Careers advice and planning

Where can a graduate career in accountancy take me?

21 Jun 2023, 15:40

A graduate career in accountancy doesn’t have to mean working for a Big 4 or traditional accountancy firm – you might be surprised by how many doors you could open.

Man in hat and backpack looking out

The feeling of doing work that had a direct impact on people’s lives was incredible.

Once you have been awarded an accountancy qualification from a professional body – a process of exams and work experience that usually takes around three years to complete – the possibilities are endless. That’s the beauty of accountancy. Almost every successful business, wherever it is in the world, needs an accountant.

Crime-fighting lifesavers with good business sense

But stereotypes prevail. From the film director casting a character as an accountant as a shortcut way of conveying dullness and a lack of adventurous spirit or daring, to bad accountancy jokes (Have you heard the joke about the interesting accountant? No, neither have I), accountancy is too often seen as a safe, solid career, with little of interest about it. And yet… it was an accountant who successfully got Al Capone jailed for tax evasion. It was an accountant who managed to smuggle hundreds of Jewish workers out of Poland to safety during the Second World War, convincing his employer (Oskar Schindler) to hire them in the first place because they would work for a lower salary. Perhaps a little less glamorous, it was an accountant who managed to keep his pottery firm Wedgwood afloat when everyone else’s was going downhill during the Depression by inventing a clever system of bottom line cost and profit, originally so that he could keep an eye on a corrupt staff member. Ever watched The Apprentice ? One of Lord Sugar’s two main trusted advisors, aka 'the scary interviewer', is Claude Littner. He started his career as an accountant.

We spoke to two accountants, both qualified with CIMA, whose qualifications have taken them far beyond traditional accountancy firms. It’s time to banish the stereotypes!

Clearing mines and unexploded devices

Ian Pym ACMA, CGMA was the expat finance and logistics co-ordinator for The HALO Trust. 'I worked at tech firm Cisco for nine years, starting as a business analyst and finishing as a revenue recognition manager,' he says. 'During this time I received my CIMA Professional Qualification and after working in these roles I wanted to do something different. My brother worked for The HALO Trust – a charity that specialises in mine and unexploded device clearance – and suggested that I approach them for a job.

Working in Afghanistan

Following a successful interview process and six weeks of training in Mozambique and Cambodia I was assigned a role in Afghanistan. Based in Kabul, but with travel to other parts of the country, I was responsible for overseeing the finance and logistics of a programme that employs 3,600 staff in clearing landmines, weapons and ammunition from previous conflicts, with a budget of around $25m a year. Whilst working for HALO I spent time in Mozambique, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Meeting local people and learning about their experiences, history and cultures was fascinating and humbling. The biggest highlight was the realisation that work doesn’t have to mean doing a repetitive office job or working for a company where your biggest motivation is your job title or the size of your salary. In Afghanistan, I worked six days a week and got to office at 7.00 am every day – ordinarily this sounds depressing, but I was amazed to find that each day I was excited and happy to be doing it. The feeling of doing work that had a direct impact on people’s lives was incredible.

Haiti earthquake

After HALO, I worked for the British Red Cross in Haiti as the finance manager of a recovery programme following the 2010 earthquake. I now live and work in the Philippines on recovery programmes aimed at helping people affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Advice to graduates

I think that the most important thing when planning your career is to figure out what you want to achieve in life. This is a difficult question and one that might take a long time to answer, but aligning your work with your life goals gives you a good chance of being happy. Finance has the advantage of being a transferable skill which is required in almost any industry or sector, so try and find out what is meaningful to you rather than just going through the motions.'

Preparing for the Olympics

Jeremy Chapman ACMA, CGMA was head of programme management for the Olympic Delivery Authority. 'I started my career on the Post Office graduate scheme,' he says. ' I saw that finance was a central part of the business and this led me to start my CIMA Professional Qualification. From this, I moved to Transport for London where I finished my qualification in order to take the opportunity to work on the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Ensuring London transport ran smoothly

My role within the Olympic Delivery Authority was in transport. I lead and managed a multidisciplinary department, programme managing a portfolio of over 45 projects with a value of over £900m. I also set the strategy and guidance for a team of project managers and advisors providing programme management for all transport aspects of the Olympic Games. The highlight of this role was obviously Games-time – seeing all the transport plans being delivered, shifting millions of fans around without bringing London to a standstill and working alongside operational teams providing financial input to solve problems as they arose. I also had the opportunity to attend both Olympic and Paralympic events as a fan, gaining first-hand experience of the plans and arrangements in place. The exciting aspect of working on large projects is the sense of teamwork and common purpose. Finance and accounting takes its place amongst other professional disciplines such as procurement, construction, HR and legal and all must work like a well-tuned orchestra! There are compromises, problem-solving and daily uncertainty to manage, which sharpens your skills and encourages you to think about how finance and accounting is required across the business to make it a success.

High speed rail

I currently work as the head of financial governance and treasury at High Speed Two Ltd (HS2). I have previously worked in a variety of roles within the company, reflecting the changing nature of these large projects

Advice to graduates

I have not worked at a traditional accountancy firm, but have drawn upon the financial and management accounting expertise of these firm’s consultants throughout my career. Finance and accounting skills can be applied to a range of business situations, exposing you to the range of professional business disciplines – I can highly recommend a career outside of the Big 4 or traditional accountancy firms.'

Safe is a good thing

The first known accountants worked for the religious authorities in ancient Mesopotamia, making sure that people paid their taxes (of sheep and other agricultural produce) to the temples. So, people needed accountants thousands of years ago, and they still do today. In that sense, then, it is a safe and solid profession. But dull? targetjobs begs to differ.

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