It's easier to get a job with a Big Four accounting firm than an investment bank: the Big Four employ more people and therefore hire more. They also attract fewer applicants per job.
With ease of access, however, comes a diminution of pay. While you can earn six figures within three years working as an analyst in the investment banking division (M&A or capital markets) of a leading investment bank, you'll get a lot less in a leading Big Four accounting firm (Deloitte, KPMG, EY, PWC).
The charts below, based on median figures from real time pay benchmarking site, Emolument.com, show how much less. Reflecting the highest paying jobs at the Big Four when you have between 0 and two and three and five years' experience, they suggest that - at the very most, after five years at a Big Four firm - you can expect nearly £60k (as a tax accountant).
The comparative paucity of pay at the Big Four isn't the only notable thing though. As the charts show, pay at the Big Four is almost all salary - bonuses are tiny, even in corporate finance.
It's also notable that just because you start on a job with comparatively high pay at the Big Four, it doesn't mean you'll still be earning the most later on. Financial advisory jobs (eg. jobs which provide accounting advisory services relating to M&A transactions, restructurings, raising capital, and forensic investigations) start out paying well, but end up paying a lot less than jobs for tax accountants (which are poorly paid initially).
It's also notable that the accounting and audit jobs which are the bread and butter of activities at the Big Four are the worst paid. External auditors who provide an independently verified examination of publicly listed companies' accounts earn a combined salary and bonus of £46k after five years. Financial accountants, who prepare organisations' financial statements for public consumption, are paid even less.
Instead, the highest paid Big Four jobs are in the tax and consulting categories. Even here there are big differences. For example, Emolument's figures suggest that 'Corporate tax' (advising corporates on tax exposure) pays a lot less than actual tax accounting (preparing financial statements to minimize the tax burden).