Current skills
- What you’re passionate about and love doing
- Your strengths
- What you want to avoid (e.g. being on the phone all day, rigid schedules, client-facing activities, etc.)
Let’s take a look at this sample profile:
Skills: advanced Excel, financial analysis, project management, people management, auditing, tax, CPA license, tax regulations, financial reporting
Interests/passions: fundraising, sales, customer experience, public speaking
Strengths: attention to detail, problem-solving, risk assessment, “reading people”/EQ, communication, working in ambiguity
Although this person’s hard skills are in accounting, their strengths suggest that they could do well in other professions, such as entrepreneurship. If a traditional public accounting route hasn’t worked for them thus far, they could consider opening their own accounting venture, blending their skills in accounting and entrepreneurship.
3. Leverage new certifications and licenses
A new certification or license can help you upskill and appear more valuable to new job prospects. It also shows prospective employers that you’re willing to do the work to grow your accounting abilities. The pursuit of a new license is far from easy, but the benefits far outweigh the cost.
For instance, having a CPA license conveys a reputation for excellence resulting from passing the CPA Exam. Although this distinction gives you the privilege of performing duties reserved only for CPAs, having this credential doesn’t limit you to working strictly in an accounting capacity. The value of having this professional distinction--apart from having higher earning potential--is that it translates surprisingly well across different industries and roles. While having your license isn’t always a hard requirement, it does help you stand out when applying for leadership roles or other professions, given the rigorous process to earn one.
4. Ask for help and build your community
It doesn’t hurt to see if your company offers benefits that promote professional development, such as subsidizing the cost of CPA Exam review courses or providing a stipend for continuing education. If your company doesn’t offer these benefits, try talking to your manager about other ways they might support your career goals (e.g. adjusting schedules for study time, or working on initiatives that align with your development goals).
You could also join an employee resource group (ERG) to connect with other employees and gain valuable skills. ERGs often need volunteers to run them, so if leadership is a skill you’d like to develop, applying for one of these positions within the group could expedite your progress.
As you explore your options within your organization, remember to also check out communities outside of your company. Whether you’re researching unconventional CPA career paths or want to master your accounting expertise, joining accounting and finance organizations can connect you to people who can share their experience and wisdom with you. Below are just a few:
- American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
- Association for Financial Professionals
- Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance
- National Association of Black Accountants
If you’d like to expand your network further, don’t be afraid to ask for informational chats with other employees inside your organization, on LinkedIn, or through mutual connections. People are more willing to help than you think, especially when it comes to sharing their experiences.
5. Think outside of the box
Your CPA experience doesn’t box you in. Rather, it can serve as a jumping-off point for your next career opportunity. When you can answer how being a CPA has enriched your professional expertise--above and beyond the technical skills--you’ll be able to articulate and believe that you can contribute the same value to unexpected industries and functions.
For example, CPAs can cross over into unique careers that include:
- Fashion buyer
- Film production manager
- Forensic auditor
- Management consultant for financial and accounting clients
- Educator (teaching accounting at a university)
- Engineer, programmer, or developer for a FinTech company
You might be surprised to find that success factors in these roles overlap with the same expertise needed for CPAs:
- Financial and data analysis (all business units rely on this to accurately set KPIs, find leverage, and forecast revenue and expenses)
- Budget planning (helps teams and companies manage resources)
- Creative problem-solving (for when unexpected situations occur)
- Managing client and internal stakeholder relationships (communicating progress, reaching alignment, getting “buy-in,” establishing trust)
If you’re unhappy in your current role, stay encouraged. You’re never “stuck” and the option to reassess and recalibrate is always there. No matter which industry or role in accounting you’re considering next, CPA licensure can boost your value as a professional.
Take the first step towards a new career by passing the CPA Exam and earning your CPA license.