Complete Big 4 Salary GuideFrom Consultant to Partner

Big 4 career on the horizon? Whether you’re a student or have 15 years of work experience, it’s vital that you understand where you’ll fit in to the Big 4 salary structure.

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.

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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.

We’ll explore:

  1. Starting Salary – Your expected Big 4 salary when you start in each service line and in a variety of offices around the U.S.
  2. Promotion Timelines – Determine how long it typically takes to be promoted through the various levels and the pay at each level
  3. Partner Compensation – See how much a typical Partner makes and what it takes to get there
  4. Bonuses – Give you some insights into the average bonus you might expect each year
  5. 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.

These are:

  • 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

Then there’s office location.

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?

I mean, not bad straight out of college!

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

You’ve worked hard, you’re put in the hours, and as long as you don’t screw things up badly you’ll be promoted through the junior Consultant levels with ease.

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).

That’s because these skills are super important in a people driven business.

This promotion typically happens at the end of your second year (or third year for PwC, don’t ask me why).

Across the board this represents an approximate 14 percent year-on-year increase in your Big 4 salary, assuming promotion at the end of the second year.

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

Ah, 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.

But be aware that there is a general understanding that it does take a minimum amount of time to reach a certain skill level. You definitely won’t be promoted to Manager after two years, even if your surname is Einstein.

(Yeah I’m talking to you kid!)

It comes down to a combination of the time spent with a firm (which allows you to gain the experience you need) and also merit.

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.

Some interesting observations here too.

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…!)

Don't have time to read the whole guide now?

No problem. Let me send you a copy so you can read it when it's convenient for you. Just let me know where to send it (takes 2 seconds):

(And as a special BONUS I'll also give you early-bird access to my upcoming Big 4 Recruiting Masterclass!)

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.

Note again the potential for wide variation in these numbers. It’s becoming a theme!

The Odd One Out – Big 4 Managing Director

Ah the good old Managing Director. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

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.

With some firms (Firm B example), there are two pathways after Senior Manager, either Director or Partner.

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.

It is very very difficult for these Directors to then be promoted to Partner. You may get paid an awesome salary, but it will never be at Partner level.

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 it!

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

I like getting a bonus.

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.

Consultants don’t usually receive bonuses (sorry).

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?

As you’ve seen, we’ve gone into significant detail to determine the compensation you might expect when working at any of EY, KPMG, Deloitte or PwC.

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.

As an overall share, your salary at the Big 4 will increase dramatically the further you get into your career. For example, as a Senior Manager you’ll be making almost three times as much on an annual basis as when you started

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.

That equates to around $2.1 million over a 15 year period. Which discounted for today’s money is around $1.6 million.

I mean, that’s not bad at all!

11 Comments

  1. How confident are you in the salaries for associates? I work at a big 4 in one of the listed markets and nobody I know makes that much in consulting out of college. The salary listed is closer to the salary earned by associates right before being promoted to senior.

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Thanks Alex. Yes, we are confident. As I mention throughout the article these are averages, so for associates that will include people right out of college plus those just before senior. Plus it varies widely by region and also whether you have a master’s degree or prior experience. The salaries stated are so people can determine roughly what they’re worth in each market and also, more importantly, how much they could earn in their career!

      Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Thanks for the link Jack. As I mention elsewhere there will always be variances based on who is interviews, what background they have. From the article you mentioned I just checked the starting salary for consulting in Deloitte and it was $88k, which is exactly what we have. So yes there will be differences but I am confident that our guide is the most accurate given the number of people we interviewed!

      Reply
  2. Hey James, nice write-up. I recently got rejected in a big four firm(KPMG NG), after the assessment center stage.
    I would really like to work in a big four, not because of the money but because of the personal, professional development and career growth. I know I could apply to other firms, but recruitment process isn’t ongoing for any one until late in the year for the next fiscal year. I’m really tired of sitting around, so waiting till next year is not an option. Any advice for me?

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Thanks Pej! Best advice is to join another firm in the meantime and gain experience. With that experience you’ll be even more attractive to the Big 4. Don’t sit around waiting because that will reflect poorly on your resume.

      Reply
  3. Very well written overall! I was recently offered a Manager position at one of the big 4s, and it helped me taking a decision in making a jump from a comfortable corporate job to a grinding Monday-Thursday week on week travel job.

    But my thought was to get out of my comfort zone and so far my research has shown that raises year over year in Big4 are significantly higher compared to a big corporate (I work for a $50 billion+ company in their IT department) role. I got 2% on a equivalent rating of 3 on a much lower base. What made matters complex for me in taking a decision, is that most traditional companies offer regular and solid bonuses (roughly 14% in good years and up to 20% in exceptionally ground breaking performance years) at a lower base plus stock on a vesting schedule.. But I think it’s the year on year raise on a lot higher base (~18% higher) that weighed the most in convincing me.

    Coupled that with a very clear career growth path, I am accepting! Hope that it is a right decision.

    Reply
  4. I just discovered this website, very well written!

    What do you mean by “consulting”? Is it Finance, Strategy, Human Resources, or IT consulting ? Or is it all mixed ?

    I’m from a european country and here IT consulting has a very bad rep, i’ve heard that’s its not the case in the US, but this might be wrong as everything that has to do with strategy is “sexier” to a lot of candidates (plus they do tend to make more when “strategy” is involved”)

    Do you have any info regarding salaries up north (Canada) ?

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Hey Stephanie.

      Thanks for the compliment! We have included all consulting salaries together and so they are “all mixed” as you say. This is because for each Big 4 service line (including tax, audit, etc., as well as consulting) there are countless individual positions and each of the salaries will vary somewhat. It wouldn’t be possible to cover everything.

      IT consulting doesn’t have a bad rep in the U.S., far from it. But you’re right that anything with strategy in the title is considered “better”, whether that’s fair or not.

      We’ve actually helped a lot of Canadian students secure a Big 4 career recently, and one of our mentors is Canada-based. From this information it seems like salaries in Canada are generally equivalent to a lower-end U.S. city (so Dallas in our examples above). Again though, it will depend a lot on specific location.

      Reply
      • Just to piggyback off this – what’s your differentiator between advisory and consulting?

        Reply
        • James Whittaker

          Hey CL! We answered this in the “how we did it” section:

          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).

          It’s definitely a grey area.

          Reply

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