Starting Out: For and About Fraud-fighting Students & New Grads

Post-Graduation Job Tips

By Kathy Lavinder. Edited by Colin May, CFE, and Mark F. Zimbelman, Ph.D., CPA, Educator Associate Member

In this column, Kathy Lavinder, the founder and executive director of Security & Investigative Placement Consultants LLC, gives some great advice for the new grad (or seasoned vet). Her firm places managers and investigative specialists in corporations, financial institutions, accounting firms, and consulting firms. Previously, she was managing director and head of Investigative Group International's Washington, D.C., office. (As always, the ACFE and Fraud Magazine don't endorse products, services, companies, firms, or other commercial activities. -- ed.) 

Recent graduates and others in the early stages of their careers frequently ask me how they can find a particular job without having the experience the position requires. It's a proverbial Catch-22: You want the experience, but you must already have the experience to be hired for the position. I'll talk about some ways to address this vexing situation. As you read on, I think you'll find that there's no sure-fire way but, rather, many approaches to achieve your goal of landing a fraud examination position. 

First, and probably foremost, learn what your job marketplace wants, and then develop a personal plan to obtain what you need to be competitive in that market. Start with your academic background. Of course, an undergraduate degree in accounting, finance, or economic crime investigation will be of enormous benefit. You'll have had relevant course work, and perhaps even an internship, that exposed you to core issues and principles. If you majored in something completely unrelated, such as English or history, your suitability for an anti-fraud position won't be as apparent, but it doesn't disqualify you. Many individuals work in jobs that have little or nothing to do with their undergraduate studies. If you're still completing your undergraduate degree, seize any opportunity to take relevant courses and be sure to note the important ones on your resume. If you've graduated, look into certificate programs offered by academic institutions that will provide a foundation in targeted subject matter and make you more appealing to prospective employers. 

If you're in a job but you haven't yet been given fraud examination responsibilities, volunteer to work on a case. Show your employer that you're motivated and willing to do whatever it takes to move your career forward. No company is going to hand over an important fraud examination to a novice, but your boss might allow you to sit in on team meetings or provide clerical or administrative support. 

Most positions are still filled through networking, not by recruiters. Join a local chapter of a professional association, such as the ACFE, and then volunteer so you'll be able to work alongside professional fraud examiners and learn from them. Though you'll be working informally with them, always be a professional -- demonstrate maturity, thoughtfulness, and good manners. 

Numerous books teach us ways to network diplomatically. Follow the cardinal rule that your professional interactions must benefit both parties. Think about what you can offer that can professionally help the people you meet. Perhaps you can mention a recent and relevant article you've read or talk about a new regulatory development. Look for occasions to subtly articulate your keen interest in fraud-related subjects and issues. For example, a lunchtime conversation about the rogue securities trader at Societe Generale  can show that you're following and understanding fraud news. Most anti-fraud professionals want to help eager and informed neophytes. 

Recruiters' clients normally want them to fill upper-management and not entry-level jobs. Don't be dissuaded from talking with recruiters, but realize that you'll be a lot more appealing to them after you've worked a couple of years in the "real world." 

You can get this real-world experience by joining a small company that doesn't rigidly define employee roles. Your boss will probably ask you to do things that aren't in your job description -- if you have a job description! As employees come and go in a flexible and fluid company, you'll find opportunities to take on small-scale projects with investigative components such as reconstructing financial information or interviewing people. 

You can also obtain real-world experience by joining a large business or organization at which you can shadow or support a senior employee with fraud examination responsibilities. However, opportunities might be limited if the company is large, hierarchical, bureaucratic, and adverse to risk. Keep your eyes open and you might find long-range opportunities to learn and contribute. 

Be realistic when you're developing a strategy to move your career in a particular direction and toward specific companies. It's fun to have a "dream scenario," but stay grounded and pragmatic about your initial job potential and compensation. You'll be paid less than you would like, but you're laying an invaluable foundation for your career. 

You can gain valuable experience by specializing in fraud examination in an industry or sector such as securities, health-care, telecom, or insurance. Look for junior-level positions in the special investigation units of companies (and their external providers) in these and other areas. SIUs are great training grounds and long-term career options. 

A well-crafted resume will help you move from an entry-level position into a challenging new job. When writing your resume, put yourself in the mind of the reader and try to answer a fundamental question: Does this candidate offer something (experience, skills, attributes, or capabilities) that I need? Articulate your capabilities and attributes especially if you don't yet have years of pertinent experience. 

I look for certain traits in investigators, but persistence is chief among them. You must be persistent to land an entry-level position because you can't control a company's timing, needs, locations, etc. But you can present yourself as someone who cares deeply about fraud examination and its challenges. 

Your passion might make up for lack of experience. All it takes is one manager who thinks you have the raw materials. Colleges and universities don't produce seasoned fraud examiners, forensic accountants, or experienced prosecutors. But they can produce graduates with gusto who want to become valuable fraud examiners wherever they start out in the working world. 

  Colin May, CFE, is a forensic financial investigator with a government agency (the views in Starting Out are his own) in Baltimore, Md.   
  Mark F. Zimbelman, Ph.D., CPA, Educator Associate Member, is an associate professor of accounting and Selvoy J. Boyer Fellow at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.   
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