My history is that I spent three years to the day at a Big 4 Accounting firm in their audit department. My first year I quite enjoyed. There was a challenge, and there were plenty of friends to be made along the way which made the daily grind more enjoyable.
However, after my first year, people started to leave. Some moved closer to their hometown in another Big 4 office, some left because they hated Audit/Accounting, and some left before they were kicked out (usually due to poor exam performance, rather than work performance).
I think there comes a time in the vast majority of Big 4 Accountant’s careers where they start to question whether it is the right time to leave their Big 4 Accounting job. But it can be hard, and I’ve seen too many people end up talking about leaving, but still being in that same office year after year.
There are people still at my old firm who were talking about leaving less than two years into their career there. We’re now many years later, and they’re still there, talking about how they don’t like the job.
Why Do People Stay At Big 4 Accounting Firms?
There are likely many reasons, both in terms of career and psychologically. I would say most people who work in these roles fall into one of the following categories:
- They want to become Partner and will push through till the end
- They want to leave, but don’t know what they want to do
- They’re scared to make the jump (worried they might regret it)
- They like the security Big 4 provides
- You feel like you’ve made it past the point of no return (usually Manager and above)
You may be looking at one of the above categories and think “Yes! that is me!”.
I imagine if you’re reading this post, you aren’t considering becoming Partner. So, you likely come into one of the others.
It will be difficult for me to give you a clear-cut answer as to when the best time to leave Big 4 Accounting will be. However, I will try my best to guide you to answer the question yourself.
There are some questions I think you should answer to yourself in order to guide yourself:
Do You Enjoy Your Job/Are You Happy?
This, in my opinion, is the key question to ask yourself. I was miserable in my final year at my Big 4 firm. The reason is because I felt trapped. I needed to work there for three years in order to fully qualify as an accountant, yet had finished my exams around the 2 year mark. So, it felt like I was just sitting and waiting for the timer to tick down.
The best way I can describe it is when you put something in the microwave for 5 minutes, and it is the longest 5 minutes of your life. This is how I felt in my final year in Big 4 Accounting.
Now, if you’re in the same position as I was, then definitely stick out that final time and get qualified, believe me, the benefits outweigh the misery. However, if you’re past that point, I think you need to talk to yourself about whether this job really makes you happy. You should never be doing something in life which drains your mental health in any way.
However, before you make any rash decisions, make a plan.
It may be possible to change something small to make a big impact. Perhaps you dislike your job because you’re working with a particular client. You may be able to discuss this with a manager/director/partner and get re-allocated to a different client. If it is that simple, and you foresee yourself liking your Big 4 role with this change, then I fully promote starting that discussion.
I need to emphasise that I don’t recommend anyone to just quit their job out of the blue, no matter how bad it is. Set up a plan for exit. In the 6 months leading up to the date I planned to leave, I was talking to recruiters, improving my CV, and practicing my interviewing skills. The combination of these three activities is what landed me my dream job.
It can be stressful and emotional, but if you stick it out, and put the work in towards landing your dream job outside of Big 4 Accounting, you will not regret it.
While I say don’t quit your job rashly, I think I should also state not to accept any job that comes your way rashly. When I planned to leave I was offered two other roles: One in Fund Accounting, and one in Fund Administration. I’m SO glad I declined both and trusted my gut with the third option.
What Area Of Finance Do You Enjoy The Most?
This is the key positive I take away from my time in Audit. I was able to explore many areas of finance, and realise exactly what I liked and disliked. I knew that I had a passion for the investment industry (specifically value investing). This is why I set out to find a role which was around this niche of the finance industry. Whether that had been being an Accountant in Private Equity, or working for a Fund Admin which focussed on Value Investing Funds – That was the goal.
In the end, I landed an amazing job at a Hedge Fund – and I’ve not looked back since.
It might be worth taking some notes, and really trying to think about the aspects of your current job you find interesting. You might love banking, but hate insurance. Or love real estate, and hate private equity. Note down 3 areas you work in that you find interesting, and then think of roles you could fulfill in these areas.
Have You Tried Finding A New Job?
This might seem like a silly question, but I’ve experienced so many Big 4 Auditors/Accountants which talk about wanting to leave their job, yet haven’t even taken the first steps to finding a new job. It can be as simple as opening some dialogue with various job recruiters; looking online at job openings; starting discussions on LinkedIn – The list goes on.
Try scouting out the local market in your areas of interest and see what is out there and available for you right now. Try and gain an understanding of what local companies are looking for. Do the majority of roles want someone who is 3 years post-qualification? It might be worth staying a little longer just to land your perfect job.
Treat finding a job as a job in itself. Do research, and make sure you’re prepared. You need to know what you want in order to make a great career path after Big 4.
Is Money Important?
People either want high paid jobs, or they don’t. Flexibility might be more important to you in your career. These are factors which will decide what your next move is.
You might be happy with your salary in your Big 4 role, and the flexibility and stability allows you to feel comfortable. You may not love the work, but the added benefits it brings make up for the monotony.
If you want to be earning the big bucks, then sticking around at Big 4 is not the way to do it. Only Partners earn a lot of money, and it can take many years to get there. Qualified Accountants earn far more working in industry, and that is a well known fact.
I almost doubled my salary when I left Big 4 – and the benefits on top of my salary far exceed anything the Big 4 package was offering me. However, I do believe I landed in a lucky position. But saying that, no Accountant going from Big 4 into industry is going to be taking a pay-cut, unless you want to work in a very small private office, in a small town away from the big city. But if that’s what you want, I suspect money isn’t important to you.
Some career paths are more lucrative than others. This is why it is important to scout out the current job market and see what is available. My recruiter was able to give me examples of career paths his other clients had taken, so I could get an idea of where mine could go. Ask your recruiter if they recommend any specific types of roles, or if they have examples of previous clients who had effectively climbed the career ladder.
How Important Is Job Security?
I think this is part of the reason that many people stay at The Big 4 longer than they intended. Once you have been there for over three years, there is an element of Stockholm Syndrome. The phrase “Better the devil you know” comes to mind.
It can be scary taking the leap away from the role you’ve been working in for years. There’s nothing overtly wrong with working at a Big 4, and it can be a great job for some. However, I know many people are just there because it is stable.
Once you’ve been there for a few years, it is unlikely you will ever lose your job unless you’re actually bad at it. You can get away with being mediocre and still not have anyone complain about your work performance. In a smaller office, or one where your salary is higher, they expect more, and they expect improvement.
If you want to coast through your career with little stress, then I would say staying in Big 4 is an option. You might not be first choice for manager, but you’ll get a solid pay-cheque and have little stress about losing your job. It is unlikely any of the Big 4 will ever close their doors. Comparatively, working at a Hedge Fund, if we don’t perform well for a long period of time, investors take their money out of the fund. No matter how bad times are, firms still need auditors and tax advice – so the Big 4 aren’t hit too badly during economic downturns. It is one of the most stable and reliable finance jobs you could have.
So, if you’re happy to just be stress-free and have a “job for life”, and don’t aspire to be earning 7 figures…just stay. I don’t think you’ll find much of a better option if this is what you want.
Life After Big 4
The future is bright regardless of what your decision is. You’ve made a great choice entering a career as an Accountant, and you’ll have a fruitful career.
There are many differences between working in a Big 4 and working in industry, and definitely expect a difference if you choose to make the jump. I think the main difference is around the management of teams. This is where things become difficult if you have stayed at Big 4 until a manager level. Because you don’t have any experience managing teams in the way you would in industry, it can be difficult to find a managerial role. This is the only instance in which you may have to take a pay-cut in order to get the job you really want.
If you’re thinking about leaving your Big 4 job in the future, I think you should definitely make certain of exactly what you want, and try not to stay too long. The longer you stay in your role, the more difficult it will be to leave – This is why many people end up ‘stuck’ at Big 4. There’s a Partner who I used to work with who honestly just told me the only reason he became a Partner is because he stayed too long until Manager, and decided he was too far in to leave. So, he stayed at made Partner, and now lives a very cushty life. But, getting to the point he’s at now was difficult, and a very long road. So think about exactly what you want.
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