How to choose the right specialty 

Finding a good fit can improve your chances of being successful in your career. 
by Sheon Ladson Wilson 

How to choose the right specialtyRobyn Fuller, CPA, CGMA, an international operations senior auditor at GM Financial, has received her fair share of offers from recruiters and headhunters, including offers that would increase her salary, yet she’s turned them all down because she “completely fell in love” with internal auditing and knows that’s where she wants to stay.

As the experience of Fuller, a 2014 graduate of AICPA’s Leadership Academy, illustrates, choosing a specialty is one of a CPA’s most important career decisions. It has a huge effect on how much a CPA earns in a career, how successful that career will be, and how much the CPA enjoys the work. But making such a momentous decision can be difficult.

Why specialize?

It makes good career sense to choose a specialty. “You’ve got to be very open to specialization because that's the way of the world,” said Jennifer Busse, national and regional talent acquisition leader for Chicago-based assurance, tax, and consulting services provider McGladrey. “Especially now with the way there are so many industry standards, clients want people who are specialists within industries.”

If you’re looking to specialize, you have a lot of options. CPAs can specialize in different practice areas, including tax, assurance, financial planning, and forensic and valuation services, just to name a few. Other options are available to further specialize in different industries: providing business valuations for health care companies, for instance, or offering financial planning services to high-net-worth individuals. Location can also play a role in specialization; some accountants may concentrate on helping clients in a specific region, state, or country. It’s impossible to come close to mentioning all the possibilities in one article.

Follow your interests

When choosing a specialty, make sure it’s a field you enjoy. That way you’ll be comfortable taking the time needed to learn it, said Sarah Elliott, CPA, founder of CPA advisory firm Ellivate Advisors.
She suggests young accountants ask themselves questions such as: What work will you actually be doing day to day, and does it interest you? What work would you be doing in that specialty 10 years down the road?

Getting started

Elliott practiced in public accounting for 14 years, including 10 years at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She didn’t choose a specialty until she got to the manager level, five years into her career. Elliott appreciates the time she spent “undeclared.”

“The great thing was that that allowed me to try a lot of different things,” Elliott said. “Even though financial services was not what I would have picked right off the bat, somehow it ended up being the bulk of my schedule for probably the first three years of my career, and I learned so much.”

Is it the right fit?

When choosing a specialty or contemplating a job offer, consider the fit, Elliott said. Carefully assess whether your temperament and work habits will be compatible with those of co-workers in your specialty area. Ask yourself questions such as these: Who will you be working with? What kinds of clients will you have? What kind of opportunities will you have in the future?

Don’t be surprised if you find the first six months in a new specialty area extremely challenging, Elliott said. You might even worry that the area isn’t for you. “It’s important to give it enough time, to be open-minded and explore why you think it’s not working,” she said. “And then if you’ve done all that and there are some specific things that you’re not liking about it, then I think it’s really important to communicate upwards.”

Talk to your supervisor, reach back to your mentors, and even call college recruiters for some perspective, she said. It’s crucial to remember that you’re the driver of your career.

“If you and your supervisor have tried different things and it’s still not working, and you’ve both mutually decided that this is maybe not the right fit,” Elliott said, “the good thing is that there are other options out there.”

Sheon Ladson Wilson is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.

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