What’s in a Job Title? An Alphabet Soup of Tax Professional Designations

alphabet soup
Craig W. Smalley, EA
Founder/CEO
CWSEAPA LLP
Columnist
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The other day I received an email from an accountant who literally had nine initials following his name. I had absolutely no idea what these acronyms were so I looked them up.

One was ATA, which is Accredited Tax Advisor. You can become an ATA by either being an Enrolled Agent or a CPA and passing a test.

Can you do anything special with that accreditation? Nope.

Then there was another mysterious signature that I saw on Facebook the other day, Certified Tax Analysis Coach. Whom exactly are we coaching?

I sign my name with MST (Masters in Taxation) and EA (Enrolled Agent). However, I think that those designations are so well known that most people are familiar with their meaning. I attended the IRS Nationwide Forums about ten years ago before I did all my CPE online.

There was an organization, which I won’t mention, that was trying to sell memberships by giving you something that looked like a college diploma you could hang on your wall.

The point is that all of these designations are supposed to show what we know. Honestly, I have been vocal about unlicensed tax preparers my whole career.

Still, exceptions can be made. There is one tax professional that I know who didn’t go to college, and who has taken the EA exam at least seven times and failed because he doesn’t take tests well. But I completely trust his opinion when it comes to tax.

I am a Generation X-er, and we are the people who prove that a college education isn’t everything. Look at most multimillionaires — they are college dropouts. Where it makes a difference is when you are a professional.

When I see a client, I am dressed in a suit. Now, when I say a suit, I mean to say a complete suit — cufflinks, pocket squares, lapel pins, freshly polished shoes. On days when I don’t have appointments, I usually wear shorts, a T-shirt, and either my Cubs or Dodgers hat.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have appointments on that day. I have clients all across the country. We just meet by phone appointments so they don’t see me.

My office looks like a man cave, complete with sports stuff and two 40-inch flat screen TVs. But no one sees it. When we meet with someone it is in the conference room. There you will find all of my accolades on the wall, plus a splattering of real sports memorabilia — stuff that will be worth something someday.

It is very rare unless you are a professional to see someone in an office in a suit. However, I don’t think we will ever get to the point in our profession in which I can meet a client in my Cubs jersey and hat and have them take me seriously.

I guess the alphabet soup is like that. If I have 500 different acronyms after my name, I must be taken seriously. I am guilty of it as well.

However, when you see all those initials, think back to my unlicensed buddy, my go-to guy when I have something extremely complex to figure out. Smart as a whip but just a bad test taker. I respect his opinion, and I consider him an equal to me. If he could just be a better test taker he could be an EA, or even have a master’s degree in taxation.

In September, I will celebrate my 24th year in practice. When I think that I’ve seen it all, I suddenly find I haven’t. Just because someone has initials after their name doesn’t mean they know it all.

Heck, I don’t know it all. I learn something new every day. I just think that it is interesting how many designations are out there.

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