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 sites 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 £27-£33,000, and salaries can increase during the course of your training. On qualifying, new accountants earn £35-£45,000 (£40-55,000 in corporate tax), rising to £60-75,000 for accountants with two-to-four years’ experience. Directors earn upwards of £110,000 [Source: ICAEW press release on McKinley’s UK Salary Guide, February 2017].

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, 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 will seek to advance within their organisation or sector as their experience grows, with a view to becoming financial director or senior manager. An alternative route is 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 approx.’ £33,500 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 £62,000 for all CIMA qualified accountants. Some industries will pay trainees higher, notably in the legal and banking sectors [Source: 2016 CIMA Salary Survey press release].

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. Graduates trainees will study for the same professional qualifications and should expect the same quality of training as it 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 typical entry route for graduates into both chartered and management accountancy for graduates is to secure a training contract with a firm within one or two years of graduation.

The employer will usually decide which professional qualification you will study for, 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 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 Association of Chartered Certified Accountants’ ACCA qualification requires the trainee to pass 14 examinations. These 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.

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. 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, and the ICAS create the 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 include the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants (CIPFA), mostly appropriate for those working for public sector employers.

Skills needed

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

  • 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.

It can be useful whilst at university to gain experience by taking on a role within a club or society that involves financial responsibilities, and to develop and 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. 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. You can also sign up on CareerConnect for the Careers Service’s Insight into Business workshop programme which runs in the first few weeks of every term.

Work experience

It can be very beneficial to get relevant work experience to better understand the work and to test whether you are likely to enjoy the work and culture of an organisation you hope to join. It is also a useful way to develop transferable skills and enhance your CV.

Opportunities to gain work experience are available to students at sixth form and throughout their degree study.

  • As first years (and students in the second year of a four-year degree) applications to Easter vacation ‘insight courses’ and ‘Spring Weeks’ need to be made in the winter/Michaelmas term.
  • Summer internships are widely available, particularly for students in their penultimate year of study.
  • Consider organising your 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.

At many firms, a successful placement in the summer before you start your final year of study can lead to a full-time job offer, starting once you have graduated.

Start your research early to give yourself the best chance of finding the work experience you want, with your preferred organisation and location. Expect to make applications from September to January for work experience the following summer. Start your research in August and September.

  • Use the ACCA global, ICAEW, ICAS and CIMA websites to research and find your 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.
  • Stay on top of firms’ expected on-campus activity at Oxford, through their webpages and Oxford’s event calendar on CareerConnect.
  • Use the vacancies board on CareerConnect in addition to companies’ career pages to find vacancies and deadlines.
  • Meet the firms early in Michaelmas term at Oxford Career Fairs, their company presentations and other recruitment events the companies will offer.

Meeting the firms and talking with recent graduate recruits can be particularly valuable. Use these conversations to learn about what the work is like and why graduate recruits find it interesting and worthwhile. You can also try to understand what makes each firm distinctive, to help you understand their work culture, and why your personality, style and attitudes are likely to be a good ‘fit’ for that firm.

If you have missed the autumn recruitment events, there will still be work experience opportunities available, although you can expect to have less choice about the locations and roles being offering.

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.

The larger employers will run various events during the ‘Milkround’ in Michaelmas term and attend our career fairs. Use these 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.

Accountancy and professional service firms may also offer ‘spring weeks’ to 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 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.

Even without taking advantage of the spring week route, there are always many positions available for the penultimate year internships and full-time entry positions for final-year students. However, it is important to be aware that applications for full-time positions will open during the summer vacation – possibly as early as the beginning of August – and popular locations and fields of practice can be filled even before Oxford’s Michaelmas Term starts, so an 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 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 seek out other resources to help you write better applications and prepare for the application process, tests and interviews. Also make good use of the Careers Service’s online information and guidance and the chance to meet one-to-one with a. careers adviser on any aspects of the recruitment process, from researching applications to deciding between offers.

Applying early is recommended for popular roles and locations (e.g. London) and so it’s important to be aware of when positions open for applications. In the past some firms have completed their full-time recruitment to popular locations before the Oxford academic year starts. Vacancies can open for applications as early as July or August for full-time graduate roles starting more than a year later, and for internships the following summer. By the time Michaelmas term starts, these positions can 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 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 CVscover letters and application forms as appropriate, and speaking to a Careers Adviser can help add an extra level of polish.

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. 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 taking technique, and to become more familiar with the range of tests that you may encounter.

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

Professional Bodies

Vacancies and occupational information

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 students and 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 are a Disability Confident employer 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 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 website on discrimination.

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