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So, What is an Actuary, Anyway?

  By Chris Lemming, ASA, MAAA of Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield

 I 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.

 There 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.

 What 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.

 Perhaps 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.

 One 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.

 Itís 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.

 I 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 question.

 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.