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Old 03-15-2004, 09:49 PM
Join Date: Nov 2002
Location: Baltimore, MD, US
Posts: 1,042
Actuaries and Statisticians: Tell me about your jobs!

I am a High School Junior and I've recently become very interested in becoming an actuary. In ninth grade, my Geometry teacher (Who also has a PhD in Statistics; I'm taking AP Statistics with him next year) would often mention math-related fields, and he'd always bring up the actuarial field. He'd talk about how actuaries are some of the most satisfied, well-paid, comfortable, intelligent and needed people of any job. The only thing is, he'd never really mention what they actually did!

Anyway, I was drawn back to the field this year (I don't remember why) and I am now very interested. I know that the majority work with insurance companies, and they set and project insurance rates.

I would say I'm a very good math student- I get A's in AP Calculus; but most importantly I enjoy math and I want to pursue a career in it. Next year I'm taking AP Calculus 3 (BC), AP Statistics, AP Economics (also AP English and Environmental Science, but those are less to do with acturaries). I also believe I'm taking one or two math courses at a local (4-year) college this summer, and possibly some more next summer. (I really want to take a Discrete Math course, but that has less to do with a career and more that it seems interesting). In other words, I will have a LOT of math credits going into college. TONS. I'm also in Future Business Leaders of America (among other things).

My mom has a friend who works at Blue Cross (an insurance agency), and she asked a actuary coworker if I could come talk to him; not only did he say yes, but he suggested that I could talk about getting an internship over the summer with them! I am definitely pursuing that to the fullest extent.

So anyway; actuaries, tell me all about your job. I hear it is one of the most enjoyable jobs, but be specific! Tell me about the exams; when did you take them, how hard are they, what subject matter do they cover? I looked at some sample (possibly earlier) tests, and they did not seem hard at all. I could even answer a good deal right now! If I studied, do you think I could pass the first before college?

About colleges: What did you major in? Few schools have majors or extensive actuary programs (Univ. of Pennsylvania has one I know; it's been my reach school since before I was interested in the field and now I want to go even more). Statistics seems like a logical step. How about pure Math? Business? I will have so many math credits going in to college that I could easily double major.

As for Statisticians, tell me about your jobs also. I know the term "Statistics" is SO broad, and there are millions of different types. I do know that it is generally an enjoyable job and it deals with math. Are there exams like for actuaries?
Old 03-15-2004, 10:48 PM
Join Date: May 2001
Location: In another castle
Posts: 18,988
I'm not an actuary or a statistician, but I did consider both of those as career options.

Actuaries are the people responsible for calculating what you pay in insurance. They have to know their stuff inside out, but they're highly valued professionals.

Statisticians...well, like you thought, that's a really broad category. I'm not actually a statistician, but a large part of my job involves dealing with statistics. For the most part, I take statistics about a software system's failures and try to use them to hunt down problems in our code.
Old 03-16-2004, 08:54 AM
Join Date: Feb 2000
Location: Twin Cities, Minnesota
Posts: 21,530
Also not a professional statistician....but I'm somthing called a Six Sigma Black Belt. This is despite not having taken any math in college. Six Sigma is a statistical business/manufacturing methodology. (Like ultrafilter, I use it for IT type problems - unlike ultrafilter, most of mine are code issues, but process issues).

I gather data and discover how accurate it is. If you are going to make decisions based on data, its a good idea to have some clue if the data is any good or not. Then I look at possible variables influencing the data and run statistical tests against it. i.e." What if there is operator to operator variation - oh, there is! Look, Karen does this process four times faster with the same quality. Let's go watch Karen do the job. " Its never quite that easy, BTW. Then we decide if we can do something better - statistically model it (if we can) and then put it into production.

Its a fun job for someone who likes to play with data and numbers. And because its basic business process analysis stuff - you get to have a really broad background and work with a lot of interesting ideas.

If it sounds interesting at all, there is a book called "The Six Sigma Way" not heavy in math, heavy in business speak.
Old 03-16-2004, 09:06 AM
Join Date: Jul 2003
Location: Megalopolis
Posts: 4,810
Geez, you sound so much like me when I was your age.

I worked for an actuary firm for a few months (I worked as a contract computer programmer). Funny, even working right next to these people I still didn't figure out what they do. What impressed me though, was most of them were very, very nice people, that's a real plus in my book. They all seemed very happy with their jobs, that's for sure.

The tests kind of scared me out of pursuing the actuary profession. I always did very well in math, I think I took almost every math class offered by my college, but I just don't do well on those big tests. I believe one of my stats professors said he would recommend a masters degree in statistics if you want to be a "full test actuary".

I majored in statistics. It seems to me you should take all the math theory you can, but also migrate towards a statistical speciality (like biostats). If you are pure theory, your career may be limited to teaching.

Good luck mate, I wish I was back in that era of my life again.

(Society of Actuaries)
Old 03-16-2004, 11:22 AM
Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: Bluegrass State!
Posts: 1,554
I have a degree in math. I remember in college the math department sponsoring many meetings with actuaries in an attempt to lure us students into the profession. One of my professors was very big on the idea, mostly because you could make lots of money (he was from Poland and was very big on big $$). Another of the faculty, in addition to his phd, also was a full member of the Society of Actuaries.

I was not quite the student that you appear to be, so the thrill of working with statistics and insurance tables and what not didn't excite me. But if that's your interest, I believe actuarial work pays well and would be a steady career. I initially shied away from the career due to what I thought was the programming requirement. So the career I actually find myself in is ... programming! Plus, statistics and probablility were my worst subjects, so I doubt I would have performed well on the first test which are calculus and stats/probability.
Old 03-18-2004, 12:16 AM
Charter Member
Join Date: Mar 2004
Location: Sydney, NSW, Australia
Posts: 11,386
I am an actuary and live in Australia. I qualified in 1990 and have found the job extremely interesting. I have worked in all sorts of areas - life insurance, non-life insurance, pension funds and banking, both here in Australia and overseas. Basically all the tasks have revolved around financial modelling, analysing past economic and demographic experience to project the future financial position of insurance companies and pension funds. For example, at a life insurance company an actuary could be involved in premium rating; analysis of the experience of the various risk portfolios; estimation of the insurer's liabilities; or simply general management.

I'm not sure of the exact details of the qualification procedure in the USA. I'm sure that the website of the Society of Actuaries would have all the information. To become a Fellow of the Institite of Actuaries here in Australia one has to pass three lots of exams (entitled, rather unoriginally, Parts I, II and III). I completed the equivalent of the Part I and Part II exams by doing an Economics degree at university. These Parts cover mathematics, statistics, basic finance and economics, demography, mortality theory etc. I then studied the Part III exams part-time once I had begun working as an actuarial student. The Part III exams are more practically oriented, with the emphasis on problem solving and communication of solutions to business problems. The Part III exams are pretty tough, with pass rates ranging from 25-35%, so one definitely feels a sense of achievement on passing.

Actuaries are generally very well paid too, which, for me, was a big incentive.
Old 03-18-2004, 03:00 AM
Join Date: Feb 2004
Location: Auchenflower, Qld, Aus.
Posts: 217
Cunctator, did you join SDMB to answer this question? If so, that was a noble gesture in aid of a future member of your profession. I'm impressed.
Old 03-18-2004, 04:48 PM
Charter Member
Join Date: Mar 2004
Location: Sydney, NSW, Australia
Posts: 11,386
Sisyphus - yes, I joined the Straight Dope to give some comments in answer to Splanky's query about an actuarial career. A friend alerted me to the post. I remember that I too had trouble finding information about actuaries and their work when I was a high school student. So I'm pleased to be able to offer any help that I can to the next generation of budding actuaries. Of course, having now joined the Straight Dope and noticed the wide range of topics that are canvassed, I'm sure that I shall continue to participate.
Old 03-18-2004, 08:33 PM
Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Posts: 2,052
IANAA but my boyfriend's father is one (Cunctator you might have heard of the company - Towers Perrin?). I don't know much about his qualifications but he has a PhD in astrophysics from either Oxford or Cambridge so obviously he's no slouch in the academic department. He's on a trip at the moment but if you're interested I could forward your questions to him and see what he has to say.
Old 03-18-2004, 08:43 PM
Join Date: Nov 2002
Location: Baltimore, MD, US
Posts: 1,042
Thank you for your responses! You have all been very helpful.

I met with an actuarial department at a health insurance company in my town (CareFirst- I'm some have heard of them). They were extremely helpful- they showed me around the office, showed me the library where they study for their exams, told me all about stuff. Very very helpful. And I may have an internship with them over the summer.

Thanks again to everyone! And please tell me anything else that could be useful.
Old 03-18-2004, 09:37 PM
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: West of the Ashley
Posts: 135
I'm in grad school working towards a Ph.D. in biostatistics. I love my work and my future career.

I'm wrapping up my class requirements right now, but I'm also working part time in our university's Collaborative Unit. This means that I get to review research protocols for appropriate study designs and analysis plans, when the investigators want the university to fund part of the research. I'm at a medical university, so these are typically either pilot studies to look at how recent biological revelations translate into human effects, or big fat studies with lots of little parts to examine many aspects of a certain disease. In either case, I'm keeping up with current developments in biomedical research and in statistics. Biostat is a great area for developing new stat methods, because of the really wacky data that we can get ... in some cases, there just aren't good methods for dealing with it. I also meet with researchers when they have ideas about new studies that they might like to do, to help them define what outcomes they want to look at, explore good designs to evaluate their outcomes, and get appropriate sample sizes.

Then there's the data analysis side of collaborative research, which is huge. It's not all t tests and normal distibutions, as some (crappy) freshman stats classes might have us believe. I think it's a great feeling to coax neat information out of what appears to be a big mass of numbers!

I intend to go into academia. I love teaching, TA-ing, and mentoring, and a career in stats would not be complete for me without that. But I feel that it can be a wonderfully well-rounded career, not just being shut up in my office doing theoretical research and being a slavedriver to my poor students. The collaboration with docs is mentally stimulating and fulfilling, because I KNOW that I am using my skills to immediately help people lead healthier and happier lives. It also provokes me to make methodological developments to better handle certain data types. This is good for me, because a) I feel that my job can't just be for me, it has to help other people, and b) I get bored easily, and stats is an imperfect and everchanging world.

Yes, I'm a geek, a stat girl, and I'm proud of it.
Old 03-18-2004, 09:57 PM
Join Date: Feb 2004
Location: NorCal
Posts: 996
Holy cow, Splanky, I had to double-check the OP to make sure I hadn't written it. I, too, am a high-school junior whose top choice school is Wharton (Penn) for actuarial science. I first heard about the profession by reading a 'best jobs in America' type of article. I'm also trying to figure out how to get myself a summer internship in an insurance company, so if Splanky or anyone else has tips or better yet--contacts--I'd be in your debt (northern NJ / NYC area).
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