By Luminari

Ask A CPA: Should I Work At A Big 4 Firm?


Luminari gets tons of great career questions from our CPA community, too great not to share. Our new feature highlights some of the best questions we get to help others with similar issues. Read on to hear how Michael Kravshik, Luminari Co-Founder and CPA, answers the classic question: “Should I work at a big 4 firm?”

Question: Should I work at a big 4 firm?

AMA: Hey Michael, I’m in school still and debating what type of accounting firm I’d like to target for my first job. Is the big four always best?

Michael’s Response:

This is a super important question that people don’t ask enough. It was definitely the prevailing opinion when I was in school.

The short answer is no, big four is not always best. My recommendation is to deeply consider the career path you think you want in the long term. Yes I know, you probably don’t actually know what you want to do the rest of your life (unless you’re part of that lucky rare group). But it’s a place to start, and you really don’t have much else to work with.

Basically, if you think you’ll want to work at smaller or early-stage companies, start your own accounting firm, or advise owner-operated businesses, then the experience you’ll get at a smaller firm will be more relevant. The big firms naturally have big clients. If you spend years learning how complex operations at multi-billion dollar companies’ work, it’s going to be a lot less useful than learning how a car dealership manages their cash. The same goes the vice versa, if you think you’d like to spend your career at multi-national companies, or consulting on massive deals, then small firm experience will be less relevant.

But I say all of this with a lot of caution. First of all, there aren’t just ‘big four’ and ‘small’ firms, there’s everything in between. There are also specific departments at all of the big four firms that focus on smaller clients. So use the guideline above only once you know what types of clients you’d actually be working on at the various open roles you’re considering.

There are a few more caveats to add:

Perception is not always reality.

Its no secret that in the reputation game, the big four win. Even if your small firm experience is more relevant to a role, a future hiring manager may still prioritize a big four candidate. It’s not fair, or an effective hiring tactic, but it can be a reality (especially if the hiring manager is not an accountant). Sometimes this works the other way around, but it’s rare.

The big four firms, and many of the mid-size firms, are reliable places to work.

They have strong, and usually fairly progressive, processes in place to ensure a fair working environment. Yet, they expect essentially unlimited work hours. That doesn’t mean you’ll be working 100 hour weeks all the time, but they do happen. Smaller firms are less predictable, each firm is different, and you’ll have to be a good judge of culture to ensure it’s right for you.

Regardless of the firm you choose, a CPA’s practical education gives you core skills that are valuable no matter what you ultimately do.

I started my career at EY, and I’ve been working at small startups for four years now. There’s no doubt that had I worked at a small firm I would have had more practical knowledge for my current role. That being said, I’m still getting along (most of the time)! The point is, as long as you’re somewhere where you’re learning and being treated fairly, you’ll come out on top.

Hopefully this helps you with the decision, good luck!

– Michael

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  1. Gail Freeman

    I started at a big firm. The thing I learned is ‘technique’. How to do meaningful work papers, how to reconcile and how to work to my skills. When I employ staff who have not had this training they regularly can’t reconcile or reconcile items to nothing and as to work papers – well. So that experience was invaluable for me and made me a heaps better accountant.

    • Michael Kravshik

      Hey Gail – ya the big firms definitely have some very strong processes around that kind of stuff that has served me well since I left EY.

  2. George

    I have been workinf for NGOs for 4 years, i wish i get an opportunity to work at the big four. The experience and knowledge is massive for the roles i wish to achieve some 5 or 6 years ahead but even with my CPA i just cant get in…

    • Michael Kravshik

      Hey George – don’t give up on it. Roles at the big 4 are competitive, but they are always on the look out for talented and dedicated people. You just need to create the right opportunity to show them what you can contribute.

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