So, What is an Actuary, Anyway?
By Chris Lemming, ASA, MAAA of Anthem Blue Cross &
may be the only person in the actuarial profession who decided as a sophomore in
high school to try and become an actuary. At
the time, I was trying to find a career that would make use of my talent for and
interest in math. One of my
teachers knew a little bit about actuaries and suggested I look into it. Since most of the people who offered me
career advice suggested engineering, I didnít have much else to go on, and I
figured it was worth a shot to find out what an actuary does.
were several things about being an actuary that appealed to me as a 16 year old
trying to choose a career. It pays
well. Success is linked to an exam process, and Iíd always had
good success with exams. I could
get a degree by taking math classes, which had always been my favorite classes. Actuaries were well respected. And I liked the idea of having a unique
answer when asked what I wanted to do for a living. So unlike most actuaries, I specifically chose a university
with an actuarial program, got a degree in Actuarial Science, and have been
working as an actuary since graduating five and a half years ago.
I enjoy most about my job is how much I get to learn, and how much I get to
share what Iíve learned with other people.
In my first few years, my role was primarily to dig into our detailed
data. But I was always kept up to
date on where my work fit in to the project as a whole, and why we were working
on the project in the first place. Understanding
the greater purpose allowed me participate to a greater degree than just running
programs. I didnít just fetch the
data, I got to analyze it, be a part of the resulting decisions, and explain the
decisions and reasons for them to others.
what has surprised me the most about actuarial work is the importance of
communication. As a college
student, I pictured the standard actuary as a guy with messy hair and
taped-together glasses sitting three inches from the computer screen for eight
straight hours. I thought that
decent communication skills would give me a big advantage over the rest of the
field. A truer picture of an
actuary is someone sitting at a computer developing a complex spreadsheet, then
meeting with other people to discuss the assumptions and their appropriateness,
then explaining it to someone else who needs to understand the main idea without
all of the details. I probably
spend less than half of my time working with spreadsheets on my own, and the
rest of my time discussing what Iíve worked on or how to approach a new
problem. Good communication skills
arenít an advantage, theyíre a necessity.
of the best opportunities actuaries have is that they are exposed to many facets
of the company, so they can offer solutions that will help a wide spectrum of
people. I have worked with people
who maintain our computer systems and financial systems, market our products,
input membership information, process claims, send bills for premium, create
data files, develop new products, write our contracts, monitor financial
results, and underwrite new groups. I
am often able to point myself in the right direction because I can anticipate
how my decisions affect others, and narrow my options to ones that will benefit
areas besides my own.
no secret that the biggest drawback to being an actuary is the exam process. I quickly found that what would normally
get me an ďAĒ in my college classes translated to a score of about 3 (out of
10) on an actuarial exam, where a 6 is needed to pass. I took several exams in college, so I
was able to adjust to the differences and pass some exams before I started
working. Getting a job as an
actuary gave me on-the-job study time, encouragement to get through the exams
from my manager and the company, reimbursement for exam fees and study
materials, salary increases for passing, and co-workers who were going through
the same thing I was. With all of
the support around me, I was able to pass exams while gaining work experience,
and it is the combination of experience and exams that opened the door for me to
take on greater responsibilities.
also credit some of my success in passing exams to going beyond just reading the
material, and trying to understand what the exam writers are looking for when
they write the questions. I have
caught myself many times taking practice exams, looking at answers I got wrong,
and thinking, ďOh, no big deal. Iíd
have gotten it right if I just would have done this instead.Ē I try hard not to leave it at that, and
ask myself, ďHow do I know to do this instead of that?Ē I have failed exams before when I had
memorized every formula, but wasnít sure which one to use when I read the
Amazingly enough, the career I chose at 16 has worked out well for me. I have learned programming and good business sense, but also interpersonal and managerial skills. Iíve helped train new co-workers, and participated in discussions with executives. I have found the actuarial profession to be challenging and rewarding in many ways, and offer opportunities for responsibility and recognition that would have been harder to come by in another field. Becoming an actuary has helped me become a well-rounded professional, which I now realize has been my goal all along.