Campus confidential

There’s a group of accountants tucked away in the ivory towers of academia. But what do they do and why is their work so vital to the profession?

While studying accounting, Natalia Kochetova-Kozloski was always more interested in the “why” rather than the “how.” She wanted to know why the rules and procedures were there, not simply how to crunch the numbers.

Kochetova-Kozloski, who was born in Russia and went to the US on a scholarship in the early 1990s, liked accounting seminars and theory classes, the courses that satisfied her intellectual curiosity. During her last two years as an undergraduate in Mobile, Ala., she worked in cost accounting at an engineering firm, a job she says confirmed her predilection. “It was interesting, but it was not challenging enough. It was routine after a while, after I had learned the ropes.”

Soon she started taking graduate courses and teaching at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “It wasn’t a focused, conscious decision when I started the PhD program,” she says. “I was more acting on intuition than anything else.”

Now an associate professor at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Kochetova-Kozloski never doubts that her choice was the right one. She especially enjoys doing research, which in her case comprises about 40% to 50% of her job. “In the academic world, the sky is the limit. You have lots of freedom to pursue your interests.”

She likes contributing to the big picture, she says, citing a series of papers she wrote between 2002 and 2009 about how restructuring the risk assessment process might affect the judgment of auditors. Certain things being considered at the time have now become part of the international set of standards. Because policy-makers read academic journals and take their findings into account when making decisions, she feels she played a role, however indirect, in helping to shape the standards. Now policy-makers are considering how to revise standards in a different area and her research team has been invited to Washington, DC, to contribute to the debate.

A RARE BUT CRUCIAL COHORT

Kochetova-Kozloski is part of a rare but crucial cohort. While most people who get an accounting designation head straight into jobs that make practical use of their hard-won skills, a smaller number find their way back to the classroom to teach the next generation of accountants and provide research that impacts how the profession is practised. Others practise for a time and then choose the academic route.

“A profession has to have an intellectual base, a theoretical underpinning,” says Merridee Bujaki, current president of the Canadian Academic Accounting Association, which has 650 members across Canada. “It needs to have mechanisms for members of the profession to communicate with each other, to explore ideas and to evolve in terms of the cognitive understanding of that profession. There can be some really valuable cross-fertilization that takes place when we encourage forums where academics and practitioners can talk to each other.”

As an example, she says research can answer key questions surrounding the auditing process. How is professional judgment developed? How can that judgment be influenced, perhaps in an inappropriate way? How does an auditor go about maintaining independence?

“There’s also a lot of research that looks at the impact of financial reporting,” she says. “The academic can take a critical look at how that information is used, how it influences decision-making, how it is incorporated into stock market results, where accounting standards need to be changed or updated.”

Bujaki is an associate professor at the Sprott School of Business at Ottawa’s Carleton University, where she has done research in a variety of areas. One of her projects has been delving into the accounting history of the Rideau Canal, which holds important lessons about infrastructure development today.

“There are interesting issues around the political processes in terms of decision-making that often involve some of the accounting,” she says. “For instance, there is often a discussion that takes place over the cost versus benefit of those infrastructure projects.” She has found that arguments used 200 years ago in the canal debate are very similar to those used today. She is now focusing on the dynamics of cost overruns in the Rideau Canal setting.

Bujaki is also part of a team looking at how gender and diversity are portrayed on the recruitment websites of Canada’s eight largest accounting firms.

“We’ve found almost exact parity in terms of men and women in the photographs, but we did note an underrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds,” she says of the research. “There’s an underlying message that I’m not sure firms think about deliberately. But it does impact the attractiveness of the profession to some groups of potential employees, which means that the profession as a whole might be missing out on some of the benefits of having a more diverse workforce.”

Bujaki became an accountant in 1990 and went back to school to earn her PhD in management from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., after working at a big firm for three-and-a-half years. She was an excellent candidate for a university position because she had the academic credentials as well as real-world experience as an accountant. It’s a combination believed to serve the profession well. But it’s a rare combination.

“That ideal candidate is very, very difficult to find because they are two different kinds of investments in terms of human capital,” Bujaki says. “So many people either do one or the other. It’s hard to find people who do both.”

 

DEMAND OUTWEIGHS SUPPLY

That supply lags demand for academic accountants in Canada is not a new phenomenon. But the gap is widening due to the growth in business schools, the retirement of baby boomers, tight university budgets, the soft Canadian dollar and the rising cost of education.

Timothy Daus, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans, says there is a very practical reason why the shortage matters. Because demand significantly outweighs supply, competition for faculty among business schools is intensifying, which is driving up salaries and making it harder for smaller institutions to hire the accounting professors they need to maintain accreditation.

There are 22 Canadian business schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a global organization based in Tampa, Fla. The schools are expected to maintain a certain balance of professionally versus academically qualified faculty, depending on the types of degrees being granted. So to maintain a balance, they have to find the right people.

The shortage of PhDs can put pressure on schools to change the focus of their programs. “The schools have to have accounting courses because it is core curriculum, but they don’t have to offer accounting majors per se,” Daus says.

Glenn Feltham, president of Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, holds a BA, BSc, an MBA, a law degree and a PhD in accounting from the University of Waterloo. Previously he was on the accounting faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University, head of the accounting department at the University of Saskatchewan and dean of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business.

“In my experience there has always been greater demand than supply of people with PhDs and an accounting background,” he says, adding that it is important for the long-term health of the profession to encourage and nurture the supply side. It’s the academics, with and without PhDs, he says, who have helped make Canada’s accounting system one of the best in the world.

“The amazing career that you can have as a faculty member and just the size of the contribution you can make to the profession is something that is really important,” he says, adding that it’s not just about the PhD. “Sometimes you have people who have given up really successful practices because of a passion they have for teaching.”

A PASSION FOR TEACHING

James Barnett, a continuing lecturer in the School of Accounting and Finance at the University of Waterloo, has built such a career. He was director of the school for six years and was the founding director of Waterloo’s master of taxation program, held in downtown Toronto.

A major focus of his has been designing courses that go beyond memorizing formulas and manipulating numbers.

“I like designing our tax courses in such a way that they help our students understand the material so they can solve problems and advise their ‘client,’” he says. “We want them to have an understanding of how the system works and why things are the way they are. Why is that rule there? If they understand why it is there, it will help them remember it and they will also be able to say, ‘Yes, this is the answer I was expecting.’”

Barnett chose academia when, after 15 years of working in the field, he found himself questioning his future. “I asked myself, ‘Do I want to do what I’m doing as a tax partner for the next 20 years?’” The answer was a resounding no. Not surprisingly, he took a substantial pay cut to make the transition.

Statistics show that accountants working in educational institutions do earn less than their counterparts in industry. According to CPA Canada’s 2015 member compensation study, the average mean compensation for those working in educational institutions was $122,000 a year, compared with the overall mean of $151,000.

With competition among business schools driving up starting salaries, some academics can begin their careers earning as much — or in some cases more — than accountants starting out in the business world. But as the years roll by, professors’ salaries don’t keep up. And when compared with partner salaries, the gulf between the two worlds can be wide.

Barnett, however, has never looked back. “I don’t regret leaving the partnership at all. I have enjoyed this for 25 years. And besides,” he jokes, “I’m not worried about students suing me if I make a mistake in the classroom.”

Fred Phillips, who holds a PhD from the University of Texas, has been an accounting professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business for nearly 20 years. Mostly he has taught Introduction to Financial Accounting and a financial statement auditing course at the graduate level.

His research has focused on teaching methods that will help graduates succeed when they get out in the working world.

His latest study, now in the publication process, shows how the simplification of complex problems can help students remember things in the short term, but does not help them retain what they’ve learned. He gives an example from an introductory managerial accounting class where students learn cost-volume-profit analyses faster when given successive problems that require computing break-even units followed by break-even dollars of sales followed by earned profits than when these problems are presented in a random order.

However, when tested after one week, these students scored 50% lower than students who had learned from problems presented in a random order. He concluded that building challenges into the learning process, such as forcing students to switch often between problem types so that they are not just learning by rote, contributes to long-term retention.

“Although this is just one topic at an introductory level, the observation that the best instruction is not necessarily the fastest and easiest has implications for designing instructional methods at more advanced levels,” Phillips says. Another study of his, in a financial accounting context, found that critical thinking improved more when students provided feedback to others than when they received feedback.

Phillips still remembers the day he told colleagues in his firm that he wanted to go into education. “Their response was, ‘You’ll never have the career that I have if you do that, and you’ll never have the money that I’ll make.’”

While that may have turned out to be the case, Phillips, like Barnett, believes he definitely made the right decision. “I make a healthy living and I don’t feel now that I gave up something I regret. I feel blessed that I went down this path.”

ACADEMICS AS A LIFESTYLE CHOICE

Those who have found their way back to campus concur that while the academic life is not for everyone, it is very fulfilling for people who value the flexibility and independence that a university position affords.

“Most people would tell you that when they consider going into academics it is a lifestyle choice,” says Bujaki, who had three of her four children while working on her PhD.

It’s not that academics don’t work long hours, she says. And it’s not that there is no stress — just ask an aspiring PhD about the pressure to publish or a tenure applicant about the ramifications of rejection. “There are norms in terms of expectations for productivity and activity and they add up to very busy weeks,” Bujaki says. “But it’s self-directed. I get to work on things that I’m passionate about. Sometimes when I’m working on a research project, I’m so thrilled to be doing it that it doesn’t feel like work.” There probably aren’t many practising accountants who would say that at tax time.

When it comes to recruiting more accountants to join the ranks of academia, the professors say healthier financial aid programs for doctoral students would help. While there is some support available from various professional organizations and universities, the amounts have not kept up with the cost of living. And they were never enough to remotely compensate for wages lost to years of studying.

Having stakeholders pool resources to help students has been suggested, as has making doctoral programs more flexible by adjusting residency requirements.

But what would make the most difference, they say, is having academics like themselves take up the charge by identifying promising students early, helping them understand what a university career entails and sharing their experiences about what a good life it can be.

“A lot of times people think, ‘Well, it’s just about teaching some classes and that’s about it,'” says Kochetova-Kozloski. “But it’s a much more interesting profession. It’s an excellent lifestyle for someone who is motivated and who values independence.”

Her academic advisers encouraged her to explore graduate opportunities when she was young, and she has tried to do the same for some of her students. To them, she stresses the multi-faceted nature of the job — teaching and research, as well as interesting opportunities to serve the profession. She has been on the board of CPA Nova Scotia and the CPA Atlantic School of Business, for instance, activities that keep her connected to the accounting world outside of the university.

Kochetova-Kozloski also takes her role as a mentor seriously and especially likes to help international students find their way in a new country, as she once did. “Seeing students literally mature over the four years and open doors for themselves in this country has been a very gratifying experience,” she says. “Occasionally, through encouragement, mentorship and advice there is the opportunity to literally change someone’s life.”

About the Author

Susan Smith


Susan Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.

comments powered by Disqus

Highlights

Update your knowledge and strengthen your network at this must-attend conference covering the most important issues and trends affecting audit committee members.

It’s probable that someone you know is deep in debt. If you are observant, you might see one of these seven signs.