My life in academia...

Aug 02, 2017
While a niche choice for Chartered Accountants, academia offers unique opportunities for career fulfilment.

A role in academia after your training contract is not the typical route for most newly qualified Chartered Accountants. However, it does have its attractions. While many Chartered Accountants will seek job satisfaction from closing deals, winning new clients or helping to grow their own or their client’s business, the job satisfaction associated with a role in academia is of a different nature.

The ability to follow the development of students from their early days in third level to the completion of their professional exams and onto a broad variety of roles brings a great sense of accomplishment. Add to this the opportunity to engage in research that can provide an input into policy development and make a practical contribution to the business world, and you have a role that provides its holder with a unique sense of contribution and achievement.

Creating an appreciation of accounting

Although the career path offers a different structure and set of challenges to the more traditional practice and industry-based roles, the training received as a Chartered Accountant in terms of technical, commercial and communication skills remains very relevant. The lecturing aspect of the role involves a variety of accounting topics and student profiles, from introducing basic accounting concepts to first years to focusing on practical accounting methods and tools for experienced managers on Executive MBA programmes.

While many students will not specialise in accounting, creating an appreciation of the value that accounting information can bring to an organisation and the role Chartered Accountants play in the broader business environment is an important insight for their development as future business professionals.

Rigorous research

Another significant part of the role is focused on research and, in the initial years of your academic career in particular, on your PhD. This is one of the unique attractions of a role in academia for many who see the inherent value in undertaking a significant research project that allows you to stand back from the usual task-based nature of the business world to examine in detail how and why certain phenomena occur.

For many PhD students, the topic of their research will emerge from their own real world experiences, some of which they may wish to examine more rigorously. The beauty of a PhD is the freedom it gives the student to focus on topics and issues of particular interest to them, which of course is an important point considering many part-time PhDs can run for five or six years in duration.

The focus of my own research has allowed me to bring together my experiences in accounting education and agriculture to examine the area of financial literacy in farming enterprises in collaboration with Teagasc. The PhD aims to provide an insight into financial practices at a farm level and will contribute to an evidence-based approach to designing future financial education programmes for farmers. This is an important issue in the agriculture sector with an increased focus on low farm incomes, uncertainty around future EU supports given the forthcoming CAP reform, and increased price volatility all drawing attention to the financial management and viability of farming enterprises.

The next generation

Accountancy academics also play a key role in the development of the next generation of Chartered Accountants. A significant cohort of students will seek career advice in the first instance from their accountancy lecturers at third level. Talking to students about choosing firms, departments and roles is very much a regular part of this job.

Developing a student’s technical skillset is an important objective during their time in third level, but it is not the only objective. The role of the modern professional accountant encompasses a much broader range of competencies than mere technical knowledge. It includes areas such as communication skills, teamwork and commercial awareness, and we focus on developing these skills in all students throughout their studies at third level.

Gatekeepers to new areas of knowledge

The rapidly changing nature of today’s business world and the adaptive nature of the accounting profession to the needs of business means we must continue to update our course and programme offerings to prepare our students for the demands of 21st century commerce.

Emerging areas such as data analytics, social and environmental performance measurement, and tax morality are just some of the new topics that the next generation of Chartered Accountants will be dealing with and where demand is increasing for accountants with such skills.

Academics in many ways can be seen as the gatekeepers to these new areas for the next generation of the profession. The hybrid nature of our role as both researchers and teachers places us in a highly influential position as an important conduit of knowledge between the latest research impacting the accounting profession and the current and future generations of the profession.

A symbiotic relationship

Maintaining strong links between the academic community and the broader profession in practice and industry should be an important objective for the continued development of our profession. The regular dissemination of the latest research in the field to the broader population of Chartered Accountants (for example, via Accountancy Ireland), the incorporation of this research into the educational offerings at both pre- and post-qualification levels, and the active promotion of practice and industry-focused collaborative academic research projects (such as those supported by the Chartered Accountants Ireland Educational Trust, for example) are all avenues to further strengthen this important symbiotic relationship.

Pushing the boundaries of knowledge

A career path in academia is undoubtedly a niche one in the context of the broad range of accountancy-based roles available. It does, however, offer a unique set of opportunities to a Chartered Accountant in terms of playing a role in developing the next generation of the profession while also making a contribution to policy development and practice in areas of business and society of interest to you.

Pushing the boundaries of knowledge in the discipline of accounting and ensuring the effective transfer of this new knowledge to the broader population of Chartered Accountants is an important role within the profession. To borrow a line from Benjamin Franklin, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”. While Franklin may have been focused on the individual, his words also hold true for the accountancy profession as a whole.

John Nolan is a Lecturer at Dublin City University Business School and Chartered Accountants Ireland.