What Is an MBA Degree?

CFA vs. MBA: Key Differences Between th…

CFA vs. MBA: Key Differences Between the Two Business Paths


Choosing between a CFA certification and an MBA can be a career-defining decision. It's a choice that has the power to shape your professional future. In this guide, we'll break down the differences and commonalities between these two paths, offering insights to help you navigate this pivotal crossroads with confidence.

What Is an MBA?

An MBA, or Master of Business Administration, is a graduate-level degree program offered by universities and business schools worldwide. It is designed to impart advanced knowledge and skills in diverse areas of business and management.

MBA programs cover fundamental business disciplines such as finance, marketing, operations management, and organizational behavior. They also delve into strategic management, leadership, entrepreneurship, ethics, global business, and offer various specializations.

Whether through full-time, part-time, executive, or online formats, MBAs equip students with a comprehensive understanding of the business world, preparing them for leadership roles in a variety of industries and sectors.

What Is the CFA?

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a prestigious and globally recognized professional designation offered by the CFA Institute, renowned for its reputation as one of the most challenging examinations worldwide.

The CFA signifies expertise in finance and investment and comprises three levels of exams covering topics such as ethics, quantitative methods, economics, financial analysis, corporate finance, equity and fixed-income investments, derivatives, alternative investments, and portfolio management.

Level I tests knowledge and comprehension, Level II assesses application and analysis, and Level III focuses on synthesis and application. Upon successfully completing all three levels and meeting work experience requirements, you can earn the CFA charter, demonstrating your proficiency in the financial industry.

Differences Between CFA vs MBA

CFA and MBA paths may appear similar, but they possess significant differences that influence your career trajectory and the skills you acquire. Below, we will delve into some of these differences while providing further insights into these two paths.

Career Goals

When it comes to career goals, the CFA vs MBA debate often boils down to specialization versus versatility.

Individuals pursuing an MBA typically aim for leadership positions that can span various industries, leveraging their adaptable business skills. MBA programs often offer specializations, such as finance, enabling graduates to pursue careers in investment banking, asset management, or equity research.

On the other hand, CFAs specialize in finance, making them highly competitive in finance-related roles from the outset. While both paths can lead to rewarding careers in these fields, MBAs offer a broader skill set and the ability to pivot into various roles and industries, while CFAs have a more focused career trajectory within the finance sector.

Some common roles for MBA graduates include:

  • Marketing Manager
  • Financial Analyst
  • Operations Manager
  • Management Consultant
  • Entrepreneur/Startup Founder

Common roles for CFA charter holders often include:

  • Portfolio Manager
  • Investment Analyst
  • Equity Research Analyst
  • Risk Manager
  • Hedge Fund Manager


The duration and time commitment for pursuing an MBA and a CFA can vary significantly, as they follow different formats and objectives:


  • Full-Time MBA. Typically takes 1 to 2 years of full-time study, requiring a significant time commitment during that period. Full-time MBA programs are immersive and often require a break from work.
  • Part-Time MBA. These programs are designed for working professionals and can take 2 to 5 years to complete, depending on the course load and schedule flexibility. Part-time MBAs allow you to work while studying.
  • Executive MBA (EMBA). Geared toward experienced professionals, EMBA programs typically span 1.5 to 2 years, with classes often held on weekends or in condensed formats. EMBA students can continue working while pursuing their degree.


  • The CFA program generally takes about 3 to 4 years to complete for most candidates.
  • Candidates typically spend an average of 300+ hours studying for each level of the CFA exams. This study time can vary depending on prior knowledge and study efficiency.
  • Many candidates prepare for the CFA exams while working full-time or part-time, which allows them to gain work experience simultaneously.

Entry Requirements

Entry requirements for an MBA typically include a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution, although specific academic prerequisites can vary. Many full-time MBA programs prefer candidates with several years of relevant work experience, along with standardized test scores like the GMAT or GRE, letters of recommendation, resumes or CVs, and essays outlining career goals. Some may also require interviews.

To enroll in the CFA Program and register for the Level I exam, candidates must meet specific entry requirements. These include having a bachelor's degree, being an undergraduate student with an exam window within 23 months or fewer before graduation, or having a combination of 4,000 hours of professional work experience and/or higher education achieved over a minimum of three sequential years by the date of Level I exam registration.


Pursuing a CFA certification typically involves lower direct costs, primarily comprising exam fees and study materials, while obtaining an MBA often entails higher direct expenses, encompassing tuition, living costs, and potential opportunity costs for full-time programs.

Let’s break down the main costs for each. For an MBA program, you can anticipate the following expenses:

  • Tuition Fees. MBA tuition fees can vary widely depending on the school, format (full-time, part-time, online), and location. Costs range from $30,000 to over $100,000 or more.
  • Living Expenses. Full-time MBA students often incur additional costs for living expenses, including rent, groceries, and daily needs. These expenses vary significantly depending on the location of the school.
  • Opportunity Cost. Full-time MBA students may need to consider the opportunity cost of not working during the program, which can be substantial in terms of lost income.
  • Study Materials. Similar to the CFA, MBA students may invest in study materials, textbooks, software, and prep courses, which can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

You should also budget for potential costs such as application fees, travel for networking events or internships, and other miscellaneous expenses. The total cost of an MBA program can range from $70,000 to well over $200,000, depending on various factors, including the school chosen, the program format, and individual circumstances.

For the CFA, you can expect the following expenses:

  • Enrollment Fee. There is a one-time enrollment fee of USD 350 when you first register for the CFA Program and the Level I exam.
  • Registration Fees. Depending on when you register (early or standard), the fee for each level ranges from USD 940 to USD 1,250.
  • Rescheduling Fee. If you need to reschedule your exam appointment within your exam window, a USD 250 rescheduling fee applies.

You should also budget for additional expenses, such as study materials (textbooks, practice exams, prep courses), which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. If traveling to a testing center is necessary, anticipate costs for transportation, accommodation, and meals, which vary based on location and choices.

Explore our comprehensive MBA cost guide for detailed insights on how to estimate and plan for your expenses.

Networking Opportunities

MBA programs offer diverse networking opportunities through cohorts with varied backgrounds, active alumni networks, and robust career services. Students can join specialized clubs and organizations, enhancing their connections within their chosen fields. This comprehensive networking ecosystem spans industries and provides access to mentors, industry insights, and potential job opportunities.

CFA candidates and charterholders can tap into a robust network of over 160 local CFA societies worldwide, which host a variety of events, seminars, and conferences that connect professionals within the industry. Additionally, industry-specific gatherings, like conferences and symposiums, offer platforms for engagement, knowledge sharing, and relationship-building. Many CFA candidates also form study groups during exam preparation, fostering connections that often extend into their professional lives.

Skills and Knowledge

The CFA program and MBA programs both offer valuable pathways to acquire crucial skills and knowledge for successful careers in finance and business. Nevertheless, they each bring distinct characteristics and focus areas that differentiate the skills and knowledge they provide.

MBA program curriculums usually cover the following topics:

  • Business Management
  • Marketing Strategies
  • Financial Management
  • Organizational Behavior
  • Strategic Planning
  • Operations Management
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Business Ethics
  • Leadership Skills
  • Corporate Finance

Key takeaways for MBA graduates involve:

  • Comprehensive understanding of business management
  • Proficiency in marketing strategies and financial management
  • Insight into organizational behavior and strategic planning
  • Skills in operations management and entrepreneurship
  • Focus on business ethics and leadership development
  • Mastery of corporate finance principles
  • Equipped with a versatile skill set for diverse roles in the business world.

Curriculum topics for CFA exams include:

  • Ethical and Professional Standards
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Economics
  • Financial Statement Analysis
  • Equity Investments
  • Fixed Income
  • Derivatives
  • Alternative Investments
  • Portfolio Management

Some key takeaways for successful Chartered Financial Analysts are:

  • Advanced quantitative and analytical skills
  • Profound understanding of financial instruments and markets
  • Critical thinking abilities
  • Emphasis on ethical conduct and responsibility in finance
  • Comprehensive preparation for success in the finance and investment industry.


MBA programs offer diverse learning formats tailored to accommodate various lifestyles and professional commitments. Part-time and online MBA options provide flexibility to balance education with career demands, allowing students to customize their curriculum by selecting specialized electives that align with specific career goals. These formats prioritize flexibility in learning.

In contrast, full-time MBA programs, while immersive and providing valuable experiences, are often more structured and demand a significant time commitment, typically lasting one to two years. However, they, too, offer customization opportunities through electives.

CFA candidates enjoy self-paced learning, allowing them to study at their convenience. There's no mandatory classroom attendance, giving you the flexibility to prepare through self-study, online courses, or third-party providers. The global availability of CFA exams offers you the choice of a convenient testing location. Moreover, you can accumulate the required 4,000 hours of relevant work experience before, during, or after completing the exams, aligning with your career progression.

Learning Preferences

Choosing the right educational path is not just about the content of the program but also about how it aligns with your personal learning style and preferences.

Typical MBA students often possess the following characteristics:

  • Desire a well-rounded business education.
  • Thrive in a structured classroom environment.
  • Prefer collaborative learning through in-person classes, case studies, and group projects.
  • Value flexibility to customize curriculum based on evolving career goals.
  • Seek exposure to diverse aspects of business management, marketing, finance, and strategy.

CFA applicants typically fit the following profile when it comes to learning preferences:

  • Strong interest in finance and investment-related fields.
  • Prefer self-paced and independent study.
  • Value specialized knowledge in finance.
  • Seeking recognition in the finance industry.
  • Career goals aligned with investment banking, asset management, equity research, etc.

Can I Combine CFA and MBA?

Combining a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certification with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) can be an excellent career strategy. Many professionals choose to start with an MBA to acquire a comprehensive foundation in business management, leadership, and various business disciplines. Following this, pursuing the CFA certification allows you to dive deeper into the intricate world of finance, investments, and asset management.

This approach equips you with a balanced skill set, ideal for roles in finance, investment banking, corporate leadership, and more. It's particularly valuable in industries that value both financial expertise and business management knowledge, allowing you to excel in your chosen career path.

In the CFA vs. MBA decision, we've learned that the CFA path specializes in finance, takes longer, and incurs lower direct costs. The MBA, on the other hand, provides versatility, varying durations, and a broader business education. Your choice should align with your career goals, whether you aim for specialized financial expertise with a CFA or a well-rounded business perspective with an MBA. Both paths open doors to exciting opportunities in the business world.

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