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Professional Designations Compared: What is the Best Investment for Your Career?

Professional designations not only offer prestige and new opportunities to network but also can have a significant impact on your salary. They do require significant investments in time and money, though. For example, the CFA Program—“a gold standard” for the financial services industry—can take as little as 18 months, but on average takes about four years to complete. The following chart provides a side-by-side comparison of the major designations available to financial professionals and links to further resources. 

CFA Prep Discounts

A Comparison of Professional Designations for Finance Professionals

DesignationChartered Alternative Investment Analyst℠Chartered Financial Analyst®Certified Financial Planner™Chartered Investment CounselorCertified Investment Management Analyst℠Chartered Market TechnicianChartered Retirement Planning Counselor℠Financial Risk Manager
Sponsoring organizationChartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association®CFA InstituteCFP Board of Standards (current owner and awarder of the designation); College for Financial Planning (introduced the certification and is by far the largest provider of CFP exam preparation)Investment Adviser AssociationInvestment Management Consultants Association℠Market Technicians AssociationCollege for Financial PlanningGlobal Association of Risk Professionals
Areas of studyAlternative sectors, quantitative methods, ethicsPortfolio management, securities analysis, ethics, economics, financial accountingFinancial planning and insurance, investment planning, income tax planning, retirement planning and employee benefits, estate planningInvestment counseling, portfolio management, fiduciary responsibilities, ethicsAsset allocation, investment policy, risk measurement, performance measurement, due diligence and manager selectionTechnical analysisPre- and post-retirement planningRisk modeling, market risk, credit risk, investment management risk, operational and integrated risk
Number of designations awarded4,600
(as of January 2011)
(as of September 2010)
61,000 active US certificants
(as of May 2010)
More than 475 firms
(as of June 2010)
(through 2010)
1,007 active certificants
(as of November 2010)
(as of May 2009)
(as of 2010)
Number of exams required2
(Levels I and II)
(Levels I, II, and III)
(broken up into one four-hour session and two three-hour sessions)
(but CIC designees must have passed the CFA exams)
(one for each area of study)
(Levels I, II, and III)
(Levels I and II)
Annual frequency of examMarch and SeptemberJune (all levels) and December (Level I)Online testing at candidate’s discretionLevel I: online testing at candidate’s discretion; Level II: live exam after completion of one-week intensive curriculum offered throughout the yearSpring and fallOnline testing at candidate’s discretionMay and November
Designation requirements

• 1 year of professional experience and a US bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) or 4 years of professional experience

• Pass exams

• Join CAIA

• Complete online Member Agreement

• 2 professional references

• Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) or be in the final year of your bachelor’s degree program at the time of registration or have 4 years of qualified, professional work experience

• Pass exams

• Join and maintain CFA membership

• Have a valid international travel passport

• Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent)

• Pass exams

• 3 years of full-time relevant personal financial planning experience

• Complete designated coursework

• Maintain CFPBS membership

• Current SEC registration as an investment adviser

• Minimum of 1 year as an investment adviser

• Minimum of $25 million in assets under management

• Endorsement of the IAA’s Standards of Practice

• 3 years of financial services experience

• Pass the online qualification exam

• Complete education program with registered education provider

• Pass the online certification exam

• Sign licensing agreement and adhere to IMCA’s Code of Professional Responsibility and IMCA Standards Practice

• Pass exams

• Maintain full MTA membership

• Abide by the MTA Code of Ethics

• Pass exam

• Comply with ethics and codes

• Meet renewal requirements

• Pass exams

• Minimum of 2 years professional full-time work experience in financial risk management or related field

• Maintain GARP membership

Program/Exam Fees$1,750 – $2,400$3,165 – $4,260$595$7,705 – $8,350$1,400$935 – $1,085$1,000 – $1,600
Applicable financial fieldsPortfolio management, securities research, advisory, hedge fund consulting, private equity, venture capital, real estate, managed futuresSpans traditional and alternative sectors: portfolio management, securities research, advisory, organizational leadership, trading, corporate pensions, pension consulting, insurancePersonal financial planning, portfolio management, advisory, insuranceClient contact is key: portfolio management, wealth management, advisoryInvestment consultingTechnical analysisPersonal financial planning, portfolio management, advisory, insuranceBroad financial universe: corporations, government, academia, technology, consulting
Job board offered by sponsoring organizationYesYesNoNoNo (but LinkedIn group for IMCA members includes job listings)YesNoYes