Navigating the CFA Decision: Is It Your Next Best Career Move?
Not many titles are as widely respected in finance and accounting as Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA).
The CFA designation is a symbol of hard work and a reverence for always doing the right thing in finance. People who become CFAs know a lot about managing money, looking at finances, and making smart plans.
It’s also a ticket to a higher salary. Having a CFA Charter increases average salary by 47%, boosts your professional reputation and can lead to some rewarding promotions and opens the door for new career paths.
But obtaining a CFA is no easy feat. CFA exams are considered the most challenging out there—even harder than medical school or law school exams—with pass rates under 50%.
The certification process demands years (yes, you read that right) of dedication, time, and effort. We’re talking early mornings and late nights studying and inevitable sacrifices in your personal and professional life.
It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. But maybe it is right for you.
If you’re thinking about taking this significant step in your career, here’s the essential information to make an informed decision about if CFA designation is the next best step for your career.
A Closer Look at CFA: Understanding the Benefits, Curriculum, and Certification Process
CFA designation represents a commitment to excellence in the field of finance. In line with CFA Institute’s mission, it’s a lived dedication to the highest ethical standards and a deep understanding of investment management, financial analysis, and portfolio strategy.
The Value of a CFA Credential
CFA designation represents more than just a set of letters after your name. Here are the key benefits:
- Take Your Place as an Expert: CFA charterholders are considered experts in their field as they possess the knowledge and skills to excel in the complex world of finance.
- Gain Globally Recognized Credentials: The CFA designation is globally recognized, opening doors to career opportunities in finance worldwide.
- Be a Protector of the Highest Ethical Standards: CFA Institute takes great pride in setting and upholding the standard of ethical behavior and professionalism in the financial sector to reinforce trust and integrity within and outside of the industry. Conduct violations to their code of ethics can result in sanctions, including suspension or revocation of an individual’s membership and right to use the CFA designation or a suspension or ban from the CFA Program.
A Three-Level Curriculum
To get your CFA, you must complete a three-exam gamut, each complex and inclusive of a broad spectrum of financial topics like ethics and professional standards, quantitative methods, economics, financial reporting and analysis, corporate finance, equity investments, fixed income, derivatives, alternative investments, portfolio management, and wealth planning.
Here’s a quick preview of the three exams:
- Level I: Basic knowledge of the ten topic areas and simple analysis using investment tools.
- Level II: Application of valuation and analysis of asset classes.
- Level III: Portfolio management, wealth planning, and how to demonstrate practical application of knowledge and ethical standards.
The Time and Effort Involved in Becoming a CFA
Becoming a CFA charterholder requires serious dedication and a significant investment of time, effort, and focus.
Here’s a peek at the journey ahead:
Connect With Your Inner Forever Learner
The commitment level for pursuing a CFA is comparable to a part-time job. Candidates dedicate hundreds of hours to studying. This often means spending early mornings, late nights, weekends, and holidays poring over textbooks, practice questions, and mock exams. You may have to postpone vacations, miss social gatherings, and even press pause on career advancements to accommodate your study schedule.
Be Ready for Multiple Years of Getting Ready
Given how challenging the exams are and the piles of material to cover, candidates typically spend several years preparing for and taking the CFA exams. Pursuit of a CFA can extend three to four years or beyond, depending on the time you’re able to dedicate to prepare.
Know the Financial Costs
Beyond the time and intellectual investment, candidates should consider the financial costs of becoming a CFA charterholder. Exam registration fees, study materials, preparatory courses (if chosen), and the opportunity cost of not working during intensive study periods add up. The total cost of all three CFA exams ranges from approximately $2,600 to $4,000, assuming three consecutive passes and not counting travel and accommodations.
Dig Deep for Perseverance and Grit
Pursuing a CFA can be incredibly empowering and rewarding, in part due to overcoming inevitable challenges along the way. It’s common to fail an exam level the first go-around, so be prepared to dig deep to persevere through any setbacks. This resilience is a testament to the dedication required to your hard work, dedication, and grit for pursuing this designation—and ultimately, makes the reward that much sweeter.
Define Your Career Goals Before Pursuing a CFA
You’ll find immense clarity in whether to pursue a CFA if you start by taking stock of where you’re currently at in your career, how you’d like to grow, and finding out whether a CFA designation will take you there.
What Are Your Long-Term Career Goals?
It all starts with you and your career aspirations. Where do you see yourself in the finance world in a few years, or even a decade from now? Are you aiming for a high-paying portfolio management position, striving to become a financial analyst extraordinaire, or perhaps eyeing a leadership role in a prominent financial institution?
Understanding your long-term goals is like setting the coordinates on your professional GPS. A CFA may be the roadmap to equipping you with the specific knowledge, expertise, and skillsets you’ll need to grow as a finance or accounting professional.
Is CFA Versatile Enough for Your Career Goals?
CFA designation is especially compelling because of its versatility because the value of a CFA isn’t confined to a single sector or role.
Whether you have your sights set on investment management, risk analysis, financial advising, or corporate finance, a CFA credential can be your golden ticket. It all depends on your long-term career goals and where you live and work, since different markets will have different needs or expectations of their candidates. This is when a mentor can come in handy—someone who can offer insight specific to your situation and goals and guide you toward an aligned decision and the bright future you dream of.
What Industries and Roles Are You Seeking?
CFA designation is invaluable in certain industries and roles. Take investment management, where decision-making can make or break fortunes. CFAs are the architects of financial success in these roles. If you’re leaning toward roles in equity research, asset management, or financial planning, being a CFA charterholder is also highly regarded.
Outside of financial planning and accounting, industries like banking, insurance, and corporate finance also treasure CFA charterholders for their intimate understanding of the nuances and complexities of the financial services industry.
Want to Take on a Leadership Role or Become an Entrepreneur?
If you’re feeling called to step into a leadership position in an established financial institution or pursue your own entrepreneurial ventures, a CFA will equip you with the strategic thinking, financial acumen, and ethical grounding to succeed.
Providing Strong and Well-Informed Leadership for Established Companies: Finance and accounting are complicated, and being a leader means you need to understand it deeply. If your goal is to become a chief investment officer (CIO), lead portfolio management, or hold a high-level position in a major finance company, a CFA can help you learn to make wise choices, motivate teams, and excel in your role.
Be Your Own Boss and Start Something New: If entrepreneurship is on your radar, you need more than just good ideas—you need to know how to make money from those ideas. A CFA can teach you how to do that. It’s like having the right tools for the job, no matter if you’re starting a fintech company or giving financial advice. Plus, it shows that you’re serious about doing things the right way.
CFA vs. Alternative Designations and Certifications
The CFA charter isn’t the only way to grow in your finance or accounting career. There are other qualifications and degrees that can also open the doors of opportunity. Let’s look at some alternatives and how they stack up.
Comparing CFA, MBA, and Other Credentials
- MBA (Master of Business Administration) vs. CFA: These are two of the most prominent qualifications in finance. While a CFA focuses specifically on finance and investment management, an MBA is broader and covers various aspects of business. If you want a deep dive into finance, the CFA charter is a clear choice. But if you want a broader skillset that can be applied across various industries, an MBA might be more up your alley.
- CPA (Certified Public Accountant) vs. CFA: CPAs are experts in accounting, taxation, and financial management. If your career leans more toward accounting and taxation, a CPA could be your go-to. However, if you’re interested in broader finance roles, like investment analysis, portfolio management or risk assessment, then CFA is the smarter choice.
- CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst) vs. CFA: The CAIA program specializes in alternative investments like hedge funds, private equity, and real assets. If your career aspirations are in line with these areas, CAIA might be a better fit. CFA is a better choice if you want a comprehensive understanding of finance across the board.
So, Which One Is Right for You?
To bring it full circle: The right path for you depends on how much time and effort you’re willing to invest on the front end as well as your long-term career goals.
If you’re passionate about a particular niche in finance, like alternative investments or risk management, a specialized qualification might be the way to go.
If you want to go all in on finance with a focus on investment management, the CFA is a top pick.
If you’re looking for a broader skillset applicable across various industries, an MBA could be better.
CPA and CAIA also have their places, especially if you’re inclined towards accounting or alternative investments.
Take comfort in knowing that you can’t make the wrong decision if you allow yourself the space to reflect. Pause for a moment and think about what truly excites you in the world of finance and what path forward will bring you that excitement at work every day.
Zing Is Your Expert Guide (and Biggest Cheerleader) in All Stages of Your Career
So, to CFA or not to CFA? That is the question. There’s no right or wrong answer, and no one-size-fits-all track. Your career journey is as unique as you are.
We’ve shown you the value of a CFA, how it stands as a symbol of excellence in finance and opens doors to awesome career paths around the world. But it comes at a price—monetarily, yes, but it can also impact your personal life and your current role.
Remember: It’s okay to take your time with this decision! Big choices like these require time to process. Don’t discredit the power of your intuition, either. We can’t think our way to every decision. Even if all signs point to “Yes, get your CFA!”—if it doesn’t feel right in your heart, listen to that inner knowing.
Your career path is yours to forge, and the choices you make today will shape your future. Good thing you don’t have to navigate the decision solo.
Ready to explore the journey to the CFA charter? We love to offer personalized career advice and guidance to our brilliant candidate community. Contact us today to get connected with a Zing team member who will support you in every stage of your career and help you take the next right step along the way.