CFA® vs MBA

Should I do a CFA or an MBA?

One of the toughest decisions to make for those pursuing a career in finance is which program to pursue after an undergraduate degree to stand out from the competition and boost their career prospects. We believe that the decision should be made with factors other than having an excellent title next to your name that describes your qualifications. 

CFA® vs. MBA

Some individuals may opt for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification, while others may undertake the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) accreditation. Arguably, the two most popular programs that finance professionals undertake are the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program and the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program.

Both have their advantages and are catered towards professionals in different industries, so if you're deciding on which one to choose, you need to determine which of those will best meet your goals, considering your circumstances. 

There isn't one clear-cut answer as to which one outweighs the other. It all depends on individual circumstances and what you as an individual want to achieve out of these highly regarded certifications and degrees. 

CFA® vs. MBA

Both programs address very different disciplines and offer very different skills and knowledge. This article will explain what each of these programs has to offer, how they compare to each other, and which might be the best option for a career in specific areas of finance.

What is the CFA?

The CFA is a globally recognized professional designation awarded by the CFA Institute, a global not-for-profit professional organization that provides professionals in finance with a highly rigorous education. 

It is among the most recognized and prestigious designations in banking and finance. The certification is awarded to candidates who demonstrate competence in investment analysis and wealth management.

What is the CFA?

The CFA curriculum is based on three levels of study. Level I studies portfolio management, financial reporting and analysis, and asset valuation. Level II focuses on tools for asset valuation, such as quantitative methods and economics. Finally, level III emphasizes portfolio management and performance attribution. The topics covered and their weightage in the curriculum for each level in 2022 are illustrated below:

CFA Curriculum
TopicsLevel ILevel IILevel III

Ethics and Professional Standards

15% - 20%

10% - 15%

10% - 15%

Quantitative Methods

8% - 12%

5% - 10%

0%

Economics

8% - 12%

5% - 10%

5% - 10%

Financial Reporting and Analysis

13 %- 17%

10% - 15%

0%

Corporate Issuers

8% - 12%

5% - 10%

0%

Equity Investments

10% - 12%

10% - 15%

10% - 15%

Fixed Income

10% - 12%

10% - 15%

15% - 20%

Derivatives

5% - 8%

5% - 10%

5% - 10%

Alternative Investments

5% - 8%

5% - 10%

5% - 10%

Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning

5% - 8%

10% - 15%

35% - 40%

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To learn more about what the CFA is, please have a look at our dedicated article Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®).

What is an MBA?

The MBA is an internationally recognized master's degree specializing in business and management. It provides students with a broad knowledge and understanding of the fundamental aspects of business, such as marketing, finance, human resources, and accounting. Many schools even allow students to tailor their MBA programs to cater to their interests and career goals. 

What is an MBA?

The program is mostly offered to students with an undergraduate degree. However, some universities may allow you to apply to their MBA program without one. The admission requirements for an MBA program are pretty difficult but may vary based on which business school you apply to. The most common admission requirements include:

However, these are just the general admission requirements and vary from college to college. For example, admission into the top 10 US business schools is much more complicated and has a low acceptance rate, as shown in the table below:

Acceptance rate from the Top 10 US Business School for an MBA, 2021. Source: topmba.com
RankBusiness School2021 Acceptance Rate

1

Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania

23.10%

2

Stanford Graduate School of Business

6.90%

3

MIT Sloan School of Management

14.60%

4

Harvard Business School

11.50%

5

University of Chicago Booth School of Business

24.20%

6

UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

17.70%

7

Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management

27.00%

8

Columbia Business School

16.40%

9

UCLA Anderson School of Management

30.50%

10

Yale School of Management

25.20%

 

It is helpful to understand the qualifications of the median candidate that gets accepted into an MBA program to see how you compare. The following has been taken from the Harvard Business School MBA Admissions website:

  • Average GPA of 3.69
  • Average of 5 years work experience.
  • Median of 730 GMAT score.
  • Median Quantitative score of 164 and Median Verbal score of 163 in the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) standardized test.

Admissions to an MBA program are quite grueling but worthwhile if accepted. 

Completing an MBA from a top-rated university comes with the benefit of a highly prized network and getting placed through campus placements. Hence, obtaining an MBA can greatly enhance one's career path and help land a high-paying job in a management position, especially in areas of technology, consulting, investment banking, insurance, and health care. 

 

CFA vs MBA: Time Commitment

CFA vs. MBA: Time Commitment

The time commitment required for both the CFA and MBA programs is quite substantial. However, the structure of commitment is quite different for both. 

The MBA program is typically undertaken on a full-time basis, with the candidate taking a break from the work to focus full-time on their studies for about two years. However, there are accelerated programs that allow students to complete an MBA faster, typically in 10 to 16 months. More information about the top ten one-year MBA programs can be found here

There are about 12 courses (36 credits) in an MBA program, depending on which university you enroll. The typical requirement is taking 12 three-credit courses over four academic semesters, taking 2 years full-time to complete an MBA. Some students may also elect to complete an MBA part-time, which will take longer than usual. The typical time it takes for a student to complete an MBA while attending part-time is around 3 to 4 years. 

The CFA program, unlike the MBA, is a part-time program that students usually undertake while working full-time. Candidates either study before work (early birds), during breaks at work (efficient employees), or after work (night owls). It is generally challenging to find the time during the day to study for a CFA for those working a full-time job. 

There are specific registration dates for all three exams, and if a CFA candidate were to pass all three exams on the first try (fastest possible), it would take 18 months. However, according to the CFA Institute, it takes on average 4 to 5 years to complete the CFA exams. 

One more thing to note is that completing the CFA exams does not make you automatically eligible for a CFA charter. One must also complete the work experience requirements, which are having at least 4,000 hours of work experience completed in 36 months. This experience must be directly related to the investment decision-making process or producing a product that informs or adds value to that process. 

This experience must be earned before, during, or after participating in the CFA program.

Along with course duration, another important factor to consider is the time spent studying for these designations. For an MBA, the recommended amount of time students is told to study is around 10 to 15 hours weekly, equating to around 1,040 to 1,560 hours of study across the 2-year program. 

CFA vs MBA: Time Commitment

However, for the CFA, the recommended amount of time to study per exam is around 300 hours. In fact, according to CFA Institute's recent 2019 candidate survey, the average time students spent studying for each exam was

  • Level I: 303 hours
  • Level II: 328 hours
  • Level III: 344 hours

Therefore, on average, students spend around 975 hours studying for all three exams, with an average of 323 hours per exam.

Both the MBA and CFA programs require a significant time commitment, and candidates must account for this while choosing between either program.

The costs of doing either program may be why an individual might choose the CFA over the MBA due to the extremely high costs of completing an MBA.

An MBA is among the most expensive degrees a student can pursue. And for a good reason. It teaches various subjects in the field of business and management to mold future managers and entrepreneurs. It also provides practical training, a prized network of intelligent and accomplished individuals, access to top recruiters, and much more.

CFA Vs. MBA: Costs

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has broken down the first-year budget for their MBA program, a top 10 US MBA program, which costs around $115,464. The cost includes

  • Tuition and Fees ($83,230)
  • Room and Board ($21,720)
  • Books, Supplies, and Miscellaneous ($6,640)
  • Health Insurance ($3,874)

You can read more on this here.

Therefore, the total cost of obtaining an MBA from Wharton, a 2-year course, would be around $230,928, making it out of reach for many students. 

Also, unlike the CFA, most MBA candidates leave the workforce to focus entirely on obtaining their MBA. This means we must also factor in the opportunity cost of obtaining an MBA, which is 2 years' worth of foregone income. To be conservative with the calculation, $70,000 will be used as the average after-tax income of an MBA candidate before leaving the workforce to pursue the program full-time. 

That equates to $140,000 of foregone income in opportunity cost. This brings the total cost of the MBA program to around $370,000, with $230,000 of that being out-of-pocket expenses.

CFA vs MBA: Costs

On the other hand, the CFA is a much cheaper alternative to the MBA. When a candidate registers for the CFA program, there will be a one-time enrollment fee of $450. There is then an exam fee every time you sit an exam, which may vary depending on when you register for the exam. These are:

  • Early bird registration fee: $700
  • Standard registration fee: $1,000

As the average candidate will take 5 exams before passing all three levels, the average cost, including the enrollment fee, ranges from $3,950 to $5,450, depending on when you register for your exams.

However, most students also purchase notes and enroll in classes to understand the material better, which might add to the cost of completing the program.

Extra costs for an MBA

When comparing the two programs regarding their costs, CFA is the clear winner, being much cheaper to obtain than an MBA. However, this number may change due to individual circumstances, such as which school you decide to pursue your MBA program or whether you decide to purchase materials to study the CFA.

CFA vs. MBA: Salary

The salaries of professionals in the workforce are highly dependent on the job, the experience of the professional, the size of the company, job location, and the professional's performance. This is why it isn't easy to directly compare the average salary of a CFA charterholder and an MBA graduate. However, one of the main reasons for pursuing these designations is the salary increase that may come with it. 

CFA Vs MBA: Salary

As the CFA program is heavily focused on finance, particularly in investments and wealth management, they may earn higher salaries due to their bonus. The average salary of CFA charterholders is $180,000 as per the CFA Institute website

On the other hand, the pay range after an MBA is tough to quantify. For example, completing an MBA from a top-tier program might bag you $100,000 to $150,000, while a not-so-top-tier one might not improve compensation levels at all. Hence, it is essential to compare apples to apples based on where you are looking to apply.

If you need help figuring it out, please refer to our company database, which has salary details across many different universities.

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CFA vs MBA: Salary

Hence, the comparison in terms of salary is highly dependent on your career path, the school you choose to pursue an MBA from, and your seniority.

CFA vs. MBA for Private Equity?

Private Equity (PE) is an alternative investment class, focusing only on private companies (i.e., firms that are not traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange [NYSE] or other exchanges). The PE industry is composed of large funds (equity and/or debt) that directly invest in and purchase private companies. Typically, PE firms engage in leveraged buyouts (LBOs), and these deals tend to be medium-term investments.

Now, what if you wanted to get into PE? Many people in the financial industry have conflicting ideas about whether to take the CFA or the MBA to further their career within private equity. So which one is the best one to take? Although there is no one clear answer to this question, there are different advantages in taking one designation over the other it aims to land a position in this industry.

CFA vs MBA for Private Equity?

A major requirement in trying to land a job in PE is networking, networking, and networking. Therefore, growing your network is extremely important as these networks might be able to connect you to people in your targeted firm. 

This gives an incredible advantage to MBA candidates, as they obtain access to a vast network of professionals, significantly larger than that provided to CFA charterholders. In fact, according to JobSearchDigest.com, 41% of people landed a job in private equity because of their network.

CFA Vs. MBA: Landing a job

Further, an MBA allows you to be connected with top-tier recruiters trying to headhunt star students.

Another thing to note is that although the content in the CFA curriculum is quite vast, it doesn't give you practical experience on how to build models, which is what most of the junior and mid-level professionals at PE firms do.

For a career in PE, MBA is hands down the go-to designation.

CFA vs. MBA for Investment Banking?

Many people wonder if a CFA or an MBA is the right investment for their future. Some say that an MBA will give them a 'better' chance of gaining an investment banking (IB) job, while others insist that they should go for a CFA.

While both education options are valuable, each has its pros and cons. It all depends on your goals in the long run and what you feel you can achieve through either option.

So, how to decide which one is best suited for you? 

Investment Banking is essentially a sales position requiring business and marketing skills to reach the top. It is all about building financial models at the junior levels quickly and efficiently. The CFA designation, unfortunately, does not cater to these skills. 

However, an MBA might help you progress in an IB environment, as it gives access to a vast network of professionals required to succeed in the field and the technical skills needed as part of case study lessons. 

CFA vs MBA for Investment Banking?

Hence, once again, it is no doubt that pursuing an MBA will open the doors to progressing in this career path and is a no-brainer when compared to a CFA charter.

Should I complete both the CFA and the MBA designations?

Many professionals are skeptical about whether they should do an MBA or a CFA. However, these two different paths can really help you in your career if you decide to take either one of them. It is essential to consider your personal goals before deciding which path is best for you. But what about completing both designations? Is there an advantage to completing both programs rather than just one?

Again, it depends on your individual circumstances. For some, taking both programs is just too much time and money. The MBA takes 2 years when completed full-time, with 1040 to 1560 hours of study and a total cost of $370,000, including opportunity cost from lost revenue. Those who would also like to pursue the CFA must be much more committed than the average candidate and effectively manage their time, and afford the extremely high costs of pursuing both programs. 

Added to this is the fact that they cater to two different groups of people. While the CFA curriculum caters to portfolio managers and investment advisors, MBA is catered to those looking for sales or business management positions.

Should I complete both the CFA and the MBA designations?

With that being said, pursuing and obtaining both designations may give you an extremely competitive edge compared to other candidates, as you possess the skills and network provided by both programs. 

Although it may be too time-consuming to complete both separately, the concept of combined programs at various universities makes it more practical. In addition, business schools incorporate multiple aspects of the CFA curriculum so that students can complete the majority of the CFA requirements while completing their MBA program.

While this reduces the time commitment had they been done separately, it should be noted that the cost remains the same, and you would be paying for both courses.

Completing and MBA and CFA is always a success

Therefore, the decision to pursue both designations entirely depends on individual circumstances. While both designations will be a significant boost to your CV, the choice of getting one over the other must be well thought of in terms of cost, time commitment, and career ambitions. We hope this guide helps make your decision-making process easier.

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More Resources

To keep advancing your career, the additional resources below will be useful: