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What Is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)?

Two CFAs analyzing financial data

A chartered financial analyst (CFA) is a certification offered by the CFA Institute and a title for those who have earned this certification. Getting a CFA charter requires several exams and can be difficult. However, the CFA designation is highly respected in the investing and corporate finance world, making it a lucrative goal for many young professionals. 

In this guide, we’ll go over:

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What Do CFAs Do?

A chartered financial analyst, or CFA, has received a CFA certification from the CFA institute. In general, a financial analyst makes decisions on how to spend money to maximize profits, be it through stock market investments or mergers and acquisitions (M&A)

As of 2022, the CFA Institute reports over 175,000 CFAs worldwide working in 160 different markets, and this charter is highly sought after by finance professionals and the companies they work for.  

“The CFA charter is instant credibility within the industry,” says Rick Nott, CFA and senior wealth adviser at LourdMurray. 

This certification shows the holder has a deep understanding of economics, investment management, financial analysis, and the ethics surrounding investing. Additionally, the charter provides a foundation of quantitative skills, financial knowledge, and analytical thinking. As such, the day-to-day of a CFA’s job will differ depending on the type of finance career they have. For example, while a research analyst may focus on examining data to aid investment decisions, other roles are more client-focused. 

“I spend most of my day talking to people about their personal, financial, and business problems,” says Nott about his work in wealth management. 

Where Do CFAs Work?

The CFA exams cover a broad range of topics, preparing charterholders to work in virtually any area of financial services. For example, some CFAs may work for large investment banking companies focusing on raising capital and selling securities (like stocks or bonds). Others move into management accounting and handle budgeting and financial planning for clients and businesses. 

Typical Roles for CFA Charterholders 

Some job titles a CFA holder may have include: 

  • Portfolio manager: manages investment portfolios for individual clients and large organizations
  • Risk analyst: assesses the risks associated with business and investing decisions for a company or client
  • Account manager: maintains relationships with clients and assists them with any issues to ensure client retention and satisfaction
  • Investment banker: advises and facilitates large-scale transactions and investments, including mergers and initial public offerings (IPOs)
  • Accountant: records, tracks, reports, and assess financial documents for organizations and tax filings 

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CFA Salaries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary in 2021 for financial and investment analysts was $103,020. The BLS also reports that the highest 10% of financial analysts may earn more than $160,000. However, these statistics can be misleading since not every financial analyst has a CFA certification. 

The CFA Institute conducted a compensation study in 2019, which found that the median pay for CFA charterholders in 2018 was $177,000, including base salary, commission, and bonuses. Additionally, having a CFA designation can be a stepping stone to more senior positions at higher pay grades. For example, a financial analyst with a CFA and a few years of experience may be able to move into a financial management role. 

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How to Become a Chartered Financial Analyst

Education and Experience

To qualify for the CFA exams, you need a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. Students close to graduation may be able to take the first exam (called Level I), but they can’t take the second test until after graduation. 

There is an alternative to a degree, though, in the form of work experience. Seasoned professionals with 4,000 hours of work experience in at least three years can use this to qualify for the exams. This work experience doesn’t need to be finance- or investment-related, either. 

However, 4,000 hours of relevant investment work experience is required to apply for CFA Institute membership. CFA Institute membership is required for all charterholders. These hours can be completed before, during, or following the exams, and the details of this work need to be self-reported to the CFA Institute alongside two to three professional references. Additionally, all work experience for qualifying for exams and applying for membership is ultimately subject to approval by the CFA Institute. 

CFA Exams

The CFA exams are updated annually to ensure the content is well-aligned with current industry standards. While each test has a specific topic or focus area, all tests also cover ethics. In general, the topics for each exam are: 

  • First exam or Level I: asset valuation, financial reporting and analysis, and portfolio management
  • Second exam or Level II: in-depth focus on asset valuation and its tools and inputs, such as economics, financial reporting, and quantitative analysis
  • Third exam or Level III: concentration on portfolio management and using asset valuation models to assess and manage investments for investors

These exams are notoriously tough and have a surprisingly low pass rate. According to Bloomberg, only 29% of test takers passed the Level II exam in August of 2021, marking a record low. 

To maximize chances of success, students should “study consistently, and take a lot of CFA practice tests,” advises Doug Carey, CFA and president at WealthTrace. “Make sure you are truly ready for the countless hours of studying you will need to become a CFA charterholder.” 

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Pros and Cons of a CFA Career

ProsCons
FlexibilityDifficult to achieve
Respected designationHigh-stakes
OpportunitiesCompetitive industry

One of the most significant benefits of gaining a CFA charter is how widely applicable it is — the skills learned by earning this certification can lead in many directions, especially when combined with other specialized skill sets.

For example, Carey notes, “being a CFA gave me a lot of flexibility when combined with my knowledge of statistics, quantitative analysis, and computer programming.”

Additionally, the charter inevitably leads to more opportunities and higher positions because it is so well-respected. 

“It not only shows you have learned a lot about important financial topics, it shows that you are motivated and capable of taking things to the finish line,” adds Carey. 

However, earning a CFA credential takes work. 

“It has a way of challenging your intellectual confidence and your desire to become a financial professional,” says Nott. You have to be dedicated to this goal and push through any challenges, and even once you’ve earned a CFA charter, working in finance has its drawbacks. 

“Finance is an industry where the little details really matter, sometimes quite a bit,” says Nott. As a result, there isn’t very much room for error, which can be stressful. The work is high-stakes, too. CFAs are responsible for handling a lot of money and overseeing large-scale transactions — one small mistake could ultimately be financially devastating for a client. 

Additionally, finance is simply a highly competitive industry. Everyone is hungry to succeed, and that success requires keeping up with trends, learning new skills, and expanding your network to source bigger and better opportunities. 

Skills for Chartered Financial Analysts

Passing the CFA exams and excelling in a finance career takes a wide range of hard and soft skills. You need the technical abilities to handle financial modeling and data analysis, but you also need the drive to tackle the stress of exams and the industry. 

“You must be well-organized, disciplined, and motivated,” says Carey about preparing for CFA exams. 

Other essential skills for prospective CFAs include:

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Similar Career Paths

Obtaining a CFA charter is just one option for finance professionals — there are many other certifications available, many of which can be combined with a CFA to show a broader range of skills. 

“Combining a CFA and a CFP [certified financial planner designation] is an amazing one-two punch that can really open doors and set you apart, especially in the financial adviser industry,” says Carey.

Some CFAs may also choose to get a certified public accountant (CPA) or certified management accountant (CMA) designation to transition into accounting for large firms and organizations. 

Other careers in finance to consider: 

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