08 August 2011

There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.

Jiddu Krishnamurti


After college, I was living in an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan with two amazing roommates, one of whom was taking an exam to get the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. The designation is highly regarded in finance, because it is very difficult to get. The exam to get the CFA designation is a three part exam, with each part given only once a year, except the first part which is now given twice a year. So, the process of passing the exam takes at least 2 years, if you pass each of the exams on your first try. However, the pass rates are very low. A few years ago, the pass rate was 35% for level one, 40% for level two, and 50% for level three. Many people spend five or six years to get through all three parts.

Even though I wasn’t working in finance, I decided to take the test, thinking it would help me better understand the financial side of running a business. I took the first level in December 2006 and passed. After the exam, I decided to get a job in finance, and found an amazing job working at a firm called Wall Street Access. I started at the beginning of August 2007, two months after taking the second level of the CFA exam, and 3 weeks before learning I passed. A year later, I took and passed the third and final part of the CFA examination.

Besides passing the three parts of the exam, to be eligible to apply for the designation, a person needs four years of finance work experience. I left Wall Street Access with a little over 3.5 years of work experience. In an alternate universe, I would be eligible to apply for the CFA designation today.

I’ve always believed that pedigree isn’t worth much, and all that matters is skill and ability. This is me putting my money where my mouth is.

I spent many hundreds of hours studying for the exams, and it would certainly be nice to be able to put CFA at the end of my business card. The CFA designation is great because it is independent verification that you are knowledgeable about various financial subjects, and skilled and persistent enough to pass the exams. However, many people care more about the signaling value of having the letters on the business card, than they do about actually knowing the information. I know the information, and don’t feel that the signaling value is worth delaying my plans for six months. If in the future it becomes clear that I need the designation, the exams don’t expire, and I could work the necessary months and apply for the designation later in life.

I don’t regret my decisions. I don’t regret taking the exams, even though I’m not working in finance. I believe a deep understanding of the financial markets is key to understanding how the world actually works. I certainly don’t regret that I took on a very challenging task and completed it. It’s good training for life. I also don’t regret leaving finance before applying for the CFA designation. I’ve made so much progress over the past few months, and so many actual good things have happened, it seems crazy to trade all that actual progress for a designation in a field I don’t work in anymore.