1. I signed up for the CFA Level 1 last week and have begun studying through Wiley. What would you recommend is the best way to structure your study plan leveraging Wiley’s CFA Review Course resources?

It’s simple: read the study guides, attend the virtual classes, answer the questions in the test bank.

This is boring what I’m about to tell you. Much like a gym workout. You want to start by reading the Wiley CFA Study Guides, which are basically a condensed version of the CFAI readings.

Basit, who created the Wiley CFA Study Guides, felt there was something needed in the market that was more in-depth than other review providers but not so dense that you get lost in the details. When you read the study guides, it’s going to take you a while so you need to plan accordingly.

The second thing, come to class. Classes are from 9 am to noon ET on Saturdays. Show up and join the party. For Levels I and II, it will be Olinto and myself tag-teaming; we try to keep it focused and fun. You’re definitely in for a ride.

In those virtual classes, we don’t cover everything. We try to cover the topics that students have historically had heartburn with or fundamental concepts that can’t be missed.

And then you take your protein, just like a workout, meaning you go into the test bank. You want to work on those test bank questions shortly after class so you don’t lose the content you’ve just learned.

You can set up your own CFA exam study plan using the Exam Planner in the Wiley CFA Review Course.

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2. I’m now 30. Is it still worth it for me to gain a CFA charter? I’m wondering if it’s too late for my age.

I’m picking up what you’re laying down, but make no mistake that the CFA program is “age agnostic”. If you want to achieve any of the following objectives listed here:

  1. Develop a comprehensive investment perspective
  2. Gain fluency in practical investment analysis and management skills
  3. Earn credibility with industry peers
  4. Become part of a global community of top industry professionals
  5. Gain the flexibility to work in any market
  6. Are sought out by top industry employers
  7. Demonstrate a commitment to ethics and professional standards

Then the designation is right for you. But here’s the challenge (and very well what is underlying your question), as we get older–as a general rule–we tend to have more life commitments/events that “hijack” our best laid out study plans.

So more seasoned candidates would be well-advised to:

1. Start earlier (build a nice cushion in case a life event pops up; marriage, new job, etc.)

2. Stolen and modified from “The Little Prince”, with love and patience… nothing is impossible: be patient and flexible with spouse/children when in the state of high anxiety the CFA program can be; ask them to give you a wide berth as well.

3. Be up-front with your family in friends. Let them know that it is important for you. The finance world is stressful; we feel the CFA program matches this intensity… to weed out folks early on. Be ready for it. The biggest hurdle I have heard from candidates is the lack of understanding in terms of the rigor of the CFA program. Many a time a candidate has told me that their partner can’t understand why they have to study so much for JUST one exam. And when we fail, they can be even less supportive: “You put in 300 hours… why couldn’t you pass??”

3. I already hold an MBA and work in Corporate Finance. What will be the synergy between the MBA and CFA together?

One of the things I’ve heard is that when you go for the MBA, you go for the connections and the brand. It sounds like since you’re already in Corporate Finance, you’ve leveraged that network, so good on you.

Depending on when you got your MBA, and if your MBA had an emphasis in finance, there could be some synergies, like the financial modeling skills that we teach in the CFA program. It might give you insights into different approaches that were in effect when you got your MBA. There might be some new stuff that you can glean too.

Working in corporate North America, with the typical slash and burn mentality, and having the CFA designation is not a bad backup plan. If you wanted to pivot into asset management, then you need to have at least cleared the first Level of the CFA exam and have the CIM, both.  Another option, if you’ve cleared all three Levels of the CFA, is you can manage the assets of a client.

Basically, in your case, the argument isn’t quite as strong unless there are other factors, such as how secure you feel in your job, whether you’re bored in your job, whether you want the added challenge, that sort of thing. I get a lot of engineers who take up the CFA exam because they like the challenge. Instead of going for an MBA, they go for a CFA. The old joke is that an MBA takes your money and the CFA program takes your time. It really takes your leg out! People understand it’s a robust program. The value of the designation is there because of it.

Both the CFA charter and an MBA program offer benefits that can advance your career. While there are some similarities between the two, there are a few key differences.

Examine the chart on the CFAI website to consider which education is more aligned to your career goals.

4. Can you speak to the future value and outlook for the charter?  I have colleagues who say it’s “not worth it” due to the rise in automation, passive investing, etc. I would love to hear your thoughts.

That’s a good question. The way the CFAI put together their curriculum is they send their people out in the industry. They reach out and they poll people in the industry asking, “what would you want a recently minted charterholder to know to be effective in their job?”

The CFA curriculum is changing all the time. 40% of the Level III curriculum is changing next year, and it changed 40% just two years ago. What typically happens is content at Level III kind of makes its’ way down to Level II and I. And then you have things like ESG and Fintech that just came in to Level I and II a couple of years ago.

Those readings keep changing for AI and big data and things like that. I foresee with the move to online exams, within 3-5 years, we’re going to be coding in Python. This is just my speculating though. That would give employers want they want from new charterholders.

Many years ago, CFA designation was declared as the gold standard by The Economist. It has a very good reputation for standard-setting in terms of what a graduate should have. I don’t see the popularity diluting.

If you look at the CPA designation, the value has never gone down, even though there’s a threat from automation, maybe even more in accounting than in finance. Accounting has always been, and always will be, a stable and noble profession.

I see finance the same, it’s just that finance has more upward potential if I’m honest. Not only that, I find finance is a little bit more interesting than accounting. I think CPAs and CFA charterholders are going to be around for a long time and I don’t see the value going down.

If you decide to pick this up and run with it, I think you’re going to be very glad you did.

Get more expert advice and essential insights on becoming a CFA from Darren Degraaf in our recent webinar.

5. Do I need to start CFA within the first year after graduating with a bachelor or can we complete it a couple of years later?

I understand why you’re asking (as I tend to encourage students quite strongly to write in their 4th year), but there is no such requirement – but, once again, I do tend to encourage students to write in their final year (to the extent they can)… which means they may want to take summer courses (assuming they are available) in 2nd/3rd years to lighten the load in the final year – so tackling the Level I exam is more manageable.

6. Have you seen people work in some of the job roles that were listed earlier after passing the Level I exam?

To be frank, not usually after clearing Level I – but more so after clearing Level II. That seems to be the “tipping point”. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that employers feel that the student didn’t just get lucky after clearing the first exam and have clearly shown an interest AND commitment to the finance industry by clearing the second exam.

7. Do you think mixing CFA with other certificates such as FRM, CAIA, CIPM & CIMA worthy or just only an additional title for the prestige?

I liken the CFA designation to the “main dish” and FRM, CAIA, CIPM & CIM would be like the dessert. Anyone I know who has FRM or CAIA, also has the CFA and they took the CFA first.

8. Is a master’s in quantitative finance better than a CFA?

For a master’s in quantitative finance, data science, or financial engineering, those degrees are so good because presumable you’re learning many different coding languages. It would be comparable to a CFA and even more technical.

Not only would it be comparable with the CFA, and maybe even more technical and give you more hard skills, it’s also a good backup plan.

9. Is an MBA comparable with a CFA?

Do your research. If you’re going for an MBA, you’d best go to a really good school. If you go to an Ivy League school or something close to that, you have a one-way ticket to Wall Street.

If you’re in Canada, you’d better go to a school on the east coast like Queens or UFT. This will give you a connection to Bay Street, which is the Canadian equivalent to Wall Street.

Both the CFA charter and an MBA program offer benefits that can advance your career. While there are some similarities between the two, there are a few key differences. Examine the chart on the CFAI website to consider which education is more aligned to your career goals.

10. Darren, do you personally teach these courses or are they video lectures?

I present the recorded bite-sized videos in the course and I also teach live, virtual classes. Olinto, Hetherington and I rotate teaching synchronous, live classes online. I also hold live office hours.

11. What work experience qualifies for the hours needed for the CFA designation after passing all the Levels?

Some students get really focused on the work experience requirement even though they’re just starting the program. Be careful what you ask for. If you’re in a job that’s not too demanding and not related to finance, maybe try to clear Level 1 as a first step.

As you clear the Levels, you’re more likely to get jobs in the relevant area and therefore satisfy the work experience requirement.

Some people think that they want to have accumulated the four years of experience by the time they clear all three Levels, and while I understand that notion, I think it’s an amateur move. Play the long game.

Don’t expect to finish in three years. If you do, that’s great but if you don’t, that’s totally normal. It’s also normal for students who finish in three years not to have all the work experience.

Visit https://www.cfainstitute.org/membership/apply/work-experience-self-assessment for an easy-to-use tool that will guide you through what is considered relevant work experience.

12. For you, what industry was the most fun to work in? What career path allows for a fulfilling career as well as having a healthy work/life balance? Most accountants I know,especially managers live at work, i.e. 50-80 hours a week.

I have worked in various financial services roles that were all stimulating in their own way (insurance, finance, asset management, risk management). What I enjoyed the most about working for the insurance company was the fact that it was a start-up that was funded by a large bank.

That gave us some autonomy and the management of the subsidiary was focused on “top line” sales and therefore was quite liberal in terms of spending on its employees.

When working in the investment division (back in the wild-wild west days of the late 90s/early 2000s – think Enron and the associated fall of Arthur Anderson, Bre-Xs gold scandal, Worldom, Tyco, etc.) and the fact that the entire back office team was south of 30 years old, I enjoyed the easy-going atmosphere and the relaxed approach to spending money on its employees (mind you the bonus pool in the back office where I worked paled in comparison to the front/mid office [sales/investment “t”]).

Risk management was also fun – as in the mid-2000s, the Basel Accord came into effect, so our department went from 4 to 40 people in a short time.

What I didn’t enjoy in my career was working for a company when the industry was mature. It was very steady, very predictable, very boring (which was finance). There wasn’t much movement in the office, and many folks complained that when new jobs came up that they took more qualified (CPAs) who were also external candidates.

But the worst was working in a division that was in decline. Expense accounts come under more scrutiny. Politics come into play. Not fun.

I also enjoyed working “off the side of my desk” for some smaller (regional) exam prep providers in the educational space – and that was a lot of fun because you got to work with the owner. I got to do many things beyond my loose job description (CFA training) and got involved in things such as business development and training-the-trainers.

Watch the Free Webinar: Should I Become a CFA? Yes, and Here’s How. Presented by Darren Degraaf, CFA, CPA (US), CMA, PRM, and Wiley instructor

13. Do you need to have permanent residency in the country where you are writing the CFA exam?

I believe the answer is “no”, but you should check with CFAI to be sure. We had students years ago In India who were writing in Singapore and Nepal.

You can check the most current enrollment and criteria requirements for the CFA Program here: https://www.cfainstitute.org/en/programs/cfa/charter/.

14. Let’s say a person completed the CFA exams 8 years ago. If the curriculum changes quite a bit over this time, won’t this person’s CFA knowledge become obsolete and a hindrance in getting adjusted to a new environment?

That would be true – however, that would not stop the unapologetically curious nature of most of my colleagues who have taken up the CFA Program to separate themselves from the herd by adopting a philosophy of lifelong learning.

15. Does Loan Officer work experience at a retail bank count for the CFA program work requirement?

You’d have to confirm with the Institute, but I do believe it would – for such a role supports the investment-decision making function of the bank.

But to play it safe, I would advise you to try your best to move over to the commercial side, as the risk-based scoring models and what not are more based on individual (company) fundamentals than retail banking.

16. How relevant do you think the CFA designation is to break into AM, I-Banking, and Management Consulting?

Although it is becoming more common to pursue the CFA designation in this space, the pedigree of most applicants for these exotic/higher-paying jobs tends to be of the “Ivy League” variety.

So, building on that, if you’re seriously planning on gaining entry into a “bulge bracket” firm, then roll up your sleeves, get an uber-high GMAT/GRE score and apply to the top schools.

17. Do we need reference letters from different employers?

Not necessarily, for my part, I got my boss (at the time) plus a CFA charterholder. That cut the mustard for the Institute.

You can check the most current CFA Institute membership application resources at https://www.cfainstitute.org/en/membership/apply/resources.

18. Can a first-year university student start learning for the first test? Or is it limited that only final-year students can start?

I love your enthusiasm – but, unfortunately, you will need to wait until you are effectively in your final (4th) year. Here’s an example: let’s say you plan to graduate in the late winter/early spring of 2023. You could write in the late spring/summer of 2022, with the expectation that you would graduate within 1 year of having written your first exam.

In my humble opinion, a smart move for a savvy student would be to write in August of 2022 (presumably after having finished final exams from the winter/spring semester by the mid/end of April).

Assuming a not-too-demanding co-op/internship or what have you, this would set up a student nicely in terms of having the opportunity to log some 300 hours ahead of the August sitting.

And then after graduating in 2023, one could then apply for job stating that they are a Level II candidate (after registering for the Level II exam, of course).

Want more information on becoming a CFA? Be sure to watch the free webinar on the topic. This free 1-hour information session talks about why become a CFA Charterholder, how it will distinguish your career, and the steps to becoming one. The last 30 minutes feature a lively Q&A session and Darren answers more than a dozen other questions from CFA candidates.