Prestige and value: A CPA career coach’s view on education requirements

Hosted by Neil Amato

Nikki Winston, CPA, can recall a time when, for her, it might have been easy to give up on pursuing CPA licensure. Now, she receives messages from CPA candidates and advises them on how to continue to the journey.

Winston, a career coach and CPA Exam strategist, shares in this episode the common questions she gets from students and why she believes that the 150-hour educational requirement for CPA licensure should not change.


What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Winston's advice to approach educational requirements as if going through a buffet line.
  • Why knowledge in areas such as securitization and tax can end up being valuable.
  • The types of messages Winston often receives from accounting candidates seeking coaching or CPA Exam preparation.
  • Why Winston said that the profession should be trying to reach students well before they enter high school.
  • The personal example that applies to Winston's words: "Don't be intimidated by other people's exam experiences."

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato.

Nikki Winston, a CPA and career coach, is our guest on this episode. The topic of our discussion is one of great interest to future and current CPAs — the 150-hour educational requirement for CPA licensure. Nikki advises candidates on taking the CPA Exam, and so she's well positioned to talk about the 150-hour requirement. First, Nikki, I'd like to welcome you to the podcast and also have you introduce yourself to our audience and explain a little about why this topic is one that resonates with you.

Nikki Winston: Yes, thanks, Neil. I appreciate that. First and foremost, I'm Nikki from Cincinnati. I'm a busy working mom. I love food and I love cooking, which balances pretty well with my affinity for intense workouts like boot camps and such. Decorating is also my thing. I'm into wellness, taking care of yourself holistically, football, high heels, whiskey, and a beautiful skyscape. I love skyscapes. I just go outside most days and take random pics of the sky. It fills me, I love those nature picks. I have a deep appreciation for the work that I do as a CPA, whether it be corporate accounting or CPA Exam prep and career coaching for accounting professionals. Most days are busy between my family and my work, but I prioritize pausing daily so that I can reset or just be.

Amato: That's great. I like the skyscape part of that. I'm not a good photographer, but I think I can appreciate a good skyscape. Maybe you could explain a little bit about the 150-hour requirement and why you think it's important to preserve that requirement.

Winston: Yes. The topic of the 150-hour requirement, when it became a big conversation, it had me thinking about the current state of the profession, specifically the gap that exists between the business needs in accounting and the readiness of newly licensed CPAs.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the elephant in the accounting room, which is the pipeline issue. One way for us to address that issue directly is by rethinking the way that candidates can earn those extra 30 hours or so. Really I feel like, Neil, it's not just important, it's key to preserve that requirement. We have a huge responsibility as CPAs to protect the public interest, to demonstrate our expertise, make recommendations that people rely on, which is what we're doing when we sign off on financial statements, when we're advising a small business owner, for example, who might use our recommendations to make decisions that impact their business. We need to be able to tell that business story, a language that most people don't even understand.

Our ability to translate complex accounting talk into commentary that a nonaccountant can understand and then use it, that's forever a value add. There's a lot of talk about the technology, the RPA, which is all great. There was the conversation that eventually it will replace CPAs, but technology cannot replace the value that CPAs bring. With the obligations that we have to know our stuff, to protect the public, let's maximize the opportunities that future CPAs have to not just learn but also do. Because you can learn something in the classroom by reading a textbook and still not have the knowledge and confidence to go out and do it. Then there's that level of prestige that comes with a CPA credential. It's that way for a reason, because of the value that we bring.

Amato: When 150 hours became the standard, the profession didn't define the final 30 hours to provide students with a level of flexibility. Given the evolving marketplace, what types of courses do you recommend students take to meet this requirement? I guess are there also other ways to learn and do, as you said?

Winston: Yes, I recommend students, when it comes to getting those extra 30 hours, treat it like a buffet, grab some of everything. Because we have so many career paths to choose from as accountants. First, choose a tax course. Even if you're not interested in it, tax is one of those things in my book, that's a life skill, something that most, if not all of us, have to do every single year. If nothing else, take that course to learn how to manage your own tax position. But also taking a course in audit, IT and systems, and financial accounting and introduction to financial accounting or financial statement analysis. Because those three — audit, IT, financial statements — are the core spaces that you'll find yourself having conversations about regardless of the niche that you choose.

Going back to tax, you might think that you're not interested in tax, for example, and then you find yourself as you take a course or you learn more about it, developing this affinity for it. It's a good way to know the options that you have. One example from my career is I didn't know that I would like securitization accounting until I had an opportunity to do it. I actually had no idea what it was until I had an opportunity to do it. But that's where I learned about bond accounting and expensing versus capitalizing deal costs, which is a huge conversation considering just the rampant M&A activity going on in the market. Then understanding the relationship between the market, the economy, and how that impacts lending decisions is another thing I learned from securitization because my question was, well, how do we know when is the best time to go out and issue debt? Well, if we think about what the interest rates are doing, that's a huge conversation that you have to be very strategic about. That's some learning that I remember it from school and learning it from a textbook perspective, but when I had the chance to actually do it, it made much more sense. I found myself really fascinated by how this part of accounting was so impactful in business overall.

Amato: It's interesting. A recent podcast on the Journal of Accountancy was exactly about interest rates and how those of us, who haven't really been around in this high-interest-rate environment, need to learn about how it can be different. It's not just, you just do the math to the new rate. There are just other things to think about. That's interesting.

Winston: Yes, cost of capital changes. It really impacts decisions that companies make. Again, this is the part, I'm all for niches and specializations, but when you're trying to figure out how to get those extra 30 hours, this is a good time to be a jack of all trades.

Experiment, get some exposure to all of those spaces to figure out what you'd like to do. The beauty of accounting is, if you decide that I don't like tax or I don't like audit, you can pivot and do something else and not have to go back for another degree or something else. There's so many turns that we can take as accountants.

Amato: In your work as a career coach, what are the top hurdles you think that CPA candidates face?

Winston: The messages I get from candidates, my LinkedIn is like filled with messages every single day, and I love that. I didn't know these people knew I existed, number one, but number two, they're coming to me in the most almost professionally vulnerable way.

If I had to put some things around it, the first one is, it's the messages from the candidates who are feeling defeated. I'm taking FAR [Financial Accounting and Reporting] for the third time, I can't figure out why I'm not passing. I feel like I don't have the time to study because I have to work and I haven't told my manager that I'm studying. My computer screen is half work and half my CPA Exam review course, and I need help. I need tips and strategies to finish before I give up.

The last few, probably four or five most recent conversations I've had with candidates, have been something along the lines of, before we wrap up, I always ask them, how are you feeling now that we've had this conversation? The response is always something around, "Nikki, you talked me off the ledge. I was about to be done with the CPA Exam. I didn't feel like it was for me because it's so hard." So to get that feedback, like you have talked me off the ledge.

Knowing that what we talked about earlier, we know we have a pipeline issue. We know that there are barriers that exist for candidates, specifically candidates of color, Black and brown candidates of color, that we really need to break down and create the opportunities for them to get over the CPA Exam hump. Then the second theme would be the candidates who were having a different conversation about the CPA Exam. They passed all four sections. They're excited, and they're in celebratory mode, but they don't know what the career move needs to be. I just passed, how do I apply for my license? I'm not really sure what to do. I think I have to take another exam, which is usually the ethics exam that they're referring to, except in Georgia.

Then what do I do? Do I go back to my employer and expect to be promoted because I have this license now? Should I go to another company? Should I start my own business? Those are usually the biggest conversations that we ended up having. So I offer a service specifically for candidates who have passed the exam to get them ready for their careers as newly licensed CPAs. We update the résumé, the LinkedIn profile. We do a thorough career assessment: Where have you been in your career? Where are you right now? Where do you want to go? Let's build the blueprint to get you there as far as getting ready for interviews, mock interviews, how to negotiate, and how to find the right role for them.

Amato: You mentioned the pipeline issues, and there are several. What can the profession do more or better to make licensure more attractive and accessible for all the candidates?

Winston: First and foremost, Neil, people need to see us. They need to know who CPAs are, what we do, and how we are essential to any business entity — government, for-profit, nonprofit, public, private, global, local startup, even individuals. There are individual families and people who have their own CPAs. The fact that we have so many career options — tax, regulatory, the finances and the general ledger, data analysis, audit and assurance — people need to know about those things.

When you hear little kids traditionally say, I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, it's because they've had some experience with these people and their professions and what they do. It's something that has resonated with them to the point where this is what they want to choose as a career. Then if we talk about really attrition, RIFs, and layoffs, the accountants are turning the lights off. We're usually the last people to go because the companies need us. If we're in June for example, the accountants are still in May. We're living in the past and trying to create that historical perspective for the business.

So the students — not just the high school and college students either — we need to be in all grade levels from kindergarten all the way up. Students need to know about this career path where you can do something one year, decide you don't like it, do something else, as we talked about taxes, just understanding the tax code and how that impacts people. Then lastly, what happened during the pandemic. Businesses wanted to apply for government assistance. They didn't have clean financials or the right business setup to do so.

So they missed out on grants and other funding opportunities because they couldn't produce a set of financials or they didn't know that their contractors could possibly be set up as employees and allow them to get more funding. So there's just so many attractive things about the accounting and the CPA profession. It's a career that's worth the praise and the applause, and it pays well. I don't know too many unemployed CPAs.

Amato: This has been a good conversation on this overall theme, but what advice do you have for aspiring CPAs?

Winston: Super simple. If you want it, go get it. It's out there to be had. Don't be distracted by CPA Evolution, don't be intimidated by other people's exam experiences. I personally took 13 exams. There's only four sections if you do the math with that. I share that as a lesson learned, not as a deterrent for other candidates.

The support and the guidance for candidates is out there. I'm here, the AICPA has a ton of great resources, as do the state societies and many colleges and universities. The one thing I tell the candidates in my CPA Exam coaching programs is, "Listen, this is a short-term sacrifice that you're making for a long-term goal. If you want to be a CPA, go for it. The industry needs you, and the investment that you're making for yourself now will pay dividends later."

Amato: In the show notes for this episode, we'll link to pertinent resources about this topic. Nikki Winston, thank you very much for being on the Journal of Accountancy podcast.

Winston: Thank you, Neil, I enjoyed this conversation.

Amato: I did as well. Thank you.