Master’s in Financial Planning Degree Guide: Job Options, Certification Eligibility, and Salary Expectations

It takes nothing short of a master’s degree to get in the ring with the heavyweights at places like Goldman and BlackRock. Investment banks like these might be better known for being the kings of the hill in high finance, but within those oceans of capital you’ll find portfolio managers servicing the needs of corporations and wealthy individuals using many of the same instruments and strategies as you would find in any part of the personal financial planning industry.

Earning a master’s doesn’t mean you’re just out to impress, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re tracked for a career on Wall Street. It just means you could get into one of those coveted positions at a major firm if that’s what you wanted. And it’s exactly those kinds of qualifications that wealthy clients want to see before opening up their books and inviting you into their financial affairs.

This makes a master’s degree virtually a matter of course if your career goals involve either working your way into a senior position or setting up your own independent investment advising and portfolio management firm as a personal fiduciary for wealthy individuals and families.

The wealthiest clients don’t settle – they expect it all, and are glad to pay to get it. For them, retaining an advisor with a master’s-level education ensures they are getting someone who is both a skilled communicator and a savvy financial expert with knowledge in everything from tax avoidance to risk analysis, and as comfortable offering advice on conventional securities as discussing real estate investments.

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With a master’s degree, you have access to a whole new level of clients and firms, and the innovative ideas and acumen to protect and grow their assets. And all of this means more money, and more opportunities for you.

What Kind of Job Titles and Salaries Can I Access with a Master’s in Financial Planning?

A master’s degree unlocks the top level of positions in the financial planning and investment management world. You may decide to set up your own shop, working with a select group of wealthy individuals, or you may be asked to take over a managerial role at a larger investment firm like Schwab, J.P. Morgan, or Morgan Stanley.

With potentially millions of dollars under management, you can bet those positions pay top dollar.

Keep in mind that these are base salaries and don’t account for the bonuses, stock options, and other incentives that the financial services industry is known for. For many, the base salary makes up only a fraction of the total compensation package.

Personal Financial Advisors:

  • Bottom 10%: $42,950
  • Median salary: $87,850
  • Top 10%: $208,000

Management Analyst:

  • Bottom 10%: $49,700
  • Median salary: $85,260
  • Top 10%: $154,310

Top Executives:

  • Bottom 10%: $62,290
  • Median salary: $184,460
  • Top 10%: $208,000

While your job title has a lot to do with your compensation, so does your location. Each type of position may have certain industry hotspots where competition is a little higher, clients are a little wealthier, and your compensation will get a bigger bump because of it.

Here are the average annual salaries for different financial planning job titles in the top-paying states for each role:

Personal Financial Advisors:

  • New York: $166,790
  • District of Columbia: $150,310
  • Illinois: $142,440
  • Connecticut: $137,440
  • Massachusetts: $137,050

Management Analysts:

  • New York: $112,280
  • Massachusetts: $110,390
  • District of Columbia: $107,000
  • New Jersey: $106,380
  • Connecticut: $105,480

Chief Executives:

  • South Dakota: $256,110
  • New Jersey: $253,320
  • Rhode Island: $249,360
  • District of Columbia: $235,450
  • Connecticut: $231,590

Also consider that in the world of financial planning, salaries only come into play when you’re working for someone else. If you set up an independent boutique firm to serve the wealthy individuals and families you’ve come into contact with other the years, you’ll be collecting a percentage of every dollar you have under management.

Experience and education are important, but you’ll find that results are key in a field that is all about the bottom line.

How to Select a Quality Master’s Program Employers and Clients Will Respect

Master’s degrees offer a deep well of knowledge to draw on, and to do that, they tend to be extremely specialized. This can work in your favor, as there are a number of unique practice areas in financial planning and wealth management that reward graduate-level expertise. You’ll want to choose a master’s program that lines up with your career path.

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Your options may include:

Master of Science in Financial Planning– The MSFP is squarely aimed at delivering the details of investment analysis, risk assessment, and retirement planning that financial planners working in any aspect of the field will require. You may find programs that focus in on either personal financial planning, with an emphasis in individual wealth and benefits, or family financial planning, with a broader concern for education and estate considerations.

Master of Trust and Wealth Management– MTWM programs focus on developing your skills as a fiduciary to handle trust formation and administration as well as estate and personal financial planning.

Master of Science in Accounting/Taxation– Specialists in tax planning and trust organization often have to earn a CPA. An MAcc or MS in taxation not only helps qualify you for that credential, but also delivers on the technical expertise you need to navigate the complexities of American and international tax law for planning purposes.

Master of Science in Finance/Financial Services– Planners who want to work primarily in investment advising or analysis are well-served with these degrees, which deliver in-depth instruction in risk management and financial analysis.

Master of Business Administration– An MBA is a traditional general-purpose vehicle into the world of business, but it can also give financial planners insights into running their own planning or investment firms someday, as well as offering unparalleled networking opportunities and general business knowledge.

Most of the degree programs that are not explicitly in financial planning may be offered at times with a concentration in financial planning. Those concentrations will tend to have classes that are more on point for financial management professionals, as well as being aligned with the CFP Board coursework standards.

You can also find more exotically specialized programs, such as a Master of Family and Consumer Sciences with an emphasis in Family Financial Planning, or graduate minors in financial planning.

What to Expect in Terms of Instruction and Coursework

Narrowing down your degree types is just the first step in the process of finding the right program. At the master’s level, the school you go to will carry a lot of weight… in terms of the education you get, the people you meet, and opportunities you are offered. There are a number of factors to consider.

Making the Right Connections with Instructors and Students in a Financial Planning Masters Program

You want to pick a school with a solid reputation that attracts first-rate instructors, who bring in not only academic excellence, but also draw on deep expertise in the field built by years of experience. They’ll offer insights and help you build industry connections you can’t get at lesser universities.

You also want high-caliber classmates. A’s hire A’s in finance… you don’t get anything out of being top dog if you’re only scrapping with a bunch of runts. Your classmates will be a valuable network to draw on throughout your career for both clients and tips, so find the best you can.

Picking the Right Coursework in Masters Degree in Financial Planning

Many master’s programs don’t offer a great deal of flexibility in terms of core coursework or electives. On the other hand, you often do have a lot of freedom in structuring your degree plan within those classes to focus on the subjects in ways that most closely align with your interests and career plan. For example, your thesis topic can cover your specific theories of investing.

And you can also ensure that you are looking only at programs that come pre-baked with the right mix of classes to build your desired types of professional expertise.

The Importance of Selecting a CFP-Board Registered Master’s

If you currently hold a bachelor’s in another field and interested in earning your master’s as a way to transition into financial planning, then one important consideration is whether or not the program you choose is CFP Registered.

Only registered programs contain the necessary 15 credit hours in 8 subject areas required to qualify for the CFP credential:

  • Professional Conduct and Regulation
  • General Principles of Financial Planning
  • Education Planning
  • Risk Management and Insurance Planning
  • Tax Planning
  • Retirement Savings and Income Planning
  • Estate Planning
  • Financial Plan Development (capstone course)

These subjects are covered in addition to the core subject matter of your master’s program, ensuring that you have a broad basis of knowledge in common financial planning topics.

You can check the registration status of programs on the CFP Board website.

Specialty Credentials for Financial Planning Specialty Practices

The CFP may be the most recognized credential, and the one that is most appropriate for client facing roles in financial planning, but there are other options too, for analysts and others working in financial services and playing a vital role in managing client portfolios.

Some specializations in financial planning may benefit from programs that offer a boost toward earning other credentials, such as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

CPAs are state-licensed professionals in accounting who have to meet not only steep educational requirements but also to pass demanding test and experiential requirements. Because 150 semester hours of education is a core requirement, earning a master’s degree is one of the most common paths to qualification. Many MAcc degrees specifically prepare you to sit the Uniform CPA exam.

Finally, some master’s programs in trust and wealth management are designed to satisfy the experiential requirements for the American Bankers Association’s Certified Trust and Financial Advisor (CTFA) credential, or the education requirements for an Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC) certification.

Specialized Accreditation for Master’s Programs in Financial Planning

Apart from CFP registration, full accreditation is a basic requirement that you should look for in any college that you enroll at. Accreditation ensures that the school, and the degree program, meet certain essential standards that the U.S. business and education communities have agreed on. There are two levels of accreditation to consider.

First, the college itself should have a basic accreditation from one of the six regional accreditation agencies recognized by CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education. This level of recognition covers general elements of an American college education, including:

  • Standards for instructor hiring and review
  • Curriculum development standards
  • Administrative consistency
  • Policy and procedures for grading and appeals
  • Marketing policies and recruitment efforts

Second, the department or program itself should, depending on the field of focus, have a specialty accreditation from one of the three CHEA-recognized specialty accreditors reviewing business and accounting degrees:

Each of these agencies applies another layer of evaluation to the instructors, curriculum, and processes used in those programs, looking at them from a specifically business-oriented perspective. They use a combination of rigorous reporting and self-study on the part of the schools themselves with in-person campus visits and evaluations by impartial professionals to establish similar criteria as the regional accrediting agencies, but with a view toward ensuring that those criteria support not only academic rigor, but also the level of technical detail and practical aspects that the business community today demands.

Note that certain master’s degrees applicable to financial planning fall outside of the fields accredited by those specialty accreditors… specifically, many master’s in financial planning, wealth management, or family financial planning degrees are not eligible for business or accounting specialty accreditation.

Since the AACSB offers school as well as programmatic accreditation, however, you may find some MFP degrees that are available from an accredited school.

Should I Choose an Online Master Program for Financial Planning?

Online master’s programs are a gift for professionals looking for advanced education to boost their current career prospects. By allowing you to take classes at a time and location of your choosing, rather than in traditional classrooms on a fixed campus, you have far greater flexibility to adapt your education around your current life and work obligations.

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These advantages often come at a lower cost, and greater flexibility when it comes to scheduling and the completion timeline than more traditional programs. You’re working on a tax deadline for restructuring an investment vehicle for a major client at the office? No problem—many online degrees allow you to put your coursework on hold for a quarter or semester and come back to it when you have more time.

At the same time, the advances in online communication technology make it easier than ever to get all the traditional benefits of a campus-based master’s degree. This includes things like close interaction with expert instructors through video-conferencing, collaboration with talented classmates in next-generation chatrooms and workspaces, and full access to digitized online research materials through virtual library spaces.

Whether you pick a traditional program or hybrid, or one that’s 100 percent online, a master’s degree in financial planning will place you among the echelon class of advisors.

(Salary data for Management Analysts, Personal Financial Advisors and Top Executives reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019. Figures represent state data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed March 2021.)