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Actuary

Overview  

Actuaries are vicarious risk-takers. They calculate risk by analyzing statistics and, based on their analysis, make decisions regarding pricing and investment strategies. Some actuaries work in the financial services industry, while others specialize in insurance and pension plans. Whatever the industry, actuaries decide whether a venture is financially sound.

Actuaries in the insurance industry calculate the probability that there will be a return on their investment; to do this, they consider probabilities of death, dismemberment, disability, or property loss. Actuaries are the reason teenagers driving sports cars pay such prohibitively high premiums. Actuaries ensure that insurance prices will enable the company to pay all claims and expenses and that the price yields a profit. Their keen mathematical skills and analytical abilities are a boon in investing, classifying risk, planning pensions, managing credit, and pricing corporate offerings. Once they reach upper-level management positions, actuaries are often called upon to determine and implement complex company policies. Actuaries also often testify in court to verify the loss incurred by a policyholder who has been disabled or killed and in divorce cases as to the current value of pension benefits. Actuaries may also appear before public agencies to contest legislation that affects their businesses. These professionals also work as independent consultants who are hired by insurance companies, corporations, hospitals, labor unions, and health care providers for their advice. Due to the breadth of topics they may work on, it is important for the actuary to keep current with many different industries and fields.

Actuaries earn competitive salaries from the time they start and are paid for every hour of credit that they earn from "actuarial exams." Actuaries spend up to eight months a year studying for these exams, which test everything from specific knowledge (casualty insurance, life insurance, pension services) to linear algebra, probability, calculus, statistics, risk theory and actuarial mathematics. Actuaries are pressured to complete the entire series of examinations as soon as possible in order to advance in the field. The first set of exams brings the actuary to the associate level and takes 4 to 6 years to complete. Preparation for the exam requires hours of study outside of work, dramatically impacting the personal and social lives of potential actuaries. Actuaries can spend up to 10 years or more taking exams and studying to reach the title of Fellowship, particularly if they stop along the way to get married and have families. The long hours required to gain titles and prestige in the actuarial field do not go unrewarded -- starting salaries are very high and continue to climb for more experienced actuaries.

Career Path  

Completion of the actuarial promotion process takes from five to 10 years. The first rung on the advancement ladder is associate, followed by the fellowship level. Most actuaries reach the associate level within four to six years. Associates generally specialize in courses that lead to a career in life insurance, health insurance, investment, or pension services. Fellowship candidates usually have several years of experience. Most actuaries complete the fellowship exams a few years after they become an associate. Beginning actuaries often rotate between jobs to learn the ropes, which may include rotations in insurance marketing, underwriting, or product development. As they gain experience, they are given the opportunity to supervise clerks, prepare correspondence and reports, and do research. It is customary for actuaries to move from company to company as they advance. The number of actuarial examinations passed and the individual's job performance affects advancement; actuaries with management skills can proceed to administrative positions in underwriting, accounting, data processing, marketing, advertising, or planning.

Because of the nature of actuarial exams, turnover in the profession is quite low. Entry-level positions are limited by the small size of the profession. It is predicted that jobs in actuarial consulting will grow at a faster rate than in the insurance sector.

Uppers  

Good starting salary;Tuition reimbursement in most companies;Regular hours

Downers  

Lengthy and grueling actuarial exams

Personality Match  

Analytical;Fastidious

Personality Miss  

Free-spirited;Sensitive;Disorganized

Hours  

Average about 40 per week

Salary  

Average entry-level salary: $41,500;For associates who price and design products: $88,000

Skills  

Bachelor's degree

Our Survey Says  

The actuarial profession is one of the few in which the starting pay is "excellent, considering you only need a bachelor's degree." Because actuarial programs are made up "mostly of young, fresh, out-of-college, single people," they tend to be very social. Working hours with insurance firms are "shorter and more reasonable" than in consulting firms. Insurance companies also "place more emphasis on passing actuarial exams." People become actuaries because they "like to examine something and try to figure out how it works - or how to make it work." Our respondents cite the "rigorous exam process" as one of the major difficulties in the profession. A "primary consideration" for anyone thinking about the profession is "the level of commitment to the exam process." Actuaries are "in direct and constant competition" with other actuarial students; the early exam success rate is only 25 to 30 percent. With "no family, no friends, no social life, and no outside obligations of any kind," an actuarial student can complete the exams in fewer than 10 years. One respondent cites "a doctor friend who said he thought it was worse than medical school." However, according to our respondents, the financial rewards and the level of daily challenges balances the rigors of constant study.

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