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Master of Applied Finance vs Chartered Financial Analyst - which is right for me?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
The choice between these programs hinges upon a variety of personal and career preferences. Read on to better understand which program will suit you best.

If you’re a finance professional looking to develop your skills and advance your career, you may have considered enrolling in programs such as the Master of Applied Finance (MAF) or Chartered Financial Analyst® (CFA®). This article is designed to help you understand which one will be most beneficial to you. We’ll do this by asking you four questions:

  • What tertiary study and professional experience do you have?
  • What are your career aspirations?
  • How do you like to study and learn?
  • How much time and money are you willing to invest?

Before we consider these questions, let’s briefly summarise what each qualification is about.  

The MAF program, like this one offered by Kaplan Professional, is a versatile degree designed for a wide range of finance professionals. In addition to core subjects like “Financial Markets and Economics Principles” and “Quantitative Applications in Finance,” students get access to a selection of electives, including:

  • Business Valuation
  • Financial Modelling
  • Industrial Equity Analysis
  • Real Estate Analysis Funding
  • Mergers and Acquisitions

It’s a well-rounded qualification students can shape based on their interests and career aspirations. The degree can theoretically take one and a half years of full time study to complete, but two years or longer is more realistic for full-time professionals.

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program, on the other hand, is well-suited to those employed in analytical careers like investment analysis or portfolio management. Learning is self-directed and assessed through a series of three exams. Individuals are required to learn about corporate finance, portfolio management, financial reporting and analysis, quantitative methods and more. Completing this qualification takes a minimum of three years, but due to its intensive nature and high fail rate, many individuals take much longer.

So you can understand what program is best for you, let’s explore those questions.

1. What tertiary study and professional experience do you have?

Another area where the MAF and CFA differ slightly is in their respective entry requirements. While we wouldn’t recommend making a course decision based on prerequisites alone, if you want to begin studying straight away they can influence your decision making.

Here’s a summary of each qualification’s entry requirements:

Master of Applied Finance Chartered Financial Analyst
Related bachelor degree (e.g. commerce); OR
Related graduate diploma;
Unrelated bachelor degree AND two years of related work experience
Bachelor degree in any discipline (can begin in your last year);
Four years of professional work experience (does not have to be investment related)
A combination of professional work experience and education that totals at least four years.

If you have a bachelor degree in commerce, you’re eligible for either program, but if you have a bachelor degree in another discipline, you’re only eligible to begin the CFA immediately (in fact you can enrol as soon as you’re in your final year).

For entry into the MAF, direct entry is available to those with a related bachelor degree. With Kaplan Professional, it’s possible to progress from a Graduate Certificate in Applied Finance to a Graduate Diploma and then into the Master of Applied Finance, with each previous course counting toward the next. It’s thereby possible to indirectly enter the MAF with the graduate certificate’s entry requirements, namely an undergraduate degree from any discipline, a related diploma, unrelated diploma with two years of related professional experience or academic or professional qualifications demonstrating potential. This entry pathway is ideal for individuals seeking to pivot careers.

Exit opportunities are available to those who can’t or don’t want to continue with the MAF if they enrol directly. This can result in earning either the graduate certificate or graduate diploma depending on progress. It’s also possible to gain access to Kaplan Professional’s programs via Non-degree Entry. This allows applicants to use whatever prior experience they have as proof they would be able to complete their studies.

Both programs are favourable to work experience. Those with four years of professional experience don’t need to worry about any additional entry requirements for the CFA. Advanced standing can also be granted within the Kaplan Professional MAF on grounds of related work experience.

To summarise conventional minimum requirements:

You have Eligible for MAF (via grad.cert.) Eligible for MAF (direct entry) Eligible for CFA
Final year of bachelor-level study remaining     ✔^
Bachelor in related discipline (e.g. commerce)
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts)  
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts)
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts) and two years
related work experience
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts) and two years
related work experience
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts) and two years
related work experience
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts) and two years
related work experience
Bachelor in unrelated discipline (e.g. arts) and two years
related work experience

* Can be solely one or the other.
^ Completion of bachelor degree or equivalent required for CFA exams beyond the first.

It’s worth noting simply being eligible isn’t the same as being prepared to learn the subject matter. If you’re new to finance and aren’t strong in mathematics, you’ll find the CFA extremely challenging.

2. What are your career aspirations?

Your intended career aspirations are an important consideration when deciding what to study. Both degrees will open doorways to a variety of financial careers.

If you aspire to work in a managerial position, in risk management or in a generalist role requiring broad knowledge of the financial landscape, the MAF will provide you with a solid grounding in these areas.

If you want to become more of a financial specialist, for example working as a securities analyst or portfolio manager, then the CFA can provide more in-depth knowledge.

If you have ambitions to work in finance overseas, the CFA is a great option. The CFA program is standardised globally, which gives employers and clients around the world confidence in your skills as a finance professional. By no means should the MAF be discounted however, as it too is as a global qualification. Critical thinking in financial contexts, devising risk management strategies, knowledge of ethics, legislation and more all come to the fore in this program, which are useful for innumerable careers.

3. How do you like to study and learn?
Virtual classroom KapLearn provides numerous resources to its MAF students, including interactive e-books, online presentations, discussion forums and a library. Students are expected to spend 11-12 hours per week preparing for various modes of assessment and coursework. This is in stark contrast to the CFA, which doesn’t have any built-in learning resources or study expectations. Participants must navigate their own schedule. Kaplan Professional does however provide free CFA study material.

It’s important to be certain you’re suited to the CFA mode of study, given its low pass rates. In June 2018, the CFA Level 1, 2, and 3 exams had 43%, 45% and 56% pass rates respectively. Make sure to evaluate your previous experience with self-directed learning honestly before deciding to commit to the CFA. Additionally, Kaplan Professional does not conduct the exam, but they do provide exam materials.

If you prefer structure, a MAF is likely better-suited. The CFA doesn’t provide access to KapLearn or similar resources. Instead, participants just have exams looming on the horizon they must prepare for as they see fit. This can work in your favour if you prefer to learn at your own pace, but it can work against you if you’re not confident enough to set self-imposed deadlines. Ultimately, neither style is inherently better than the other; it’s simply a matter of preference.

It’s also possible to undergo both programs at once, the details of which can be found here. This will give you up to six subject exemptions from the masters program while also meeting the study outcomes of both, making it the most time efficient way to secure both qualifications should you require them. This option is particularly rigorous but recommended for individuals who prefer variety in learning methods and are passionate about gaining in-depth technical knowledge and a wide variety of skills to progress their career.

Considering study mode alone:

  • If you prefer structured learning, the MAF is a better choice.
  • If you prefer independent learning, the CFA is a better choice.

4. How much time and money are you willing to invest?
Broadly speaking, most students will complete a MAF faster than they will the CFA, but at greater cost. The following table illustrates how cost and duration compares for each degree.

Course Duration Predicted cost (AUD)
MAF Up to 5 years $27,900 - $56,000
CFA (best case) 3 years $3,865
CFA (likely) 5 years $10,820

Here are our CFA assumptions:Given the low pass rate for the CFA, two options are listed based on the best-case scenario (passing all three exams consecutively) and the average result (taking five attempts to pass three exams).

  • Enrolment: USD450 / AUD630
  • Exam registration (per exam): USD650 / AUD910
  • Level I CFA books: AUD260 - AUD1,880
  • Level II CFA books: AUD310 - AUD1,880
  • Level III CFA books: AUD205 - AUD1,880

Summing up

There are merits and a large number of similarities between the Master of Applied Finance and the Chartered Financial Analyst programs. No matter which of these programs suit you best, there is no wrong decision. Both will provide the means to build or further several finance careers. Good luck!