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How Accounting Promotes Interdisciplinary Discovery and Surprising Career Opportunities

Written by Sam Medley

Accountants are typically thought of as number crunchers. They run audits, generate financial reports, and are seen as supporting business initiatives rather than leading them.


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Professor Jennifer Stevens of Ohio University’s School of Accountancy puts that stereotype soundly to sleep. She’s an educator, CPA, researcher, and cunning forensic accountant who can see through any white collar lie. Recently, she sat down with to talk about the unique combination of skills her field requires and how today’s accounting students may have more career prospects than they think. But like the meticulous professional she is, she doesn’t rely on sentiment to back up her optimism — she supports it with hard facts and thorough research.

professor jennifer stevensAt Ohio University, students can find Professor Jennifer Stevens teaching in both the accounting and forensics programs. But before her role there, she worked for the University of Notre Dame, in Ernst and Young’s forensic accounting group, and as a licensed CPA in Illinois. Since 2016, she’s published numerous research papers on subjects like audit transparency and the effects of cash-flow timing. Despite this already packed career, Professor Stevens has also found time to share her expertise via presentations for the SEC’s Enforcement Division, the PCAOB, and the American Accounting Association.

Cash Flow and Human Behavior: What It Takes to Be a Forensic Accountant

“For the most part, all crime is driven by money or passion,” Professor Stevens told us. To give this more context, she characterizes her time in the industry as a test of her skills — accounting and otherwise.

First, uncovering a financial crime often means understanding the basics of cash flow, a topic Professor Stevens covers in her Accounting Theory and Application class:

“You have to understand accounting records and how money is tracked in order to be able to find errors, irregularities, or improprieties in financial statements.”

For instance, the FBI says that to attract investors, white collar criminals often commit or record fraudulent trades that obscure losses and make the company look better off than it really is. A forensic accountant might have to trace each transaction across multiple channels to find out if they’re real or not. Do they actually exist anywhere other than a few reports to investors? Are they included in any internal audits? If real money came into play, where did it go?

But basic cash flow knowledge won’t necessarily lead to likely culprits or motivations. Professor Stevens says that requires business administration and legal knowledge:

“You need to understand management structures, potential incentives for employees, and the regulatory environment that the entity is operating in. For example, we have this Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prohibits bribing of foreign officials.”

This information can tell an accountant who might benefit most from fraudulent transactions or what laws a company might be trying to work around. As Professor Stevens suggests, they might be trying to break into the international market and using fake transactions to cover under-the-table payoffs.

However, Professor Stevens couldn’t just rely on her business acumen during her fraud detection career. She had to learn how to ask the right people the right questions:

“A big part of forensic accounting is interviewing and talking with people to get the information you need. So you need really strong people skills and a little bit of psychology.”

While evidence of a financial crime can be gleaned from records, it isn’t likely to fall into a forensic accountant’s lap. Maybe the quiet secretary is scared to admit how much he really knows and needs a little assurance. Or perhaps the seemingly straight-laced sales manager is more of a key player than she appears. To Professor Stevens, reading the room is just as important as reading receipts.

More interested in promoting good than detecting fraud? Read why Professor Stevens thinks accountants are central to ushering in a new era of corporate stewardship.

Tracing the Surprisingly Versatile (And Profitable) Careers of Accounting Program Graduates

Even though forensic accounting is a unique and exciting job, it’s well within the limits of the traditional accounting vertical. But in a world where the job market shifts with every new technological advancement, shouldn’t career-oriented students pursue a degree in something a little more cutting-edge or future-proof?

This is a question Professor Stevens and her accounting education colleagues have pondered a lot over the last few years. So in 2021, they published a study about how college accounting students leverage their educations post graduation:

We surveyed over 2,000 graduates of an accounting program and asked them about their entire careers to date. What we were able to see from the survey was that students who have an undergraduate or graduate degree in accounting aren’t just pursuing accounting. They end up having very fruitful careers in a variety of areas.

The survey was sent to professionals who graduated with an accounting degree from 1962 to 2014. While many started their careers as public accountants at national firms, by their second post-graduation job, only 16% still worked for a local, regional, or national accounting firm. Second employers represented a vast array of industries including financial services, manufacturing, small business, government, education and military. The demand for accounting knowledge is perhaps even stronger today than the survey suggests.

woman leader

Professor Stevens says that accounting program graduates aren’t limited to accounting roles in their chosen industries:

We also see graduates who have gone on to take CFO positions, start their own businesses, and/or work at nonprofits. What was very surprising about the outcome of the survey was the wide variety of careers that accounting graduates pursue.

Fortunately, salary potential for accounting degree holders seems to reflect this upward mobility. In the first 10 years of their careers, respondents to Professor Stevens’s survey reported a compound growth rate in mean salary of 13%. By the second ten years, that increased to 24%. That means that by about year 15, respondents were in the top 3% of adjusted gross income in the US. Considering all the skills Professor Stevens herself has used in her career, such bright prospects don’t seem that far-fetched.

Data Analytics: A New Home for Accounting Professionals?

As many economists have pointed out, data is the new hot commodity. But even though AI-powered programs can harvest vast amounts of information quickly, it takes a trained eye to draw meaning from it. Companies are scrambling for data-savvy professionals of all kinds.

In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the data science and analytics job market to grow by an astounding 36% through 2031. According to Professor Stevens, accountants are perfectly poised to tap into this explosive sector:

I have a colleague who likes to say that the problem with the 20th century was lack of data, but the problem with the 21st century is too much data. So data analytics has become a popular topic. The tools have changed, but accountants have been doing it for decades. We’re really well-versed in helping companies deal with large amounts of data and transform it into useable information that drive business decisions.

For example, think about a management accountant’s job duties. By analyzing years of financial information, they can help a business determine what direction to take next and if their current and future initiatives are economically viable.

A data analytics expert can help executives answer these questions, but as Professor Stevens points out, accountants are typically already experienced in such high-level organizational decision-making. Since her study suggests that accountants often have no trouble pivoting into new roles, perhaps data analytics will become the field’s new frontier.

Preparing Students to Enter This Interdisciplinary World

Overall, Professor Stevens’s study indicates that for over fifty years, many accountants have been able to enjoy career and financial success after graduation. As an instructor in Ohio University’s School of Accountancy, she works hard to continue that trend:

When we designed the Master of Accountancy program, we designed it to be a case-based curriculum. Students are getting real-world cases, talking through them, and thinking about the gray areas of accounting as they work through problems. They’re really ready to go out into the real world and apply what they’ve learned.

For example, in the school’s Descriptive Analytics course, accounting students learn how to manage and present data using software today’s businesses rely on — a valuable skill in the information age. In Advanced Managerial Decision Making, they learn how to merge financial skills with organizational behavior concepts. For students eyeing the corporate ladder, that could be a powerful combination.

But whether Professor Stevens is sharing her forensic experience with her accounting students or sharing her accounting experience with forensics students, she’s proud of Ohio University’s dedication to multidisciplinary education and what it can do for students:

We bring industry experience into the classroom, but we are also serious academics. We really challenge our students to think critically and think through some of the issues they’re going to face in the business world. Not only today, but in the future.

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