MBA vs. CFA: Benefits, Salary and Which to Choose

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Business Administration

Finance professional sits at a desk with a calculator.

The financial sphere has several paths for career advancement, leaving professionals to weigh the various options to expand their opportunities. Many pursue a Master of Business Administration in finance to gain additional skills and knowledge, while others opt for focused certification programs like the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. There’s some overlap between the options, but the decision generally depends on professional objectives and the defining factors of each experience.

Here’s a look at a MBA vs. CFA. Learn which of these finance education options is right for your career goals.

The benefits of an MBA

Business school provides graduates with a broad knowledge of core business concepts, as well as the opportunity to focus the learning through concentration programs. The rigorous curriculum requires a high level of dedication, instilling a strong sense of work ethic that appeals to potential employers.

What’s more, students can connect with like-minded peers and respected faculty to build strong, supportive networks. Many graduate schools also have widespread alumni networks that graduates can lean on for advice and professional connections.

Investopedia notes that finance professionals who are interested in management roles at large companies will generally benefit from the broad business knowledge developed through an MBA program. The typical career path after MBA finance programs leads professionals to pursue senior positions such as:

  • Finance manager
  • Senior financial analyst
  • Finance controller
  • Finance director
  • VP of finance
  • Chief financial officer

These high-level positions also increase earning potential. According to data from PayScale, the average salary for business professionals with an MBA in finance is $96,000.

The benefits of a CFA

The CFA certification is more niche than an MBA, providing charterholders with specialized skills like investment analysis, financial reporting and analysis, portfolio strategy, asset allocation and wealth planning. Unlike a traditional degree program, the CFA is a self-study program, which means candidates don’t have to commit to a classroom setting.

The CFA is ideal for candidates who know the kind of financial career they would like to pursue. The traditional CFA career path generally leads charterholders to Wall Street, although investment management, equity research, corporate finance, risk management, investment banking and trading are the most common areas of interest. With such a renowned investment credential, charterholders often pursue positions such as:

  • Portfolio manager
  • Research analyst
  • Financial analyst
  • Risk manager
  • Finance regulator
  • Financial advisor or consultant

Depending on previous work experience, charterholders may also pursue chief-level executive positions. Data from PayScale suggests that a CFA can also increase earning potential: the average salary for finance professionals with a CFA is $81,769.

The factors to consider

Both an MBA and CFA can facilitate a fruitful career in the finance sector. Consider these factors as you weigh the pros and cons of each option:

Career aspirations: While there is certainly overlap in how business school graduates and charterholders apply their expertise, MBA programs are generally ideal for professionals who want to pursue management positions in any industry. A CFA designation suits professionals dedicated to working in the finance industry.

Desired skills: An MBA equips graduates with broad management abilities and transferable business knowledge, while a CFA provides charterholders with an in-depth knowledge of finance and related skills.

Study style: Whether online or on campus, MBA courses generally follow a more traditional learning model with lectures, discussions and projects. The CFA requires candidates to learn the rigorous material at their own pace without any formal classes.

Smart investment: These paths require different time and financial commitments. A full-time MBA program generally takes two years to complete at potentially steep costs. However, the enhanced business acumen, expanded network and advanced career opportunities can make the investment well worth the return. On the other hand, a CFA designation only requires exam fees. There are three sections of the exam, and candidates must complete each one before proceeding to the next. In that regard, they have control over how long it takes to complete the certification. Due to other requirements, such as completing qualified work experience and submitting letters of recommendation, the CFA Institute advised potential candidates to commit at least four years to the program to earn the full designation. Plus, most candidates spend an average of 300 hours studying for each level of the exam.

If you have an equal interest in both an MBA and a CFA, you may also consider earning both the degree and the certification. Having both on your resume can be especially valuable for pursuing corporate or executive finance roles. Plus, the two designations can qualify you for higher salaries and greater professional opportunities.

The final choice

Whether you choose to enroll in business school or register for the CFA exam, you’ll expand your skills and knowledge through a highly respected educational endeavor. Keep sight of your career goals and you’ll make the decision that best suits your personal preferences and professional needs.

If you decide that pursuing an MBA is the right move for you, consider the online degree program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. The core curriculum provides students with a foundational knowledge applicable across business environments, while the finance concentration courses hone their money management skills. The flexibility of online learning means you can even pursue your advanced degree while still gaining professional business experience in your current position.

Connect with an advisor to learn more about enrolling in the Smith Online MBA program.


Recommended Readings:

The specializations you can pursue with a University of Maryland Online MBA degree

Why an MBA is still the best investment you will ever make



Investopedia, MBA or CFA: Which Is Better for a Career in Finance?

WallStreetMojo, CFA vs MBA | 9 Essential Differences You Must Know!

Corporate Finance Institute, CFA vs MBA

CFA Institute, CFA Program

PayScale, Master of Business Administration (MBA), Finance Degree

PayScale, Salary for Certification: Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)