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.