Ryan Severino always knew he wanted to work in finance. But he decided not to pursue what's often considered the holy grail of the business world.
Instead of going for the master's in business administration—the MBA—he completed a master's in international finance and economics at Columbia University after graduating from Georgetown with degrees in finance and Japanese. A few years later, Severino, 38, now a senior economist and director of research at commercial real estate firm Reis, hunkered down and studied around the clock to become a chartered financial analyst.
He never looked back on that decision.
"The MBA is a very generalist degree," said Severino, who didn't want to repeat any undergraduate classes. "For the CFA, it has a fairly refined curriculum…There is an understanding of the skill set that you bring to the table versus the MBA where the rigor from school to school is not standardized or how hard you work isn't standardized."
Even though Severino made this choice in the late 1990s, the quandary is relevant now.
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Financial services firms have been looking to add to payrolls this year, but with a catch. Many of the new positions require specific skills which can help employers cut costs and bring in new client relationships.
So, who's more valuable to Wall Street now: MBAs or CFAs? The answer depends on a few factors.
Paul Sorbera, who runs executive recruiting firm Alliance Consulting, said an MBA from an Ivy League school always has more value. On the other hand, an MBA from an average school versus a CFA is more debatable.
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"A CFA doesn't necessarily do a lot for many of the positions on Wall Street the way an MBA does… The MBA is more versatile and applicable to more jobs," Sorbera said. "The CFA is great, but it's very directed. You really have to determine what you want to do in your career. "
After years of stagnant hiring and layoffs, Sorbera is seeing the most job opportunities right now in securities research, sales and trading versus management-type jobs. These are the areas where holding a CFA could make you more marketable whether you're just a few years into your career or in the middle of it.
Cost is another element to consider when deciding between an MBA and a CFA. An MBA often costs more than $100,000 to earn while becoming a CFA is just a few thousand dollars.
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The CFA may be cheaper, but it's a rigorous program. Less than half of the candidates who took the first level of the CFA exam passed last year and only one out of five actually complete the program, according to the CFA Institute.
To become a charterholder, you must have four years of approved work experience and pass three exams. The institute, which owns the CFA and chartered financial analyst trademarks, recommends candidates study for at least six months prior to each exam. The tests focus on ethics, capital market integrity and excellence of practice.
"The chartered financial analyst designation is recognized globally and has been called many times the gold standard of accreditation of finance professionals," CFA Institute President and CEO John Rogers said. "It is more like being able to practice law or medicine or becoming a CPA than having a degree from a graduate school...The skills learned in the program are immediately applicable to the workplace."
Similar to the bar exam, candidates can retake it if they fail. Plus, many employers reimburse them for passing the tests and give them time off to study.
"In the past five years, risk and risk management has been a very big and interesting new growth area in terms of jobs and so understanding the skills which we teach," Rogers said. "That is a very important and growing area of the finance industry."
—By CNBC's Stephanie Landsman. Follow her on Twitter @StephLandsman.