Additional education after college has become a prerequisite for career advancement in many investment fields. For those considering a career in investments, the great debate has been whether to obtain a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or The CFA Institute's Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. Both have their advantages but considering the expense of the former and the difficulty of attaining the latter, choosing between the two makes for a rather difficult decision.
To attract students, graduate institutions have begun to teach a large portion of the CFA program within the graduate business curriculum and some have gone as far as to create a "CFA track" within their MBA course of study, allowing students to obtain an MBA and a CFA at the same time. For those considering attaining both a graduate degree and the CFA certification, one of these programs is the most efficient way to get the best of both worlds.
MBA Vs. CFA
Before the advent of the CFA, many investment companies would pay to send some of their best and brightest to business schools. These students would return with a much better general business skill, but not necessarily the skills needed for high-level, specialized asset-management responsibilities, such as portfolio management. These specialized skills were usually obtained on the job as professionals worked their way up through the ranks.
To generalize, the skills obtained in business school were better suited for employees in more general disciplines, such as marketing or general management. The CFA program was devised to provide charter holders with specialized skills, such as investment analysis, portfolio strategy and asset allocation. One way to explain the differences in the programs is to say that the MBA program is a mile wide and a foot deep, while the CFA program is a foot wide and a mile deep.
The advantage of an MBA is that the knowledge obtained in the program is valuable in other industries outside of the investment world. The great disadvantage is cost - both the direct cost of the program and the loss of income that results from a two-year hiatus for those considering going back to school full-time.
The advantages of the CFA program are the ability to acquire specific investment related skills at a relatively low cost. However, although the CFA program is based on self study, it is arduous, requiring a commitment of four years and 1,000 study hours (on average) to complete it. Because of the commitments both in time and money, few go on to acquire both the graduate degree and the certification.
The CFA Track
For many willing to make the commitment and meet the other prerequisites necessary to obtain a graduate business degree and the CFA, most will begin the CFA program right after graduation, hoping to use some of the knowledge gained in their finance courses to give them a leg up over other CFA candidates. However, until recently, most graduate business programs did not organize their finance curricula for this purpose, the advantage for graduates was minimal. This is changing, as business schools begin to incorporate CFA course work into their class offerings.
According to the CFA Institute, in April of 2006 the CFA Institute began a partnering program with 41 graduate institutions worldwide to provide some level (at least 70%) of CFA course work as part of the MBA curriculum.The CFA Institute audits the course offerings of these partner institutions to ensure they live up to their promises. To attract students, graduate institutions have begun to teach a large portion of the CFA program within their graduate business curricula.
The curriculum offered by these program partner schools range from specialized finance courses aimed to facilitate the CFA exams , to a specific "CFA track," which includes courses that teach the exam material. The CFA track usually is designed so that students will take Level I of the CFA exam directly after graduation.
Boston University's Master of Science in Investment Management program was the first CFA Program Partner in the United States, however as of October 2012 it is no longer accepting new applications; the final class of the program graduated in 2013. In comparison, the Johnson School at Cornell University seems to be organized with the CFA as one of the end goals of its graduate degree. Johnson School provides CFA Institute study materials, scholarships to waive the registration portion of the CFA exam enrollment fee, and professional development events held in conjunction with CFA Institute member societies.
The Bottom Line
Due to the program partnerships between business schools and the CFA Institute, there is now an efficient means for investment professionals to obtain both a graduate business degree and a CFA. Whereas it used to be adequate to obtain one or the other, this trend and the number of new investment professionals acquiring both graduate degrees and the CFA may ultimately require professionals to obtain both. Where the commitment was once two years of graduate school and four years of self study, now candidates that choose a partnering institution can perform a majority of the CFA commitment within their graduate school course work. Although it will still require an immense amount of commitment and discipline, an increasing number of institutions allow investment professionals to gain both breadth and depth of knowledge for all the investment management disciplines.