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For the latest Advisors’ Advice, ThinkAdvisor asked advisors to tell us how they became financial advisors; what college degrees, training and certifications they have; and what their first job title was.

We also asked them what kind of training or certifications they would recommend to a new advisor to set them up for success.

How to Become a Financial Advisor

The path to become a financial advisor was somewhat different for each of the advisors we polled. But there are certain criteria that are required in general to become an advisor, including:

Bachelor’s Degree

Some firms want applicants with degrees in accounting, business or finance, though it is definitely possible to become a financial advisor without a business degree. Many advisors hold or eventually earn an MBA or other master’s degree.

FINRA Licenses

Depending on their role, advisors may need licenses like the Series 7, 65 and 66, which are earned by passing Financial Industry Regulatory Authority exams.

On-the-Job Training and Experience

Other requirements typically include some sort of on-the-job training, as in nearly any other job. A small number of advisory firms still require that applicants pass a training program. Some firms have defined career paths for new advisors; others do not.

A common piece of advice among the advisors we polled: Even if you aspire to run your own firm, start out in a role where you can learn the business and build the skills you need to succeed, including sales, business development and financial planning.

Certifications and Designations

Some advisors told us their firms required additional certifications, like the certified financial planner mark, for advancement. Earning additional designations like the certified financial planner mark, can help with career growth and higher earnings. There is a veritable alphabet soup of designations available; we’ve compiled a list of well-known advisor certifications here.

How 12 Advisors Got Their Start

We received a multitude of responses to our questions through the Financial Planning Association, the Wealthtender Financial Network and XY Planning Network. Some took traditional paths; some became advisors as a second career. Here are their stories, along with 12 takeaways for wannabe financial advisors.

1. Get your CFP mark.

I was working for a third-party asset management provider servicing RIAs and began to get very interested in financial planning through building those relationships with the advisor clients. Prior to becoming a full-on advisor I enrolled in a 24-month CFP program with Queens University.

After about 16 months into the program I decided to leave my employer and join an independent broker-dealer, which is where I am at today, building my own practice, Genesis Wealth Planning, LLC. When I first came on board I had the role of financial advisor and have maintained this job title since.

I started off with my CFP, Series 7, Series 66 and Life and Health licenses. Over the years I've added my ChFC and my CSLP, which has assisted me in building out a niche focused on servicing HENRYs [high earners, not rich yet] with large amounts of student debt.

Having my experience working with the RIAs and having my CFP gave me a sense of confidence and credibility when engaging with clients. For newer advisors coming into the industry, the CFP designation is a great way to obtain comprehensive planning knowledge that can then be applied toward building your practice or servicing your clients depending on which area of the financial services profession you seek to join.

— Michael Acosta, certified financial planner at Genesis Wealth Planning in Charlotte, North Carolina

2. Be prepared to sell.

I started my practice in 2021. I became a financial advisor in 2015 but worked in insurance/banking sales for years prior to this. I got my MBA, bachelor's in finance, and my CFP as well prior to launching Progress Wealth Management.

I've talked to numerous advisors with different backgrounds and the most vital skills for independent advisors are sales, relationship management and marketing. The advisors that have the easiest time are both the hungriest and the most prepared to dial and smile.

In addition, I'd highly recommend some technical expertise in financial planning prior to launching because if you're solo, you'll be tasked to answer complex questions and you can't say "ask your tax professional" for all of them. A great job to get this skill would be to start as a sales-focused financial advisor at an established RIA and move into a planning-centric financial planner role afterward purely for the experience before launching.

The most important designation you can get is your CFP. This is the most highly recognizable and equips you with the minimum knowledge of financial planning you need to be successful as a planning-focused advisor in the field today. An additional designation that would be helpful is getting your EA [IRS enrolled agent] because it ensures that most tax questions, you're fully equipped to answer.

— Blaine Thiederman, financial advisor and founder of Progress Wealth Management in Arvada, Colorado

3. Take time to learn the business.

I became passionate about saving and investing in high school when I met a stockbroker from A.G. Edwards and started buying stocks. I studied finance at the University of Georgia, but when I graduated in the early ’90s, the only jobs I could find were cold-calling sales jobs on commission. That wasn’t for me, so I ended up in technology.

Fast forward 25 years, and my wife and I achieved financial independence by the time I was 50. So, I decided to return to my passion and launch a second career as a flat-fee, advice-only financial planner. My first job was as an associate advisor for a solo AUM advisor. I did all of the financial planning, trading, meeting prep, and then took notes and presented net worth in client meetings. Not glamorous, but I learned the business.

Take a CFP course, pass the exam, and get a job with a small firm where you can do financial planning and join client meetings.

— David E. Barfield, founder and financial planner at Datapoint Financial Planning in Canton, Georgia

4. Hard work pays off.

My financial advisor career was unconventional. I started in 1996 with a very small firm. After three months there, the firm president and I did not see eye to eye on things, so I left and went independent. I remained with the same BD that I had with the initial firm. That BD was new as well. In the early years, it was a definite struggle. In a few weeks, I will be celebrating 28 years as an independent advisor with the same BD.

Unfortunately, a few years after I left that small firm, the firm's president was convicted of misappropriating clients' funds. That same year he committed suicide. Many of his clientele brought their accounts under my management and have since remained. Around year 9 or 10, all of the hard work really began paying off. I absolutely love my job. It is extremely rewarding assisting clients in reaching their financial goals and objectives.

— Jerry D. Murphy, certified financial planner at JDM Financial & Investments in Bowie, Maryland

5. Find a mentor.

I have been in the financial planning industry for four years now. I had two internships in college, one at an accounting firm and one at my current financial planning firm. I came out of college with degrees in accounting and finance and dove right into my CFP certification. I was able to overlap a few of my college courses with the CFP program, which was a big boost.

Our firm was one of few that offered true defined career paths with four stages: intern, associate advisor (no CFP), lead advisor (CFP + additional requirements), and partner. Having firms invest in younger advisors allows them to learn and build a book of business, which is a shift from the old “eat what you kill” model that sunk young advisors before they even started.

If new advisors want to set themselves up for success, they need to check two boxes. First, find an awesome mentor in the industry. Second, start their journey toward CFP certification.

— Jaycob Keuning, certified financial planner at Straight Path Wealth Management in Jenison, Michigan

6. Find a niche you're passionate about.

I attended the University of Michigan and my first job out of college was a Kmart manager. Then I worked for Hershey chocolate! I also spent 11 years working with Nestle.

I made the change when I had my fifth miscarriage and the nurses helped me so much. I wanted to touch people like they did and had the finance background for big firms, but wanted to work with individuals. I opened my own firm in 2013, dually registered, as I like having a compliance department.

I hold a bachelor’s degree, MBA, CFP [and] AIF and I love what I do to help people navigate this enormously confusing area of their lives, especially women in the health care field who give so much for so many.

— Nadine Marie Burns, president and CEO at A New Path Financial in Ann Arbor, Michigan

7. You need a variety of skills.

Started at MER as financial advisor as a career changer to pursue my passion. I had a B.S. in econ and MBA at the time. I picked up additional designations and would suggest the CFP as the must-have designation. A new advisor must learn technical proficiency, practice and relationship management and then new business development.

— Jeff H. Farrar, co-founder and partner, executive managing director and chief operations officer at Procyon Partners in Shelton, Connecticut (company headquarters) and Lenoir City, Tennessee

8. Know your strengths.

I'm a career changer. At age 40, was working at C Level in corporate management. I discovered financial planning while doing research at my alma mater university's library. I immediately enrolled in an MBA program with a CFP certificate program.

Upon graduation, I was recruited by Merrill Lynch. With no background in sales, I built my practice from scratch and was named "rookie of the year" from a class of 24 new hires. Left ML after 3 years to start my own firm. That was 20 years ago.

College degrees: Bachelor of Arts, MBA

Certifications: CFP, accredited estate planner.

First job title at Merrill Lynch: financial advisor, with responsibility of building my own book of business.

Training: Understand business before trying to start your own. Evaluate yourself. If you can't sell, or make a cold call, work for someone else, don't try to start your own.

— Patrick Dougherty, president, CEO and director of wealth management at Dougherty Wealth Management in Dallas

9. Know your 'why.'

I earned double undergraduate degrees: B.A. in East Asian language and literature and B.S. in finance.

My first formal position in finance involved writing a newsletter for English speaker investors. I worked at Towa Securities in Tokyo, Japan. I was a MEXT scholar. We have the opportunity to live, study and work in Japan. While the job allowed me to apply my skills, I felt that something was missing. I wanted to take the concepts that I learned in corporate finance and apply them to individuals and families.

As an undergraduate, I wasn't aware of the separate and distinct discipline of financial planning. I planned my transition to become a financial advisor. I started with the Series 63, 65, and life & health. I am proud to say that I passed all 4 of these tests in less than eight weeks — with a 6-month-old baby and 3-year-old daughter. I became a pre-appointed financial advisor with Ameriprise.

The first designation I earned was CRPC. Then I earned CFP certification, RICP, CSRIC and now I am pursuing the CAP.

My advice is to join the professional associations, and take advantage of mentors/sponsors/advocates.

Invest in yourself.

Attend conferences, read and peer-to-peer mentoring.

It is important to embrace lifelong learning and always go back to your “why.” My “why” for being a planner is to change conversations about money and wealth. I believe financial planning transforms lives and that everyone deserves access to competent ethical financial planning advice.

— Marguerita M. Cheng, CEO at Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Potomac, Maryland

10. Be the advisor you wish you had.

I became a financial advisor because I have a passion for personal finance and because I had a difficult time finding a financial professional who would work with me the way I wanted to engage with them. (The advisors I met with were much more interested in managing assets or selling me products than dispensing quality, objective financial advice).

With my wife's support, I started my own RIA firm having no prior experience in personal financial services. (I figured things out as I went, which I wouldn't recommend to someone who's just starting out in this industry).

I set out to build a practice that would serve families who have experienced the same thing I did when searching for financial advice. Over time, I've settled on a solo practice that is devoted to hourly financial planning with no asset management services; because I believe that being advice-only has fewer inherent conflicts of interest.

I graduated college with a bachelor's degree in finance and a master's degree in accounting and I obtained a CPA license in 2003. Before launching my RIA firm in 2018, I sat for and passed the AICPA's personal financial specialist designation in 2017. I passed the Series 65 exam before registering my RIA firm in Texas. I'd recommend the CFP and EA designations for someone who's starting out and isn't a CPA license holder.

— Ryan Firth, CPA/PFS, CCFC, GFP (USA), RLP, CFP, founder and president of Mercer Street Personal Financial Services in Bellaire, Texas

11. A tax background is helpful.

I did not follow the traditional path. For me, the key first step that allowed me to transition from a CPA/tax professional to an advisor was pursuing the CFA designation. I learned about that when I helped manage an online portfolio for The Motley Fool.

After I earned the CFA designation, I worked as a senior analyst covering the energy sector. After that, I worked for an RIA where I researched and made recommendations related to securities held in client portfolios.

From there, I started my own firm. Now I focus on working with female-led households. My goal is to help keep other women from experiencing the financial difficulties my mother went through before her untimely passing.

I have a B.S. in accounting. [My first job title was] tax professional for Deloitte. I prepared tax returns and performed research for individual clients as well as businesses.

I am both a CPA and a CFA charter holder. I recommend both of those designations. Becoming a CFP would be another option.

— Philip H. Weiss, CPA, CFA and principal at Apprise Wealth Management in Phoenix, Maryland

12. Get certified as soon as you can.

I was an undergraduate student at Clemson University’s college of business and frequented the career fairs. At one career fair, I met a financial advisor, a local branch manager with a large life insurance company/broker-dealer. While most of the other booths at the fair talked about analytical roles in an office building by participating in rotational programs for entry-level salaries, this financial advisor discussed the opportunity to operate as your own business owner and make what you earn.

I earned my Bachelor of Science in financial management with a minor in accounting. My undergraduate workload focused on corporate finance and audit rather than personal finance and tax advice. There were not as many personal financial planning courses offered at universities at the time, but fortunately, this has changed.

The company I would eventually work for did pay for me to get my series 6, series 63, and insurance licenses as I was simultaneously finishing my senior year finals and transitioning from college. So, I was ready to get started as soon as I graduated.

My first job title was “financial professional associate” because the company required that you have a series 65 or series 66 to call yourself a “financial advisor.”

I recommend getting started on the CFP designation as soon as possible. After graduating, take either the series 65 exam and join a fee-only RIA or take the series 7 and 66 and join a broker-dealer. I would also recommend completing the CIMA designation if you are interested in investment consulting.

—Greg Goff, founder, financial advisor, CFP, CIMA, ChFC and CLU at Sound Wealth Management in Greeneville, South Carolina


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