Be warned: if you embark on a CFA Charter, studying for the exams has the potential to eat up your mid-20s. Worse, it may do strange things to your head.
“I am completely burned out my head feels like a watermelon,” complains one CFA student on a popular financial services forum. Nor is he the only CFA-student to suffer – another candidate describes the process of preparing for the qualification as, “birthing the elephant” and the “worst 18 months of his life”. Elsewhere, a CFA candidate says he can only keep going by drinking seven cups of coffee and one can of Red Bull every day. “Life is miserable,” he reflects.
The problem with the CFA Charter and its three stage exam process, is that the exams are often taken by people in full-time finance jobs. Studying for the CFA must therefore take place at the end of the working day. Whilst your working day may in itself be hideous, it will therefore be overlaid with the horror of studying when you get home. When you’re a CFA candidate, your life will be work and study. And this can go on for years – especially if you fail (a statistical probability in light of the low pass rate) and retake. “Still putting in five hours every night after work and eight hours at least every Saturday and Sunday,” complains another candidate, “I am so bored of it.”
Should you bother with the CFA horror?
Is it worth spending your mid-20s in a darkened room for the sake of achieving a qualification that probably won’t increase your pay, but might make you look good – especially if you want to work in equity research or asset management. Feelings are mixed.
“I’m not really sure how useful just having Level I is,” says one financial services professional (speaking anonymously) who’s only passed Level I. “I guess it shows that you’re dedicated to learning about finance and have a good brain, but it hasn’t made that much difference to me.”
Louise Cooper, an independent financial analyst and former Goldman researcher, says Level I won’t do much good on its own. “Level I is meaningless,” she tells us. “It’s a brilliant qualification, but you need the full Charter.”
The problem is that the full Charter requires 900 hours of studying after work and at weekends. That’s often too much. “I can’t be bothered with Level II,” the anonymous finance professional told us. “I’ve got friends who’ve been through Level II and have failed Level III multiple times. It ends up just eating up your life and it’s not worth it.”
The real benefit of being a CFA Charterholder
And yet, Cooper argues that being a full CFA Charterholder (of which there are comparatively few) brings a huge benefit which is often overlooked: it stops you getting stuck in a career silo.
“What the CFA really does it to give you a very broad but very detailed knowledge of all areas of finance,” Cooper says. “And that makes it possible for you to move across areas into different jobs. For example, I started out in equities, but the CFA exams also taught me everything about bond pricing. It’s a brilliant qualification – far better than an MBA.”
Cooper also challenges the notion that passing all three levels of the CFA is akin to drinking a vat of onion juice. “It’s really hard work and it’s a lot of maths, but I passed all three levels first time,” she says. “I also did the last exam when I was eight months pregnant.”