Why Audit at a Big 4 Was the Best Decision I Could Have Made For My Career

Updated 26 May 2020

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We spoke to a former audit graduate at PwC (who prefers to remain anonymous) about why she chose the graduate scheme she did, the value of her internship at PwC, what doing an audit graduate scheme is like, and where it might take you.

We hope you find it useful if you're considering an application to PwC or any of the other ‘Big Four’ firms.

Why I Chose Audit

I feel as though, over the years, assurance, or audit as it’s better known, has gone in and out of fashion with changes in the economy.

When I graduated in 2010, a lot of my fellow maths grads leaned towards the banks – specifically investment banking. In comparison to audit, there is more money, it’s more prestigious and it’s generally a sexier career choice; from the outside at least.

I note that this has changed in more recent years. I see students gravitating towards private equity, asset management, compliance/risk and probably most significantly, the start-up world.

Did I fall in love with audit? No.

Am I currently an auditor? No.

But, I promise, my decision was a good one.

audit graduate scheme

I had an older sibling who advised me against choosing banking while I was in university. Post-crash, the market was uncertain and a lot of her colleagues had been let go. Although a pick-up in activity was expected, I didn’t feel confident pursuing that path.

So – enter audit.

Given my degree, assurance seemed like a natural choice. Honestly, I didn’t know enough about it to know for sure that I wanted it as a long-term career, but I did know that the possibility of working for the ‘Big Four’, the ACA/ACCA qualification and a competitive graduate scheme were all solid choices.

I just wanted to do well.

Start With an Internship

If you are at a competitive university, especially in a finance-related degree, you will know that the second year sees students frantically applying for internships.

I followed suit – applying for a single internship at PwC – putting all my eggs in one fragile basket.

Not surprisingly, I was rejected following my telephone interview. I hadn’t prepared enough, didn’t know enough about the role and they were absolutely correct to reject me. Fast forward a year and I was in a much stronger position.

I applied for summer internships with all of the ‘Big Four’ and secured three out of the four roles. PwC was my first choice and so I started there for an 8-week internship, between my final year and my planned Master’s degree.

What Was It Like on the Internship?

If you are on the fence about doing an internship, I can’t recommend it more.

Without sounding clichéd, it genuinely gives you an idea of what it is like day-to-day as a graduate employee. It is a little less exciting than it would be on the actual graduate scheme, but if you want to test the waters while bolstering your CV, it’s perfect.

A few important things came to light for me personally:

  • I liked the culture and the people – I could see everyone knew each other well, it was friendly, supportive and teams genuinely had fun with each other inside and outside of work.

  • I liked the prestige of the firm and the access to people and clients.

  • I knew that I would probably be offered a graduate role and so wouldn’t have to go through the brutal recruitment process again.

  • Truthfully, I didn’t much like the work – I was bored at times. But I did like the idea of the work the graduates and managers were doing, and figured as I progressed I would start to enjoy it more fully.

  • I realised I wanted to change industry: my internship was in insurance and investment management, and I realised I wanted to go into banking.

So, the internship was over. I didn’t drunkenly jump into a lake during our training at Latimer Estate or fall asleep and snore myself awake in a client meeting (true stories of other candidates) and so I was happily accepted onto the graduate scheme.

The Graduate Scheme – Which Firm Is Best?

People frequently ask me, “Why PwC and not any of the other ‘Big Four’ firms?”.

I always give the same answer – it is such a personal decision. If you strip everything back, all four firms are going to provide good experience and opportunities for your future career.

Regardless of the firm, you will have access to some of the biggest, most influential businesses in the industry.

Personally, I got the best ‘vibe’ from PwC during my interview. I liked the culture, client base and, at the time, they were ranked number one (although I appreciate this fluctuates).

However, as an example, I know people that have worked at both PwC and EY who say EY has a more relaxed feel and more areas for growth. Do your research and follow your gut.

I accepted my offer with PwC on the assurance graduate scheme within banking and capital markets (B&CM) and to summarise, overall, it was great.

What Was the Graduate Scheme Like?

You travel through the graduate scheme with a big group of different but like-minded people that you become very close with.

Essentially, it feels like you’re back at university – working hard and playing hard alongside your peers. Don’t take this opportunity lightly; the people I met have helped me pave my career.

Essentially, it’s the dreaded ‘networking’ without any of the hassles. You will have no idea where these people are going to end up but, for me personally, they have been integral in terms of decision-making, support and happiness throughout my career.

Within audit, you work with many different teams internally (risk assurance, regulatory teams, valuations, to name a few) and it means your internal network grows exponentially without too much effort. This is great if you ever want to transfer or have access to different parts of the firm.

From an external perspective, a good bulk of your time will be spent at the client site. Spending so much time with the client can be annoying at times (FOMO from the people working at the office), but it is a great opportunity to network with external colleagues.

I don’t know of another role where you get such direct access to senior people at large organisations when you are still at a relatively junior level. This bolstered my confidence, knowledge and experience extremely quickly, and I was able to discuss and challenge areas of audit fairly early on in my career.

big four graduate scheme

ACA Qualifications: How Important Are They?

Work experience aside, over the three years, the majority of your time (and hair loss) will be attributed to the ACA exams (or ACCA depending on the firm). Yes, they are challenging but doable.

The qualification still holds so much weight out in the market and is very well respected – qualified accountants are always high in demand in any industry.

It is globally recognised and if you complete the work experience and pay your fees, you have it for life.

On a practical level, you learn about much more than just accounting and the skills needed for audit. The ACA qualification created the foundation for the rest of my career and so was well worth the tears.

Opening Doors: Where an Audit Graduate Scheme Might Take You

Post-qualification, I decided that I wanted to move out of audit and into a more commercial role.

Let me be clear – this isn’t always the easiest move. Candidates often have grand ideas of becoming a qualified accountant and then moving swiftly into private equity, investment banking, equity research or similar.

It is difficult to do it directly, which is where the advantages of a ‘Big Four’ background come in.

I wasn’t 100% sure about where I wanted to be; I just knew audit wasn’t for me in the long term. However, I was armed, three years in, with a strong understanding of the accounting, audit, risk and operations of a business, as well as a deep knowledge of financial markets, banking and a vast network that spanned various businesses, industries and seniorities.

Internal Opportunities at Your Firm

I decided that I would apply for an internal secondment to transaction services to build my commercial knowledge from a deals perspective.

I moved to corporate finance for a year and learned a lot. Additionally, my accounting background really set me aside in terms of technical knowledge of the business and understanding of financial due diligence.

Although this is one option, the breadth of opportunity within the ‘Big Four’ is huge.

Coming from an assurance background, you have the leverage to move internally and to add value in the majority of areas.

This can then facilitate a move back to audit, with additional experience and prospects for earlier promotion, or continuation of your career within another area of the firm.

External Opportunities

Externally then, what are the options? Truthfully, pretty much whatever you want them to be.

If you know what industry or type of role you want to move into after qualification, you can mould and manoeuvre your experience during your three years to enable that move.

As an example, I have colleagues that have moved into:

  • Equity research
  • Asset management
  • Private equity
  • Investment banking
  • Yoga
  • Insurance
  • Interior design
  • Corporate finance
  • Buy-side and sell-side roles
  • Internal audit
  • Compliance
  • Various start-ups

What they all have in common is the advantage of the ACA, strong training and experience at a prestigious firm that has essentially set them up for any future career.

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