Public accounting is a rite of passage. But what happens when you’re ready to move on? 

Each year—even before the ink is dry on their college diplomas—countless accounting majors are off to one of the big accounting firms or a similar, smaller shop. Demand for accounting talent continues to rise, making public accounting a great place to start a career. The job offers a lot: an exhilarating pace, impressive clients, continuous learning, and a cohort of like-minded, highly motivated people. While the busy season is intense, you and your colleagues share a unique comradery as you push through it.  

But for many people, there comes a time to leave public accounting and start a new career chapter. Maybe you want better balance, less stress, or the opportunity to broaden your skills.   

No matter the reason, leaving the public accounting profession is a big decision. 

Explore your options before leaving public accounting 

It’s a well-known fact that public accounting provides a variety of opportunities that can propel careers forward. Still, it’s important to be thoughtful about decisions around whether to leave and when to leave.   

“Talk with people you trust, including leaders at your firm,” says Jessica Schmidt, managing director of Korn Ferry Compass, a salaried, developmental program that helps public accountants transition to industry. “Talk to people who are committed to your success and who understand that many people want to leave eventually. Tell them how you’re feeling and ask about other opportunities that could be a better fit for you—in the firm or elsewhere.” 

Public accounting and your future: considerations to make 

If and when you decide to leave, there’s a whole new world to explore. If you’re like most public accountants, your career path while at the firm has been pre-defined. You’re guided through prescribed levels. Each year of experience provides an enormous amount of industry- and functional-specific training.  

But, when you leave public accounting, you chart your own course—it’s thrilling and unnerving at the same time. Learning something new is always a big leap, emotionally and intellectually. That’s why it’s critical to understand all that’s at stake when you begin this new adventure.  

Ask yourself:  

  • What are my options? 
  • Where can I make the most impact? 
  • What companies share my values? 
  • What organizations provide opportunities for variety and growth? 
  • What are my long-term career (and life) goals?  

These questions can be difficult to answer and difficult to assess in interviews. Identify your top priorities and think about ways to get answers to those questions as you’re evaluating your options. 

What to know before switching from public accounting to industry 

With any new job, there’s an adjustment period. But when you go from public accounting to industry, the adjustments can be especially surprising. You have all the background to succeed in industry, but it helps to know what to expect when you get there. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

You’re in charge of your career

You’ll have a supervisor to provide some guidance, but in the corporate world, your career is what you make of it. Public accountants are used to promotions happening on a predictable (and frequent) schedule. In industry, however, there’s not typically a set timeline or roadmap for promotions.  
“With corporate roles, you have to advocate for yourself and seek opportunities that are not specifically mentioned in your job description,” says Kayla Cocchiarella, Team Lead of Korn Ferry Compass. “It’s up to you to network within the company, determine how you’ll continue your development—including any training you need to keep your licenses active —and take the initiative to expand the ways you make a difference in your organization.” 

The team dynamic will be different

The oversight in your new role will look different because instead of having multiple people to report to, you’ll often have only one supervisor. If you miss having a variety of perspectives, proactively ask colleagues for their insights.  
You may have a broader team of people with a wide variety of skills and roles, advises Schmidt. This means you need to take time to learn what everyone does and the value they create.  
“This is actually a great opportunity to create mentor relationships and expand your skillset,” Schmidt says. “Before leaving public accounting, think about what you value in your team members and managers to help assess what you might need to be successful in industry. 

Your work is (usually) not the product

In public accounting, there’s a direct correlation between the work you do and the firm’s profit. In industry, your contributions are not as obvious. How you create value is different but important. As a result, you might need to establish ways to meaningfully measure the impact you make. 

The pace of work could be different

While there are deadlines in industry, there are also projects and initiatives that have a different tempo than you may be used to working within. Adjusting to a slower pace can be frustrating or freeing, depending on your work preferences. Considering things like the company size, backing (public/private), maturity (start-up or well-established), and trajectory (high growth, etc.) could help to align with your preferences for pace of work.

Korn Ferry Compass: Beyond public accounting

Explore your career path

Need help navigating the transition from public accounting? Look to Korn Ferry Compass 

The Korn Ferry Compass program is specifically designed to help public accountants move into industry. A salaried, developmental program that’s dedicated to helping mid-career professionals find their footing and discover their strengths, Korn Ferry Compass connects you with experiences at several different companies.   

With this program, you’ll be able to stretch and grow in many different roles over two to three years. You’ll build market value, see first-hand what kind of work you like to do, and understand the kind of company culture that fits you best—all before committing to a longer-term role.  

Throughout it all, you’ll have the support of the Korn Ferry Compass team who are committed to making your transition from public accounting to industry successful.  

Learn more about Korn Ferry Compass program.