Public Accounting vs. Industry—Stress Level

In the Public Accounting vs. Industry blog series, NCACPA member Abby Smith outlines how a career in public accounting is different (or in some cases, not so different) from one in industry when it comes to: work-life balance, technical resources, training, development of business acumen, human capital, control of information, and stress level. Abby offers a balanced perspective, drawing on her experiences in both worlds.

This is the concluding post in the blog series. 

By: Abby Smith, CPA

I saved the compare and contrast of stress levels in public accounting versus industry for last because this isn’t a question that entered my mind when I was thinking about my transition. However, it is one of the most common questions people ask me: “Is industry more or less stressful than public accounting?” Generally my response is that the type of stress is different. In public accounting I was motivated by internal and external deadlines and there was a certain amount of stress I shouldered on a consistent basis. The level intensified greatly around March 15th each year.

However, I knew that if I ever failed to make one deadline, there were hundreds of other deadlines I had met and I would still have other clients that were happy with my work. I also knew that I had lots and lots of bosses and my bosses were well aware of my efforts and understood the value I brought to the company. Losing a client would be a somber situation, but would likely not be detrimental to my career. I also knew what all of my colleagues’ schedules were like, and we were all very busy. In my worst-case scenario of a total project failure, I felt pretty well-assured that I wouldn’t lose my job before I was able to find a new job—there was just too much work to go around to send me packing. In my worst-case scenario of an economic downturn with eminent layoffs, I knew I performed at a higher level than other people, so I wouldn’t be the first on the chopping block. All this being said, I have a healthy fear of failure that sometimes leads to less-than-pleasant physical side effects when my stress level would get out-of-hand in public accounting, though only for brief moments in time.

In industry, the stress is different. I still have internal and external deadlines, but I am the only person tracking the large majority of my internal deadlines. If my own internal deadline slips, I have a heart-to-heart with myself and then I go on about my day. Allowing an external deadline to slip is hardly even an option. Most people I work with don’t automatically understand the value I bring to the company. The longer I am in my position, the more opportunities I create for myself to prove I am valuable and explain the value I add. While one could theorize that I have several bosses because there are a number of tax and accounting professionals in higher positions than me, I only really report to one person. Fortunately, I believe he understands my potential departure would be felt widely by himself and the company, but I am not convinced that I have done enough at this point to establish myself across a wider base.

Anywhere I work, I want key decision makers to understand how I make the company better for being there and, upon my departure, how the company will continue to benefit from my time served. Thoughts of how to make the company better, how to measure the improvement such that key decision makers’ perception matches the reality, and meeting all existing expectations (i.e. external deadlines) fill my mind every day. In this environment where metrics are nonexistent as compared to public accounting, how will I ever know if I have done enough to establish myself as a vital working component of the company’s engine? This is when I remind myself that my family has an adequate emergency fund, so everyday I will do my best and, if I do fail, I will have learned great things to carry to my next adventure while having my own safety net to fall back on if needed.

In conclusion, public accounting is not so different from industry. Whichever of the two a professional is in, high performers have equal chances of having a successful and fulfilling career. What is right for one person may not be right for another, or what is right for one person may change multiple times over the course of their career. If I could go back in time and talk to my college self I would say, “get as much and as varied experiences as you can, love whatever you do, move on to try the next adventure if you don’t love the one you have, leave every place better than you found it, and don’t let any single decision define you.”

A career is a long time. I have been an accountant for ten years, which is likely only a small fraction as long as my career will be. I believe I will be quite happy in this profession for another forty years.

Abby SmithAbby’s career began in 2005 at a small public accounting firm in North Georgia, where she largely worked with clients in the music and entertainment industry, as well as in real estate. In 2007, Abby joined a regional public accounting firm based in South Carolina, where she focused on pass-through entity taxation for partnerships and subchapter S corporations in the health care, real estate, agricultural, and not-for-profit industries. Abby joined KPMG in 2010 to focus on alternative investments, a melding of pass-through taxation and not-for-profit unrelated business taxation. Since 2014, Abby has worked with TIAA assisting with US tax compliance, structuring objectives for alternative investments, and specifically building out TIAA’s REIT expertise and US tax analysis of financial instruments.