Successes and struggles: one student’s journey to CIPFA qualified status

“It is our determination, not our failures, that makes us successful.”

At CIPFA, our commitment to supporting lifelong learning and continuing professional development is central to maintaining our standing as the voice of sound public financial management and key to encouraging a robust, resilient and ethical public finance profession.

Lucy Glister-Byers, Senior Accountant at Newcastle City Council, tells us her story of becoming a CIPFA member in this open and frank account – one that may be familiar to many of you. CIPFA students graduate with more than just a CIPFA qualification; their experiences will inform and impact on their careers as members, and the Institute is here to support them every step of the way.

The importance of perseverance and solidarity

I started my learning journey with CIPFA in early 2016, and I completed my qualification in October 2021. I’m proud to say I’m now a qualified CIPFA member. The eagle-eyed among you will notice that it took me five years (yes, five) to finish my studies.

However, it appears I’m not the only one whose studies have extended beyond the usual three years. According to the February 2022 issue of PQ Magazine, 48% of CIPFA students are still trying to qualify five years after starting their journey.

I was new to finance when I started mine. I’d not studied accountancy at university or completed AAT, and I’d never heard of a ‘T’ account or a credit or debit, so it was a steep learning curve when I began my studies. It had also been some time since I’d sat a formal exam or embarked on any kind of structured learning. Thankfully, the support of training managers and other students at the time got me through my first four exams unscathed. There were times when I felt incredibly overwhelmed or that I simply wasn’t up to it, but I managed to get some decent passes.

Things changed when I suffered a bereavement and I started to fall behind my classmates. It didn’t help that the subject I was studying at the time – Public Service Financial Reporting – wasn’t one of my strengths. This was the first exam I failed, and this hit me hard – in fact, it took me three attempts to pass PSFR, but I got there in the end. From then, my exam success was patchy and often influenced by changing (and challenging) personal circumstances.

Each time I sat an exam, I felt I’d put in the required effort, but sometimes it just didn’t click on the day. It’s important for me to be clear here: I’m not making excuses for myself, but I’ve noticed that when other students have also failed exams, it has never been down to a lack of effort. This means that exam failures feel more personal, and it can be difficult to dust yourself off and keep going.

When I felt like giving up, here’s what kept me going on my journey.

The support of other students. This was especially important at the Strategic stages. I found a couple of students from other regions whom I felt comfortable sharing my insecurities and inadequacies with, and together we pulled each other up to pass the case study.

The support of my employer and line managers, who were incredibly understanding of my personal circumstances and didn’t pressure me to complete my studies to their timetable but allowed me to set my own. They also didn’t make me feel incompetent or incapable when I had failed an exam and instead focused on the positives.

CIPFA’s wellbeing webinars. I attended one of these during 2020 when I was thinking of postponing my Strategic Public Finance exam. I was struggling with my confidence, and I didn’t want to sit an online exam (at that time it was early into the pandemic, and we didn’t know how long it would last). However, after attending the webinar, my attitude changed; from then on, I made the most of the time I had leading up to the exam, which I went on to pass, much to my surprise. In addition, CIPFA’s Training Delivery Manager Alison Sweeting was especially supportive towards the end of my qualification.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend on LinkedIn of people celebrating and promoting their first-time passes. This is not intended to belittle that fantastic achievement, but I would emphasise that although this may seem like the norm, it’s more likely to be the exception. We don’t talk about our failures as readily as our successes. When I open up to others about my exam failures, they reciprocate, and I’ve discovered that many of my very successful peers have failed one or more of their CIPFA exams too.

I’m proud of my learning journey. Failing some exams has given me strength, determination, grit, empathy, compassion for others, and in some cases, it’s even led to better retention of the syllabus content. This thought piece is for any student who is struggling or who has failed an exam: you can win the battle, and there is always support available if you want or need it.

Additional support

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