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Interview with Professor of Practice Paul Gillis, Co-Director of Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management IMBA Program

Recently, Professor Paul Gillis, who is professor of practice and co-director of the IMBA program at the Guanghua School of Management, Peking University, generously shared his time for an interview with MastersinAccounting.info. Professor Gillis maintains the China Accounting Blog and has had a long and noteworthy career in accounting, an overview of which he shared with us along with tips and advice for our readers.

What led you to choose your profession/field?

paul-gillisWhen I was finishing my undergraduate education I was heavily recruited by the Marine Corps, who offered to make me a pilot. Unfortunately, I flunked the eye examination so they offered to send me to law school instead. But that came with a long commitment to military service. I got another offer to get a master’s in tax at Colorado State, and I took that instead. I graduated after a year and joined Price Waterhouse, and spent the next 28 years there, working and living all over the world. I have lived in China for 17 years.

I retired from PwC in 2004 and went back to school. First I studied theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and then got a PhD in accounting at Macquarie University in Australia. Getting a PhD was harder than making partner. Now I am a professor at Peking University in Beijing where I teach mostly MBA classes. I just finished two years on the PCAOB’s Standing Advisory Group. Last year I testified before the U.S.-China Security and Economic Commission. I have gotten the chance to do a lot of things I never thought I would do.

Do you think that the recent changes in the economy have impacted enrollment in accounting programs?

Recessions are good for masters programs. The opportunity cost of advanced education is lower in a recession, so many students pursue master’s degrees to better position themselves when things get better. The economy has been recovering the past few years so that makes recruiting top students for masters programs a little tougher. Even so, the job market is fiercely competitive and many students realize that they need a master’s to get great jobs. I think today a bachelor’s degree is what a high school diploma was 25 years ago – it is really just basic education to prepare you for life. If you want a serious career you need a master’s degree.

On your website you have noted that there are challenges to working in accounting in a country like China, where there can be a great deal of ambiguity. What areas of deeper study might be particularly helpful for students educated in the US who anticipate practicing internationally?

I have loved working internationally my whole career. I love the travel, the new experiences, and meeting new people. I think the best preparation for an international career is a broad liberal arts education. Don’t just study business and accounting, study history, study philosophy, and read, read, read. Read anything – even reading trashy novels will improve your writing skills. As a foreigner practicing abroad, your communication skills will be more important than your technical accounting skills. It is easy to learn new accounting practices – it is much tougher to learn how to relate with people.

What professional development opportunities do you recommend to your students?

Networking is a lifelong mission, and graduate school is a good time to get started. Most communities have networking events for young professionals and small businessmen. You can’t just do these things once. You have to keep going back. After a time people recognize your face and that has long term benefits because you get recognized as a player.

What should accounting students look for when choosing a master’s or other advanced degree program?

I think the best measure of a program is to see who recruits there. Is that the kind of company you want to work for?

Always apply to a few long shot schools. Going to a famous program is always going to help your career prospects. Take some risks on those applications – make yourself look different. If you look like everyone else the admissions decision comes down to GPA and GMAT scores. Tell them something about you that makes them look twice. Play it more conservatively on your safe schools.

However, when I recruited for PwC I often found that a top student from a lower ranked school outperformed students from famous programs. It was hard to convince HR of that, however. In a sense they were right – had that top student gone to a top program all the firms would be fighting over her. Small schools were my secret weapon – I could get top talent sometimes with less competition.

For majors who would like to be self-employed or work on a consultancy basis, what advice would you offer?

One of the great things about accounting is that it is easy to work for yourself or have a flexible career working with many companies. But first you have to develop the right skills and a reputation. Usually the best place to do that is at an accounting firm. At an accounting firm you can learn the craft from people who have been doing it for a long time and meet people who will later help you find work.

Do you have any further advice or suggestions to share?

I think public accounting is the best place to start an accounting career. There are two points in that career that you should stop and reflect on what you want to do. When you make senior you have established that you have professional level skills in accounting. Is that what you want to do the rest of your career? If the answer to that is no, then look into getting an MBA. Top MBA programs love applicants with a few years of public accounting, and so do the investment banks, consulting firms and corporations that recruit from those programs. If you stay with it, take some time after you make manager and decide if you really want to be a partner. Having manager on your CV pretty much assures you will always have a good job – now it is time to decide what that job ought to be. But if you stay long past manager, you better be willing to make the sacrifices required to make partner.

Our deep thanks to Professor Gillis for the time he spent answering our questions and sharing his insights! You can read more from Professor Gillis on his websites, China Accounting Blog and his academic site, Paul Gillis.org.