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SAICA Academic Trainee | An alternate path for your first year of articles.

Have you ever wondered why some accounting students choose to remain at the university after completing their studies? Do they still go on to qualify as a CA(SA)? And could the SAICA Academic Trainee Route be a potential option for you? We sat down with a previous Academic Trainee, Karl Oellrich, to chat about his experience going the SAICA Academic Trainee Route and get answers to the questions students often have about this unique path to becoming a CA(SA).

Karl, a successful CA(SA), shares insights on his unique journey through the SAICA Academic Trainee Route.

Meet Karl

Karl is a newly qualified CA(SA) who studied at Stellenbosch University for both his undergraduate (BAcc) and postgraduate (BAccHons) degrees. He then elected to stay on as a SAICA Academic Trainee (AT) at Stellenbosch University in his first year of articles.. Thereafter, he completed his last 2 years of articles at a Big 4 firm in Cape Town. He is now heading to Sydney, Australia with another Big 4 firm to start his international journey! We asked Karl some questions to have a better understanding of his experience as an Academic Trainee. 

What is the SAICA Academic Trainee Programme? 

The ATP is where a first year article trainee can become a junior lecturer for a year. The programme is accredited by SAICA and allows trainees to work for one year at a university in South Africa to see if they would consider a future in academia as a career path directly after articles, or a few years after articles. This is only for one year and is only in the first year of one’s articles. 

You have the opportunity to  engage with learning material at a deeper level, and become more technically proficient in a subject field, be it in Financial Accounting, Management Accounting and Finance (MAF), Tax, Audit or a mix of more than one! It is also a year where you can develop your research skills and build on soft skills that sometimes one is not exposed to in corporate. 

What do you do as an Academic Trainee? 

At Stellenbosch, I was the sole MAF Academic Trainee, meaning I was responsible for presenting weekly MAF tutorials to multiple classes, ranging from 2nd year to postgraduate. I hosted consultations with students on a daily basis and graded all postgraduate students' MAF scripts throughout the year, which included Saturday tests, term tests and exams. For their assessments, I facilitated the administration from a student perspective. 

There were also times where I was able to assist lecturers with preparation of test and exam material and could also prepare my own formative assessments for students. 

Further, the SAICA Academic Trainee Programme allows one to have some free time. I did not find being an Academic Trainee as demanding as being a trainee in corporate, so this meant I could enroll for and pass CFA Level 1 in my Academic Trainee year, to further my own studies. 

Lastly, as a condition of the SAICA Academic Trainee Programme, we had to perform research (not enroll in a Masters degree), on which all Academic Trainees in my year collaborated. It was quite exciting because in 2023, the research was published in an accredited academic journal. However, I know most universities actually want their Academic Trainees to enroll in a Masters programme, which is also a fantastic opportunity to further one's studies! 

How do I become an Academic Trainee? 

Each university would have their own way to apply, and their own set of requirements. I think it's best to ask your lecturers about the process in your third year of studies. Marks at university (undergraduate and postgraduate) do play a role in becoming an Academic Trainee, but it is not the ‘be all, and end all’. Obviously having a strong academic performance is amazing and does demonstrate that you have the technical competence, but it is also a challenging skill to be able to present and impart knowledge effectively to a group of 400 students, which I think is more important sometimes than just knowing the work well (ie, having high marks). 

One caveat though; you should already have a signed contract for your articles and need to get permission from that company or firm to be able to be an Academic Trainee. For example, I had already secured a 3-year training contract in my first year of studies at Stellies but when I wanted to become an Academic Trainee, I had to get permission from my firm, in writing, that I could become an Academic Trainee. The firm is essentially losing a resource for a year, so it is important that permission is asked before applying to be an Academic Trainee.

Am I at a disadvantage when entering corporate after my Academic Trainee year? 

Absolutely not! Actually, I think you're at an advantage. Many firms know the value that an Academic Trainee can bring, in terms of technical knowledge and the soft skills that are learnt from lecturing or presenting. For me, there was a bit of pressure to play "catch up" at the firm and be able to perform as a second year trainee, without having first year experience. However, honestly, the transition from being an Academic Trainee to being a young professional and playing "catch up" was not bad at all, and in the end was very manageable. 

When I joined my firm at the start of my second year of articles, I actively searched for ways to incorporate the skills that I had learnt from my AT year – which made me a very valuable team member. 

Why would someone want to be an Academic Trainee? 

As an Academic Trainee you’ll be able to engage with students (some of whom you’lll become great friends with ), make connections with the lecturers that become your colleagues, become more technical with complex finance topics, build on many soft skills, and have an impact on students. 

All the skills I learnt from my Academic Trainee year helped me in corporate and opened many exciting opportunities! So, if you want to explore academia as a potential career for yourself, enjoy imparting knowledge, learning and want to grow your skill set, then the SAICA Academic Training Programme is for you and you should start enquiring at your university!

Thinking of considering the SAICA Academic Traineeship route? 

Connect with Karl, LinkedIn profile, and chat about his articles journey to weigh up this unique articles route for yourself. 


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