SO ... YOU WANT TO BE AN ACTUARY
Paul F. Creegan, Jr.
Before last summer when "The Jobs Rated Almanac" named it as the best career in the land, few people had ever heard of an actuary. Fewer still knew who an actuary was or what all actuary did. Some think that actuaries are dour, humorless individuals, cloaked in green eyes shades, sitting on high school stools in the backrooms of insurance companies, determining precisely and impassionately when people will die or accidents will occur.
The newspaper articles that followed the release of "The Jobs Rated Almanac" did little to dispel popular misconceptions or spread useful information about the profession and the opportunities that it offers. Unfortunately, many mathematics departments, which have historically been the greatest source of entrants into the profession, generally offer little information and even less encouragement to potential candidates.
For those not knowledgeable about the role of actuaries in society, an actuary is a specialist in the assessment of risk. Generally they are trained Mathematicians (though they need not be), who study and evaluate risks and determine the associated costs with respect to benefit programs, such as pension plans, life and health insurance, and property and casualty insurance. An actuary is a combination of an accountant, a lawyer, an engineer and a politician. An actuary often communicates and/or works closely with salespeople, regulators, auditors, underwriters, claims administrators and programmers.
More than half of the actuaries in the U.S. and Canada are employed by insurance companies while another third work for independent consulting firms. The rest are spread among government agencies, universities and other parts of the corporate world.
For Life Insurance Actuaries (as contrasted with Casualty Actuaries), professional recognition is attained by Fellowship in the Society of Actuaries. To achieve this, an actuary must pass a series of ten exams (which now may be taken in pieces). The first five of these cover areas of mathematics: calculus, statistics, numerical analysis, operations research. theory of interest, life contingencies, risk theory and survival models, while the latter five deal with non-mathematical topics: financial security program design (insurance, pensions and social insurance), taxes (both individual and corporate), law, accounting and financial reporting, macro-economics, underwriting and marketing.
While taking exams, an actuary is considered a student or an Associate if he or she passed the first five exams. During this period, three to five hours of exams every six months are taken. Most, if not all, companies support the actuary by providing substantial amounts of paid time to study in addition to the necessary study material. A few might even pay for exam preparation courses at area colleges or Actuarial Clubs.
The student (or Associate) is also required to invest between 150 and 250 hours of personal time to reasonably ensure success. This is a substantial investment to make twice each year for a period of several years. However, the investment of time and energy is not excessive when compared with the requirements of other professions: medical, graduate or law school. The process has been likened to being paid to go to graduate school.
Companies generally seek to staff their student programs with the same college graduates who are most eagerly sought by many other professions. They look for strong academic backgrounds, active involvement in campus activities, a proven employment record, good communication skills, computer literacy, and a full quota of ambition and drive, plus success on one or more of the actuarial exams.
Although some, including the out-going President of the Society of Actuaries, might not agree, I believe that the best candidates for the actuarial profession still come from undergraduate and graduate mathematics departments. It is true, however, that actuaries are not truly mathematicians. Rather they are more businessmen and women who are capable of using mathematics as a tool. However, I think it is much easier for the mathematician to develop the necessary business sense than it is for the economics, finance or accounting major to develop the analytical tools and approach that come from a mathematics education.
I would suggest that any college student interested in the profession take a full range of typical mathematics courses. I don't believe it necessary, or even advisable, to concentrate on courses specifically aimed at helping one pass the exams. I personally look to see if someone has done well in an Advanced Calculus or Abstract Algebra course. In my opinion, being able to effectively structure a proof of an abstract concept transfers well to the skills necessary to succeed in most analytical tasks.
I would also suggest that the potential actuary explore as many business courses as possible. Accounting, finance or law (business or otherwise) are all useful. The student should also not ignore courses that offer the opportunity to improve communication skills, both verbal and written, and those that increase one's ability to effectively use computers.
Paul Creegan is Associate Actuary at The Paul Revere in Worcester, Mass.