Through sheer (read, brutal) discipline and some luck, I was able to pass all three levels of the CFA programme. Honestly, the course isn’t rocket science. The daunting task is really to cover the entire syllabus – six textbooks per level – and then remember the contents at least until you are through with the exams.
The journey is nothing short of plain agony. A typical day for me while I was juggling work with the CFA was: getting up at 6.00am to study for a couple of hours, revising some more during my commute, working for the next nine hours or so (stealing a little bit of CFA time whenever I could), and then back to studying at home again.
Weekends weren’t exactly something I looked forward to because most of my time was spent pouring over notes and end-of-chapter assessment questions, and of course trying to recall the concepts I had learnt during the week, least they got lost alongside the new chapters I was concurrently feeding into my brain.
I wasn’t working in a big organisation at that time, and getting a CFA designation was more like a personal goal than something my company endorsed. This meant no sponsorship, no study leave and no understanding bosses. In short: nobody cared.
The CFA can be a lonely journey, especially if you are not working in the finance industry while you’re doing it. My colleagues who had not heard about the CFA did not appreciate the rigidity of the course. Thankfully though, my job then was not demanding and I was able to properly manage my study and work priorities. Even so, my social life took a bad hit and it’s never really recovered from the “CFA side effect”.
Was it worth it?
After all the pain you go through, does the CFA really pay off? I’ll say yes and no. If you are looking for a broad understanding of finance, then it is the perfect course to take. If you are looking for something specialised, then it is just a touch-and-go syllabus that you can do without.
The thing is, how many of us really have a job that covers all aspect of finance? Many front-office roles like investment banking and corporate finance probably make use of just 10 per cent of the entire course, most of which is covered by any undergraduate corporate finance module.
Many people I know stopped partway through the CFA, after passing level one, thinking that would be a good-enough way to gain entry into the front office. Others simply followed the bandwagon (aka take the exam) without really knowing whether it will pay off, or even whether financial services is a career they are suitable for.
What about the positives? Well, I have to admit, after being able to write “passed all three levels of the CFA exams” in my resume, looking for jobs seems slightly easier. In recent times I’ve been getting faster responses from recruiters. Some of them specified that they are looking for the CFA credentials, so completing the exams show a certain level of technical understanding and the perseverance to see things through. But that is the extent of the benefits. Many other factors play a more important role in determining whether you eventually get the job.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, would I choose to take the programme again? Probably not. It simply doesn't justify the effort. Learning should be a rewarding journey in itself, as sad as this may sound. My three years of mugging for the CFA has taken away all the joy. Completing the course just meant achieving closure on a task.
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