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Guidance to an undergraduate considering a career in an accountancy firm

December 19, 2015

It is a factor of my age: my children are now late teens/early 20s, and so are those of many of our friends. As a result, during the last year or so I have had several discussions trying to guide undergraduates and graduates on choosing firms, choosing departments.

Often, I say similar things to each; I do try to tailor to their background, understanding and preferences, but there are common themes. This short series of  blog postings  is an attempt to record several such thoughts. For ease of expression, I will refer to the people I am trying to help as undergraduates.

Which area in taxation?

This is a FAQ.

The answer is guesswork. There are numerous disciplines, each of which can provide a good or bad career. Someone at the start of a medical degree can’t reasonably be told “which is the best area of medicine to specialise in”. A variation of the FAQ is “which are good tax specialisms for women” (recognising the possibility of career breaks” to which the answer is similarly known.

To emphasise this, let’s remember the wise words (despite him being pilloried, they were wise) of Donald Rumsfeld:


I have no idea what the future holds for careers in tax both in general and for a particular undergraduate. One big unknown unknown is the extent to which further computerisation, artificial intelligence or even robots will have on professional services. Robots probably a long way off, but even now, in the last decade, the internet, cloud computing etc mean that many lower skilled jobs can be done elsewhere in the world; and improvement in technology means that clients can now do more work in house. The tax profession changed in my thirty years, and will change in the undergraduates thirty years.

Some thoughts, even though there are very few known knowns.

Try and to be as general as possible first, selecting and specialising as you understand more about tax as a profession. This goes against employers’ interest of specialising ab initio (free bonus tip: there is no need to know Latin to be good at tax, but knowing a few such terms can be a good pretence of knowledge). But unless an undergraduate has a clear understanding of why they want to specialise in transfer pricing, or in expatriate tax or in share schemes or R&D credits…I would caution against. Taking the last one as a good (bad) example, what happens if R&D credits were to be abolished? Taking expatriate tax as a better example- there will always be a need for advice for international secondees and other globally mobile executives- at least one firm, for its business reasons, only trains its intake for the CTA exams, not for the broader ICAEW or ICAS exams. CTA is a top qualification (I am one) but ACA is broader, and, and I might be wrong, broader is good.

One factor in choosing, if there is choice of where to apply to, is any interest in travelling. I never had, but many do. Specialising in VAT for instance is probably not portable outside the EU (thought for the day: what will happen to VAT if there is a Brexit?) ; specialising in expat taxation or transfer pricing is likely to be portable to numerous countries.

Another factor, and a big one, is “what type of person are you” and “where might you want to live in your 30s and 40s?” Specialising in FS Tax in the London department of a major firm probably makes you employable in (i) London; (ii) in a major firm; (iii) in a bank or insurer. Specialising in private clients or family companies is likely to be equip you for wherever life takes you. Specialising in FS Tax or VAT or one of several other areas is likely to be highly technical, highly challenging, highly interesting.

I am sure that what I have written this morning is (i) very simplistic; (ii) very judgemental; (iii) biassed by my own perspectives and experience; but I hope it is useful.


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