Before I start, I just want to say that your career is what you make of it. It also helps if you start planning early on what you want to do, as it saves a lot of time and meandering through life. I know that people always say to find what you are passionate about- but is it easy to find what you want to do with the rest of your life when you are still in your early twenties?
For me, I took a more logical approach and picked a job that offered stability and decent income, but at the same time, something I was good at. Since I was young, I realized I was good at numbers, problem solving, and methodical approaches. Besides, a job in accounting was something that would please the Asian parents (haha).
So starting in high school, I took some business courses. I made sure my grades and extracurriculars were good enough to get into business school. From there, I specialized in accounting and took the necessary courses to be eligible for the CPA program once I graduated. This required a bit of planning over 3rd and 4th year of uni and making sure you have covered all the courses, but pretty straightforward since there were specific guidance on what courses to take. I was on track to graduating after 4 years of uni (no more and no less) with all the required courses. I was fortunate to have had an idea of what I wanted to do earlier on and make most out of my uni days, instead of doing a "victory lap" in uni (ie. 5th year) or going back to continuing education classes after I graduated to get all the required courses.
Not only did classes and grades occupy my mind, but the greatest stress of all - getting an internship and landing a job after graduating. I remember being so anxious in 3rd year, like getting an internship was the most important thing in the world and putting so much pressure on myself.
Recruit for Big 4 and other accounting firms started in 3rd year of university - where you could be offered a summer internship that could change your life. Just kidding. I actually went through recruit and did not land an summer internship at the Big 4, like I planned and hoped for. Looking back, I was not as prepared as I thought I was and did not put enough effort into the application and interview process.
However, I learned a big lesson that year - I learned how to get up after failing at something. Failure hurts, and it scares people to try something ambitious. But failure doesn't define you - what's most important is how you deal with it and improve yourself from that experience. So I wallowed a little bit but I went back to business on improving my application. St that point, I was pretty determined to get any summer internship in my 3rd year so I can land that Big 4 job in my final and 4th year of uni.
I scoured the job postings, and came across an internship at one of the national banks. I was so gung ho about getting this internship - at all cost - that I over prepared for my interview. I was ready to impress, and I made sure to bring a portfolio of examples of past work performed. Needless to say, the interviewer was impressed and liked me. However, I didn't get the job as I was told an MBA student had gotten the position - and who was I to blame, I would also choose the applicant with more experience and qualification too.
Though, sometimes when you want something enough and you do the best you can, the stars align and you get lucky. The MBA student dropped the offer last minute, and I got the internship! I remember feeling over the moon and relieved that I had something lined up for the summer and I had a chance at recruit the following year. How I Got into a Big Four Accounting Firm in my 4th year is covered in my other post, so check that out!
After finishing my internship at the national bank (and getting an offer to return after graduation), I confidently went through recruit in 4th year, applying the connections I built as references and solid work experience as a foundation for interviews. Having successfully gotten through recruit and getting the offer letter to the firm of my choice, I was ready to start my career after graduating.
Starting My Career and Getting Designated
I still remember the first day of work so clearly, and how excited and nervous I was at the same time. For the first 2.5 years, I went through the various Tax rotation programs while going through the CPA Professional Education Program (PEP), which consists of 6 modules. Each module took around 2 months, with the first 4 modules each consisting of a one day exam (I think it was around 3 hours) at the end and the other 2 modules consisting of some teamwork assignments. I remember there were few month breaks in between the modules, especially allocated for busy seasons. Some peers tried to fast track and take the modules back to back and finish in a year or so, but I didn't do that since I didn't want the undue stress.
The PEP program is designed to prepare you for the final Common Final Examination (CFE), which is a 3 day exam, consisting of 4 to 5 hours per day. It was definitely a difficult exam, mostly case based with excel calculations and 10+ page memo analyzing the results. I took about two months off leading up to the day of the exam, writing cases 5 or 6 days out of the week, completing a case each day under exam conditions and then debriefing for a few hours. Writing the exam, and then waiting a few months for the results was definitely one of the most nerve wrecking experiences. I remember getting up at 7am for the results and then crying when I saw that I had passed. It's definitely one of those moments in your life.
I feel that the first 2.5 years of your career is definitely the toughest. Not only are you juggling both work and studies, but you also need to maintain your sanity living a normal life, spending time with family and friends as well as doing fun stuff!
Work Life Balance and Other Career Moves
That was the work/study component of my Big 4 experience, the other part consisted of my "work life balance" as you might say. I have some amazing memories during the first few years, going to happy hour with my peers in downtown after work and having fun at firm sponsored events (ie. free drinks haha).
I even had the chance to take 3 months off (non-paid leave) to go traveling, which was something I've been putting off in university as some of my friends took gap years to go traveling or go on international exchange programs. I also maxed out my vacations going traveling. I even went on a one month business trip across the country, which felt more like traveling than work really. And the best part - as soon as I got designated, I left on an international secondment to Korea for 2.5 years! Check out my video on How to Make Your Own Opportunities at a Big 4 on more details on how I made that happen.
As my secondment in Korea was starting to come to an end - I had to make an important decision on whether to stay (as I got an offer to stay) or to transfer back to my home office in Canada. After much thought, I decided I wanted to move back to Canada. I started the negotiation process with a partner in the Canadian office, in which I negotiated my level, salary, and timing. I was able to push for a manager position as well as timed my return 3 months later so I can go travel Europe with my Mom. I saw this as an opportunity to take some time to myself before jumping back into the grind.
Full Circle to Now
Fast forward, I moved back to Canada in the beginning of 2020 and started working from home in March due to the pandemic. During the time I was back, I've been on a client secondment for over 5 months, helping with transfer pricing and restructuring. I've also started self-studying for the AICPA (Canadian CPAs have a reciprocity exam for the AICPA called the IQEX) and enrolled in Tax In-Depth Program. There have also been other life events (such as buying my first house and even getting into a relationship!).
After much thought, I laser focused my career to specialize in both Canadian and US tax. One thing my international secondment experience taught me was that the business transactions are becoming extremely global and interlinked, and one specialization wasn't enough. I saw the importance in knowing US tax as it has a large impact in the world's economy, and knowing it would significantly increase my marketability.
It has been a journey to say the least. Coming back to Canada, I have started focusing on what would be best for career in tax in the long-term. I've been constantly working towards improving myself both professionally and personally, without really compromising on either experiences or development.
I hope you see my career path as one of many different ways to get here. Some may have had a winding path to discover what they want, and others may have been accelerated their career but may have put "life" in the back burner. I decided to do both - stay focused on my career but also take time to enjoy life, such as travelling and also spending quality time with people in my life. It's really up to you what you want to achieve and what your priorities are.