External auditors combine first-rate people skills with a high level of attention to detail to help businesses of all types and sizes achieve their performance potential
As an external auditor, you'll examine financial records and other data to provide businesses, their investors and market regulators with a clear picture of how they're performing. You'll also make recommendations for improvement.
Although essentially a qualified accountant, your auditing work will extend beyond financial audit as you'll work with clients to help them identify and manage risks across all areas of their business.
External audit is sometimes referred to, or grouped with, 'assurance' services; the role of an external auditor is similar, although distinct from, that of an internal auditor, chartered accountant or management consultant.
Types of external audit work
External audit can be split into two areas:
- financial audit - examining a company's financial statements and records to provide a certification of their current financial position and make recommendations to strengthen this
- non-financial (or corporate) audit - examining non-financial information to provide assurance in other areas or help a company address specific problems. The scope of this work is broad and will depend on the needs of the client and the services provided by the auditing firm.
Non-financial audit can include assurance on compliance with regulations, audit of operational procedures or systems, assessing value for money or risk of fraud, performance against sustainability or equality and diversity objectives.
The focus of your work will depend on your role and the firm you work for.
You could be working across a range of audit projects with clients of all sectors and sizes, or you could work in a more specialist role, such as public sector auditor, financial services auditor or private client auditor. Alternatively, you could work in a particular type of audit, such as risk, fraud or non-financial assurance services.
Your role could also include providing broader accounting and advisory services. This is most common in roles working for smaller firms and with smaller clients.
As an external auditor, you'll need to:
- visit client sites and talk to different levels of management to understand the business and their needs
- plan, carry out and in some cases design bespoke audit procedures and tests
- attend meetings and interview staff to gather audit evidence
- examine accounts, financial records and other documentation
- observe stock takes and/or other business procedures
- use analytics to assess financial reporting, fraud or operational business risks
- prepare or contribute to a final audit report, including making recommendations for improvements to systems or processes
- discuss the conclusion and recommendations from the audit with clients
- work towards your chartered accountancy qualification, which could include periods of study leave.
- The average salary for a graduate trainee is £28,000.
- On qualification, and as you progress into more senior roles, you could earn anywhere between £32,000 and £45,000.
- Audit managers can earn between £50,000 and £80,000.
Salaries for external auditors vary depending on the location, size and type of firm you work for.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
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Typically, you'll work Monday to Friday, 40 hours per week.
You may at times need to work longer hours during busy periods and to meet client deadlines. During the early years of your career you may also need to devote time during the evenings and at weekends to study for your professional exams.
Flexible working is increasingly common in the sector, particularly in larger companies. This can include varied start and finish times, compressed hours and working from home.
What to expect
- You'll spend most of your time working from client offices. This will mean regular travel and periods spent away from home. Depending on your employer you may also travel internationally. It is possible to work with clients virtually, but regular travel to client sites is still preferred.
- Opportunities are available across the UK and you can expect variety and challenge, as you'll be working with a range of businesses and industries on different audit projects.
- You'll be working to client deadlines, meaning you'll need to be flexible and sometimes work longer hours to meet their needs.
- You'll need to study for and obtain your professional qualification. This takes three years on average. Your employer will support you and some will offer study leave. However, you'll need to study outside of formal working hours, particularly around your exams. This is especially true if you studied a non-finance subject for your degree, as building a strong foundation of technical knowledge is essential.
- The financial services sector is evolving, with the rapid advancement of technology and an increasingly broad range of audit services being offered to businesses.
To join a graduate training programme you'll need an undergraduate degree in any subject. Some firms will require a 2:1, however others have now removed this as a selection criteria.
Employers are increasingly seeking to diversify the intake on their programmes and are encouraging graduates of all degree subjects to apply.
You will then need to obtain a practicing certificate and chartered accountancy qualification awarded by one of the following professional bodies:
- ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales)
- ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants)
- ICAS (Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland)
- CAI (Chartered Accountants Ireland)
Your qualification is usually funded and supported by your employer as part of a graduate training programme. There are some differences in the qualifications offered by the different professional bodies. Usually, your employer will decide which professional body you'll study with, although some smaller firms may allow you to choose.
Your qualification will enable you to work in all areas of accountancy practice, but some of the professional bodies also offer specialist audit qualifications which you could do in addition.
You'll need to have:
- good interpersonal and influencing skills, for building relationships and negotiating with clients
- excellent written and verbal communication, for presenting complex information with accuracy and clarity
- business and commercial acumen, in order to understand your clients, their businesses and the markets in which they operate
- sound analytical skills, for effectively gathering, interpreting and evaluating data and information
- technological competence, for using software programmes, such as data analytics and modelling tools
- good project management skills, in order to plan and carry out audit activities and to meet deadlines
- critical thinking skills, for reviewing audit evidence and making sound judgments
- an aptitude and desire to continue learning, for developing the technical knowledge and skills you'll need in this career.
Relevant work experience is highly valuable and will help you develop the skills you need for a career in audit. You'll learn about different business areas, and by completing work experience you'll demonstrate your motivation and commitment to a career in this field. However, experience outside of financial services is also useful, and especially any that helps develop your people and analytical skills.
Many of the larger accountancy and business advisory firms run open days for first year undergraduates. These are usually one to five days long and enable you to learn about different service areas and graduate schemes.
In your second year, you can apply for a summer internship or vacation scheme within audit and assurance. An internship can be a distinct advantage, as many firms will fast-track interns who perform well through the graduate selection process, and in some cases will offer graduate roles at the end of the internship.
Some smaller firms also advertise internships, but you may also need to contact them directly to ask about work experience opportunities.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
Most external auditors are employed by accountancy and business advisory firms. This includes both large national firms and small accountancy practices. You can also work for the National Audit Office auditing government departments and public bodies. There are lots of advertised vacancies for graduates.
Look for vacancies at:
Smaller firms may not advertise all positions, and you could approach them speculatively. You can find a list of firms by region at UK Accounting Firms.
It's also possible to be self-employed and work directly for clients once qualified and registered with the professional body you trained with.
As a graduate trainee, you'll combine classroom-based training, on-the-job learning and self-directed study to pass your professional exams.
In addition, graduate training programmes will usually also provide opportunities to develop your business and personal skills. This is often in the form of classroom courses, e-learning and coaching or mentoring opportunities. Larger firms are more likely to have structured training and development programmes for new graduates, whereas if you work for a smaller employer this is likely to be more flexible and determined by your development needs.
Once qualified, continuing professional development (CPD) will be important for you to keep your technical knowledge and skills up to date and to support your progression into senior and managerial positions.
The professional body you're registered with will be a good source of further training and development and will offer qualifications for specialising within audit, or for moving into other areas of accountancy practice, such as public sector audit, financial reporting, treasury, insolvency, charity accounting and corporate finance.
Career progression options are varied and plentiful. If you choose to remain within external audit upon qualification, you could become an audit manager within two to three years. From there you could move into senior manager and director positions, and eventually become a partner.
You may have opportunities to undertake secondments in other offices, including internationally. This is particularly common at larger firms.
Another way to develop your career is by specialising. For example, you could work with a particular type of client, such as those in the public sector, or with a particular type of audit - such as fraud or risk. Undertaking further specialist qualifications may help your transition into a new area.
Your accountancy qualification will also enable you to work in other divisions and areas of practice, which means you'll have the option of progressing your career outside of audit and assurance. For example, many people also go on to work as accountants or in other finance advisory roles within businesses, and your experience as an auditor will make you sought after for these positions.