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CFA Vs MBA: Which Should You Choose?

Choosing between CFA and MBA? We explain how the Chartered Financial Analyst exams compare with a business school education

Mon Aug 13 2018

BusinessBecause
It is a choice many financiers face: Should I get an MBA or a CFA qualification?

This summer, a growing number of people chose the latter. In June, 227,031 candidates registered for Levels I, II, and III of the Chartered Financial Analyst exams—a 20% increase in the past year alone, and a record high figure since the exams were first administered in 1963.

Data suggest that the majority of them were destined to fail. The CFA is a complex curriculum for investment professionals, with candidates swotting for roughly 300 hours for each stage of the exams. In comparison, while it is exceedingly tough to get into an elite MBA program, you are pretty much guaranteed to pass.

Some believe that the sheer difficulty involved, and commitment required to obtain CFA status, as most candidates juggle full-time jobs, mean the three-letter-credential trumps the MBA. There are 154,000 CFA charter-holders globally—a growing yet still relatively small figure, giving the qualification exclusivity. In contrast, there are 11.7m applications to business schools each year.

“For anyone who wants to be serious on the buy-side—hedge funds, asset management or investment management—the full suite of CFA exams is unsurpassed,” says Steve Thomas, associate dean for MBA programs at London’s Cass Business School. He is also a member of the CFA Institute’s examinations committee. “CFA holders are quite seriously high-flying.”

While the CFA is a significant challenge, the flexibility of the exams—candidates study mostly independently, and maintain their careers—can be attractive. Many finance employers let staff take time off to obtain CFA qualifications—typically five days each year—as there is a mutual benefit. And as you’re working full-time, you won’t miss out on important industry developments. In comparison, an MBA degree requires that candidates pause their careers for up to two years, although part-time online courses are now more of an option.

Viet Ha Tran, senior associate director of finance admissions at Madrid’s IE Business School, says: “Most candidates try to pass the CFA exams when they are under 30 years old (and still working). A student can easily pass (a level of) the CFA if they prepare for it over six months, studying for two-to-three hours a day. Obtaining an MBA or other master’s degree typically requires 12-to-15 hours a day of study over a period of 12-to-18 months.”

Then there is the cost. The three CFA exams will set you back about $3,000 in total, plus annual membership fees for the CFA Institute, which vary by location. In the UK the dues are $440. On the other hand, a two-year MBA at a top-flight US business school will cost over $200,000 if you factor in tuition, living and travel expenses (not including the salary you will also sacrifice).

Although a larger number of people have an MBA, that arguably gives business school students an advantage: Networking. MBA candidates study in lock-step with each other, in a collaborative culture, forming tight bonds that can stand up to the test of time. “Networking is undoubtedly more relevant to MBAs, particularly full-time courses,” says a careers manager at a leading UK business school, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  

“For a CFA there is no collaboration, no school,” the person adds. “The lack of a school or alumni structure does inhibit a network as people don’t study together for any length of time or much outside their current employer group.”

Another potential advantage for the MBA is that students study a broad curriculum covering all aspects of business and management. This can help them move into more senior management positions. 

The careers manager says: “The CFA gives an understanding of business mechanics, value creation, economic cycles and governance practices. It does not teach how to lead a team or write a business plan, or devise a strategy for growth. The CFA equips investment people to move forward in their careers, but it is not about preparing you for leadership.”

Stephen Horan, managing director for credentialing at the CFA Institute, retorts: “We provide members and candidates with a strong network of more than 150 local member societies around the world where they can connect with peers and industry colleagues at many events throughout the year. Members are also invited to take on voluntary leadership roles at their local society, including several board-level roles, which provide non-executive management experience.”

He goes on to say that the two programs are highly complementary, and many CFA charter-holders earn an MBA later in their career. If you disagree, post so in our comments box below.

Student Reviews

Bayes Business School

Student

Verified

31/10/2023

On Campus

Best Journalism school in Europe

When I first stepped onto the campus of City, University of London, I knew I was in for a ride - and not just on the Tube! With its vibrant energy and an impressive repertoire of programs, City U became my home away from home. The Journalism program was kind of a big deal. Rumour was that we were the best in Europe! The lecturers were not just experts in their field; they’re practically journalistic royalty. They were invested, passionate, and had a knack for turning the most flat press release into a riveting news story. With their guidance, I’ve learned to navigate the chaotic world of media like a pro. The campus was a melting pot of every culture, being that we had such a diverse international crowd. Being in the heart of London, I had the world at my fingertips - there was always a new corner to explore, a hidden gem of a cafe to discover, or a street performer! City, University of London wasn't just a university; it was a chapter in my life story that I’ll never forget.

Lydia

Verified

23/02/2023

On Campus

Learning environment

The teacher-learner ration is manageable, giving each learner a chance to gain personal attention. It is also easier following up on the progress of a student, as the numbers per class is not large. the conducive environment for learning includes clean classes, standard desks, world class instructional facilities and the opportunity to engage lecturers even after their sessions. The team spirit at City is above board, with learners getting chance to learn both from instructors and colleagues. This is the university of choice; the place to be.

Nathaniel

Verified

24/01/2023

On Campus

Classes

I liked that each class had a manageable number of learners, making the professor-learner ratio favor knowledge acquisition. I also liked that study schedules were manageable, and not overwhelming. The focus on talents and gifts even within the learning environment makes it possible for learners to achieve the best of their potential, and this has worked to the advantage of those that have schooled at City, University of London

Muhammad

Verified

24/01/2023

On Campus

Classes

The diversity at City University facilitates interactions and is a direction toward the unity of the world. The classes are well built to match the number and needs of all students regardless of the elements of diversity that set people apart. The use of technology in delivery makes learning even more interesting and achievable. At City University there is no distinction pegged on the issues that make people unique.

Dorah

Verified

23/01/2023

On Campus

professors

The team of lecturers at the Uiversity are well experienced. Their level of insight and the methodologies of delivery works for the interes of the leaeners. My learning experience was largely boosted by the level of knowledge of the professors at the institution, and their passion to transfer the same to learners. I appreciate every class I attended because of the level of insight I was able to gather

Nora

Verified

17/12/2022

On Campus

The best university I’ve been to

The campus and the people I've met have made it a wonderful experience. I was reared in a small town with a graduating class of only 88 individuals, so moving to City University was a huge adjustment for me. My dorm has more residents than my whole high school combined! I enjoy the atmosphere here, and everyone is so friendly. Outstanding academic options and a stunning campus. Really great from beginning to end. The educators genuinely love what they do, and the students are ready to learn. On or around college, there is always something to do with friends, and the social scene is particularly warm.

Antonia

Verified

21/11/2022

On Campus

Bayes Business School

As a student at City university attending Bayes Business School I would totally recommend choosing this university as the experience is exceptional with great social networking opportunities . Professors are significantly helpful, delivering with excellence and professionalism. Everyone is happy to help and make you feel welcomed in such an esteem university as City, offering exceptional development and guidance through out the course.

Muhammad

Verified

15/11/2022

On Campus

Economics and Politics

Incredibly amazing university, the way they polish students and help them boost their morale and think intellectually is worthwhile. Many universities have international partnerships to allow exchanges between their students. The most obvious subjects for these opportunities would be those that involve languages, and the study of people and places.

Navya

Verified

11/11/2022

On Campus

Clinical biology

I really like it it’s perfect for me with not too many people and not too few either. All the modules are amazing. I love the toy bar. I love all the societies that I’ma part of. Especially the colour Bollywood society

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