Most people know they should manage their money wisely—but they don’t always know how to do it. That’s when they turn to financial advisors, who have the expertise to help them. Financial advisors undergo rigorous education and training to attain the certifications and skills necessary to succeed in this career. The path to becoming a professional financial advisor can be direct, or may include a number of twists, turns and side trips depending on past education and experience. This guide provides information to assist in weighing all of the pros and cons—including job duties, salary expectations, degree options, and step-by-step, in-depth instructions to becoming a financial advisor—to help readers decide if this is the right career choice.
Financial advisors help individuals make wise decisions regarding money management. They assess a person’s financial position, understand their needs and goals, and then make recommendations on how to best achieve them. Some financial advisors have diverse backgrounds and provide an array of general services, while others focus on a particular area such as retirement or tax law.
Financial advisors work in a variety of settings. Many are employed by large companies focusing on investments, finance or insurance, while others choose to work at a small firm or independently. Self-employed financial advisors are often part-salesmen. They must market their services to attract potential clients, so they spend a portion of their time teaching seminars or networking at various functions after office hours.
The minimum educational requirement for financial advisors—also known as financial consultants or counselors—is a bachelor’s degree, typically in finance, accounting, business, economics, statistics or a similar field. Students should take classes in such topics as risk management, taxes, investments and estate planning. Financial advisors need to understand their clients’ short- and long-term financial goals—which may include retirement, saving for college, or other objectives—and offer ways to help their clients reach these goals. They explain and recommend various types of investments, decide the type and level of insurance that is necessary, and ensure that tax forms and other financial documents comply with regulations.
Most financial advisors obtain at least one of the many certifications available, such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC). In addition, a master’s degree in finance or a related subject can offer a competitive edge.
According to 2014 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. financial advisors earned a mean hourly wage of $51.97, or a mean annual wage of $108,090.
Median wage estimates for financial advisors are as follows:
Financial advisors earn the highest wages in the following states:
How does your state stack up? Use the map below to compare financial advisor salary estimates by state:
Financial advisors are looking at a robust job outlook over the next several years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the field will grow by 27% through 2022—nearly double the 14 percent growth rate projected for U.S. occupations on average. This translates into more than 60,000 new jobs in addition to the almost 225,000 that existed in 2012. Aging populations in particular are paying close attention to their finances and seeking investment advice as they near retirement. In addition, more people are becoming savvy to the benefits of smart saving and investing. They recognize the value of a personal financial advisor who can offer the individual attention not typically found with a traditional banker. Because the growing need for services puts more pressure on the time commitments for senior advisors, new entrants into the field should see increased opportunities.
The following states make up the “top ten” list for the most growth:
Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for financial advisors
A bachelor’s degree is required for a career as a financial advisor. Majors in finance, economics, business, statistics or similar fields are acceptable. Financial advisors can be generalists, or they may specialize in one of several areas, including retirement, taxes, estate planning, or insurance and risk management.
Major firms or high-end clients may require their financial advisors to continue their education at the graduate level. Some pursue an MBA program after working in the profession for a number of years and while continuing their full-time employment.
Academic instruction in the classroom provides the foundation for learning, but internships offer opportunities for financial advisors to get real-world experience. It’s important for students to attend a school that has forged relationships with financial firms or other companies that can provide training opportunities for students to practice what they have learned, and gain instruction and insight from mentors working in the field.
Numerous certifications are available for financial advisors, usually after they have accrued three years of work experience. Certification typically requires specialized training or coursework, an exam, and continuing education. At least one of the following certifications is recommended by the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA):
Some specialty areas require licensing. For example, financial advisors who want to sell insurance must be licensed in their state as an accredited adviser in insurance. Advisors who focus on investments must register with their state or with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a Registered Investment Advisor.
Check with your school’s career office to identify job leads and obtain help in writing resumes and cover letters. Take advantage of networking with other students, instructors and professional organizations to find employment opportunities and discuss market trends. Finally, don’t neglect social media as an excellent channel for posting resumes and searching for open positions.
There’s always more to learn—especially in the fast-moving world of finance. Finance laws and strategies are always changing, and advisors must keep up with current trends. Many certifications in financial advising require continuing education, while senior positions often demand an advanced degree. A graduate degree in finance, typically offered as a master’s in finance (MSF) or an MBA with a concentration in finance, can provide a competitive edge.
Finance degrees range from a two-year associate degree through a doctoral degree that can take several years to complete. Courses can be taken in a traditional campus setting or online. Below is a quick look at each degree level, along with how each will suit a prospective student’s needs.
|Educational and Career Goals||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
|Students are exploring a finance career to determine if they want to pursue further education. They learn the basics of finance to attain entry-level employment or to establish a foundation to continue to the next level of education.|
|Students take thorough coursework to learn how to manage an organization’s money and make investment decisions. Graduates are prepared to take the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) or Certified Financial Planner (CFP) exams.|
|Theory and decision-making are emphasized to prepare students for management positions that involve leading teams of other financial employees, or for positions that involve large projects or clients.|
|Students receive advanced education for teaching, research, and executive roles. They hone their communication, research, and leadership skills, as well as build on their financial knowledge base.|
|Regardless of the degree level they want to obtain, these students may not be physically close to a campus offering a finance degree, or need flexibility to manage their work, family, and educational obligations.|
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), finance is the #1 degree that employers want.
There are four finance degrees available to correspond to students’ career goals and desired education. While each degree builds on the previous level, students may also choose to pursue a finance degree after completing a program in another field, such as economics, computer science, or mathematics. For example, a student with a bachelor’s degree in computer science may want to complement that degree with a master’s degree in finance or a student with a master’s degree in mathematics can hone their skills by pursuing a Ph.D. in finance.
A two-year degree option, the associate degree offers students basic knowledge about the world of finance, preparing graduates for entry-level roles or for transfer to a bachelor’s degree program. In addition to introductory courses in finance, students also explore foundational business topics and complete general education in areas such as English composition, math, humanities, and social and behavioral sciences.
Although specific courses vary by school, below is an example of curricula students will likely encounter at this level:
Provides an introduction to financial concepts and institutions
Explores the roles of central banks and financial markets
Provides an introduction to investment markets and portfolio management
Explains such terms as present value, future value, compounding and discounting
The bachelor’s degree in finance program provides a more in-depth understanding of finance, including the dynamics of the stock market as well as domestic and world economies. Students learn how to use computerized financial programs, and work on projects that hone their investment skills. A bachelor’s degree can lead to careers such as financial analyst and personal financial advisor. This degree also prepares students to take the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) or Certified Financial Planner (CFP) exams.
Focuses on financial systems, investment principles and corporate finance
Explores money markets such as mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and other securities
Reviews the various functions of financial firms and the regulations that govern them
Explores financial statements, forecasting, and risk
Building on the foundation gained as an undergraduate, the master’s degree in finance is ideal for students who want to pursue leadership roles in a business environment. At this level, students develop advanced skills in managing risk and critically evaluating information using financial models and methodologies. A master’s degree may be offered as a Master of Science in Finance (MSF) or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in finance.
Explains derivatives and explores different techniques used in risk management
Covers financial software programs as well as matrices and calculations
Examines case studies and problem-solving techniques based on subjective methods
Explores such topics as dividend and corporate buyback policies and corporate restructuring
A doctoral degree may be offered as a PhD in Finance or as a PhD in Business Administration with a concentration in finance. The doctorate degree is ideal for those who want to work in an academic setting or assume a financial leadership position at a large organization. The PhD program offers in-depth exploration of new developments in the field such as theory of rational investor portfolio choice and efficient corporate decision-making. Depending on the program, students may be required to participate in regular seminars to gain exposure of developing research. Students will also be required to conduct their own independent research in the form of a dissertation.
After years of rigorous and intense study, PhD graduates gain a wealth of advanced skills that make them experts in the financial field. Some of the most highly sought after skills include:
Students learn how to conduct extensive research into financial theories and best practices. They develop critical thinking skills necessary to delve deeply into a finance topic and analyze data. Graduates will also know how to independently evaluate information in order to reach valid conclusions.
Students must be able to clearly and effectively relay their findings to colleagues or clients. They learn how to organize information and present it coherently so that it can be easily understood by people with varying levels of financial knowledge. PhD students also learn how to write research studies and articles for publication in reputable financial journals.
Students learn how to analyze potential roadblocks and formulate solutions. Leveraging their keen knowledge of financial theories and systems, they are able to offer guidance and direction to team members and clients to help them make low risk, high benefit financial decisions.
In addition to corporate skills, students learn the teaching skills necessary to instruct other students at universities, colleges, and professional schools or to lead a team of advisors. They become proficient in determining the best teaching methods for a particular student population; develop curricula, instructional plans and exams; and learn how to assess and evaluate student progress.
Students develop a personal ethos and commitment to operate legally and ethically in their financial dealings. This includes fully disclosing information that would present a conflict of interest; being honest, open and fair; and maintaining confidentiality.
Some students live too far from a school that offers an appropriate finance degree or need flexibility in their educational schedule. When on-campus education is not possible, prospective students may find that online learning is an ideal choice. However, students investigating online finance programs should consider the following criteria:
One of the most important criterion for any finance program--online or on-campus--is its accreditation status. Accredited programs have received a stamp of approval from a respected overseeing organization, verifying the quality and integrity of the program. Additionally, accreditation determines such factors as the student’s ability to transfer credit hours to another school and to receive financial aid. Finance programs should be accredited by such organizations as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).
Even if they complete coursework through an accredited school, students should not assume those credits will automatically transfer to another institution. Unfortunately, non-transferrable credits mean wasted time and money, since students would be obligated to retake courses at their new school. It’s best to check with known, reputable schools well in advance to see if they will accept finance degree transfer credits from the prospective school’s program.
The overall quality of a finance program goes hand-in-hand with the quality of the faculty. Most schools post faculty biographies on their websites, with information on the education and work experience of their professors and other instructors. This information can help students determine if faculty members have sufficient educational background, credentials, and professional experience. Students should look for faculty who have worked in relevant careers such as financial analysts, financial managers, bank executives, and insurance underwriters. The faculty should also have experience in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, insider trading, etc. Publication in respected journals such as the Journal of Portfolio Management, Journal of Risk and Assessment, Journal of Financial Management, and Journal of Banking and Finances are another indicator of prior experience and success.
The curricula should offer relevant finance degree courses covering the principles of finance and key financial concepts. While specific classes may vary by school, the program should offer coursework in such subjects as investments, accounting and statistics for financial analysts, financial management, and analysis of financial statements. Courses should be designed to help students hone such skills as critical thinking and decision-making.
In addition to academic work, a school’s finance program should also offer opportunities for students to gain real world experience, such as through an internship. While no degree can guarantee a job, the program should have an active and effective job placement program, allowing students access to companies that hire finance degree graduates.
Communication skills are vital. Financial advisors work with a variety of people who have different financial backgrounds and levels of knowledge. Advisors must be able to present complicated information and explain technical jargon in understandable terms. Finally, they must engender trust with their clients and adhere to the industry’s set of ethical standards, including integrity, objectivity, fairness and confidentiality.
Certifications identify a financial advisor as having met rigorous competency, ethical, and professional standards. Some are general certifications, while others represent specialty areas. Certified Financial Planners, Personal Financial Specialists and Chartered Financial Consultants are all qualified to provide overall financial services. A financial advisor might also choose one of the following specialties:
Certified Estate and Trust Specialist: Focuses on estate planning and asset allocation
Accredited Retirement Advisor: Specializes in financial planning for older individuals
Accredited Tax Advisor: Earns qualifications to navigate sophisticated tax planning issues
Certified Private Wealth Advisors: Works with clients with high-net worth portfolios
The field of finance is vast. Each career varies in its typical salary, growth rate, and required training. Here’s how it stacks up:
Financial advisors typically work with individual clients, but other jobs in the finance field can draw on a variety of skills and personal preferences—from analyzing consumer trends to studying the fluctuations of the stock market to managing corporate finances. Finance professionals have plenty to choose from to match their areas of interest or expertise.
The options for finance degrees can feel overwhelming. Which schools offer the desired degree level? What specializations do they offer? The search tool below can help you find the schools that best suit your requirements.