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Accountancy | The Careers Service Accountancy – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

Chartered and management accountants play a central role in businesses by providing reliable financial information upon which critical business decisions are made. They formulate financial plans for organisations in both the public and private sectors and use accounting and business management skills to set up and maintain financial policies. Increasingly, accountants are working as financial and business partners offering advisory services rather than being seen more simply as ‘number crunchers’ to the ‘wealth creators’.

There are two main types of accountants:

  • Chartered Accountants are mostly concerned auditing, recording of financial trends and business advice, and usually work with multiple clients.
  • Management Accountants work within one organisation looking to its future financial plans.

Within chartered accountancy, the Big Four (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC) recruit extensively each year. There are also a significant number of other large firms that recruit high numbers of graduates into training positions as well as small and medium-sized firms providing excellent opportunities for graduates. Geographically, the largest offices tend to be in London; but many firms, including the Big Four, have locations across the UK. There are good reasons to consider applying to the regional offices: for example, if you are interested in a particular industry or sector – or even a single large client organisation – that is strongly represented in a region, this may well be served from the regional office. Also, tactically, positions in London attract the most competition and fill up fastest, so if you are looking for an entry level position later in the recruitment cycle, there will be a higher volume of opportunities in the regional offices – even those that are close to London, such as Cambridge, Crawley, Milton Keynes, Reading or St. Albans.

In management accountancy, large multinational organisations provide the most coveted training positions, with potential employers including the leading firms in water, gas, electricity, pharmaceuticals, retailing, consumer goods manufacturing and transport. There are also opportunities to train as an accountant in the public sector with various schemes, including those run by the Civil Service, local government and the NHS.

Types of job

Chartered accountants

The majority of trainee opportunities are in advisory (also called assurance or audit) and tax.

The role of an auditor is to ensure that a company portrays its financial position in a ‘true and fair’ way and that it is a real reflection of its financial situation. Auditors apply a critical eye to information and the explanations provided, and this could involve analysing both risk and systems within an organisation, testing financial information and consequently providing the client with advice on how these systems and areas of the business could improve their functionality and reliability. Building close working relationships with clients is vital and you may frequently work outside of the office at client sites with people at all levels (including senior managers) within the client organisation.

After qualification, there are many career options open to you. Do you continue to work in ‘practice’ and plot a career path to director/partner, or consider a move to financial services, public sector or industry? What size of company should you join? Whatever the options, a chartered accountancy qualification generally leaves you in a very marketable position.

Starting salaries for ICAEW Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) trainees vary widely, with larger firms tending to offer higher salaries, and are affected by the sector in which you work and office location. The median starting salary is £30,000, and salaries can increase during the course of your training (High Fliers Research: The Graduate Market 2015). On qualifying, new accountants earn £38,000-£60,000+, and the reported average global salary of ICAEW Chartered Accountants is over £110,000, including bonuses. (Salary Survey Report 2015, Stott and May).

Management accountants

Management accountants tend to work within an individual organisation, with a focus more on the financial future of that organisation. This might involve work such as forecasting, preparing financial statements so the business can make financially informed decisions, auditing internal systems to improve the many processes that impact on major corporate costs, advising on improving business performance, providing input on strategic planning, providing financial advice to various management functions, and engaging with multi-disciplinary projects that require financial planning.

Management accountancy can be a great stepping-stone to strategic, general management within even the largest multinational businesses, and a number of large organisations in the UK have former financial directors managing them. Although post-qualification routes differ, most management accountants seek to be promoted within their organisation or sector as their experience grows, with a view to becoming financial director or senior manager. An alternative route, if you eventually wish to put your experience to use in advising others, is to consider transferring into financial management consultancy.

Starting salaries for management accountant trainees also vary widely, with larger firms again offering higher initial salaries. The average starting salary is £29,000 and for a part qualified CIMA student is approx £32,000. A year after qualifying, a fully qualified CIMA graduate’s average salary is approximately £47,500 – rising to an average of nearly £62,000 for all CIMA qualified accountants (2014 CIMA Salary Survey results).

Other options

A number of large and medium-sized firms recruit into specialised fields beyond audit and tax. These opportunities can provide highly attractive career paths and personal development. These may include:

  • Business recovery and insolvency
  • Business advisory and corporate finance
  • Financial reporting and enterprise risk analysis
  • Forensic accounting

You may be able to specialise in these fields after qualification within a large firm. Smaller boutique firms may specialise in these fields.

It is also worth examining the options and potential benefits of training with a smaller firm. For example, small firms may offer the chance to gain experience across more than one of the fields or practice (whereas larger firms will usually expect you to specialise from the start), and you may get more direct experience of working with partners and senior managers during the early part of your career.

Entry points

The most typical entry route for both chartered and management accountancy is straight after graduation, or within the following two years.

Chartered accountants

Trainees usually study for the examinations of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) or the Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland (ICAS). The former requires the trainee to pass 14 examinations; the latter two are a mix of examinations and a formal case study based upon a real life scenario.

The professional qualification that you will study for is usually decided by the employer, depending on the field or area of specialism, and on how training periods can be integrated with peaks and troughs in the working year. For this reason, graduate trainees in the same firm may be studying for different professional qualifications. It is important to check each firm’s expectations before applying, and to show some understanding of the possible qualifications that are pertinent to the role.

There are two key aspects to becoming a chartered accountant:

  1. Completion of a three-year training agreement with an Authorised Training Employer (ATE) or Authorised Training Offices (ATOS).
  2. Successful completion of the examinations.

ACCA

The ACCA examinations are divided into 2 stages:

  1. The first is the Fundamentals (9 examinations) which should be completed within 2-3 years alongside practical experience gained on the job. Some exemptions are permitted in this stage for experience and study.
  2. The second stage of 5 examinations develops the abilities of the Associate to act in a consultancy role.

ICAEW

The Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) exams are taken alongside 450 days of technical work experience to underpin the final case study work. Three stages have to be completed before becoming an Associate Chartered Accountant. ACA Exams’ first examinations are harder in order to filter out the less committed/able; the final pass rate is 80%. ACA is more content focused with emphasis on application of theory to practical case work. ATEs may accept up to 8 exemptions for previous study or relevant experience as accredited prior learning.

The ACA qualification is reviewed every 5-7 years to maintain relevance. The most recent revision was released in July 2013.

ICAS

The Chartered Accountancy (CA) qualification is comprised of three stages of examinations in addition to achieving 450 days of relevant work experience with an ICAS authorised employer. The first stage of examinations is where the students are eligible for up to 5 exemptions; details on exemptions can be found on the ICAS website.

Differences between ACA, ACCA and CA

The differences between ACA, ACCA and CA qualifications are:

  • General: ACA is a qualification that can be studied in 14 countries. ACCA are global qualifications you can do anywhere in the world, and thus may be subject to differing levels of moderation/content. The CA qualification can only be studied within the UK and Channel islands, but is globally recognised. Note however, that wherever you qualify you will always have to know the accountancy law(s) of that country.
  • Content: ACA content is owned by ATEs (not ICAEW), whilst the ICAS create their own syllabus, material and exams for the CA and review this annually.
  • Specialism: Within ICAEW the ACA is a unitary qualification with every trainee doing the same subjects all the way through the curriculum. By contrast, ACCA graduates can specialise early on in study.
  • Learning: Through the ACA, the ICEAW offers a top level interpretative syllabus with the final Case Study at the Advanced Stage exam that brings all subjects together. By contrast, the ACCA delivers a site qualification, where students might learn different subjects of relevance only to the context in which they study. For example, if you study in South Africa you may study only material of relevance to South Africa.
  • Methods: For the ACA and CA you cannot qualify without completing 450 days of technical work experience. The final year ACA Case Study has to be done within an ATE agreement. You can qualify with ACCA with no work experience.

When researching roles and qualifications, it can be important to consider carefully the type of study method to which you are best suited before applying to specific roles.

Management accountants

Trainee management accountants usually pursue the Chartered Institute of Management Accountancy (CIMA) qualifications. There are two levels to the qualification:

  • The first provides you with a stand-alone qualification called The Certificate in Business Accounting, and covers Management and Financial Accounting Fundamentals, Business Mathematics, Business Law and Economics for Business. Accountancy and business-related degrees could gain you exemptions.
  • The second level is The Professional Qualification in Management Accounting, and covers Management Accounting, Business Management and Financial Management.

Both of these qualifications must be achieved in addition to, and normally alongside, three years of supervised relevant practical experience with an Authorised Training Employer (ATE).

Employer support is typically provided in the form of financial support and time off to attend the courses. The time provided varies, with some employers expecting you to attend either evening or weekend classes in your own time, but most will provide some form of revision time and leave for exams. The advice on study methods and balancing work and study is very similar for those taking the ACA. CIMA will provide you with further information.

Other well respected accountancy professional bodies are the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants (CIPFA), mostly appropriate for those working for public sector employers.

Skills & experience

Skills needed

The following range of competencies and skills are typical for both chartered and management accountancy:

  • A genuine interest in finance – an interest and ability to work with figures.
  • Commercial awareness – an interest in business, including knowledge of any current political/legislative/financial issues that may impact on your chosen field.
  • Communication and interpersonal skills – ability to communicate complex information clearly and to build relationships with clients at all levels within the business.
  • Ability to demonstrate evidence of team working.
  • The stamina and commitment to combine working long hours and studying in the early years.
  • Presentation skills, report writing and attention to detail.
  • Leadership and negotiation skills.
  • Problem-solving and analytic skills.

Work experience

Gaining transferable work experience is crucial and a great way to develop your CV, and ensure you are going to enjoy the work and culture of the organisation into which you are ultimately recruited. There are many opportunities for those looking to gain experience; these include summer internships, which usually last six to eight weeks, Easter/spring work experience, and Insight Courses, which are generally aimed at first-year students. You can also organise your own experience: for example, by arranging work-shadowing at an accountancy firm near where you live.

In order to ensure that you find the particular work experience, organisation and location you want, begin by targeting employers between September and January before the summer for which you wish to gain the placement experience. During Michaelmas Term in particular, take advantage of our careers fairs and individual company presentations in Oxford to research companies, meet recent graduate recruits and learn about possible career routes and the recruitment processes. Understanding these details is essential for successful applications.

Leaving it until late spring or early summer will either considerably restrict your choice or even leave you disappointed. A successful placement following your penultimate year of study may also lead either to an offer of a training contract or a management accountancy role upon graduation. CareerConnect has many vacation placement opportunities, but it is also useful to look proactively for opportunities elsewhere.

Use the ACCA global, ICAEW, ICAS and CIMA websites to research target organisations or make speculative applications. It can be useful whilst at university to gain experience by taking on a role within a club or society that involves financial responsibilities or demonstrates your transferable skills. For example, acting as Treasurer for a club or society, or looking after the finances for an event, activity or fundraiser.

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. You can find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship at UK Government: National Minimum Wage.

Making an early start

The ICAEW provides current students with an online toolkit to help them develop commercial awareness. This includes the opportunity to study at your own pace for the ICAEW’s Certificate in Finance, Accounting and Business (CFAB). This certificate programme covers the first six modules of the ACA professional qualification: Accounting; Business and Finance; Management Information; Law; Assurance; and Principles of Taxation.

Membership of the ICAEW’s USS requires a one-off registration fee of £20 for the duration of your degree. In addition to providing access to everything needed to study from the CFAB, USS members can also access an online training package to enhance skills on Excel and workbooks, webinars, blogs and the ICAEW library.

Getting a job

The larger employers will be running various events during the ‘Milkround’ in Michaelmas Term. These are useful as a means to find out more about a company, to demonstrate your interest in working for them and to help you create targeted applications. It can be important to use these events in your first and second years to orient yourself and understand more about the companies, the work and the various roles and opportunities so that you can make well targeted applications.

As for careers in other parts of the financial sector, companies may well offer students access to ‘spring weeks’ during their first year (or second year of a four-year degree). This can pave the way to a summer internship during the penultimate year, which can lead on to a full-time job offer. Even without taking advantage of these these talent routes, there are many positions open for final-year students but be aware that applications for full-time positions will open during the summer vacation, and for popular locations and fields of practice, early application is recommended.

Companies’ own recruitment webpages provide a wealth of information about the firms, the different types of roles they are hiring for and the training available in each stream. You will be expected to have researched the different roles in deciding which position to apply for. To help you with your choice, firms often have short videos of graduate trainees talking about their experiences, and they may also offer questionnaires that can help you find which roles best match your personality and preferences. Use these resources to support your choices and use the additional resources to help you write better applications and prepare for the application process, tests and interviews.

It is also important to be aware of when positions open for applications – and applying early can be very important for popular roles and locations (e.g. London). For some employers (e.g. KPMG, EY) their recruitment year opens for applications to full-time graduate roles and internship positions in July for summer and autumn starts the following year. By the time Michaelmas Term starts, these positions will have been open for three months – and even those entry programmes that open later (e.g. Financial Services Advisory or consulting roles) will have been open to applications since September.

In addition to having offices in multiple global locations, some of the world’s biggest firms also run UK based programmes for students of specific nationalities aimed, for example, at Chinese nationals or Mandarin speakers, or students with ability in Japanese. Check the companies’ own recruitment websites to find current programmes and opportunities.

Smaller firms traditionally recruit a little later – but again, do make applications as early as possible. Often, such organisations advertise vacancies on the websites of the professional bodies – most notably the ICAEW and ACCA and Association of Practising Accountants (APA) – but some do not advertise outside their locality. If you are interested in working in a particular town/city make speculative enquiries to accountants based there to identify those that do offer trainee positions.

Management accountancy roles are generally advertised, with applications opening in September, and some deadlines as early as November. Look at the various graduate directories, such as the Prospects DirectoryTimes Top 100 Graduate Employers and TARGETjobs for vacancies. Some management accounting opportunities are advertised later in the year, usually for roles in smaller companies.

Each professional accounting association also has its own, regularly updated vacancy bulletin aimed at students considering accountancy.

Many firms ask you to complete an application form rather than submitting a CV and cover letter. The questions asked tend to relate closely to the skills and attributes mentioned earlier, and can be both competency and strengths based. See our guidance on writing CVs, cover letters and application forms as appropriate, and speaking to a Careers Adviser can help add an extra level of polish.

Companies are also keen to understand your motivation for applying to accountancy and your interest in finance and business, or to join their organisation in particular. We have had feedback from one leading firm that a surprisingly large number of Oxford students did not get through the initial screen due to not demonstrating their motivations and drive on the application form. As a minimum, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the role and the qualification you will take, but it is important to make a high-quality application each time, so be sure to make time for this.

Most companies will also use aptitude tests as part of the selection process. See our separate briefing on Psychometric Tests for advice and access to free practice tests to help you brush up your mental maths and test technique, and become more familiar with the range of tests that you may encounter.

To develop your commercial awareness, read the financial press and review helpful websites such as eFinancialCareers, The Gateway online and relevant online blogs. You can also sign up on CareerConnect for the Careers Service’s Insight into Business workshop programme.

Equality & positive action

Many of the major accountancy firms are members of the MyPlus Disability Recruiters Café and are involved in activities that encourage applications from students with a disability, long-term health condition, or those who are dyslexic or dyspraxic. They also partner with organisations such as EmployAbility, Blind in Business and MyPlus Consulting.

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the UK Government: Discrimination webpages.

Our resources

Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre:

  • WetFeet Guide: Careers in Accounting
  • What do you do now? Ethical Issues Encountered by Chartered Accountants, David Molyneaux
  • Accountancy Uncovered, Jenny Keaveney (2010)
  • Becoming an Accountant, Stuart Chandler (2012)
  • Commercial Awareness 2015/16, Christopher Stoakes (2014)
  • Fundamentals of Financial Accounting and Analysis – A Handbook, Stephen H Bryan (2013)

Take-away material

You can collect the following material from our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Inside Careers Guide: Chartered Accountancy
  • Inside Careers: Career Choice – City & Finance
  • TARGETjobs: City and Finance
  • e-Financial Careers: Careers in Banking & Finance

Journals

Through your membership of the Bodleian Library you are able to access a multitude of journals and newspapers free of charge, and you can set set up a personal account for electronic access to, for example, the Financial Times and The Economist.

We subscribe to the following journals in our Resource Centre:

  • The Actuary
  • International Accountant – Bi-monthly
  • The Economist
This information was last updated on 16 August 2017.
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