The Chicken-and-Egg Problem: Experience or an Accounting Degree?

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By William Kernan, Member of the IMA® Young Professional Advisory Committee, Founder/Owner WTK Management, LLC

We are all familiar with the age-old question of what came first – the chicken or the egg? And while I do find this question and the debate over what actually did come first intriguing, I’d like to pose a different, yet similar question.  

Who would you hire for an accounting position: candidate “A” with experience and a business degree; or candidate “B” with little to no experience but holds an accounting degree?

Qualified Candidates Can Be Overlooked

From my experience, today’s employers tend to gravitate toward applicants similar to candidate “B;” people with little to no experience but have an accounting degree. Many employers turn to recruiters to make hiring decisions, giving them a list of 25 demands and little else to go on. Under this process, even if you are a perfect match for 24 of the demands, you stand a risk of being overlooked if you don’t have an accounting degree.

For example, it may not matter that you’re a corporate accountant if your degree is in a field other than accounting. Professionals holding management degrees might be in trouble too if you decided to learn about all of the parts of an organization and not just about the corporate accounting department. Even hands-on training by a CFO or CEO does not protect you from being overlooked by a recruiter.

I’ve worked 11 years in the corporate world, specifically in corporate accounting, and when I was younger, I thought to myself, “Why should I get an accounting degree and sit for the CPA?” I didn’t have a passion for taxes, and my plan wasn’t to become a CPA. My interest was in corporate governance, so my logical thought was to focus on organizational behavior, management, marketing and leadership. Little did I know that years later this line of thinking would hurt my career and make it difficult to pursue new accounting opportunities.

Creating Your Own Experience

Therefore, in order to advance and have the career I wanted, I took it upon myself to create my own opportunities. I started my own business helping other small businesses understand their accounting cycle, including the development of monthly cash flows, statement of earnings and balance sheets. I went back to school, where I currently am a student at the University of Chicago in the school’s Financial Decision Making certificate program.

I will also be sitting for the CMA (Certified Management Accountant) offered by IMA (Institute of Management Accountants). Even though I have been successful continuing to work in corporate accounting, owning a small business and continuing my education, I am still hearing from recruiters that I do not meet their checklist, largely because I have a management degree and not a degree in accounting

My resume and experience speak for itself. Not only have I strengthened internal controls within organizations and helped decrease costs, I have saved stakeholders close to $2 million over the life of my career – $1.5 million of which was cash brought back to a company thus saving it from bankruptcy. Even with all this, my background is still not deemed good enough!

You might be wondering what exactly is on this recruitment checklist. Perhaps recruiters have become too automated in their selling techniques. I honestly don’t know what the answer is to this problem. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? If so, what have you done to overcome the scrutiny of recruiters?

And I also ask – what candidate would you hire?


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Stop talking to recruiters, pretty standard that they are bottom feeding morons. Start networking and find somewhere that you can add value to.

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Being an employer myself I came this problem from the other angle. And from experience i would choose candidate with experience rather than a degree. And in few months time if the decision is right finance the degree for that employee.

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Just pass the CPA exam and no one will ever care what your major was. Get your 150 hours from anything.

THIS WORKED FOR ME!! If you met me now, you'd never guess I was anything other than a typical MACC kid years ago... :) Mind. Blown.

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I think this is the wrong question. If the person you are hiring doesn't have an interest in what you do then experience/education don't matter at all.

I started with and interest in accounting and got a job at an accounting firm doing basic data entry. Then got my degree. With both (some, minor) experience and a new degree I pretty much wrote my own ticket. Ended up with with multiple job offers for articling positions, and a starting salary 20% over average.

Fast forward 15 years, and I have my designation, and have been in business for myself for 8 years. Now I hire people who have an interest but no experience for basic data entry and help them get their training. It has been highly profitable (and rewarding) way to pay-it-forward.

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I have 15 years accounting experience, yet had to return for an accounting degree to be considered in todays job market. Now I find I need a CPA also to be competitive since I am not young. V frustrating

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Experience trumps an accounting degree in my book. A degree in some sort of business is nice but not mandatory.

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I think it's more annoying when there are accounting/auditing jobs that say 'entry level' and you're fresh out of school where all you've ever done is part-time retail while getting your accounting degree only to be said the entry level job wants 2-3 years experience.

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Experience must be turns up accounting degree from my point of view as experience matters alot for all types of tax and accounting degrees.

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Now new hires straight out of college already have their CPA passed, advanced degree, such as masters in accounting or tax, plus an internship or two behind the belt. It is a competitive environment and networking matters the most. If one can't get a job they want in accounting/tax/finance, I would suggest broaden the search geographically. Demand is much higher for these professionals in Texas, for example. You can always move back to the original location after getting relevant experience.

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I am getting ready to graduate with an A.A.S Degree in Accounting. I already have a One Year Certificate in Accounting and a Tax preparer Certification from the college. I am just perusing the internet looking to see what they have to offer. I hear the industry is packed tight. I hope they have no experience jobs out there in my field.

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My biggest fear is finishing out my last term and having to be deferred on the 9500 in loans. My tuition alone was 15,000 dollars. I hope you're right about candidate B. Most employers seem to want a bachelor degree. I only have an A.A.S. It was really easy to put in the time to take the courses. All courses are offered online so everybody can obtain one .

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I have a master degree in accounting and finance with no experience, I wanted to take the CPA exam but I am afraid I will come back where same problem persist; no experience. I had the unfortunate experience of getting sick and having cancer, it took me two years to get myself together and recover. I am not fresh from school anymore, it s been 4 years that I have graduated; I quit my job in retail, and now I am trying to get a job in accounting, No experience, No internship, ... Please your advice

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