Becoming a certified financial analyst (CFA) means over 1000 hours of graduate-level study, successful completion of three rigorous examinations, four years of relevant work experience, adherence to a well-honed code of ethics and standards of professional conduct.

Approximately one in five entrants into the CFA program sees it through to completion. But in a crowded job market, in a profession held in rather low esteem by the public of late, is all of the effort devoted to obtaining the CFA worth it?

Key Takeaways

  • Becoming a CFA charterholder means you have participated in the program's rigorous, graduate-level study and successfully passed three exams.
  • You must have four years of relevant work experience to qualify as a CFA charterholder.
  • CFAs work in many different areas of finance from a risk manager to a private wealth counselor.
  • A CFA is unlike an MBA, which can vary, a CFA is a professional certification and it can only be earned via the CFA Institute.
  • It takes more than 1000 hours of study to qualify for a CFA.

What the CFA Means

Financial service employers recognize the value that a charterholder brings to the workplace, as evidenced by many finance job advertisements that either request or require that the applicant be a CFA charterholder or candidate. According to the CFA Insitute, this credential "is the professional standard of choice for more than 31,000 investment firms worldwide".

Unlike a Masters in Business Administration, which can vary significantly in content, rigor, and reputation, the CFA is a professional certification conferred by one organization only—the CFA Institute, which is a non-profit association that represents part of the asset management and research field. The CFA institute creates, administers, and tests a curriculum that strives for perpetual relevance in a dizzyingly complex world. More important, still, is the international remit of the Institute and its exam.

The language of finance may be English, but the practice of finance is decidedly global and competitive. 

What a CFA Does

What does a typical CFA do? There are a number of occupations available to a CFA and new uses for the tools developed in the rigorous exams that are constantly being updated by experts and generalists to reflect the current financial environment. A long development period guards against quality degradation.

The candidate body of knowledge derives from the global financial body of investment knowledge and is grounded in an ever-changing professional practice. Examples of charterholder careers include portfolio manager, investment analyst, risk analyst, chief investment officer, performance measurement analyst, risk manager, and private wealth counselor.

Candidates learn along a continuum, beginning with knowledge and comprehension of critical areas and concepts, such as asset classes, economics, and financial accounting (Level I and II), to application and analysis of what was learned (Level I to III). This culminates in the synthesis and evaluation of key areas of practice (Level II and III), such as wealth planning and portfolio management on an institutional and individual level.

The learning is not so much sequential as evolving, assuming greater depth as the examinations progress.