The longest hours for accountants will usually be during their time in public accounting. There is a good amount of travel, frequently periods of long hours including “busy season” which can be more than once a year.
What recruiters don’t tell you is that while most companies have a 12/30 year end and you will be really busy doing the year-end audit from say January to mid March, the “busy season” isn’t quite over yet. In fact, you could technically be working “busy season” year round. Many offices have clients who have March year ends, June year ends and really any time they want. This is frustrating because you can roll off a horrible engagement where you’re working 80+ hours for 4-5 weeks just to start the same process on another client. Variable compensation doesn’t really take this too much into consideration either – so if you’re slaving away all year long and posting average engagement reviews, you could get less than the person who is on 1 year round client and breezes through the summer getting above average reviews.
Tax staff has different periods of busy time based on tax filing deadlines. The biggest peaks are January-April and then again in the fall. The summers are usually pretty lax unless you’re on some sort of specialty tax consulting. The fact that it picks back up in time for football season can be disheartening as well.
One big difference between accounting and finance is that it is a general plan is that you will “front load” your career, putting in relatively tough hours in the beginning, pay your dues and get out to a more normal work schedule.
Public accounting audit and tax can both be lumped together with regard to hours because it really just depends on the office and the clients you get staffed on. I would say on average (using historic chargeability reports) that the average week in big 4 audit or tax is 55 hours. If you think of a bell curve, the 95 percentile high end of hours would be 95, with some working over 120 hours (some in my office have gone 100-110). I personally have charged ~90 hours for two consecutive weeks, meaning I put it about 100.
Depending on the size of the office and the clients you have you may have very little to almost exclusive travel. If you’re on a F100 client and work there year round, you probably won’t leave the state except for national trainings. On the other hand you could get put on clients all over the US and sometimes not in the greatest places. Hotel accommodations are usually pretty nice, as well as the standard per diem which makes it a little easier. Out of town stays usually last between 2 and 5 weeks with the possibility but not a guarantee that you can return home on the weekends. For hotel rewards point, you can’t use a Hilton/Marriott credit card to rack up points but instead you have to use the company card (I assume for all firms, correct me if I’m wrong).
Tax travel, if any, is usually much shorter than audit. That is again unless you’re in a specialty tax practice.
One of the most underrated benefits accounting has over finance is geographic flexibility. Accountants who make decent money can live pretty comfortably when they aren’t in a major metro like NYC. Since there are offices in every major city, you can (somewhat) easily transfer from office to office. The cost of living benefit and the ability to move as you wish across the states without being fixated around a finance hub is attractive to many wannabe CPAs.
The work environment in public accounting is general pretty good. From the start you’re working with young, intelligent and ambitious people. You will almost always be in a team setting and the size of the group can really vary, but there will usually be about 2 seniors per manager and 2-4 associates per senior. It can be stressful at times because there are strict deadlines associated with audits (and tax). Unlike investment banking where deadlines can come out of nowhere (a deal opportunity presents itself) the deadlines are usually known and can be accounted for. Instead of working around the clock to get revisions out before a meeting the next day, audit teams have deadlines weeks in advance and just have a lot to do get through it over that course of time. It can also be stressful when you become a senior and manager because you can be juggling multiple engagements, have demands coming from several places, and can’t get time to get your work done because associates are pounding you with questions. For this reason, many seniors and managers come in early and stay late to be able to get through their work while the questions aren’t coming in.
Life After Public Accounting
The majority of the public accountants exit to greener pastures with little to no travel, less stress and more normal hours (40-55). There may still be some spikes and some stressful periods if they’re involved with quarterly/year end closings or developments in the company. Opportunities for advancement are still available in their careers especially with the public accounting experience which gives them a unique view of many functions within companies.
Everything sounds great until you start considering the hours and lifestyle required for a career in investment banking. There is really no escaping the 90+ hour weeks and late nights/mornings in investment banking. Unfortunately, the hours don’t really subside too much over the long term. Sure if you’re a vice president probably you won’t be working until 2am like analysts and associates, but when you have a deal in the process you could easily be there until 10-11.
If you were to put an average hours per week over a year on a bell curve for each position in investment banking it would go something like: Keep in mind there will be extremes, but let
Vice President: 55-65-80
The hours are usually the main reason bankers leave the sell-side for greener pastures on the buy side. Private equity hours are not nearly as bad, but are still not a walk in the park. The normal day to day hours are closer to 8am-7pm but if you’re on a live deal you could see flashbacks of the analyst days where you’re working non-stop.
If you start off in S&T you will have definitely have more normal hours than investment banking. Typical hours will be 7-6 (depending on east coast/west coast) with little weekend work. The hours themselves are packed full of intensity and you need to be sharp the entire time. Some forego going out to lunch and having a working lunch becomes the norm.
Hedge funds have probably the best lifestyle/compenation in finance. The hours are usually 7-6, depending on the location, with no weekend work. If you’re on the west coast – you’re going to have to learn to be a morning person because you’ll be expected to be in the office well before the markets open in NY.
When an investment bank goes on a “road show” where they try and pitch companies and get prospective clients you could be travelling around for quite some time. As you move up in the bank, bringing in new clients becomes a larger responsibility thus requiring more travel as well.
Travel in private equity is usually less, but it can still be significant. Two main aspects of private equity are sourcing deals and managing portfolio companies. If you’re managing a portfolio company, you could on an extended travel and be out of town for months. If you’re sourcing deals you may be making weekend trips all over or just making calls from the office depending on the situation.
Those in hedge funds don’t usually have to travel unless you’re trying to bring in prospective investors.
The environment in IB/S&T/PE/HF, when compared to accounting, is more stressful. Mainly because there is a lot more money on the line. For example you make a mistake as an analyst in banking, your senior will find it chew you out. In public accounting, it is much more relaxed and the review process is built to catch these mistakes and are used as a teaching tool. Mistakes are expected but not to be duplicated, like any profession. The expectations are generally a lot higher in finance and there is less toleration for mistakes. There is also (to a degree) more flexibility when it comes to creativity, individual ideas, and analysis in finance. With accounting, there is a lot of does this number match this number.
If you’re in private equity and recommend buying a company, you could be the cause of a catastrophic loss or a big win. If you’re working at a hedge fund, one of your trades could go against you in a huge way or result in a very large gain.
The lifestyle in finance has more of a work hard play hard attitude with lots of extra money in people’s pockets all around. Working with people your age as well as people who are much older but still play hard makes it a rather fun environment.
Continue below for the final part of the series – the work.
Accounting vs Finance: Part 1 – Career Path
Accounting vs Finance: Part 2 – Compensation
Accounting vs Finance: Part 3 – Lifestyle (You are here)
Accounting vs Finance: Part 4 – The work