Bring the Real World to the Classroom

CPAs can share experiences that connect with young imaginations and aspirations.

SOME PROFESSORS ARE BRINGING practitioners into the college classroom to talk to their students about the profession and its opportunities. Here are some tips about how such exposure can double as tailor-made recruiting.

CPA GUEST SPEAKERS CAN demonstrate professional diversity and encourage students to stay with an accounting major or to choose one. Some students were surprised to learn that different fields are available in accounting.

IF THE PROFESSOR IS trying to cover a range of accounting subjects, the guest speaker may be asked for input designed to fit with other presentations or with class material. Students are more likely to remember vivid work experiences that show how technical rules are applied.

GUEST SPEAKERS SHOULD GEAR discussion topics to the students’ level of knowledge. The speaker should try to remember what he or she didn’t know at their age. Students respond positively to the truth.

WHAT A CPA DOES on any given day is one of the most difficult areas for guests to cover but one of the most interesting to students. Besides a typical workday, students need to hear about experiences in private companies, government entities or small firms.

SPEAKER EVENTS CAN WORK at large and small universities as well as at community colleges. Practitioners can take the initiative and contact professors directly to ask about arranging a guest-speaker event.

CHERYL T. METREJEAN, CPA, PhD, is an assistant professor at the E.H. Patterson School of Accountancy, University of Mississippi, Oxford. Her e-mail address is . MARILYN T. ZARZESKI, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor at the E.H. Patterson School of Accountancy, University of Mississippi, Oxford. Her e-mail address is .

PAs are the unsung heroes of finance. As advisers to enterprises that range from mom-and-pop shops to worldwide financial markets, they function as “referees” in the big-league game of business and—in so doing—help make the free world work. This is power with implications that are far from dull or stodgy despite a persistent CPA image problem. Is anyone paying attention, however? Nationwide, enrollment in accounting programs is down and the number of graduates is shrinking. The profession is headed toward a crisis if it doesn’t attract enough people to renew itself.

A survey asked 158 accounting majors in intermediate and cost accounting classes whether CPA guest speakers had improved their understanding of the profession. More than 98% of them said yes—and that accountants have interesting jobs and a variety of available career options.

To help get the word out to students that an accounting career won’t consign them to a life bereft of challenges or glamour, we invited CPA guest speakers to talk to our college accounting classes about the profession. We found that for a modest investment of time and energy practitioners and academics can get together to update the CPA image and let students know what’s happening in the evolving world of accounting. Such events benefit students, practitioners and professors alike and are effective in any community with a college or university. This article describes how we organized our program.


Accounting academics have been tweaking university curricula for two decades to make the profession more attractive to students. Although technical training has remained relatively unchanged, there has been a stylistic shift away from lecture-based teaching and toward team projects and education that enhances communication skills. We homed in on practitioners as the most effective people to tell students about what being a CPA is like and what it has to offer.

In guest speaker events at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, and at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, we invite accountants from diverse fields to discuss career paths and the skills, knowledge and attitudes that make accountants successful in our global economy. For the benefit of our college audience, guest practitioners describe their educational, professional and CPA exam experiences as well as some of the techniques that lead to a successful career. The speakers encourage students to stay with an accounting major or to choose one.

After the first speaker event—a sole CPA guest who spoke about his work and the profession—we acted on student feedback and, to broaden the range of information, enlarged the groups to include two to four practitioners per session. On different occasions, our panels have had an owner of a small CPA firm, a financial analyst with county government, a payroll manager for a company in the top 100 for earnings, a public accountant, a small-business accountant, a fraud auditor, an internal auditor and a tax manager in a midsize company. A benefit of having a cross-section in the classroom is that it brings branches of the accounting profession together where students can explore their similarities and differences and see how they relate to the business culture at large.


Two weeks before a scheduled event we distribute biographical information about the speakers and ask students to form questions for them. Then—at least a week before the talk—we gather the students’ questions, group them by category and give them to the CPAs to help them focus on issues important to the audience. The topics range from CPA exam experiences to daily work and responsibilities, courses taken in college, job opportunities and interview tips (see exhibit 1,below).

Exhibit 1: Questions to Consider When Planning Your Event
These are some of the questions students asked practitioners, by topic.

Career choices

What are the advantages and disadvantages of operating your own accounting office vs. working for a large organization?
How difficult was the transition from public to private accounting?
Can you discuss the advantages of being a CPA and a CMA and explain some available career options?


What class do you feel benefited you most? For what job?
How does having a master’s degree in accounting make a difference?

CPA exam

Would you share your CPA exam experience with us?
What words of wisdom do you have for future CPA-exam takers?

Job hunting

What do you think made your first employer think you were the most qualified for the job?
What specific abilities or qualities do you require from prospective applicants?
What’s the funniest/worst experience you had?

Work situations

Has being a CPA been different from what you envisioned when you were a student? How?
What is the greatest adjustment that you have had to make to adapt to the fast pace of change?
What was it like to set up your own practice?
What is your typical workday like?

Guests handle their presentation in a number of ways. At first, guest speakers stood at the front of the room and spoke for 15 to 20 minutes about their academic and professional backgrounds, after which they took questions from the students in an informal exchange. Session lengths depended on class schedule.

From the outset we asked students for feedback after each event. When they indicated they wanted breakout sessions, we added them. The breakouts work this way: We ask each speaker to briefly introduce him- or herself, then we assign the speaker a seating area in the classroom. The class is divided into as many groups as there are speakers. A group, usually of four to six students, moves from speaker to speaker for a set period of time.

An instructor may need to get administrative permission for an outside-speaker program. We recommend planning the program before the semester begins so a description can be incorporated into the syllabus. Exhibit 2, below, shows some basic steps that help ensure the success of our sessions.

Exhibit 2: Steps for Setting Up a Guest Speaker Event
These are geared to the instructor, but a practitioner can use this outline to initiate a college speaking engagement.

What to do before the event

Schedule speakers before semester start date. Avoid a conflict with financial and tax accounting deadlines.
Include a description in the syllabus, and discuss the program with students on the first day of class.
Ask each speaker for a short biographical sketch about two weeks before the event.
Draft a written agenda of the event format and share it with the speakers and students. Tell each speaker how much time he or she is allotted.
Provide students with speaker bios to use for drafting two or three questions. Note whether a question is for a specific speaker.
When the questions are turned in, transcribe them, sort them and send them to the speakers (one week before).
Provide directions to the campus, to the building and to the classroom. Explain where to park and make the arrangements, if needed.
Make reminder calls on the day before the event.

What to do on the day of the event

For general sessions
Station student greeters at the building entrance.
Provide name tags for everyone.
Prearrange the room layout, if possible.
Introduce guest speakers; ask them to describe their academic and professional backgrounds; allow about 30 minutes time at end of talks for general questions.

For breakout sessions
Rearrange the seating, if needed, to give each guest an area where groups of students may visit. Establish a sequence for the groups.
Try to allot enough time to let students talk with each speaker.
When the event time expires, say a general thank you to everyone who helped.

What to do after the event

Send thank you letters.
Have students complete the feedback forms.
Summarize the feedback and send to speakers for their review.
Maintain a file of speakers, with student reactions noted.
On an ongoing basis, gather business cards from accountants willing to speak in the future.
Make a file with suggestions to implement at future events.

Some students exposed to the life-on-the-job stories of CPAs have been surprised to learn that different fields are available in accounting, and all classes—accounting and business—have reacted positively to the sessions. They appreciate being able to meet potential employers and inquire directly about job specifications and the qualities recruiters and employers seek. The speaker events answer many students’ questions and resolve some anxieties. For example, one said that what she’d heard reassured her and helped her “to know what to expect after graduation.”

Ultimately, we extended the guest speaker event to introductory-level accounting classes as a recruiting strategy. Introductory classes are composed mostly of nonaccounting majors, who often are in an early stage of their academic curriculum and can change their majors without delaying graduation. We hoped that exposure to what the CPA profession is all about would encourage them to choose accounting as a career.

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Speaker events can work at large and small universities as well as at community colleges. Because a significant number of students take introductory accounting courses at the community college level, we recommend that community college professors and accounting practitioners collaborate on recruiting events. Get students to pitch in, too. Although the professor-host will handle many of the arrangements for a successful guest speaker event, students can participate in the logistics by volunteering for the welcome, refreshment or clean-up committees.

The world of accounting is changing. For example, an October 2000 Dallas Morning News headline declared, “Accountants leaving ‘nerd’ image behind—ad campaign seeks to do away with stereotypes.” Students considering entering the profession may not have an issue with the contemporary epithet for “brainy,” but they do require a comfortable living and a range of interesting opportunities. New CPA services have the potential to increase earnings and expand the range of challenging jobs a CPA does. Guest practitioners are in the best position to discuss the many options—recent and traditional—that are available. Spread the word.

If You’re the Guest Speaker…

T he following suggestions for practitioners visiting an accounting class are the result of several years of experience and student feedback.

Know your topic and what you’re expected to do. Discuss the goals for the visit with the professor. Find out if he or she has a specific topic in mind. Your event may be one of several during the semester. If the professor is trying to organize a program with a range of accounting subjects, you may be asked to cover content designed to fit with other presentations or with class material. If you need more guidance, ask what course material coincides with your visit. Students respond very positively when a speaker provides insight and guidance about a class project they are working on.

Describe the skills needed to succeed in the business world, including interpersonal, oral and written communication skills. If you are asked to speak about a technical topic, provide details about how it relates to your work experiences, if possible. Real-life day-to-day tasks are usually much more interesting to students than technical rules. They are more likely to remember vivid work experiences that show how technical rules are applied. If the professor doesn’t invite you to recruit for the profession during your presentation, ask if you can spend a few minutes discussing the profession and its rewards.

Know your audience. This seems simple, but practitioners often have a hard time remembering how little they knew in their introductory accounting courses. Find out from the course professor what college level you’ll be speaking to and what majors are represented.

After one event, for example, a student said the presentation would have been a lot better if the speaker had defined several of the accounting terms he’d used. Always assume less knowledge rather than more. Gear discussion topics to the students’ level of knowledge and to their college majors. Don’t forget the business and other majors who are in the class. You are there to help recruit all of them into the CPA profession. Make your presentation both interesting and relevant.

Be prepared. Students know whether a speaker is prepared or not. Begin your presentation with an overview of what you plan to discuss to help them follow along. We don’t recommend handouts, which encourage students to read rather than listen.

In your preparation, always try to consider some offbeat aspects of accounting or business that may connect with students. In one presentation, for example, the speaker gave the class a list of 10 well-known businesses that appeared to be American companies and made familiar products the students knew and used. They were intrigued to learn that these companies were actually foreign owned. Another guest talked about the importance of customers such as the students, to e-commerce businesses. An unusual slant can pique interest and promote discussion.

Be careful to avoid being too rigid about your list of topics. If the audience appears interested in something worthwhile that isn’t on your list, sacrifice some of your items to give the class the information it wants and can connect with.

Be enthusiastic about the profession. Students often say that a speaker’s enthusiasm held their interest and was a major factor in causing them to think differently about the profession. Guest speakers can’t sell others on the profession if they aren’t enthusiastic about the “product” they’re selling.

Relax. Be yourself. Our profession is exactly that—a profession . However, because students are more comfortable in a less formal environment, when possible relax and let them see a little more of your personable side. Your expertise in a serious field doesn’t mean that you aren’t funny, concerned, compassionate or in touch with any number of human qualities. Several students said they appreciated one event because the speaker was “a real person.” Her candor about what she didn’t like made her much more credible when she talked about what she enjoyed about her work, they said.

Don’t be afraid to mention bad experiences or difficulties. Students relate when a successful professional admits having done poorly in a class or having taken the CPA exam many times before passing it. One mentioned that he particularly enjoyed a speaker who “was completely honest about the accounting profession and didn’t try to glorify it.” Students need to hear what parts of your job you don’t enjoy as well as those that you love. As long as they understand that the positive aspects of the profession outweigh the bad ones, this information won’t harm your effort. When a speaker becomes more “real” to students, they realize that they, too, can achieve what you have if they try.

Allow time for student questions. Students raved about a speaker who invited questions very soon after beginning his presentation. The students felt more comfortable asking questions as they came up, rather than waiting until the end. The queries helped guide that particular presentation and make it a success.

Allow time for topics of universal interest. Several topics come up repeatedly in students’ preparatory questions and post-talk evaluations. Some relate more to the adult work world in general than to the accounting profession. It’s always useful to touch on these in a presentation.

Interviewing and job-hunting tips: Students always appreciate information on what employers are seeking. They will all be concerned with finding a job soon and are endlessly nervous about that process.

Your typical day: Students are very interested in exactly what you do on any given day. Even though every day is different, try to describe one or two. This is one of the most difficult areas for guests to cover to the satisfaction of the class. Practitioners and professors tend to discuss big projects or events, but students know that most of the job isn’t that exciting. Don’t be afraid to talk about the mundane parts of your typical workday—every career has them.

Opportunities and experiences in firms and companies of all sizes: Accounting majors get more information about public accounting than about other areas. In addition, the majority of graduates from some schools take jobs with Big Five firms. Students feel inundated with public accounting information and don’t hear enough about the many other options available. Some accounting majors may even believe that public accounting is the only available choice. If you have experience in a private company, government entity or small firm, students are very eager to hear about it.

Become involved. The shortage of accounting graduates is a problem that can’t be solved by academics alone. Although the ball is usually in the professors’ court when it comes to organizing a college-level guest-CPA event, practitioners can take the initiative, too. Talk to instructors you meet at luncheons or community meetings. Contact professors directly to ask if you can arrange to meet with them to introduce yourself and discuss a guest-speaker event. Meeting the professor will allow you to get to know each other, and collaboration on the objectives and logistics may persuade the professor to offer class time.


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