Accountancy

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 usually work with multiple clients and conduct audits, record and report on financial trends and offer business advice.
  • Management Accountants work within one organisation looking to its future financial plans.

Within chartered accountancy, the Big Four (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC) recruit high numbers of graduates each year. There are also a significant number of other large firms that recruit into training positions as well as small and medium-sized firms providing excellent opportunities for graduates.

Graduates will usually apply to work in a specific office and 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 that is strongly represented in a region, this may well be served from the regional office. Tactically, although the largest offices tend to be in London, these attract the most competition and fill up fastest. This means that if you are looking for an entry level position later in the recruitment cycle, there will be more opportunities in regional offices – including offices 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.

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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’s statement of its financial position is a real reflection of its financial situation and reported in a ‘true and fair’ way. 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 be improved. Building close working relationships with clients is vital and Chartered Accountants may frequently work at the client's site(s) with people at all levels (including senior managers) within the client organisation.

Many career options open up to you after qualification. 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. Pay is also affected by the sector in which you work and office location. Expect starting salaries between £28-£38,000, and salaries can increase during the course of your training. On qualifying, new accountants earn £30-£53,000 (£40-57,000 in corporate tax), rising to £54-79,000 for accountants with two-to-four years’ experience. Directors' pay, incuding bonus, can be upwards of £110,000. (Stated salary information for guidance only: see www.ICAEW.com for current information).

Management accountants

Management accountants tend to work within an individual organisation, with a focus more on the financial future of that organisation. This work is likely to involve:

  • forecasting, and 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
  • 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 will seek to advance within their organisation or sector as their experience grows, with a view to becoming a senior manager, finance director or chief financial officer (CFO). An alternative route is to transfer to financial management consultancy and put your experience to use advising others.

Starting salaries for management accountant trainees also vary widely, with larger firms again offering higher initial salaries. The average starting salary is £29,000, rising to around £35,000 for a part qualified CIMA student. A year after qualifying, the average salary for fully qualified CIMA accountants is £47,500 – rising to an average of over £63,000 plus bonus. Some industries will pay trainees higher, notably in the legal and banking sectors [Source: 2019 Association of International Certified Professional Accountants Salary Survey].

Other options: Specialist areas and Smaller Firms

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 specialisms may include:

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

Within a larger firm, you might have the option to start within a specialism or to specialise later after qualification, whilst at a smaller firm you may train either as a specialist or gain experience across more than one of these fields.

Big firms with multiple offices do not suit everyone, and there are both opportunities and benefits that can come from training with a medium sized, independent firm. Graduate trainees will study for the same professional qualifications and should expect the same quality of training, which is usually delivered by specialist external training providers. Trainees at smaller firms can also expect a similar level of commitment and support from their employer in provision of study leave and residential learning for some parts of the training. Other benefits that come from working with a smaller firm can include:

  • exposure to a wider variety of clients in more industries
  • the chance to gain experience across more than one of the fields or practice rather than being expected to to specialise from the start
  • you may get more direct experience of working with partners and senior managers in the early part of your career.

Independent medium-sized and smaller firms can also be a good option for graduates who have a particular interest in working in a particular region or city (outside London and the SE). They may also be a good option if you wish to develop a career in specialist field. There are, for example, independent firms that have developed a client portfolio focused around working within the media, TV and film sector, or who have strengths in the publishing sector (including private client work for authors and writers) or the arts, museums and heritage fields.

The most common entry route for graduates into both chartered and management accountancy is to secure a training contract with a firm, usually within one or two years of graduation.

The employer will decide which professional qualification you will study for, depending both on the area of specialism and on how training can be integrated with peaks and troughs in the working year. For this reason, graduate trainees in the same firm may study for different professional qualifications. It is important to check each firm’s expectations and, as a minimum, have a clear understanding of which qualification you would take in the specific roles applied for.

Chartered accountants

All chartered accountancy qualifications provide equal recognition and lead to the designation of Chartered Accountant. Trainees will usually study for a qualification offered by one of the industry’s professional bodies and the three most commonly pursued by graduates in the UK are the ACCA, the ACA, and the CA as outlined below.

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 qualification

The ACCA qualification from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants requires the trainee to pass 14 examinations. These are divided into 2 stages:

  1. 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 (5 examinations) develops the abilities of the Associate to act in a consultancy role.

ACA qualification

From the ICAEW: Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) exams are taken alongside 450 days of technical work experience to underpin a final case study based on the student’s professional work. Three stages have to be completed before becoming an Associate Chartered Accountant.

The ACA Exams’ first examinations are designed as a serious test with a pass rate of 80% in order to filter out the less committed/able students. The ACA content is focused with an emphasis on the application of theory to practical case work, and the syllabus is updated every year to ensure it reflects the latest technical content, laws and regulations.

ATEs may accept up to 8 exemptions for previous study or relevant experience as accredited prior learning.

The summer of 2019 saw the publication of the ICAEW Graduate Brochure (pdf) presenting a comprehensive overview of the issue graduates are frequently interested in, including where you might work, what you will be doing, and how much you can expect to earn during your career.

CA qualification

From the ICAS: Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland, the Chartered Accountancy (CA) qualification comprises three examination stages and 450 days of relevant work experience with an ICAS authorised employer. There is also a final formal case study element based upon a real-life scenario. Up to 5 exemptions may be available for eligible students in the first stage of examinations; 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 24 countries. The ACA and 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 the ICAEW. The ICAS creates the syllabus, material and exams for the CA and reviews this annually.
  • Specialism: 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 and Public Sector accountants

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

  • The first level 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.

Graduates entering finance roles in public sector organisations (e.g. central and local government, or the health services or policing) may study for a professional qualifcation with the UK-based Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants (CIPFA)  This is the only accountancy membership and standard-setting body that is globally dedicated to public financial management. Its services support their members internationally with the goal to ensure public money is raised and spent with the highest degree of openness. 

Skills needed

Both chartered and management accountancy require the following broad range of competencies and skills:

  • A genuine interest in finance – and an interest and ability to work with figures
  • Commercial awareness – an interest in business, and an understanding of how current political/legislative/financial issues may impact their field or industry sector
  • Communication and interpersonal skills – the ability to communicate complex information clearly and to build relationships with clients at all levels
  • The capacity to demonstrate team working
  • Leadership and negotiation skills
  • Problem-solving and analytic skills
  • The stamina and commitment to combine working long hours and study, in the early years
  • Presentation skills, report writing and attention to detail.

Whilst at university you may want to take on a role with a club or society that involves financial responsibilities, and which will allow you to develop and demonstrate relevant skills. For example, acting as Treasurer for a sports club, or looking after the finances for an event or fundraiser. See our advice on Employability Skills for ideas about how to enhance your skills.

To develop your commercial awareness, read the financial press and review helpful websites such as eFinancialCareers, and relevant online blogs. The Careers Service’s Insight into Strategy and Management programme offers a short and accessible introduction to the langauge and practice of business management: we run this programme most months, and you can register on CareerConnect

Work experience

It can be very beneficial to get relevant work experience. This gives you gain a better understanding of the work, builds skills and enhances your CV. Perhaps more importantly, it also lets you assess whether you are likely to enjoy the work and culture of the organisation(s). 

It is possible for students to organise their own work experience, for example, in the finance department of a local business or by approaching accountancy firms near where you live to arrange some work-shadowing. Oxford students may also find finance related work experience through our Micro-Internship Programme, which runs every term. 

However, companies make a priority to provide students with planned work experience opportunties at sixth form and throughout their degree programmes.

  • First years (and second year students taking a four-year degree) can apply to Easter vacation ‘insight days’ and ‘Spring Weeks’ during Michaelmas term and January
  • Summer internships are widely available, particularly for students in their penultimate year of study.
  • Although not possible with any Oxford degrees, many degrees will allow students to take a paid 12-month placement 'year in industry'.

Spring Weeks

Many companies run insights days and spring weeks for students who are 2+ years from graduating (i.e. first year undergraduates, and second-year students taking a four-year degree). These are part of the firm’s ‘early talent identification’ programmes, and a successful spring-week will often provide a fast-track option to interviews for a summer internship in the student’s penultimate year, which in turn can lead to a full-time job offer. All students attending spring weeks can expect:

  • to learn more about different business streams within the company
  • to meet senior staff and recent hires to learn more about their perspective and experiences, and
  • to receive some technical skills development and advice on applications and interview practice.

Summer Internships

Even without taking advantage of the spring week route, there are always many positions available for the penultimate year internships. These may run for 6 to 12 weeks, providing a much fuller experience of a firm, its work and culture. A successful summer internship will often lead to a full-time job offer from the firm, with a start date for the autumn after graduation.

Expect to make applications from September to January/February for work experience the following summer. See advice on preparing for better applications in the Getting a Job section (below). 

Start your research early to give yourself the best chance of finding the work experience you want, with your preferred organisation and location. 

  • Use the ACCA global, ICAEW, ICAS and CIMA websites to research and find target companies
  • Use your target firms’ dedicated recruitment pages to drive your research, keep track of vacancies and applications dates and sign-up for email alerts
  • Follow firms on social media to hear about events, understand the experiences of their recent graduate hires and understand their culture
  • In addition to companies’ own career pages, use the vacancies board on CareerConnect and graduate career website to find additional vacancies and information.

Internet-based research provides access to the same information marketing information that all candidates can access. Plan to go beyond this be meeting the firms and talking with their graduate recruits. Use these conversations to learn about what the work is like and why graduates find it interesting and worthwhile. You should also try to understand what makes each firm distinctive, including their work culture so that your applicatoin can begin to project how your personality, working style and attitudes are likely to be a good ‘fit’ for that firm.

Expect to meet firms and their representative early in Oxford's Michaelmas term, when companies visit their target UK universities to promote themselves and their graduate opportunities (the annual 'Milkround'). In addition to participating in our career fairs the larger employers will run their own events. Students should plan to:

  • Attend the annual Oxford Career Fair, Finance Fair (both in 1st Week Michaelmas term) and Jobs for Mathematicians (in 3rd Week): all online in October 2021.
  • Stay on top of firms’ national marketing and their on-campus activity at Oxford through their webpages and Oxford’s event calendar on CareerConnect.

If you have missed the autumn recruitment season, all is not lost. There will be work experience opportunities available well into the new year and spring months, although you can expect to have less choice about the locations and roles being offering.

Will I get paid?

Internships and summer jobs are governed in the UK by National Minimum Wage law, which means that if you are carrying out activities that class you as a “worker” by the employer, then you should be paid. Full details of Employment Rights and Pay for Interns are published by the government.

If you are undertaking a learning and development opportunity such as a micro-internship, or volunteering for a charity or statutory body, or shadowing or observing, then you may not be eligible for the National Minimum Wage. The organisation may reimburse you for your travel and/or lunch expenses, but they aren’t obliged to do so.

Making an early start

The ICAEW provides current students with an online toolkit to help them develop commercial awareness and which provides advice and opportunities to start preparations. 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.

See the ICAEW’s Improve your Employability advice pages. 

Most full-time graduate entry vacancies in the finance sector will open in July or August in a student's penultimate summer, more than a year before anticipated start dates. It is a good idea to undertake your research and apply early because most companies accept applications on a rolling basis, evaluating canidates and going through to make offers as applications are received.

See the advice in the Skills and Experience section (above) for details of:

  • the opportunties for first-, second- and penultimate-year students to get work experience, from insight days to summer internships
  • ideas about preparing to make well-researched applications, meeting firms and recent hires.   

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 choices, 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 make well targeted applications. Also make good use of the Careers Service’s online job search and application guidance and consider meeting with a careers adviser to discuss your ideas and questions or to get feedback on any aspect of the recruitment process.

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 offer trainee positions.

Management accountancy roles are generally advertised from 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, so look for these and register for updates and alerts where you can.

Many firms will 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 CVscover letters and application forms as appropriate, and you can review your draft applications with a Careers Adviser to identify what else you can add to privde that extra level of impact.

Companies will want to understand your motivation for applying to accountancy, your interest in finance and business generally, and why you wish to join their organisation in particular. We have had feedback from firms that a surprisingly large number of Oxford students do not get through the initial screen as they fail to demonstrate their motivation and drive sufficiently their application form. To create the right impression each application needs to be well researched and properly targeted to the individual firm, so make sure that you demonstrate not only an understanding of the role and the qualifications you will take, but also the reasons you are attracted to the individual company itself.

Most companies will also use aptitude tests as part of the selection process. Attend one of our online seminars about preparing for online test or use our separate briefing on Psychometric Tests for advice on preparation and practice, and to learn how current students can access free practice tests through the Careers Service.

Professional Bodies

Vacancies and occupational information

Journals

Through your membership of the Bodleian Library you are able to access a multitude of journals and newspapers free of charge. For this sector, consider International Accountant, the Financial Times, The Economist and The Actuary.

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and Insight events and many are being recognized for their approach to being inclusive employers. To find out the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in, explore their equality, diversity and inclusion policy. Search their website to see if they have any specific staff networks, look out for external accreditation such as whether they are a Disability Confident employer, a Stonewall Diversity Champion or part of the Mindful Employer charter promoting mental health at work. Check to see if they are partnering with organisations such as Rare Recruitment, SEO London, MyPlus Students' Club (disability), EmployAbility (disability and neurodifference) and there are many more that are working for specific communities. A key place to look is to see what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability,  gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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