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Actuarial Career Path (Q&A for Aspiring Actuaries)
If you’re considering becoming an actuary, you probably have some questions about the actuarial career path and how it all works. Well, you’re in luck!
Erick is an aspiring actuary that recently asked me some questions about the career. The path to becoming an actuary is quite long and requires a lot of work. So before he commits to being an actuary he wants to be sure he knows how it all works and what to expect.
Here are my answers to his questions. If you can, watch both the video above and the written responses below because I provided more details on some questions in the video, and other questions I provided more details in the written responses.
The questions are as follows. You can click any link below to go directly to that question.
- How many internships did you land before your first full-time job?
- How many exams did you pass before your first internship?
- How did you find and obtain your positions?
- How many exams and internships should I have before applying to entry-level jobs?
- Should I get a masters in actuarial science?
- What are the recommended computer skills?
- Is school name important in the hiring process?
- What classes that are beneficial to take in college?
- What is the expected starting salary for an entry-level actuary?
- Which industries do actuaries work for?
Here are the full responses:
1. How many internships did you land before your first full-time job? How did it benefit you when you got your first full-time job?
I went to the University of Waterloo, where they have an excellent co-op program. It’s great because I don’t have to worry about going out and finding internships myself. Instead the school does it for me.
They find hundreds of different employers that are interested in hiring students for 4-8 months. Those employers create job descriptions and post them on the University of Waterloo co-op portal. They’re not all actuarial jobs (these are jobs available to all co-op students at the school) but there are always a good selection of actuarial jobs too.
So through that program I was able to land three 8-month internships, or co-op placements. Two of them were actuarial and one was in IT. One of my actuarial internships was in property and casualty (P&C) insurance and the other was in a life insurance company primarily working in the retirement savings area.
The video at the top of this page goes into more detail about the different projects that I completed at each of these internships. I didn’t some really interesting work!
My favorite was a project where I was trying to determine whether the cost of ordering motor vehicle reports was outweighing the additional premiums that we were charging policy holders as a result of the purchase. To learn all about it, watch the video!
Internship positions are helpful in so many ways. They often give you your first experience in an office environment. That can be a huge benefit because you’ll learn what an office environment is like and office etiquette.
My time in the life insurance company is where I learned a lot about using Excel and VBA. This has been incredibly valuable in my career because, as you probably already know, actuaries use Excel on a daily basis especially when starting out.
VBA allows you to create code that automates otherwise manual processes in Excel. It can be a life-saver in an actuarial position and I definitely recommend learning it.
2. How many actuarial exams did you pass before your first internship?
My first internship was in IT, so it didn’t require any actuarial exams. But it would probably be more interesting for you to learn that I didn’t have any exams when I got my first actuarial internship either.
That isn’t common. Most employers will require that you have at least one but I guess the interviewer saw something in me that assured him I’d be a good fit for the position even if I didn’t have any exams yet.
One thing to note is that I did make it very clear during my interview that, even though I didn’t have any exams yet, I was very interested in becoming an actuary. I wanted him to have confidence of that.
When I got my second actuarial internship I had passed 2 exams. Actually, I passed both those exams while I was in my first internship. I always found it to be way easier to study while I was working rather than trying to study for actuarial exams while I was in school.
When I got my first entry-level job in Canada, I had passed 3 exams. Most people (at that time) in Canada would have more than 3 exams passed upon graduation. Now, in July of 2018, I suspect that the number of exams that students in Canada have upon graduation may start to decrease.
With the new exam structure you have to decide whether you want to be a life actuary or a P&C actuary before you write your 4th exam. This is a decision that I believe most people won’t make until they’ve already got their first job. That wasn’t the case when I graduated (in 2013) so having 4-5 exams passed was common.
(Note: If you’re writing Exam P or FM soon, the first two actuarial exams, sign up for my study strategy tips emails in the top right hand corner of this page).
3. How did you find and obtain your positions? Applying through job searching or through connections?
I talked about this in a previous question. Since the University of Waterloo (UW) did all my “internship hunting” for me, I took advantage of that opportunity.
Since there are so many actuarial students at UW the actuarial internships are very competitive. But I was fortunate enough to still be able to get 2 through that method.
If you don’t have access to that sort of a program, then I recommend searching for internships online as well as using any connections you may have. If you know anyone that works in an insurance company that can be a huge advantage.
I also suggest sending your resume into companies even if they don’t have any internship positions posted. On many websites you can submit your resume even if you don’t see a job that fits what you’re looking for. They’ll keep your resume on file for any job opportunities that may arise.
Cold emailing, in my experience, doesn’t work all that well unless you’re a really great candidate. In which case you probably wouldn’t have a need to cold email since you could get a job through the regular system.
4. What is the recommended number of related internships and actuarial exams in order to find an actuarial job after college?
The more internship experience you can get, the better! But finding at least one internship should be your goal. It doesn’t have to be actuarial, although if it was that would be best.
Related internship positions that you could find are anything in finance, investments, or underwriting. If you can find a job that involved a lot of data analysis that would be a great opportunity as well, no matter what the industry.
Try to be as open-minded to opportunities as possible. Be prepared to relocate or commute long distances temporarily if needed. Be open to jobs that may not be your first choice or seem like they may not be all that interesting. You never know how things will turn out! Take advantage of the opportunities that you get.
In terms of exams, usually 2 or 3 exams is enough to get an actuarial position in the U.S. But if you don’t have enough yet, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply to jobs. There is no harm in trying to get one. It’s just that your number of exams passed may hold you back so you should work on passing more too.
In Canada, the job market is much more saturated and most actuarial science graduates have already passed 4-5 exams. So employers have come to expect that. However, due to recent (July 2018) changes to the actuarial exam system I suspect that having 3 exams passed by graduation will become the norm in the next 2-3 years.
5. Under what circumstances would it be worth it to get a masters in actuarial science ?
Employers really only care that you have some sort of degree and that you can pass actuarial exams. If you can show them that you have some post-secondary education (no matter what your major) and that you have passed 2-3 exams then you won’t have to worry about a masters.
Everything that you need to learn for the preliminary actuarial exams (the first 7) is available online somewhere. It may not be well organized or easy to find, but it’s there.
That means that you can save yourself tons of money and time by skipping the actuarial science masters and just learn what you need to in order to get through exams. It may take you a bit longer to study, but it’ll pay off and be shorter (in the long run) than getting a masters.
6. What are the recommended computer skills to stand out when applying for jobs?
Excel and VBA are the most important computer skills you can have as an entry-level actuary. Like I said in a previous response, Excel is used on a daily basis when you’re a new actuary.
You’ll use lots of functions like vlookups, hlookups, sumifs, and if/then statements. You’ll also need to know how to use pivot tables.
VBA is coding that you can use to automate Excel. There are many times in your actuarial career where you’ll have to do something repetitively in Excel. In these situations you can save yourself hundreds of hours of work by creating simple macros that will do it for you.
Employers value someone already having these skills because they’re used so frequently.
Some other programing languages that may come in helpful are SAS, Python and R. I used SAS in my P&C internship but after that I never had another use for it.
7. Do you think school name plays a significant role in the hiring process?
Employers care primarily that you have a degree and that you can pass actuarial exams. So it would be unlikely for an employer to care much about the school that you go to.
If you have 2-3 exams passed when you start applying for your first job and you have a degree from a college or university, the employer will treat you the same as any other candidate.
So, no. I don’t think that school name plays a significant role in the hiring process.
8. What are some classes that would be beneficial to take in college to get into the actuarial career?
As an actuary you need to be a fairly well-rounded individual. Actuaries require knowledge in business, finance, statistics and computer science. All of those areas of expertise are used on the job.
So my recommendation to you is to take at least 2 courses in each of these topics if possible. If your major doesn’t include them all, then be sure to use some of your electives to fill the gaps. Since you have to take courses anyway, you may as well take courses that will benefit you in your career!
9. Around what should be the starting salary be for an entry-level actuary?
I actually wrote a post about this very recently. It assumes that you have 2 exams and are looking for your first actuarial job. You can read it HERE for a more in-depth view.
But in general, somewhere between $50K and $70K is what you can expect. The amounts vary quite a lot depending on your experience, your geographical location, the company itself and the industry that you’re in.
Typically P&C actuaries tend to be on the higher end, whereas pension actuaries often start at a rate much lower than $50K. The pension field is getting smaller and smaller so, if possible, avoid it. But it’s still an actuarial position and it’ll give you good experience so if that’s your only option do not turn it down just for this reason. You can get another job in a year or two with your new experience.
10. Which industries do actuaries work for?
Actuaries work in many different industries. Primarily though, they work in insurance.
Even within the insurance industry there are lots of different specializations though:
Life Insurance Actuary – these actuaries will primarily work with life insurance, such as term insurance and whole life insurance.
Health Insurance Actuary – these actuaries will be working with employer benefit plans for health, drug and dental benefits provided to their employees.
Retirement Benefits Actuary – these actuaries will be working with employer pension plans that are provided to their employees.
Property and Casualty (P&C) Actuary – these actuaries will be working with home insurance and auto insurance. Basically they’ll cover insurance for personal belongings.
Furthermore, there are actuaries that work in the government, in schools, and much more. I believe that the unique and insightful capabilities of actuaries will only increase the number of areas where actuaries are utilized. Although much of our education is based around insurance, the same concepts can be applied to hundreds of different fields.
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