Be an actuary?
August 2, 2007 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Attn: Actuaries! I've got some questions about professions in actuarial science...

Since becoming aware that you don't actually need what I would consider to be all that much math to become an actuary, I've become curious about the profession. I have some questions:

1) Is it really as easy to get a job after passing the first exam as they make it sound at I get the impression that at this point one can make $40-45k/yr -- if there is that much demand for actuaries, wouldn't the compensation be higher?

2) Will having flunked a 400 level math course in solving systems of nonlinear equations be a big negative to getting an interview?

3) Does one have to live in a large city to work in this field, or is employment available in smaller cities?

4) Can one telecommute or work from home? Is this a job that would be vulnerable to international outsourcing in the future?

5) I'm unskilled in office politics - will this hamstring me in this career? I tend to assume others are honest, and don't deal well with environments where there is a lot of backstabbing and political stuff, but have OK social skills otherwise.

6) Environment -- Cubicle or office? Travel? High pressure/stress? Sudden need to stay late or work weekends? Do actuaries get out their geek toys when no one else is watching? Cooperation or competition in studying for further exams?

7) What programming languages are good to know these days? I keep hearing about visual basic, but I've had CS classes and wonder if I should brush up on any of these.

8) Any negatives to actuarial careers? Most of the web sites I've found take the tone that it's all wonderful and perfect, now take your exam so we can get some more bodies.

I'm in the US, graduated college with an unrelated bachelor's degree some years back. I've taken most of the courses recommended for college students, except for third semester calculus. I'd welcome any firsthand accounts of experiences, and I'll be checking on this thread in the future, so please add to it even if some time has gone by.
posted by yohko to Work & Money (11 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Actuaries are highly intellegent wonks. Joke: What's the difference between an accountant and an actuary? An accountant will look at YOUR shoes when they talk to you. No to the big city thing. No to the office politic thing. Any insurance company has an actuary. Could be in house or by hire. Size of company dictates travel/stress.

#2 - maybe.
posted by rainbaby at 12:58 PM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: A good friend of ours is an actuary, and she's passed the exam (or set of exams) that makes her a Fellow in one of the societies. She's fiendishly smart, and was able to work from home while her kids were small.

Last time we saw her, she was telling us about the amount of travel she was having to do, for client audits and whatnot. For what it's worth, she seems to enjoy it. Her main PC work is with the various statistical modeling packages they use.

She lives in the Atlanta area, which is not exactly a hotbed of the insurance industry (unlike, say, New York or Hartford). Nevertheless, I don't think she's ever been starved for work.

Being somewhat good with office/people politics will help irrespective of your field. A great deal also probably depends on the company, I imagine.
posted by jquinby at 1:44 PM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: My sister is a (relatively new) actuary. She really enjoys math but doesn't seem to enjoy the work all that much, although I do not believe she hates the work.

She does live in Hartford but in her short career she hasn't really had any trouble finding jobs and/or offers, and she is paid pretty damn well for having graduated school 2 years ago. I think she has 3 exams under her belt.

She travels very little, though that may increase as she progresses in her career (she's at a big insurance firm). She knows little to no CS or programming languages, and I get the impression that it's more of a "nice to have" instead of a requirement.

From my experience with actuaries on the client side, you may have to travel some - the ones I worked with were nerdy but had pretty decent people skills, which is likely why they were out making house calls.
posted by PFL at 2:01 PM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: PFL, from your point of view on the client side, did the actuaries have a fairly punishing travel schedule, or did they spend some more time in one place? I'm not necessarily opposed to travel.
posted by yohko at 2:36 PM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: The actuarial profession tends to attract very smart people who thrive on linear progression through the ranks based on passing exams. Bear in mind that the first few actuarial exams tend to be relatively easy, but that they get much harder. They are not all about math, and usually require extensive studying. Many large insurance companies allow a set amount of study time at work, but the exams generally require a signficant amount of at-home study. For some people, having an exam hanging over your head for 10 months out the year for the 5-8 years it will take to pass them all causes burnout. I have heard that passing all of the actuarial exams is akin to obtaining a PhD, except your are obtaining it while working full time.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 2:40 PM on August 2, 2007

Best answer: I am a former actuary. I passed 3 exams, and spent 2 years (1996-1998) as a pension actuary associate for a consulting firm. I burned out, as did many who started with me at the same time at that company. I'm obviously biased, and my info is 10 years old, so keep that in mind ;)

A few thoughts:

1. I got my foot in the door by interning at the firm the summer between my junior and senior year in college. If you can find an internship, go for it. The starting salaries you mentioned seem very low, at least for NYC - that was the range when I began over ten years ago, so I would guess that it is higher now. Of course, different locations and different industries would have different ranges.

2. At my firm, we regularly received 300+ resumes for each open position, and had to do some major weeding. Our first cut was anyone who had not yet passed an exam. A failed math class would definitely have given us pause, had we known about it.

3. My firm had actuaries in multiple cities, big and small, across the US. I worked in NYC.

4. I did not telecommute at the time, as that was not really in vogue then.

5. Office politics definitely depend on the company and particular office.

6. I spent my 2 years in a cubicle. You have to be a Senior Manager or above to get an office. Partners & Principals had window offices. I personally did very little travel, but at my firm it all depending on where your clients were located. I worked very late most nights and many weekends (hence, the burnout. You can only work 60-80 weeks AND study for exams before you cry uncle). The rumor was that folks that worked for insurance companies only worked 9-5. My office was cooperative about studying for exams, but when the results came out, we were all competitive.

7. I can't speak to programming languages in use today. At the time, the only programming we did was in excel macros. We had a dedicated group at another office who wrote the in-house software we used.

8. The negatives: I had no life outside of work and studying for exams. Literally, for 2 years, I did nothing but eat, sleep, work, and study. I did not have any vacation time the first year. You will fail exams, sometimes multiple times - if you were an overachiever in school, this can be very difficult to handle. Depending on the company you work for, failing too many exams can be grounds for dismissal. If you work for a consulting firm, the work you do will be dependant on your client. I loved working on small clients, where I could be involved in almost every part of their pension valuation. I hated the big clients where all I did, day after day, was calculate annuities for retirees.

I'd be happy to discuss further - e-mail is in my profile.
posted by xsquared-1 at 3:56 PM on August 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My husband is a pension actuary. Unlike x-squared above, he doesn't work long hours and doesn't travel. He does work for a fairly small company, though; just goes to show there's a lot of variation in the business. If you're planning on having a family, it's a great choice, I think. He regularly gets recruiting calls.

He suggests you visit Actuarial Outpost, particularly the forums, both to see what actuaries have to talk about, and to have a more targeted place for this sort of question.

Good luck. :)
posted by Andrhia at 6:08 PM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ms. Meat is a CAS actuary at a very large insurance company.

1) Yes, however you need to be in season. Out of season is much harder as an entry level. Season ~=Jan/Feb interviews to start in the summer.

Compensation is correct, however signing bonuses and raises for passed exams are the norm.

2) They'll ask. You should have a good explanation.

3) No. Smaller cities like Richmond and suburbs of major cities have tons of actuaries. If you're not looking for a large insurance company, consulting and departments of insurance are your best bet.

4) Theoretically yes, but probably not. SOA or CAS exams are the standard in the industry.

5) Probably not, but depends on the company. You would not be the only nerd in actuarial science.

6)Cube to Cube Farm. Little travel. Pressure depends on the company and are seasonal. Relatively low. Extra hours are almost always planable. We get out our geek toys when EVERYBODY is watching. Cooperation depends on the company.

7)Don't bother.

8) It can get dull after a while. Exams are hard and take up a lot of time.

Your bachelor's doesn't matter. A firm background in probability is needed. I don't remember anything from Calc 3 that I use regularly. Business, accounting, and finance classes are very useful, as is econ. Walking in with some exams passed is probably key to getting a good job.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:39 PM on August 2, 2007

If you plan for a career in the long run, in my experience almost every CEO of a life insurance company is a qualified actuary...

Actuaries get involved in all manner of things - product development, pricing, insurance rates, insurance *selling* (negotiation of rates on a case-by-case basis), etc.

Again, in my experience, all the actuaries I've ever known are pretty darn smart, but often don't see the bigger picture, and some don't have particularly broad social skills. Not saying that this would be you, but it's likely to be the people you'd work with.

Personally, I'd say that a bit of a grounding in actuarial maths is a very useful background in understanding how some companies work, how they make money, how certain products work, etc. - but I'd never want to have to go through all those exams... I know people who have consistently failed every year for over 10 years! Nasty!
posted by Chunder at 2:11 AM on August 3, 2007

Best answer: you will need calc 3 to pass the first exam although it's mainly just double integrals over weird x-y spaces and partial derivatives. you need to be good at them though, as there are a lot of easy mistakes to make and there are a handful of questions on the exam.
posted by noloveforned at 5:30 AM on August 3, 2007

not sure ths is being monitored by the OP at this time, but as you may see from anothee recent post i've made, life has gotten away from me. i did receive your email and forwarded it to a trusted ad skilled collleague,. i've been away from the office for awhiole and will check in on the whole situation when i return with some thought s for you, if she has not already contacted you.

best regards,

posted by Soulbee at 9:31 PM on August 18, 2007

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