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CFA® Charter vs MBA: Which Direction is Right for You?

By: Kaplan Schweser
August 3, 2022
CFA vs MBA

Deciding between the CFA program and an MBA program is a very personal decision. There are many variables that dictate which one might be the better option for you. And the truth is, many finance professionals choose to pursue both at some point in their career.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Career Considerations

Your plans after becoming a CFA or MBA graduate can dictate which program is the right choice for you now. 

If You Want To Move Up in Finance

It’s been said that the CFA exam is a foot wide and a mile deep. The CFA Program is intensely focused on one thing: making you an investment expert. You will come out with a specialized skill set for asset management.

Is The CFA Worth It? >>

Curriculum topics that CFA charterholders become experts in include:

  • Ethical and Professional Standards
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Economics
  • Financial Statement Analysis
  • Corporate Issuers
  • Equity Investments
  • Fixed Income
  • Derivatives
  • Alternative Investments
  • Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning

The CFA Program is a great fit for financial analysts who are looking to move up into a new position like portfolio management or investment management.

If You Are Unsure

The MBA, on the other hand, is a broader approach better defined as a mile wide and a foot deep. The skills you attain in business school are not focused on a single industry. Instead, you get some exposure to all facets of business operation. 

Curriculum topics MBA students get exposed to include:

  • Accounting
  • Business Accountability and Ethics
  • Communication
  • Finance
  • Leadership
  • Marketing
  • Microeconomics
  • Statistics

If you are still a little undecided about what industry you want to work in and feel like you need more practical exposure to a variety of business practices, the MBA path is probably the better choice for you.

If You Want To Switch Careers 

This is where it can get tricky to make a decision. Especially if you are looking to switch careers and move into a brand new industry like finance. If you know you want to be a corporate financial analyst or a stock analyst, you would probably be wise to choose the CFA Program.

If you are an engineer and interested in working in finance but not sure exactly what you want to do, an MBA program will give you the opportunity to get exposed to the financial world and help you pick a specialty like:

  • Investment Banker
  • Actuary
  • Portfolio Manager
  • Securities Trader
  • Financial Planner
  • Financial Analyst
  • Economic Analyst

Financial Analyst Career Paths >>

Enrollment Requirements

To enroll in the CFA Program, you must one of the CFA Institute’s qualifying criteria:

  • Have a bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree
  • Be in the final year of a bachelor’s degree program
  • Have 4,000 hours of professional work experience, or
  • Have a combination of professional work and university experience that totals at least 4,000 hours

CFA Charter Requirements >>

Business school requirements vary from school to school. You’ll want to make sure you meet the specific requirements of the school or schools to which you want to apply. Generally speaking, each school will require that you:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree
  • Complete the GRE or GMAT exam with a satisfactory score
  • Have professional work experience (varies by school)
  • Complete additional program prerequisites (varies by school)

Will Becoming a CFA Help You Get Into an MBA Program?

It may be less common for a CFA charterholder to enroll in an MBA program but it certainly can’t hurt to have a CFA designation when applying to an MBA program.  

Is It Better To Pursue a CFA after Earning an MBA?

If you are young, have little to no experience as a finance professional, and can afford an MBA program, earning an MBA before you pursue the CFA charter can benefit you in a few ways.

There will be some overlapping curriculum material between an MBA Program and the CFA Program. You will also learn how to study for a finance exam while enrolled in an MBA Program. An MBA graduate will also probably go into the CFA Program with better expectations of what will be required to pass each exam. 

If you already have 4 years of professional work experience and looking to specialize in asset management, the CFA Program may be all you need to rise above others in your field. 

Considering the CFA charter? Download this free Before You Decide to Sit for the CFA Exam eBook.

Can You Pursue an MBA and CFA Together?

Yes, technically you can be enrolled in an MBA Program and the CFA Program at the same time but we would not recommend pursuing them both at the same time. Especially while working a job because both options will require a lot of your time.

Time Commitment

If you dedicate yourself to being a full-time student, you can complete your MBA program in two years or less. Technically, if everything went perfectly, you could complete the CFA Program in 18 months, not including the time you spent studying for the Level I exam. But that would be a very intense 18 months of studying. 

It’s recommended that you spend 300 hours studying for each level of the CFA exam, but you can take a year off in between levels if you need to without jeopardizing your chance of completion or significantly adding to the cost. On average, successful candidates take four years to earn their CFA charter, according to CFA Institute.

Nearly all CFA charter candidates hold jobs while they prepare for and take the exams because they need to meet a work experience requirement before they can become a charterholder. The CFA exam is what it is…three levels, 300 hours each, and intense preparation. 

Tips For Passing CFA Exam While Working Full Time >>

There is no shortcut. Whereas the option does exist to complete an MBA program part-time if you choose. It takes a little longer, but the option is available.

For the most part, completing the CFA Program is something you do on your own, while an MBA program is typically a more socially communal experience, with an emphasis on networking and team projects.

Cost Breakdown

While your career plans should be the primary consideration, the cost is often a factor when deciding between an MBA and the CFA charter. There are costs associated with both. The CFA charter is relatively affordable when compared to an MBA, especially if you’re planning to attend a well-known business school. 

All told, you can complete the CFA Program with CFA premium exam prep materials for under $12,000. Business school tuition can cost $80,000 or more. That said, it really comes down to what you want to do with your career. You can’t put a price on job satisfaction.

CFA Program Cost >>

Salary Differences 

Financial compensation is obviously a factor in your decision to pursue further education. But it shouldn’t be the most significant factor in deciding between the CFA Program and an MBA. 

The median compensation for a CFA charterholder with 0–5 years of experience is $72,900. The median compensation for a business school graduate with 0–5 years of experience is $57,700. Business professionals with 0–5 years of experience who have completed both programs have a median salary of $87,200.

You are standing at a crossroads where countless others have stood. As you’re likely learning, there isn’t a single right or wrong choice that works for every individual. 

What you might see as a positive might be a negative to the next person in line. Consider all the factors, make your decision confident, and don’t look back. Either way, you’re headed toward a brighter future in a finance career.

CFA Charterholder Salaries >>

Alternatives

There are alternatives to earning the CFA designation or becoming a business school graduate. Designations like CAIA and CFP are more specialized designations than a CFA whereas some give you more flexibility to work in multiple industries like CPA.

Masters of Science Degree in Financial Analysis

Sometimes, candidates looking to pursue the CFA Charter also may pursue a Masters of Science Degree in Financial Analysis (MSFA). Certain graduate programs are aligned to the learning outcomes of the CFA Institute’s CFA Program, which allows students to earn an MSFA while simultaneously preparing for the CFA exam.  

The College for Financial Planning's Masters of Science in Financial Analysis program includes access to Kaplan Schweser’s CFA Essential Study Package to prepare for the CFA exam.

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