Is becoming a full CFA Charterholder actually a waste of time?

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Today's CFA Level III exam result day. Be warned that they may be late: when results came out for the CFA Level I and II exams last month, some people complained they never received them by email and had to login to the CFA's own site (which initially crashed) to find out their fate.  At the time, the CFA Institute blamed "anti-spamming techniques used by major email clients such as Google." This may not happen today - only 20% of those sitting exams in June typically sit level III, so results day is more manageable, but still.

Even if Level III results are on time, angst is inevitable. CFA Level I is a multiple choice paper, so the answers are cut and dried. Similarly, the set questions in the Level II paper don't leave much room for subjectivity when it comes to marking. However, because CFA Level III is free-form and answers take the form of mini-essays, passing and failing is down to the foibles of whoever marks your essays. This can be frustrating. At 54%, the pass rate for CFA Level III is higher than for the other two exams, but 46% of people still fail. 

If you're in the 46% today, you might be inclined to wonder whether it's all worth it. After all, it takes 900 hours (at least) to pass all three levels of the CFA. Becoming a CFA Charterholder will cost you dear in lost social and family time, but will it really make a difference to your finance career? Not necessarily. We spoke to a selection of finance professionals who've slogged their way through. They're not all enthusiasts.

The leveraged finance professional: "I don't regret it, but it wasn't worth it"

"Gaining the Charter wasn't easy. I became a Charterholder seven yeas ago after passing every level the first time. I was working full-time whilst taking the qualifications and wasn’t sponsored by my employer. I studied long hours, both at the weekends and before and after work. I was lucky though – I know people who paid for expensive evening classes and had to take each level twice!

And now? On the basis of career prospects alone, I’d say the exams aren’t worth the effort. I’ve been out of work for 12 months and being a Charterholder seems to have made no difference to my prospects. Many people seem to see the CFA Charter as some kind of Holy Grail, but they’re mistaken.

This lack of recognition for the CFA Charter might have something to do with the fact that I’m based in London. There seems to be minimal recognition of its value in Europe. In London, people are more interested in whether you studied at Oxford, Cambridge or the London School of Economics than whether you’re a Charterholder. And if you want to future-proof your career in the City it makes more sense to take the ACA exams – believe me, there are always jobs for ACA qualified accountants in London. I suspect that the CFA Charter is more worthwhile if you’re working in America, or in wealth management in Asia.

This doesn’t mean that I regret becoming a Charterholder entirely. As with any marathon, you need to take joy in the journey itself. Studying the qualification has given me a pretty good veneer of financial knowledge and culture, and I get some pretty interesting newspapers and magazines from the CFA Institute in return for my membership fee.

If I had my time again though, I’m not sure I’d bother with the CFA. In my case, it’s been a bit of a waste of time and money. I’d have been better off learning a new language like German instead – it would have taken a lot less time and actually enhanced my job prospects in Europe."

The risk manager: "Getting the Charter was a slog and it hasn't enabled the career change I'd hoped for"

"Having the CFA Charter is definitely an advantage: it adds credibility and is a signal of competence. However, I was hoping to use the charter to move into asset management and so far that hasn't worked out. I feel like that Charter will only enable this move if I combine it with heavy networking and intense job hunting, which is hard when I'm holding down a full-time job.

In retrospect, studying for the Charter was also incredibly tough. When I was a CFA candidate, I focused very hard on studying and that probably delayed me from actually progressing in my current role. Nonetheless - and even though what I learned in the CFA isn't relevant for risk management, it has made me a better risk manager and investor overall.

By studying for the CFA Charter I discovered new areas of interest and found the motivation to pursue them. I believe I gained a lot from it and I don't regret doing it. Yes, it seems to have been worthwhile - but only the future will really tell if that's really the case!"

The fixed income portfolio manager and CFA Level 1 teacher: "The CFA Charter was very worthwhile and makes you stand out in the job market"

"The CFA Charter isn't just about acquiring Masters level knowledge by studying for the CFA exams. It's also about attending events which increase your understanding of financial markets in the broadest sense, networking, and becoming more attractive to employers because of your proven experience and obvious interest in finance.

The CFA exams really helped me at the start of my career as a junior portfolio manager with limited understanding of corporate bonds and little knowledge of financial markets. The networking events have also been very useful. Once I gained my charter, I started to volunteer at the CFA Society as a board member and instructor for new students and this forced me to keep up to date with new developments in asset management.

I'm current in the process of moving to Seattle and holding a CFA Charter has helped me here too. Thanks to my membership of the CFA Society, I've made some very good networking contacts that I think would have been very difficult to otherwise get. In terms of finding a job, having the Charter makes you stand out in the job market. - In future, I think you'll need it just to make sure that you stand out negatively - it'll be a kind of baseline of competence.

Do I use everything I learned? Nope. Would I do it again? I think so."


Photo credit: Grand Central with 42.5 F1.2 Len by Wasabi Bob is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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