My CFA® Story
Many of the CFA charterholders and candidates I have met seem to have always known that it was the path they wanted to take. Finance degree, CFA charter, job at a bigtime investment firm. It was different for me. It wasn’t as calculated of a decision to start the path. But it was certainly one of the best moves of my young professional career.
In the Beginning
Finance wasn’t my first career. My early years were spent in the family business, which was a successful one. Growing up, this was what I viewed as my future, and I didn’t share in the career uncertainty that plagued most of my high school classmates. I felt fortunate to have that opportunity. Nearly five years in, however, I began to realize that as much as I loved working with my dad, it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.
After a few short stints in other positions and going back to school to finish my undergrad, I ended up with a junior position at a large Canadian bank. I guess this is where it all started for me. During school, I had started working toward my certified financial planner (CFP) designation, which I successfully achieved within a couple of years. I quickly moved up the ranks after moving to another bank, eventually joining the financial planning team and taking on a portfolio of the bank’s “mass affluent” clients—certainly a career type role. I enjoyed the wealth-management aspect of the role and working with clients to help them meet their financial goals. I was in a good place in my career, but at the same time, I felt ready for my next challenge.
During one of our many team meetings, I had overheard some colleagues talking about the CFA Program and how challenging it was. I covertly inserted myself into that conversation, looking for more details on this whole CFA thing. Two had signed up for the next sitting of Level I, one for the first attempt and one for a second try. The “experienced” candidate shared stories of the grueling nature of the exam, the astounding attrition rate, and the sheer breadth of the material. They both talked about how it would open doors in the investment world, and how it was essential to be an investment analyst or portfolio manager. It sounded fun. I was in. But I truly didn’t understand what I was in for.
What Was I Thinking?
I told my wife what I was planning on doing, went online, and signed up for the summer sitting of the exam. I tried explaining what kind of commitment this program was likely to take, but I am not sure she really understood. I mean, it was just a few exams, right?
I remember the day the textbooks arrived. A non-descript box waiting at my front door, weighing more than it should upon a quick inspection. Maybe that was the first sign of trouble. I remember opening the box to find six or so postcards in addition to the textbook. These were intended for me to send to friends and family to explain why I hadn’t seen them in months. I’ll have been busy studying. I assume the textbooks are now online, and who knows if they still have the postcards. It’s a shame if they don’t, though. It was a slightly humorous but impactful reminder of what your near-term future entailed. There was also some irony: I don’t think I had the time to send out the postcards.
My timing to start down this path wasn’t great. My wife and I had just welcomed our first child, so now I had two things in my life to cause sleepless nights. Despite that, I studied hard. I put in the hours. One of the biggest challenges I found was that it was hard to gauge my own progress. Countless hours reading, doing practice questions, making flashcards, jotting notes. But was it enough? As exam day drew closer, I became anxious. It felt so “all or nothing.” I had been doing all of this practice, but who knew how I would do on game day.
The First Exam
After months and hundreds of hours of studying for Level I, what do I remember the most about exam day? Well, other than the realization that I had to do this at least two more times if I wanted to call myself a CFA charterholder—and statistically, it would more likely take more than that—my clearest memory from the Level I exam is the idiot who showed up without a calculator. Seriously. He had the nerve to scramble around the testing center asking everyone if they had an extra one. I also quite clearly remember avoiding eye contact when telling him I did not, hoping he wouldn’t notice the rectangular outline in my front pocket hiding my backup calculator.
Everything else was a blur. That evening may have been a bit of a blur, too, however self-imposed.
I think the only thing more nerve wracking than exam day is the day the results come out. I remember waking up and seeing the email. I sat there looking at my screen, willing myself to click and open, silently wondering if I would cry over a failing grade. I clicked. I passed. I knew it all along.
More of the Same (Sort of)
To summarize the next two exams, for Level II, I studied like crazy. The exam sucked like crazy. I clicked. I passed. Better lucky than good, I guess.
For Level III, I was about to start a new job. On February 10, my second daughter was born. On February 15, we had to be out of our house. On March 1, we took possession of our new house, which was in a new city over 3,000 kilometers away. I studied. I didn’t sleep. I unpacked, then studied some more. I wrote. I clicked. I passed. I cried tears of joy.
What’s the Point?
It was a proud moment to successfully complete the exams and eventually get my CFA charter. Looking back, it was a defining moment in my career, not only for the opportunities that the charter eventually brought, but it was also proof that I was in the right profession in the first place. I wouldn’t subject myself to this torture for something I had no passion for.
Throughout the process, I made lifelong friends, lost a few hairs, gained a few pounds, earned the respect of my peers, learned a few things I will never use, and learned many things I will. One thing I know for certain is that I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without my charter or any of the experiences that came with getting it. I am sure there are some who found the process “not that hard” or who say that it “really wasn’t that bad.” But for me, a man of average intelligence and with a young and growing family, it was a challenge. It was also one of the best experiences of my life (easier to say after the fact).
About the Author
Derek Dedman, M.Sc., CFA, CFP, has spent nearly a decade working in different capacities in financial services and is currently a Portfolio Manager for Watson Di Primio Steel (WDS) Investment Management, an Ottawa-based boutique investment firm. Derek joined WDS after serving as Vice President of a Montreal-based wealth management firm specializing in serving cross-border clientele. Previously, with the Financial Planning Standards Council, he was an integral part of the content development efforts for the Certified Financial Planner® national certification exams in Canada.