Item #4 So You Wanna Be an Actuary?
Recently, I decided to leave academia and become an actuary. I haven't actually begun my new career yet; I start in June. I want to share what little advice I can give for those wishing to pursue actuarial work, and to share some of my interviewing experiences. Neither topic can be expounded upon at great length.
Let's start with advice.
START TAKING EXAMS.
Actuarial employers are impressed with nothing less. My having a PhD was not as important as my having had sat for two exams in February. The first exam covers Calculus and Linear Algebra, and should be no trouble for any of us. The second exam is Probability and Statistics, again not too terribly hard for us. I really cannot overstate the importance of exams. If you want to take more than the first two, it is a good idea to take exams accepted by BOTH the Casualty Actuarial Society and the Society of Actuaries. (The addresses and phone numbers of these two societies appear at the end of this article.)
Unless you have some actuarial experience, you must try to get an entry level position. Do not fret about the fact that you have a PhD or a Masters degree and are being hired to do the work normally given to someone with just a BS or BA. Within a few years it won't matter. The starting salary for someone with two exams passed is comparable to the average starting salary for an Assistant Professor of Mathematics with a brand new PhD. In 1993, the average starting salary for a new Fellow (one who has passed all exams and other requirements) was $70,000+.
How do you get an interview? The SoA has a little booklet they will send you with the names and contact info of companies looking to hire entry level folks. Its called "Actuarial Training Programs". Get it. Also, it is imperative that you NETWORK. Talk to the career counselors at your school. Talk to friends and colleagues. Many of you already know people in the business; they may have taken calc from you, or have been a colleague in graduate school, etc. Does your graduate or undergraduate institution have an actuarial program? It might not be a bad idea to look at the CML (by geographical area) and do a little cross referencing, looking for members of the MAA, AMS, or SIAM who work in this field. Talk to anyone and everyone about this to see who can help.
I should illustrate this with an example. After making the decision to become an actuary, I found out that one of the guys writing letters for me is the director of the actuarial studies program in his department. We spoke, and he gave me a name, which led to an interview which led to a job (thanks again, Carl!). The only other interview I had was made possible by my father introducing me to an actuary who has a PhD in Mathematics. (My father is not an actuary, but is in the insurance business.) In neither case did I blindly send a resume to someone. They knew it was coming and made sure I was interviewed.
I don't know how useful recruiters are for entry level actuarial positions. I only contacted two recruiters. One flat out told me she couldn't help me due to my inexperience. The other asked me to mail my resume. I haven't heard from him since. I am under the impression that most actuarial recruiters are only interested in placing people with experience. Of course, it won't hurt you to go ahead and contact a few. It won't cost anything (except maybe a long distance phone call), and they will at least know who you are. You may get lucky and find one who knows of a job for which you are well suited.
Another gem of advice I can give you is that actuarial work is not all about math/stats, it is about business. Do not try to go into this if you expect to sit around doing math all day. Certainly, jobs exist where one does a lot of number crunching and computational statistics. Bottom line, however, is business. You will be sorely disappointed if you expect otherwise (I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but as a general rule I think it is a good one. At least, that is what my actuarial friends tell me.) A moderate business background can really help you. Good communications skills are an essential part of many actuarial jobs. If you are a good teacher, pump that up. Some people even claim that there are distinct personality differences between those in the life and casualty sides of the business. It wouldn't hurt you to learn the basics of life, property and liability insurance.
In fact, you really should learn a bit about the insurance industry before trying to get an interview. Of course, you should ask a lot of questions once you get there. You have to impress the interviewers with your seriousness. This is a big career shift. There isn't much advice I can give on interviewing other than the generic. However, I do need to share one important point. Lots of people out there have the idea that a PhD will be unhappy with or unable to handle the mundane aspects of an office job. In fact, this was a big issue during my interviews. I would go so far as to say a few of the people interviewing me had no interest in me at all because of this prejudice. Fortunately, I was able to convince enough people otherwise; I got the offer I really wanted (and I still won't have to wear a tie!).
We all know (or should know) that in order to get a job you have to project a good attitude, convince the people doing the interviewing that you will work well on a team (incredibly important!) and that you will be valuable to the company. It may not be obvious to them that you will be valuable. Do you expect to sit around all day doing the math/stats that you find interesting? Or do you expect to do your job well? Doing your job well may not entail much mathematics or statistics. However, you posses a very well trained brain, you have to convince those doing the hiring that you WANT to use this brain to help them make money (that is what it is all about, isn't it?).
Here are the addresses and phone numbers:
Society of Actuaries Casualty Actuarial Society
475 North Martingale Rd. 1100 North Glebe Road
Suite 800 Suite 600
Schaumburg, IL 60173-2226 Arlington, VA 22201
(708) 706-3500 (703) 276-3100
Kevin Madigan email@example.com