After only two weeks as a music education major, Aaron Saiewitz took a break from college to find his path. Over the next two years, he took on a handful of jobs that ultimately taught him the value of a college education and led him back to the classroom to study accounting.
Saiewitz built a successful career as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) but found himself called back to the classroom once again — this time to teach. He left his stable career behind to earn his Ph.D. The sacrifice paid off. Saiewitz has taught accounting in Lee Business School for the last seven years and draws on his professional experience in the classroom and for his research.
What were you doing before you came to UNLV?
I was a director at a CPA firm in New Jersey. I specialized in financial statement audits for closely held companies. In addition, I did a lot of tax work and was also involved in helping entrepreneurs buy and sell companies. I even did some forensic accounting work, which is fun because you get to be a detective. In one case, we helped the police determine how much a bookkeeper stole from a company. In other cases, I helped prepare the expert report for damages claims in civil lawsuits.
What inspired you to give up your career to teach?
During my professional career, I always enjoyed mentoring and training staff, so teaching was a natural next step. A few years after I became a director, I got the opportunity to teach an evening course on auditing at Rider University in New Jersey. From the moment I started talking with the department chair and a couple of professors, I knew this was something I wanted to do. At first, I thought maybe I would work another 15 years in accounting and retire early into teaching. But then I basically said to myself, “YOLO! (You Only Live Once) Why would I want to wait? I think this is what I'm meant to do.”
So, I blew up my career, moved my family up to Massachusetts, got my Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and I’ve never regretted it for a second.
Is this what you thought you would be doing when you grew up?
Absolutely not. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an astronomer. I loved everything about space and space exploration. Then I discovered how much math is involved and that was the end of that. A lot of people laugh and say, “Wait a second, you're an accountant. You must be great at math.” But then I point out that accounting is not complex math. My daughter who just finished sixth grade knows enough math to be an accountant. So, math is why I gave up on the dream of being an astronomer.
What was your first major in college and what made you finally choose accounting?
When I was finishing high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. A very well-meaning guidance counselor said to me, “Well, you like music and you seem to like school. Why don't you major in music education?” I took his advice and started college as a music ed major. About two weeks after I started college, I realized I wasn't talented enough to be a music major, and about two weeks later, I decided college wasn't right for me. So I dropped out.
Now, I don't encourage people to drop out of college but it was something really important for me to do. I needed to learn more about life. So, I moved out of my parents’ house, lived with a bunch of friends, and worked a ton of different jobs for a couple of years. I worked in a deli. I did delivery work. I worked for an excavator hooking up houses to sewer lines in a sweltering hot, humid New Jersey summer. Then for about a year I worked for a travel agency doing clerical work and – I'm going to really date myself now — I delivered airline tickets to corporate clients. During that time, I became very interested in business.
Two years after I dropped out, I returned to college as a business major. I took my first accounting class and it clicked. Everything about it made sense and came easily to me. About a month after I started that class, I got a job working for a CPA and that was it – I was an accounting major from then on.
I think my story is an example of how there are nontraditional routes to success. In the end, I think there was something good about being a nontraditional student and having some life experience before starting college.
What life lessons did you take away from that time?
Good question. Life can be very challenging working the kinds of jobs that you can get with only a high school degree. Most of the time, they're low-paid and not secure. Working those jobs, I learned what it's like to live on very little money. I came from a middle-class upbringing. I know a lot of our students don't have that privilege. It was a real eye-opener to discover what it's like to have to buy 25 cents worth of gas just so you can get to your job.
Tell me about an “aha” moment in your career.
After I'd been in my career for about three or four years, I was doing very well. And of course, when that happens, they start to give you a lot more responsibility and a lot more projects. The problem was I was not very good at organization skills and I started dropping the ball on a lot of things, missing tasks that had to be done, and putting us in a position where it was tough to meet a deadline. One of the directors in my firm pulled me aside and told me I would have a lot of trouble advancing if I didn’t get this under control. So, I took his constructive criticism to heart and I got several books on time management, project management, and organization skills, and I dedicated myself to getting organized.
It was a game changer for me. I went from not being on top of my workload to being someone that my partners could count on so much that eventually I was promoted to director. I had the accounting knowledge, but you also need the organization skills to succeed. Time management and organization skills have also been an important aspect of succeeding in my career as an academic.
How has your past career in accounting influenced your research?
My research is mostly inspired by my practice experience. My main research area is about how auditors communicate with the personnel at the companies they audit.
Most people think that accountants and auditors just crunch a bunch of numbers. But the reality is there's a ton of communication that goes on during the audit process. Auditors need to ask for explanations about what happened during the year or why the company’s accountants chose to do things a certain way. As a result, auditor-client communication is an integral part of accounting and auditing.
When I was in practice, I noticed that a lot of my younger staff didn't want to talk with their clients, but they were comfortable emailing them. This led to my first major research question: how does email communication affect audit outcomes compared to in-person communication? My research focus now is on how to improve the auditor-client communication process.
Another research area inspired by my practice experience came from working with staff accountants and auditors from other countries. I noticed that staff accountants from other countries tended to approach problems differently than staff accountants from the U.S. When I say different, I don't mean better or worse; I just mean different. This led me to wonder, how can you have comparable financial reporting across the world if people from different countries think so differently? Through my research, I investigate how people from different cultures approach accounting judgments differently and how we can get more comparable decision-making across countries. In the future, I’d like to investigate how to draw from the strengths of different cultures to improve financial reporting.
Tell us how your work experience has influenced your teaching.
I tell a lot of stories from my practice experience. I teach the concepts and the theory, but I can also tell my students how it actually happens in practice. Students often tell me that's one of their favorite things about my class.
What’s your favorite part about teaching?
I really like challenging students and getting them out of their comfort zone. Today’s knowledge-based careers require students to have critical-thinking and communication skills. I randomly call on students to discuss their responses to homework problems or cases. I don’t necessarily want to hear the right answer, but instead I want them to explain their thought process, which includes explaining not only why their answer is correct but also why other potential answers are wrong. Students sometimes tell me that getting put on the spot makes them uncomfortable, but they also say it makes them think deeply about the concepts and also makes them more likely to prepare for class.
We know our faculty and staff can have a profound effect on their students. But tell us about a lesson you learned from a student.
I am always humbled by what our students overcome to make a better life for themselves and for their families, such as our first-generation students and veterans. You can tell that UNLV students really appreciate and value college. They’re driven, hardworking, and they're a joy to teach. I have learned so much from our students and I'm impressed by them all the time.
What’s your favorite thing about being part of the department of accounting?
It's a very collegial group with a wide range of professional and academic experience. Plus, the research my colleagues are doing is interesting and practical. I'm drawn to this because I'm so influenced by my professional experience. Also, almost everyone is doing behavioral experimental research, which is unusual. It's great to be part of a department where everyone shares a common focus.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Probably how into music I am. I come from a family of musicians, including my father and my brothers. No one is a professional musician in my family, but it’s a big part of our lives. I started on trumpet in fourth grade, but since high school, I’ve primarily played guitar. I play a lot of progressive rock – Rush, Pink Floyd, King Crimson. Over the last year, I started seriously studying classical guitar and have been taking online lessons. I don’t think people expect an accountant to be a musician.
Which is worse —a winter in New Jersey or a summer in Las Vegas?
Winter is definitely worse than summer. When it's below freezing, you hide in your house and crank up the heat. When it's 110 degrees here, I jump in the pool. To me, there's no comparison.
What’s your ideal summer vacation?
Relaxing at the Jersey Shore. That's my happy place.