News & Events

Life After the Big 4

Oct 9, 2019
Four factors that managers consider when deciding to stay at the Big 4 or pursue a new career path

By Jong Eun Jung

Emily O'Dell, Director of Admissions of the MAcc Program

Emily O’Dell, Director of Admissions of the MAcc Program

Most Vanderbilt Master of Accountancy (MAcc) students enter one of the Big 4 firms after they graduate. However, few people end up staying at the Big 4 for their entire careers.

“A lot of people leave because the exit opportunities after Big 4 really are endless. You have been trained extensively, you have worked for different clients of different sizes, different locations, and different industries. So you’ve seen a really broad range of business experiences,” said Emily O’Dell, Director of the Vanderbilt MAcc Programs.

Below, three alumni — Amelia Emmert (MAcc’08), Geoff Smith (MAcc’10), and Mike Kuhn (MAcc’10) — discuss why they moved on from the Big 4 and what careers they’re pursuing now.

1. Time

Most Big 4 accountants who want to leave do so when they reach manager position, since their career trajectory and earning potential really grows after getting that promotion. Between technical skills such as reading financial reports and soft skills such as working with clients, after the first 5-6 years these professionals have gained the experience they need to pursue new opportunities.

“What’s great about the Big 4 is that early in your career, you learn a lot, and you stand before too long. You can leave as a senior in the Big 4 very easily for any number of different analyst roles or internal audit roles,” said Smith, who left EY for I3 Verticals.

“There’s a standard of quality that’s demanded at a big firm where the deliverables you provide the client have to be top notch, and you’re working with some of the smartest people in the industry — having that level of expectations for myself coming to this company has certainly helped,” added Kuhn, who worked at KPMG for eight years before becoming the Project Manager at Compass Group.

2. Job opportunities

People who reach the manager position at the Big 4 are contacted constantly with diverse job opportunities. “Whenever you leave the Big 4, you consistently have a steady stream of offers trying to lure you away. And they’re there on LinkedIn. (Recruiters) are always basically targeting any Big 4 seniors or above with all kinds of (opportunities),” Smith said. “At the manager level, the quality of the jobs that were out there for me — at least that I had the opportunity to apply for — did take a pretty good step forward.”

This opportunity of being a Controller at I3 Verticals was more appealing to him than staying at the Big 4 for several reasons. “It’s definitely more of a regular job versus the Big 4, which was very seasonal. (At my new job,) we’re building a company, and it’s very tangible. We’ve seen it grow and thrive, and… it’s definitely a lot more high stakes but (you get) a lot more tangible fruits from your labor.”

3. Personality

Not all Big 4 employees plan to do accounting long-term. Kuhn wanted to pursue something that had more variety in the tasks. “I just wanted to do something different. And I spent eight years working in compliance or consulting, and I just wanted to really explore at something else,” he said. “(Now) I work on a wide variety of projects, and I’m not necessarily stuffed into one role — I’m getting good variety and learning about lots of different areas of the firm.”

Emmert also decided that the Big 4 career was not meant for her. “When I was at senior manager, I was evaluating whether careers in Big 4 was the right thing for my personality and my family and I spoke with partners about how to make that fit in there. I looked at different options, different career tracks, but ultimately decided that in Nashville, there were not very many paths available.” When a job opportunity at Healthstream opened up, Emmert left EY to become Director of Revenue Operations and Financial Reporting at the technology company.

4. Priorities and Life Changes

Some people do not see themselves becoming partners for the firm, which is the highest position they can reach during their time at the Big 4. Partners have a lot of responsibility, which can take time away from family. This was one of the top reasons why Emmert decided to look at different career opportunities.

“The lifestyle of audit partners is kind of dealing with fire drills all the time and how different clients demand different needs periodically or constantly, depending on your workload,” she said. “I had 18-month-old twins and that (lifestyle) wasn’t what I wanted for myself and for my family, having to have work take priority a lot of the time.”

Emmert left to work at Healthstream after almost nine years at EY. She says she’s very happy at her new job and that it aligns well with her new priorities. “It was much more of a balance. I have a lot of opportunities to make positive change in the organization. It’s a rather small company, which has been great too, because I have been able to make my mark… (and) raise my family.”

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