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The politics of becoming a chartered accountant

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Published: 10 Sep 2020

One of the hardest parts of studying for the ACA while working in Westminster was juggling work, study, exams and her social life, says Isabel Healy.

It’s true that accountancy can take you anywhere. Just ask Isabel Healy. In the space of a few years, Isabel went from studying the democracies of bygone civilisations to the cut and thrust of modern politics as a financial analyst for the civil service in Whitehall, London.

“I came out of university and didn’t know what I wanted to do next,” she told ICAEW Student Insights. “I ended up doing a finance focused job in the Cabinet Office, and as I was enjoying the role, they asked me if I wanted to train to become a chartered accountant.”

After consulting family members who had done the ACA qualification in the past, she had a reasonable idea of what was ahead of her, but in truth, she had already made her mind up to go for it.

“I decided either way it’s a great qualification to have; it’s a good base of knowledge, and even if I didn’t pursue it long term, it’s a strong qualification to have on my CV.”

After looking at various organisations to register with, she chose the ACA due to its broad range of topics. 

“The Cabinet Office supported me through the qualification; they were so flexible, and it was a great environment to do the exams.”

A central part of the ACA requires students with a training contract to carry out 450 days of practical work experience, which Isabel was able to at the Cabinet Office around others who were also training to be chartered accountants.

“There were a few of us doing the qualification and we were not all on the same track, so we were all able to learn from each other’s experiences and could sense-check our understanding of topics with each other,” Isabel said.

Her cohort helped each other out by sharing their experiences of their own unique journeys. 

“If you are in a busy period at work, thinking about how many exams you want to take at once and the sequence in which you want to take them can make a huge difference,” she said. We were lucky in that we had a bit of freedom in those choices.”

Seeing others with different specialisms and disciplines all working towards the same goal also gave her a greater perspective on what makes an effective accountant.

“I didn’t have a financial background, but the exams are really conducive to any kind of experience,” she said. “I was worried at first, but ultimately it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a science or maths degree, and had not studied accountancy before.”

Her employer also helped Isabel fulfil the criteria for the work placement in other ways.

“I was in an accounting and advisory role, I did a secondment into the private sector at Grant Thornton,” she said. “The experience really rounded everything off nicely and gave me a sense of both sides of the story, especially as accountancy can be quite private-sector focussed. It gave me a real perspective on some of the things I was studying, first hand, and was very worthwhile.”

It wasn’t easy, and finding a sustainable routine to juggle work, study and life was probably the toughest part of it all, she said. 

“It is a lot of work and studying throughout a prolonged period of time, especially when work goes through busy periods,” Isabel said. “Keeping up your motivation for three and half years can be extremely tough. Find a sustainable way to work around everything so nothing else in your life falls away.”

In the end however, dedication, enthusiasm and a desire to learn are just as important as any other qualification, she said.

“When the knowledge and understanding finally clicks is the best part,” she said. “When you’re learning about financial reporting and suddenly the concepts make sense and the work pays off. Those are the great moments you get quite regularly in accountancy.” 

Her advice for students going through the ACA now is to make sure you retain that balance, and to give yourself the occasional break.

You can become so consumed by studying, and feel pressure to use any free time to constantly revise,” Isabel said. “Don’t be afraid to tell yourself to take a break if you’ve done a lot of work that week - you’ll become more productive because of it.”

Seeing friends and family, and making sure the life part didn’t fall away also put her in a great frame of mind to tackle the final parts of the qualification.

“The ACA is absolutely achievable without a science or a maths background, although it takes dedication and hard work,” she said. “When you start out it can be intimidating with exams and years of work ahead of you, work experience etc, but it is an attainable goal if you are willing to put the effort in.”