An actuary assembles and analyzes facts and estimates risks and returns to make financial planning decisions in a specific area of expertise. As an actuary, you’ll spend a lot of time working with numbers. You’ll also spend up to 65 percent of your time working with people, establishing goals, reviewing work, and researching figures. “It’s a real learning experience at first-not at all like school,” one actuary wrote, referring to the interpersonal and communication skills that were required in her job.
A significant portion of the aspiring actuary’s time is spent studying for the multifaceted, information-specific exams that every actuary must pass. Initial examinations test basic mathematical skills, such as probability, calculus, and linear algebra, and are used as “litmus tests” to eliminate those unsuited to the actuarial life. Surprisingly, we found little mention of the long hours spent outside of work studying for the exams and the lack of a social life this hard study encourages. Actuaries seem to enjoy the constant education the profession requires, regardless of the personal cost. These exams provide good indicators of progress as an actuary; full passage of the exams take between five and ten years.
Becoming an actuary requires some of the skills of a gambler and some of the skills of a marathoner. You need a gambler’s understanding of statistics, probability, and risk analysis. Most actuaries graduate college with a degree in mathematics or a business-related field, although the industry trend of late is to hire more liberal arts students who can demonstrate a high mathematical aptitude. The endurance of a marathoner is required not for the hours, which are fairly acceptable, but to make it through the actuarial examinations, which can take as long as ten years to pass. These tests are administered biannually by three associations: The Society of Actuaries, the Casualty Actuarial Society (for casualty actuaries), and the American Society of Pension Actuaries. While each agency provides certification for a certain specialization, the first few tests are general enough that they may be taken without regard to any specific career path.
As you advance as an actuary, your career path will depend mainly on the complementary skills you bring to the profession. While some move to administrative and executive positions in underwriting, accounting, or information departments, others with more of a business background may move into supervisory positions in such diverse fields as marketing, planning or corporate strategy.