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To Big Four or not to Big Four?

PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY are the world's largest professional services firms. Is joining one right for you?
Accounting
Where to work

Although they are all probably best known for their audit work, they also provide tax, corporate finance, strategy and actuarial services to name just a few. The Big Four audit most of the FTSE 250 between them. They are truly massive companies, employing thousands of staff with a global reputation based on providing the very best accounting services anywhere in the world. As with any firm, there are pros and cons to working there, and we've compiled a list of both to provide you with a balanced view.

Pros

1.Qualifications. They all fully sponsor you to undertake a professional qualification, for example, with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) or the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland (ICAS). Such qualifications are globally recognised.

2.The people. Not only will you make some fantastic friends, but you will also form a formidable network of colleagues. And part of the attraction of auditing is that each client you work for is given a different team. So during the course of a year you will constantly be working alongside new people.

3.Client interaction. You will only spend a couple of hours per week at your own office. You'll be required to visit clients, and spend time understanding their processes and financial controls. You will often be involved in meetings with high ranking individuals, such as chief financial officers and company secretaries. As you progress through the ranks, your client interaction will develop to become more managerial - you'll take charge of deadlines and how the work is completed.

4. The prestige. Working for one of these companies means being part of one of the world's largest organisations. When you tell people that you're a Big Four employee you will get the instant respect that comes with working for a global market leader. Although being an accountant comes with the stereotypical notion that you are a boring, numbers obsessed individual, the truth is that it is a well respected profession.

5.Job security. Current financial conditions have seen hundreds of investment bankers lose their jobs in the City as a result of the credit crunch. However, the Big Four have remained relatively unscathed. Business has continued to grow - after all, it is a legal requirement for financial institutions and PLCs to be audited every year.

Cons

1.The actual work - especially in the audit division. You'll be given sections of the balance sheet to investigate and obtain evidence supporting the numbers. Then you'll make photocopies and tie in all of the numbers back to the balance sheet. These numbers have to be referenced on both the balance sheet and evidence and then filed. This process is repeated on every client, and can be boring and repetitive. You'll be doing this for the first three years.

2.The money. A fresh graduate joining the 2011 intake can expect to earn around £27,000 with no signing-on fee or bonus. While this is still a very good salary, it does not compare to the £40,000 plus signing-on fee and bonus that a new starter at an investment bank can expect to earn.

3.Hours. One of the arguments for the lower salary than those in investment banking can expect is that you are working fewer hours than someone, in say, M&A. However, it's not always the case. During "busy season" (January - April) you can expect to work from 9am to 8pm, and the occasional weekend. If you are booked on continuous year-end audits, you'll work 9am until 7pm or 8pm every night. Each audit has a deadline, and it is essential that it is met to avoid fines and make sure the client stays happy. This means that you will work whatever hours are needed to make that deadline.

4.Time out. You will have to visit clients based outside of London - but don't expecting to be eating out every night in the finest restaurants and exploring new parts of the country. You can expect long hours and, as you're away from home, you probably won't have any plans for the evening anyway. If you're lucky, the team that you are working for will go out for dinner in the hotel. If you are unlucky, expect to be ordering room service on your own every night.

5.Hierarchy. The organisational structure is very hierarchical and rigid. At the bottom are the first, second and third year associates, then the executives, assistant managers, managers, senior managers and partners. If you are highly regarded it will take you around 14 years to get to partner level. However, out of an intake of many hundred, only a handful will ever get there.


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