How to decide what to specialise in as an accountant

As a new or trainee accountant, there is a wide variety of different jobs and specialisms available to you, whether it is joining a large City practice, setting up your own business, or providing a service to SMEs.

How do you decide when and how to specialise? What role might you be best suited to? It’s great to have a niche, but is it a disadvantage to specialise too early?

Research your options

Do your homework and speak to those involved or with the relevant experience, says Chris Stappard, Managing Director at Edward Reed Recruitment.

“Ensure you take your time and your decision is as informed as much as possible, that way you can ensure the move is a right one,” he says.

Get first hand experience

“I would suggest that graduates need to get as wide an experience of finance and financial services as they can when they first set off on their careers,” says Mark Tweed, CFO at Henry Howard Finance.

“That experience will give them an informed ability to decide where to specialise if that is the subsequent route they want to go. It also helps keep the door open to future opportunities outside of the specialism.”

Using job shadowing

“Having and using the opportunity to job shadow is invaluable,” says Chris Stappard. “Nothing can beat first-hand experience. Summer internships are also a great way of using first-hand experience to learn where you want your career to go.”

Stay flexible

“As the world encourages diversity in the workforce this definitely takes experience into account too,” says Chris Stappard. “There will always be transferable skills and working experience that can add value to different specialisms.”

Exchange skills with others

“Peer to peer learning is a tried and tested alternative method for helping staff progress,” says Nick Boyle, Strategy Director at The Audit Lab. “Spending time with people you don’t usually work with helps you learn new skills and methods of working.”

One person should not be responsible for everyone’s training, as they can only provide one approach, he says.

“Everyone in the business should share the responsibility of training, helping each other achieve a common goal of being more knowledgeable. I’m an advocate for everyone in the business having a basic knowledge of each department we have.”

Be open minded

“In respect of timing of specialising there is no set time and will come from the opportunities that arise and the preferences of the individual concerned,” says Mark Tweed of Henry Howard Finance.

“There are ‘profile’ roles in any sector and there is a natural tendency for people to gravitate to them. The point to note on these is they can be crowded in terms of roles and candidates and they can also be driven by the flavour of the moment which bring risks within the specialism.”

Analyse your strengths

One of the biggest decisions any graduate, accountant or other individual will need to make is what specific area of the industry to specialise in, says Andrew Garvey chief commercial officer, Countingup.

“It’s important to understand where your strengths lie and the type of projects you enjoy working on before making that choice,” he says. “The external view of a particular role or industry can be very different from the day to day reality.”

Be receptive to opportunities

“The career path I took to get to my current role in financial services is quite unusual, but each move made sense – both at the time and retrospectively,” says Andrew Garvey.

He spent four-and-a-half years working for the Institute of chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) as a business development manager for Wales and Central England. At ICAEW, he worked with a lot of accountancy practices of all sizes on their recruitment and training of school leavers, AAT students and graduates.

Since then he has worked in the Fin Tech space: first as Head of Practice Sales at FreeAgent, the UK’s third largest cloud accounting software company and latterly at Countingup the UK’s number one banking and accounting app.

“It was my interest in small business and passion for technology and creative disruption that made it a no brainer to join Countingup as CCO, when our CEO and founder, Tim Fouracre approached me. My advice is to always be receptive to potential opportunities.”

Be adaptable

Accountancy is changing fast, and so is the role of the accountant.

“Any entrant to this industry needs to be really adaptable and open to change,” says Andrew Garvey. “Technology is very much disrupting the way that accountants, and indeed business as a whole, works. There is no doubt that the role of an accountant is changing.

“Technology will continue to make it easier to create and analyse financial data. However, business owners and managers still value accountants who can explain the data and advise on options. The accountant of the future will need to be able to use technology to deliver results for their clients.”

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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