The Big 4 Accounting FirmsEverything You Need to Know 
You already know that the list of intangible benefits to your career is huge.
You’ll get first hand access to some of the world’s biggest companies and you’ll get to work with with industry leaders in every field, plus many more benefits.
But sometimes you want to look beyond the intangible. You just want to know exactly what your Big 4 salary is going to be.
In that case, you’re in the right place.
What Should I Expect My Big 4 Salary to be?
In this guide we’re going to give you a number of specific data points to help you gain a full understanding of the Big 4 pay structure.
- Starting Salary – Your expected Big 4 salary when you start in each service line and in a variety of offices around the U.S.
- Promotion Timelines – Determine how long it typically takes to be promoted through the various levels and the pay at each level
- Partner Compensation – See how much a typical Partner makes and what it takes to get there
- Bonuses – Give you some insights into the average bonus you might expect each year
- Career Earnings – What you might expect to earn over your entire career, year by year
One thing we’re not going to do (which may surprise you) is differentiate between each of the Big 4.
When we began our research for this article we started by differentiating between each of Deloitte, KPMG, EY and PwC.
But guess what we found?
The more results we obtained, the higher the convergence between each of the Big 4 salary data points. While we had an idea that salaries were comparable, it’s amazing how aligned they really are.
But if you think about it, it actually makes sense.
Each of the Big 4 continuously benchmarks against each other such that salary is rarely a contributing factor when someone moves between them.
We just didn’t realize how well they do it.
How we did it…
- To gather this data we first polled our large Big 4 Partner and Senior Manager network and over 200 of the students that we’ve helped secure a Big 4 career. We then cross-checked the Big 4 salary data we gathered against external benchmarks such as Glassdoor, PayScale and Indeed. To finish off we compared our findings against other first-hand experience resources, such as this. Believe us, this is comprehensive.
- Each of the numbers you’ll see below represent the median of a range. Each number has then been rounded to the nearest thousand for ease of comparison.
- The Big 4 have different names for each service line, although their function is essentially the same. Anything that didn’t fit into the classic Audit, Consulting or Tax brackets, such as Deloitte’s Financial Advisory Services, is combined into Advisory (Other).
- We have classified each promotion level by its most common name, but there are many others depending on the firm and service line. For example, in some firms a Consultant might be an Associate, or a Senior Manager might be an Assistant Director.
For Starters – Big 4 Consultant
Yes we know, this is what you really care about.
Everyone knows that they’ll be earning megabucks when they make Partner someday, but for now let’s talk about starting salary.
Before you’ve even done a day of work there are a number of factors that determine how much you’ll make.
- Office location
- Specific business
- Degree level
Ok, so what does this mean?
First, let’s look at degree level.
A PhD candidate is going to command a higher Big 4 salary than a candidate with a bachelor’s degree (and they’ll often get an advanced starting position…did you know that Harvard PhDs go straight to Manager level at EY?).
A master’s degree on the other hand won’t give you higher rank, but you might get a nice 10% – 15% initial pay bump.
What about the specific business unit?
Why would a Deloitte tax employee earn more than a Deloitte audit employee?
Well, some graduate jobs are just intrinsically more valuable than others. This is often a case of supply vs demand.
Think about it, in the accounting world the Big 4 don’t really have any competitors in terms of prestige positions. BDO and RSM are fine, but they’re not the Big 4.
Now take a computer science candidate who wants to work in cyber security consulting. In that case, everyone from Google to Bains could be trying to recruit them.
ECON 101: Less Supply or More Demand = Higher Price
Anyone that lives in NYC will know all about the outrageous real estate market. This is also reflected (to an extent…) in your starting salary.
So given all these factors, what exactly will you be earning in that first year?
Notice the interesting variation in these numbers. Seattle pays the lowest for audit but almost as much as NYC for consulting and advisory (probably because they’re on the West Coast…see cyber security example above).
Note also that following the Enron scandal, Deloitte is the only one of the Big 4 that has a true consulting business (competing with Bains, etc.), though the others do have many consulting services as part of their broader service. The consulting salaries may therefore be “cross-service line” to an extent.
In general, NYC pays the highest, followed by other larger cities, with regional offices in Mid-America paying the least.
Moving on Up – Big 4 Senior
But Senior is the first real Big 4 promotion.
You’ll actually have to prove that you’re doing a great job.
Performance reviews at this stage of your career are based not so much on project earnings but rather your progress on learning the day-to-day and particularly your delegation and people management skills.
You’ll need to be able to juggle multiple clients (or multiple projects for the same client).
This promotion typically happens at the end of your second year (or third year for PwC, don’t ask me why).
That’s pretty great.
Especially compared to the average U.S. annual salary increase of just 2.9 percent!
Starting to Lead the Way – Big 4 Manager
This is the moment when you’ll really begin to specialize and become an ingrained part of the business.
You’ll begin to regularly lead meetings and take calls with higher level clients.
You’ll have enough experience to really make a difference on projects and you’ll be rewarded as such.
Now before you get too excited, this is a good time to raise an important point.
Big 4 promotions are not strictly based on “time-served”, rather the skills and certifications acquired during that time.
(Yeah I’m talking to you kid!)
Your promotion evaluation will include questions on whether you’ve fulfilled all necessary promotion criteria, such as:
- Having the appropriate technical knowledge
- Demonstrating suitable leadership and delegation skills
- Obtaining the required designations (such as completing the CPA)
- Other factors such as utilization, extracurricular activities and managed revenues
Promotion typically takes between five and seven years, but depending on the firm, you are likely to spend a relatively long time at the Manager level. This means that the Big 4 salary ranges are going to vary considerably.
A first year Manager will be paid a lot less than someone ready for their Senior Manager promotion.
Seattle has now fallen behind Chicago in consulting pay. Maybe consulting Managers are not as valuable as new hires in that region.
NYC still tops the bill across the board (but remember those rental prices…!)
Hitting the Big League – Big 4 Senior Manager
For many a Big 4 career, this is the pinnacle.
Senior Manager is a great place to be if you don’t quite have the drive and dedication (and willingness to sacrifice your life…) for Partner status.
Senior Managers run projects from start to finish. They have access to the biggest clients, yet are not personally bought into the business. They have high levels of responsibility but not ultimate sign off.
Promotion to Senior Manager often requires the submission of a “business case” where you’ll need to prove that you’re ready for the jump.
Much like the Manager promotion, this business case will include a set of requirements that need to be met. But for Senior Manager there is a greater focus on leadership, people development and revenue.
Many of the Big 4 firms only promote to Senior Manager when they expect that you have a chance of making Partner.
It typically takes seven to ten years to be promoted to Senior Manager, and the resulting Big 4 salary is pretty great.
The Odd One Out – Big 4 Managing Director
But what actually is a Managing Director?
It’s not what you think, and it depends on the firm in question.
The (admittedly fantastic) diagram below gives an overview of the career pathways after Senior Manager.
A Director in this case is a salaried Partner.
A salaried Partner has many of the same rights and responsibilities as a Partner, with the key difference being that they don’t own any equity in the firm.
They earn a typical Big 4 salary (like the rest of us), rather than receiving profit share.
But then again they don’t have the stresses and strains of running a business to deal with.
In other firms (Firm A example), Director is a distinct level that must be passed through before being eligible for promotion to Partner.
Luckily for us, in either case the salary levels are somewhat similar. It does get skewed somewhat by the upper level “salaried Partners” who are typically industry experts who do not want to sell projects, but that can command very high salaries.
Promotion to Director will take anywhere from ten to fifteen years, with the earlier promotions often in firms where Director is a distinct level (i.e., not a salaried Partner).
Equity and Ownership – Big 4 Partner
This is what everyone from colleague student to Big 4 Senior Manager is aiming for.
Actually, because it’s so important that Big 4 candidates properly understand this topic (you want to make partner, right?) we’ve written a whole guide dedicated to Big 4 Partner compensation already.
It’s a hugely important part of the Complete Big 4 Candidate series.
(Just for reference here, a Partner will earn somewhere between $250,000 and $5 million per year, depending on how far up the Partner chain they get…and the average Partner can expect to earn almost $12 million over their career. It typically takes between thirteen and seventeen years to get there. Check out the Partner salary guide for tons more insight.)
Big 4 Bonuses
You like getting a bonus.
Everyone likes getting a bonus!
What kind of bonus can you expect at the Big 4?
For a start, it won’t be anything outrageous.
Unlike high finance, the Big 4 business model is not built to sustain large bonuses. Rather (as you’ve seen above) you can expect consistently large pay increases year-on-year which almost never stops.
Based on our research, the median bonus is around 8% of Big 4 salary. So it can range from around $5,000 when you’re an audit Senior in Seattle to $32,000 when you’re a consulting Director in New York.
The point to highlight here, as with all the salary figure we’ve mentioned, is that the 8% bonus figure is a median. The better you perform, typically the higher rating and subsequent raise and bonus you’ll get over time.
You need to be a complete candidate to even be considered for a bonus. It’s not only about delivering good technical work, or meeting all your deadlines. And it begins before you’ve even got the job.
Our research also shows that the bonus pool is weighted towards the more senior staff. As a result, that $5,000 bonus for the Seattle auditor will more likely be $3,000 (4% of salary) compared with say $45,000 (11% of salary) for the Director.
Bonuses also have as many variables as salaries, including the success of your overall team, your personal performance and the projects that you worked on.
Finally, remember that there’s no such thing as a bonus for Partners. Being a Partner is the bonus!
What Can You Expect to Earn in Your Career?
But what does that mean in the long run? How much would you expect to earn in your entire career?
Let’s narrow this down to what you’ll earn pre-Partner (as we mentioned, we’ve covered Partner career earnings in this article).
Ok, let’s assume you’re an auditor working in Chicago.
Firstly, let’s look at the amounts that you will earn at each level.
This makes sense because the further you go the more valuable you become. And as in any business, the more value you can create, the more salary you can command.
Now let’s look at how much you might earn over a 15 year period, assuming that you must go through the Director level (remember that in some cases you won’t need to) and you’re at the point of making Partner.
Your earnings will look something like this.
I mean, that’s not bad at all!
Are You Looking to Land a Prestigious Job at One of the Big 4 Firms?
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