Chances of moving up the ladder at a big 4

How common is it to move up the ladder at a big 4 accounting firm? I understand most people leave after 2 years or so but if you stick it out and actually enjoy it is it common to be promoted? (assuming you have your CPA license) Is promotion performance based or just political?

Big 4 Promotion Timeline

While some accounting firms still adhere to the "up or out" approach to promotions, this varies from firm to firm. In general, WSO members have observed the following promotion timeline at Big 4 firms:

  • Associate: 2 - 3 yrs
  • Senior Associate: 2 - 3 yrs
  • Manager: 2 - 5 yrs
  • Senior Manager/Director: 2 - x yrs (can be a wide range here)
  • Partner

Big 4 Salary Progression

Salary depends on firm, location and other factors, but here is a general range WSO members have observed personally or in friends/family in the industry.

  • Associate: ~$50-60k
  • Senior Associate: ~$65-75k
  • Manager: ~$80-100k
  • Senior Manager/Director: ~$120-160k
  • Partner: $200k+ (builds up over time as you buy equity)

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Comments (26)

Apr 29, 2013 - 2:10pm

mdk6c:

Very doable if you commit to it and work hard. I have a father and 5 uncles that made partner at big 4 firms (back then it was the big 8). So clearly it's not as random as you might think.


Thank you, I would not mind working at a big 4 for a while. I would be happy making 200-250k a year sometime in my lifetime, which I think would be doable at a big 4 if you reach the manager positions correct?
Mps721
Apr 29, 2013 - 2:12pm

Mps721:

mdk6c:

Very doable if you commit to it and work hard. I have a father and 5 uncles that made partner at big 4 firms (back then it was the big 8). So clearly it's not as random as you might think.

Thank you, I would not mind working at a big 4 for a while. I would be happy making 200-250k a year sometime in my lifetime, which I think would be doable at a big 4 if you reach the manager positions correct?


No, you wouldn't be making that until director and it would be low 200ks if even. It's when you make partner is where the big bucks start rolling in
May 4, 2013 - 1:04am

Mps721:

mdk6c:

Very doable if you commit to it and work hard. I have a father and 5 uncles that made partner at big 4 firms (back then it was the big 8). So clearly it's not as random as you might think.

Thank you, I would not mind working at a big 4 for a while. I would be happy making 200-250k a year sometime in my lifetime, which I think would be doable at a big 4 if you reach the manager positions correct?

It's very possible to move up the ladder at a BIG4 firm if you work hard and put in the long hours. Making over 200,000 is definitely achievable at the Senior Manager level (partially depending on your location). General progression is 2-3YR Associate, 3YR Senior Associate, 2-3YR Manager, and then Senior Manager / Director is a much wider range as some people can make Partner after a couple years and some will never make it (and they often times leave at some point).

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May 25, 2013 - 1:23am

Mps721:

mdk6c:

Very doable if you commit to it and work hard. I have a father and 5 uncles that made partner at big 4 firms (back then it was the big 8). So clearly it's not as random as you might think.

Thank you, I would not mind working at a big 4 for a while. I would be happy making 200-250k a year sometime in my lifetime, which I think would be doable at a big 4 if you reach the manager positions correct?

NO. $250 is maybe an MD and certainly a Partner. NOT a Manager.
Most Managers are under $150k.

May 25, 2013 - 1:21am

romborama:

There's going to come a point, most likely around manager/senior manager, where your advancement is based less on your skill level and more on your ability to bring in business. Partners are more salesmen than they are accountants.

Agreed. Even as Manager, your performance is partly measured by your revenue (even though you did not bring in the business).

Apr 29, 2013 - 2:15pm

If you generally like it, and perform well, then you can move up to manager in about 4 to 5 years. Once you get to the senior manager level the job transitions more to selling the business and managing clients. I interned at an accounting firm this past winter quarter and there was a person who made partner fairly quick because he was so effective in bringing in new clients.

I'm too drunk to taste this chicken -Late great Col. Sanders
Apr 29, 2013 - 2:16pm

It is pretty common to move up the ladder, it is usually 1-2 years as associate, 2 years as senior associate, another 2-3 years as manager and then 2-3 years as senior manager and then partner. Senior managers make about 180-200k all in. Partners is where you make the money. Starting salary for a partner is around 400k and it goes all the way up to a few million. But there is many levels of partners and the biggest earners bring in the most revenue.

Apr 29, 2013 - 4:47pm

Moving up in the big 4 is less a matter of excelling and more a matter of not messing up. You don't need to be a superstar to move up the ranks; you simply need to fully meet expectations.

At my big 4, the track goes like this:
2 years as an associate
3 years as a senior
3 years as a manager

Then you get promoted to senior manager (some call this "director"), at which point you may or may not ever be partner. Most partners spent at least 5 years as a senior manager, but there is no hard and fast rule as to how many years as senior manager you have to spend before becoming partner.

People have been dropping data points about comp above. For my office (major US city, medium-high COL, not high like NYC), comp is $50k starting for an associate (audit). Directors/senior managers do not make low $200k in audit. A former senior manager I worked with made around $130k-140k before leaving the firm, and she was in her 3rd year as a senior manager when she left.

Apr 29, 2013 - 11:36pm

you can get promoted up to senior manager as long as you are willing to put in the time. honestly, performance isn't really that important. you do not need to be a superstar or even very good to get promoted. as long as you are average, you will get promoted up to the senior manager/director level. as mentioned above, you will only be able to make partner if you are bringing in business. also, the salary is pretty bad for the hours you put in (hours actually get worse when you make senior associate and manager!). exit opps at the senior manager level are pretty good -- i know a guy who was in audit for something like 18 years and wasn't going to make partner so he left to become the Controller of a medium-sized company. hes pulling in 300k+ in his new role. not too shabby, but he did have to spend 18 years of his life in audit to get to that level.

Apr 30, 2013 - 9:21am

i hate audit:

you can get promoted up to senior manager as long as you are willing to put in the time. honestly, performance isn't really that important. you do not need to be a superstar or even very good to get promoted. as long as you are average, you will get promoted up to the senior manager/director level. as mentioned above, you will only be able to make partner if you are bringing in business. also, the salary is pretty bad for the hours you put in (hours actually get worse when you make senior associate and manager!). exit opps at the senior manager level are pretty good -- i know a guy who was in audit for something like 18 years and wasn't going to make partner so he left to become the Controller of a medium-sized company. hes pulling in 300k+ in his new role. not too shabby, but he did have to spend 18 years of his life in audit to get to that level.


I hear you, I guess I just will never know until I start working for a big 4. I am in college now and naive but Im sure when I get to that point I will really know if it is for me or not.
Mps721
May 1, 2013 - 1:30pm

How common is it for people to move from one Big4 to another as they get promoted to higher levels such as senior manager?

"There are only two opinions in this world: Mine and the wrong one." -Jeremy Clarkson
May 1, 2013 - 6:30pm

jon1987:

How common is it for people to move from one Big4 to another as they get promoted to higher levels such as senior manager?

In my experience, it very seldom happens. There was one audit senior manager at my Big 4 who I didn't know well, but I heard he left to join another Big 4 also as an audit senior manager. I didn't know him well so I don't know the reasons behind that move, but my best guess would be that he was told he wouldn't be making partner here so I guess he decided to try his partnership luck at another firm.

Most partners and senior managers at my Big 4 have worked only for my Big 4 and not for any of the other firms (exception would be the ex-Arthur Andersen people who came over when Andersen collapsed).

May 4, 2013 - 12:51am

jon1987:

How common is it for people to move from one Big4 to another as they get promoted to higher levels such as senior manager?

It happens. I wouldn't say it happens a lot, but I've seen it quite a few times. Once you make Senior Associate, the other BIG4 have a need for experienced accountants and love to steal from each other. Some people do it for a pay bump, change of scenery, or possibly because they felt slighted about a promotion or pay raise.

Jun 2, 2013 - 6:05pm

SuitUp7:

jon1987:

How common is it for people to move from one Big4 to another as they get promoted to higher levels such as senior manager?

It happens. I wouldn't say it happens a lot, but I've seen it quite a few times. Once you make Senior Associate, the other BIG4 have a need for experienced accountants and love to steal from each other. Some people do it for a pay bump, change of scenery, or possibly because they felt slighted about a promotion or pay raise.

I did this. Do NOT do it. I did it for reasons 2 and 3 that SuitUp mentions, I felt slighted and thought a change would help. First of all, there's a stigma like 'what did that guy screw up at the other place' that doesn't seem as prevalent in other industries. Second, you lose the network at the old firm and start from scratch. As politics do weigh into making partner, you're just adding more twists and turns in your path.

Doesn't mean you can't make partner at the new firm, but it's not the fast track I once believed it to be.

May 14, 2013 - 11:42am

I thought I'd contribute.

This comes directly from an European big 4 firm:

2y analyst
2-3y consultant(now you probably know which firm)
2-3y senior consultant
2-5y manager/director
Partner

Not all partners are equal, some actually being a global partner etc. It's not completely rigid, as some actually get to partner level in 7 years. Those are, however, exceptionally rare.

As said before, you don't have to be amazing to be promoted. Most people I talked to emphasized that one should NOT perform much better than your peers, as you will simply get much more work. Just perform slightly better, do a tad more work in a tid less time.

Jun 4, 2013 - 10:27pm

I have a couple buddies that work in audit at Big 4 in a somewhat big city and the salary/years breakdown is roughly as follows:

Associate (2 - 3 yrs) ~$50-60k
Senior Associate (2 - 3 yrs) ~$65-75k
Manager (2 - 5 yrs) ~$80-100k
Senior Manager (2 - x yrs) ~$120-160k
Partner $200k+ (builds up over time as you buy equity)

The reason I put "x" years in Senior Manager is because a lot of people never make it past that level. Also, obviously there is room for deviation from the above numbers if you're stellar, but by and large your salary will fall in that range. I think most people's impressions of Big 4 salaries are way overinflated, and many are disappointed with reality.

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June 2021 Investment Banking

  • Director/MD (9) $911
  • Vice President (35) $364
  • Associates (202) $234
  • 2nd Year Analyst (115) $151
  • Intern/Summer Associate (97) $145
  • 3rd+ Year Analyst (27) $145
  • 1st Year Analyst (420) $131
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