Burned Out on Public Accounting?

Explore Career Options on the Private Side

Burned Out on Public Accounting?

Burnout in public accounting is so common that recruiters even refer to it in employment ads. For example, "Are you at the point of your public career where you are tired of the travel, lack of continuity of a team and don't see how another busy season is going to add new skills or depth to your career?" read one ad posted by Jonathan Claggett, practice manager at Hudson Financial Solutions in New York City, a division of Hudson Global Resources.

If this description fits you, it may be time to seek other employment. But where?

The Private Option

The most obvious move is to a private company. "A lot of people go into corporate accounting," Claggett says. "But what they have to make sure of is that they're not jumping into something that has tons of hours, because it's financial reporting.

Don't openly ask about work hours during the interview process. Instead, ask your recruiter for the inside scoop on how many hours a company's accountants work during a regular week and at close, he suggests.

Private-sector accountants typically work 50 hours a week, says Kathy Lane, recruiting manager for Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. If you're in a more upper-level position or the company is going through an acquisition or merger, those hours will increase, she says.

What Do You Give Up?

When you leave public accounting for a private corporation, you'll likely leave behind more than just a gazillion frequent-flier miles. Working for many different clients may put you on the road, but it also lets you experience new situations where you learn new things.

On the private side, you'll work at the same desk with the same people, closing the same books each month. Before you switch, think about whether you thrive on novelty or are soothed by routine.

You may also earn less. On average, public senior accountants earn $48,750 to $63,000 at small firms and $60,000 to $78,500 at large companies, while their private counterparts earn $43,250 to $54,000 at small firms to $51,750 to $67,250 at large companies, according to Robert Half International's 2007 Salary Guide. The larger public accounting firms pay more, and they expect more, says Paul Dorf, PhD, managing director of Compensation Resources, an Upper Saddle River, New Jersey-based compensation and human resources consulting firm.

But you won't necessarily burn bridges by jumping ship, especially if you go with a former client. "Your accounting firm won't mind, because they then have a strong connection to the client," Dorf says.

If you're a partner, you can expect to go in as a CFO or even CEO. "I've seen quite a few partners go into companies they were auditing as CEOs," Dorf says. "Some do well, some don't. Being an auditor, you're looking at everything through a financial looking glass, and as a CEO, you have operational issues, board issues and other concerns.

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Some people find public accounting overwhelming, in part because as new hires, they're at the bottom of the career ladder. For them, a line accounting job in a corporation may be a better fit. "In a corporate environment, an accountant is higher up on the food chain," Dorf explains. "There are bookkeepers, clerks and others below them.

To cash in on your public experience in the corporate sector, stay in public until you've earned your Certified Public Accountant designation. If you leave public without it, plan on how you'll get either that or the Certified Management Accountant designation, Lane advises.

Consider Consulting

Consulting is another option for top-level public accountants. "Our typical person wanting to do consulting has 12 or more years of experience as a financial executive at a large public company or a Big Four firm," Lane says. Those with risk-management, Sarbanes-Oxley and forensic-accounting experience are most in demand.

Avoid Burnout in the First Place

If you're new to public accounting (or not), experts recommend these strategies to avoid burnout:

  • Take vacations.
  • Pursue outside hobbies or interests.
  • Leave your desk during breaks.
  • Walk outside your building at least once a day.
  • Don't always eat at your desk.
  • Focus on the present, not on how much work you have to do later.
  • Determine which projects are critical. Postpone or delegate the rest.

Tell your manager you're overloaded only as a last resort, because it may brand you as unpromotable.