Advice & insights: masterclasses from industry leaders

Casey Chung on Crafting a Fulfilling Career in Accounting

Casey Chung

Casey Chung

CPA Career Coach

Key Takeaways

  • Role Diversity and Stress: Accountants face stress from long hours and constant updates in tax and accounting policies.
  • Combating Burnout: Effective communication and teamwork can mitigate burnout, though not entirely eliminate it.
  • Work-Life Balance: Maintaining work-life balance is achievable with proper time management and prioritizing personal well-being.
  • Leveraging Strengths: Identifying and leveraging unique strengths is key to career advancement, emphasizing feedback and self-awareness.
  • Transferable Skills: Accountants possess valuable problem-solving skills that are applicable beyond traditional accounting roles.
  • Navigating Change: Embracing technology and developing skills in data analysis are crucial for accountants to stay relevant and add value in the evolving financial sector.

Main Challenges and Causes of Burnout in Accounting

Is your career in accounting feeling more like a tightrope walk than a path to fulfillment? The accounting profession, known for its critical role in business and finance, also carries with it a reputation for stress, long hours, and a high burnout rate.

Casey Chung, drawing on extensive experience across the field, sheds light on the main challenges accountants face, from the grind of tax season to the pressures of staying abreast with ever-changing regulations. Through this insightful Q&A, Chung offers practical strategies for managing burnout, achieving work-life balance, and leveraging unique strengths for career advancement. Whether you’re buried in tax law updates or looking for ways to make your mark, Casey Chung’s insights offer the practical guidance accountants need to tackle their profession’s challenges head-on.

“There are many different types of roles within the accounting field. Though each individual’s cause of stress and dissatisfaction is personal, I have started to identify some common themes from working in the industry and supporting clients across Canada and the USA. 

In Canada there are over 210,000 members who are designated as Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA) (CPA Canada). In the USA there are over 670,000 CPAs (NASBA). This does not include non-licensed accountants.  

Firstly, it is important to note that there are several different types of accounting roles, levels, and responsibilities. The two common differentiators today are accountants who work in “public practice” and those who work in “industry”. 

Roles in public accounting typically include auditing, tax, financial advisory, and other financial services provided to clients of the firm. The Big 4 accounting firms are most well known (PwC, EY, Deloitte, KPMG). 

Whereas, industry accounting centers around the internal financial reporting, financial analysis and planning, and tax of individual companies. As an example, working in the finance and accounting department of Amazon. 

As such, the roles will all have varying levels of responsibility, technical expertise, and workload. 

Finally, company size, industry, corporate structure, company maturity, management style, and location all have impacts on the overall culture and work environment of a company. “

1. Long work hours

Overextended working hours are a common cause of burnout among accountants. Especially during the tax season / busy season. There are high demands for accountants to complete their work within tight deadlines. 

2. Tax and accounting updates

There are often updates to accounting and tax policies which require extra time to address.

As work is complex, more time is required to ensure that the reporting is accurate and effective. Short cutting in accounting can lead to more issues in the future. 

Furthermore, when companies change accounting reporting frameworks as part of restructuring, consolidations, mergers, and acquisitions, additional work is required to update the reporting. This is not just limited to accounting and taxes and can also be an entire IT infrastructure overhaul. 

3. Short staffed

Short staffed organizations and firms result in individual team members having to take on more work than they were initially expected to complete. If hiring cannot keep up with the demands of the work, teams will have to take on the load by doing over time hours.

There is an overall accounting shortage as there are fewer students enrolling into the CPA program. Supply of skilled accountants is falling behind the demand for them.

Pay is relatively low at the start of your career in accounting. Of course with time your compensation will increase. However, in order to become a CPA, you will also have to complete CPA education requirements after completing your undergraduate or diploma in accounting. 

These courses are usually taken while working full time. This leads to high demands for articling accountants. In addition, there is a financial cost for Canadian accountants to take their exams. 

“The CPA Professional Education Program (CPA PEP) costs* approximately $13,427.5 + GST. This does not include the cost of taking any prerequisite courses that may be required for entry into CPA PEP.” (CPA Canada).

Most Big 4 accounting firms will cover the cost of this tuition. However, there are typically claw back clauses which may require candidates to pay back all or a partial portion of the tuition reimbursements unless they complete 1 to 2 years of work experience with the employer since paying for the dues. 

Effective communication within teams and with clients can be beneficial in identifying how to use time most effectively. Collaboration and teamwork can lead to efficiency gains, however, it will not solve the problem in its entirety.”

“Creating work life balance is personal and dependent on the lifestyle, responsibilities, and priorities of an individual. Yes, accountants are known to have long hours, but this is not true for every accounting role in the profession. It is important to identify your personal capacity for high demand work and overtime hours. If you are reaching the edge of your capacity, I would typically recommend considering finding a new role or finding a better way to manage the work and stress. 

If prioritizing work-life balance is a high priority, I do believe there are ways to create a meaningful balance without having to sacrifice your career progression. This includes improving time management and productivity, communication with clients and team members, boundaries, and focus.”

I felt the accounting stigmas and misconceptions when I started my accounting education in university. Though accounting was the largest field of study at the time in business school, the profession did hold a reputation. These misconceptions continued into the real world.

Accountants only deal with numbers:

  • While it’s true that accountants work extensively with financial data, their role goes beyond just numbers. They also analyze financial information, interpret data, and provide insights to help businesses make informed decisions.
  • Accountants can be some of the most effective communicators in the business world. Accountants have to communicate complex information in simple ways to non-accountant stakeholders.

Accountants are only needed during tax season:

  • While accountants are certainly busy during tax season, their services are valuable year-round. They can help businesses with financial planning, budgeting, forecasting, and compliance throughout the year.
  • Tax season is the busiest time of the year, but accountants stay busy throughout the year. If you don’t have any accountant now and you are looking for one, don’t leave it until last minute at tax season. By then it may be difficult to find the right fit in short notice. 

Accountants are all the same: 

  • There are different types of accountants, each specializing in different areas such as auditing, tax preparation, management accounting, and financial accounting. Each type of accountant has its own set of skills and expertise.

Accountants are boring:

  • Accountants are often stereotyped as being dull or uninteresting, but many accountants find their work engaging and fulfilling. They play a crucial role in helping businesses succeed and thrive.

Accountants only work with large companies:

  • While many accountants do work with large corporations, there are also accountants who work with small businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and individuals. Accountants can be valuable to businesses of all sizes.

Accountants are not creative:

  • While accountants deal with numbers and rules, they often need to be creative in finding solutions to complex financial problems. Creativity can be a valuable asset in the field of accounting.”

Identifying and Leveraging Unique Strengths in Accounting

“The journey towards obtaining your CPA is relatively straightforward, linear, and clear cut. There are a set of very specific guidelines that you need to follow to become a CPA. Many new CPAs will expect that the rest of their careers will look and feel the same. They may expect that a path would be set out for them for career growth and advancement. 

Instead they are faced with a reality that there is not “best” CPA career path out there. In fact, there can seem like there are too many options and opportunities that can result in action paralysis and stagnation in career growth. New CPAs may expect that they will receive promotions and increase in responsibilities just because they have been with a company for longer. 

Career advancement is an active process. And though CPAs go through the same training process, their individual strengths, values,  interests, and motivations will vary. As such, it is very important to start to identify strengths that set you apart from other accountants. 

Asking for feedback is a highly effective way to get a sense of strengths in the workplace. I would recommend having open and honest feedback conversations with your manager(s), colleagues, and clients to get a clearer sense of what is working for you and what is not. 

Taking feedback in an objective and constructive way can be challenging at times, especially when there seems to be no time to reflect on their work. However, feedback can help you identify what you are good at and why. 

We can have tendencies to overlook our strengths because they seem natural and easy to us. We can downplay our abilities when we are not getting feedback from those around us.”

“One of the most underestimated skills I’ve noticed CPAs have is problem solving skills. Many accountants might lean too deeply in their technical accounting skills and discount their critical thinking and analytical decision making skills. Accountants will see the big picture and the fine details in a balanced way. We weigh out all options and will have the drive to find the best solution and the corresponding alternatives.”

“I’ve seen CPAs go in all kinds of different directions in their careers. Some are more specialized in finance and accounting, and others are pivots in entirely new directions.

  • Business ownership
  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Research
  • Psychology
  • Real estate
  • IT
  • Project management
  • Nursing
  • Firefighting
  • Teaching
  • Police
  • Politics

This list can go on. 

The bottom line is that CPAs develop a wide range of technical and soft skills that can be applied to countless career trajectories. 

There are also countless non-traditional opportunities that lean into financial and accounting knowledge and skills:

  • Corporate Finance
  • Investment Banking
  • Investment Advising
  • Financial Advising
  • Mortgage Broker
  • Forensic Auditing
  • Sustainability Auditing
  • Accounting System Implementation
  • Financial Consulting

This list can also go on.”

Strategic Career Planning and Career Outlook for Accountants

From your perspective, is the investment in obtaining a CPA certification worth it?

“Yes the investment in obtaining a CPA is worth it. The completion of the CPA is very rewarding. The designation and the training associated with it expands your skill set as an accountant and a business person. CPAs can open doors towards going more in depth in the field of accounting or branching out to other areas of business.

For many, getting further education is a way to ensure long term employment and job security. I could not agree more with this statement, especially in the accounting field. Accountants are high in demand and there is no shortage of jobs available on the market right now. The challenge would be to find the role that fits your career development goals and personal interests. As there are so many opportunities available, there can be information overload.

Acquiring your CPA does take time and commitment and I would not recommend it to everyone. If you are ready to commit yourself to the education for a few years and have the resources and the time to do so, I would encourage it. Many CPA students have their eyes set on completing the education component of the designation and overlook the longer term career development opportunities. 

I encourage you to think 5 years ahead while you are either considering starting the designation or are already enrolled in it. If you become too focused on the exams, you may miss the bigger picture purpose of you embarking on the journey.

I often see recent exam passers become demotivated, exhausted, and lost after completing their education. They have forgotten why they have started the journey in the first place. 

If you are feeling confident in your intention to obtain your CPA, go for it. Gather support and mentorship. Go all in. If you are on the fence about the profession, go talk to more people and consider your 5 year career plan before committing.”

What steps should accountants take to develop a clear and actionable career progression plan?

“If you are reading this article, you are likely starting to consider how you can progress further in your career. There is no “right” career path as we are all different and unique individuals and possess a variety of skills and experiences. I usually point people to look both inwards and outwards for clues. 

Inwards would include self reflection, identification of strengths, weaknesses, values, interests, and passions. 

Outward would include anything external like job performance, opportunities in the market, job postings, industry research, networking, etc. 

I’ll provide a high level plan that accountants can take to develop a clear and actionable career plan.

  1. Define your definition of success (what your ideal lifestyle and how your career fits into it).
  2. Identify your values, strengths, and interests.
  3. Clarify your 5 year, 1 year, and 6 month goal.
  4. Identify 1-3 opportunities/options that get you closer to achieving your 1 year goal.
  5. Create an action plan for each of the opportunities. Include deadlines and specific measures of success.
  6. Implement the action plan.

I recommend finding a mentor or coach to work with on staying accountable and committed to your plans. Having an outside voice is very beneficial in helping you overcome obstacles and internal limitations. 

If you are interested in the full framework you can contact me!”

How important is mentorship in the career development of accountants, and how can one find a suitable mentor?

“Mentorship is very important in the accounting profession. I’ve worked with multiple mentors throughout my career. Each of my mentors played different and unique roles. My mentors have helped me start my career, decide between jobs, steer me in directions towards further education, get involved with volunteer organizations, pass exams, and stay motivated during challenging times. 

Some organizations and firms will have mentorship relationships built into their organization. And CPA Canada requires CPA candidates to work with mentors while working towards their designation. 

Though there are systems in place for mentorship, some relationships can slip through the crack. 

Finding a mentor or coach is extremely important for long term career development.

Mentorship relationships are two way relationships. Professionals without mentors may not know where to start. They may think that mentors will not have time to spend on helping. 

The fact is, there is no shortage of accountants who want to help others. This field is full of support. We just have to ask.

I’ve created mentor relationships at coffee shops, formal and informal networking events, webinars, online discussions, LinkedIn messages, workshops, on the job, at school, and even in sport leagues.

Do not underestimate the power of connection.”

What role does networking play in uncovering hidden career opportunities in the accounting sector?

“Networking is extremely important in the accounting industry. I started my career before the dominance of social media and online connection. Networking with industry professionals was the best way to gather insights and information on potential roles, opportunities, and learning. Today, we may think of going to a company’s social media page or website for insights, however it will not give you a full picture of what the company has to offer. 

Networking can help you recognize how you can apply your skills and knowledge in other domains of business. What might seem like a routine task and skill in your current workplace may be recognized as an invaluable skill to another organization. 

I notice this often with accountants who have been in roles for multiple years. They seem to have capped out on their career development within the firm. This can result in a lack of fulfillment and decrease in engagement and productivity. In other words, the job has become too repetitive or routine. For some this works, but for those who are inspired and motivated to grow in their careers, they may need to seek outside opportunities for growth. 

Networking plays a pivotal role in career advancement. I often notice job seekers gather stronger and more interesting opportunities from finding opportunities through their network, rather than going onto online job boards. 

Not all opportunities live on job boards. If you are not networking and utilizing your network, you are missing out of opportunities. 

Some candidates will say “I don’t have a network so I can only apply to jobs on job boards.” I usually reply with “How can you grow your network?”

This nudges the candidate toward solution seeking instead of getting blocked by limitation.

Fortunately we do have online channels to connect with local and professionals from around the world.”

How do you see the field of accounting evolving in the future, particularly with trends like automation and the integration of artificial intelligence? How might these changes impact the traditional role of accountants?

“Accountants will continue to be relevant and important in the financial sector as technology continues to evolve. There are fears that AI and technology will take over the jobs of accountants. Though this is true, there are some types of roles that are more impacted than others. Transactional and operational functions of bookkeeping, tax compliance, financial analysis and reporting are already being improved with automation, trend analysis, and error detection. Accountants who work in these functions will be able to utilize these technologies to improve their output and productivity. 

Accountants with technological advantages will be able to process more transactions and reports compared to those without advanced technology. Likewise, the skill set of accountants will need to shift towards competency in data analysis and information systems in addition to technical accounting.

New technology can also lead to more innovation, strategic, and value added work generated by accountants, beyond compliance and transactional work.”

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