Should you be an accountant?

The safest of all degrees to be acquiring this year is in accounting: forty-six per cent of graduates in that discipline have already been offered jobs. Business majors are similarly placed: forty-four per cent will have barely a moment to breathe before undergoing the transformation from student to suit.

That is Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker.

In grade 13 (yes, Canada once had a grade 13) I received an 8.5 x 14 sheet of paper that asked for my name, date of birth, and three university-program choices, in order of desire. That’s how Ontario university students got placed (and maybe still do, for all I know). Letters of recommendation, essays, applications–none of these were needed. Campus visits? It never occurred to us. Just put in your three choices and the machine will take care of the rest.

I’d never given my vocation a moment’s thought. My Dad was a bank manager, my grandfather was a bank manager, my uncle was a bank manager. I was born with a share in the bank where my grandfather worked for 40 years, and I had an ATM card when I was 6 years old (back before most people knew what ATM meant). Instead of an allowance, I had a T-account taped to the fridge, and my father gave me debits and credits for chores and purchases.

It’s fair to say: I was pretty prepared for a business or finance career. And from where I stood, it looked like a pretty nice job.

I asked a friend where she planned to apply. University of Waterloo, she replied, for accounting. You’re guaranteed a job; your future’s set.

I went home and talked to my Dad. I know a few accountants, he said, why don’t you go talk to them?

Peter was the managing partner at Deloitte & Touche in Ottawa. It was a great meeting. He was funny, smart. His job sounded fascinating and challenging. I thought: I want his job.

So Waterloo accounting went at the top of the list, and I started working at Deloitte my first summer and every year after that.

Now, this was all a horrible, albeit unintended trick. Peter, as it turns out, is probably the most dynamic accountant alive. No one knew it at the time, but in ten years he’d be global chairman of the company. So it’s fair to say I received a biased view of accountancy.

As it turns out, being an accountant means you have to have patience, a painstaking eye for detail, and great diligence. If you have an attention span of, say, 5 seconds, then… not so good.

At Deloitte, you’d get evaluated by a manager about every other week, since you’d change audits about that often. There’s a special evaluation category called “below expectations” that almost never, ever gets filled out. It’s kind of like getting a D in class. I never got D’s in class. But “below expectations” followed me through my years at Deloitte. I was miserable.

In my senior year, I saw an ad in The Economist, for a new master’s program at Harvard in international development. I thought: this is what I want to do. In the second week of classes I changed my major to economics and politics, and did 10 econ classes in two semesters to qualify. A couple of years later, to my great surprise, I landed in that very program. (I still remember doing a little dance in the shower, where no one could see me.)

Where am I going with this? Economics is not exactly an unmarketable degree. But the important thing is I switched to something I loved (or at least  thought I would love–the closest I’d come to a developing country at that point was eating at Taco Bell).

Lots of philosophy and biology and English students are probably wondering whether, in this economy, they should switch to business or accounting. Accounting = job. Philosophy = …?

I have plenty of friends who stayed in business or accounting and love it. My brothers, as it turns out, both became bankers too. If you’re good at business, and it makes you happy, great. But don’t let a short recession, a blip in your economic life, change the whole course.

If you hate it, you will be bad at it, and “below expectations” will become a terribly familiar phrase.

14 thoughts on “Should you be an accountant?

  1. I was an accountant and auditor (with PricewaterhouseCoopers and later the Dutch central bank) for more than ten years. I loved the game, I loved learning under pressure, and on the received good to excellent reviews (and salaries and bonuses to match). Still, I left the profession almost ten years ago to start a new career in aid, and never really looked back.

  2. I too made a similar leap many years ago. I wish more people worked in the private sector (especially from acct and management) prior to entering aid and/or academia. There’s a real need for folks with those skills. It’s kind of weird when you think of all the folks who enter the aid field with zero experience — albeit with lots of passion.

    Last year, I met up with some friends from a fairly large development organization I worked for almost 10 years ago. They were still using the same budgeting excel system I had set up for them. While flattered, I presume it had more to do with the lack of capacity then my skills.

  3. I had a similar experience, though I actually majored in literature, with a focus on creative writing. When I graduated, I got a job as a “qualitative research analyst”, as no one was hiring poets, and did ethnographic focus groups. It was my first taste of social science and studying people. In the evenings, I’d download and read all the papers I could find at the University of Chicago’s “Law and Economics” working paper series, and eventually found Becker’s Nobel Prize lecture. I took night classes in calculus and one MBA economics class, my first, and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Georgia the following year (2002). I’ve always done what I loved when it came to schooling, hence why I was studying literature, but I feel really fortunate to have found economics. It was like finding my soul mate.

  4. “yes, Canada once had a grade 13”

    Ha! Sounds like typical Ontarian arrogance to this Nova Scotian educated African. :)

  5. As someone who just applied (successfully!) to a master’s program that is not clearly related to his undergrad (following two mid-stream changes), I would love to hear about your experiences writing statements of intent or letters of interest. I found it really shook my confidence to make a written case for my admission into a program about which I had plenty of passion but little experience. They took a lot of thought and effort. I think it was good letters from my referees that saved me, but I’ll never know for sure.

  6. I believe the same is true for dissertation topics/research agendas – studying what’s popular may get you a fellowship, or even a job, but it won’t keep you fascinated enough to make a career of it.

  7. You’re post hit close to home, but sadly I’m still in the accounting stage of my career. I went into it for the same reason, I could get a job. My great hope is to eventually find a viable way out of accounting and into something I love. I can’t imagine accounting for 40 years. Although it’s hard to make big career changes late in the game with two kids and a wife to support.

    I’ve thought a lot about the advice I will give my kids about choosing a career path. You’re absolutely right when you say, “If you hate it, you’ll be bad at it.” I find that there is definitely a correlation. Do something you love is good advice, but it’s not enough on its own. In my high school, it was very popular to hear from parents, teachers, and counselors, who were so desperate for kids to go to college, “Just get the degree. They’re looking for that piece of paper.” So we end up having a whole batch of kids that go to college that would actually be more fulfilled in possibly lower paying work-with-your-hands-type jobs.

    You international development degree made sense because you wanted to DO international development. I know so many history majors that have no desire to DO history. Now I’m aware of the difficulties in going to college later in life if you choose to “take a few years off”. But I wonder, shouldn’t they have just stayed out of college entirely to avoid racking up debt until they figure out what they love, and then go for it with gusto? I’m a lost cause, but I ask because I’m trying to figure out what advice to give my kids someday.

  8. That’s still pretty much how university applications are done in Ontario, though of course the form is online. Students do apply for more scholarships, and there are more special first year programs that do require full applications, like King’s Foundation Year and the U of T clones. But in general, you can get into a decent university without writing a single essay. I think there are distinct advantages to this system, in terms of administration costs…

  9. Very inspiring and well written post. I’ve been up all night debating this question, thanks for your insight but I have a feeling I’ll end up being ‘below expectation’.

  10. I do believe the identical does work regarding dissertation topics/research agendas – understanding what’s Online Dog Care course favorite may get which you fellowship, or possibly career, however it won’t retain people fascinated sufficient to create a occupation from it.