Perspectives on Starting a New Job
By Kudakwashe Chibanda, Candidate Representative to the Candidate Liaison Committee
I couldn’t wait to start my first job. After four years of classes, living on a dry campus, and most importantly, being broke, I needed employment. In my mind I was more than adequately prepared to be an actuarial analyst. After all, I was graduating summa cum laude in actuarial science, had done two internships, passed three exams, and could rattle off the definition of an actuary as if it were my name. As I would later learn, however, there is a big difference between getting an A in a linear regression class and being a good actuarial analyst. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:
1) It’s not college…
College spoils you. I rarely had class before 11:00 a.m., and spent 15 hours a week listening to a professor, then spent the other 153 sleeping and watching reruns of “Family Guy.” This all ends at graduation. The decision of whether to leave your bed is not influenced by how much rain is in the forecast. The only spring break you’ll be taking is the 15-minute walk outside when the weather gets warmer. That takes getting used to; so does sitting at a desk for eight hours. In the first few weeks I used to blink furiously at my desk, hoping it would keep me awake. When that didn’t work, I tried the ‘take a nap in the bathroom’ approach. But if you’ve ever tried to catch some Z’s on a toilet seat, you know you’re better off drinking coffee. Eventually I could make it through the day without taking 35 bathroom breaks. But there’s an adjustment period, so the sooner you train your body to be alert for an entire day, the better.
2) It’s not all glitz and glam
I thought my first day on the job would involve “quantitatively assessing risks” since that’s what actuaries did. Both my internships focused on doing “meaningful” projects. While this was a good way to get my feet wet as an intern, the reality of being an analyst has been that sometimes I have tasks that aren’t very analytical. More than likely, your job will be the same.
I found myself updating many spreadsheets in Excel. And I was required to read. (I thought the perk of being an actuary meant words were unnecessary!) My job description seemed to be: update, amend and revise. Many of my friends have similar stories of laboring away on Excel updates, wondering if they will ever actually calculate a rate. I’m here to tell you it gets better, and more exciting. You just have to be patient. No matter how much you think you’re ready to do actuarial work, the truth is that you’re not. Knowing how to use double integration just isn’t enough to do a reserve study or calculate loss costs. One day when you are ready, you will see your name appearing on official company business. You will feel so proud, and so…actuarial.
3) You’ll make mistakes…a lot
The weird thing is I often made mistakes on these “easy” tasks. This was frustrating because my goal had been to do as many projects as quickly as possible so my boss could see how “productive” I was. But when I had to make corrections on just about everything, I began to fear that perhaps this career wasn’t for me. After all, if I couldn’t be trusted to correctly maintain spreadsheets, how could I ever “quantitatively assess risk”? Part of the problem was that for every project, I was trying to not only complete it in record time, but also find some way of improving it. Every career magazine I had ever read emphasized that the best workers were those who found ways to make themselves indispensible to their companies. Before you start improving how your company runs its actuarial department, however, it is probably in your best interests to focus on how to do your work well.
While taking exams, I was one of those people who often changed a right answer to a wrong one whenever I reviewed, so I convinced myself it was in my best interest to have one pass through. But work isn’t an exam. Although you often have to work quickly, there is usually time to double check your work and make sure there are no silly mistakes. Meticulousness is certainly an important part of the job, so take the time to review your work.
4) Student-worker or worker-student?
Just like an NCAA athlete, you have a dual responsibility - do good work and pass exams. Many companies rightly put emphasis on passing exams. In fact, it’s often tempting to think that passing exams is more important than work. However, you won’t be much of an FCAS if you don’t know how to apply the knowledge. So you have to take the time to dedicate yourself to working at work, and not constantly trying to go over your note cards, then nervously shuffling papers when your boss walks past your cubicle.
Actuarial exams can take over your life. You start thinking they are so important that you judge everyone by their success in them. This is short-sighted. There are many people who aren’t on the exam track and yet are effective actuarial workers. These exams are not a measure of how well someone does their work, so don’t assume the number of exams is directly proportional to someone’s ability and knowledge. You may find yourself reporting to someone who has fewer exams than you. That doesn’t mean they know less than you so don’t treat them that way.
5) Ask stupid questions
You’ve heard people tell you there is no such thing as a stupid question. But the truth is, when you’re new, you only want to ask the “right” questions. You don’t want to be the one asking what P&C means. I would often be handed projects, then neglect to ask questions, figuring that Google would fill in the blanks. Sometimes it does, and it is often good to do your own research so you aren’t spoon fed everything. But other times, you assume something and then complete a project, only to be informed you picked the wrong assumption. Now, whenever I’m assigned a project, I try to confirm the assumptions and ask questions - especially conceptual ones. At the beginning, you barely have an idea of what you’re working on and how it fits into the bigger picture. I found my supervisors were always willing to explain this to me, and it made me feel like I was actually contributing to the team.
The key to not becoming a nuisance is knowing when and how to ask questions. As time went on, I learned to tell when my colleagues were busy. I would e-mail questions, instead of talking to them, even if they sat next to me. Also, I began keeping a running list of questions. Although they were always willing to help, I didn’t want to be the person that fills up their inbox with a question every 15 minutes.
6) No man is an island
Every interview mentions soft skills, but most of us actuarial students just think they are like sprinkles on a cake - pretty to look at but useless in the overall scheme of things. As long as the numbers are right, we don’t see a need for small talk.
However, how you communicate with others is essential to your success. Although you don’t have to be friends with the people you work with, you definitely have to be comfortable enough to fit in the environment. Take the time to learn the right channels of communication. Although there is also an open door policy at my company, it is often inappropriate to ask the Senior Vice President what the definition of an exposure is, when your assistant manager sits right behind you.
So congratulations on landing your first job. If they hired you, chances are you have what it takes to make it in this profession. Just remember to learn everything one step at a time, because there are no shortcuts in this equation. Have a long and happy career of quantitatively assessing risks, and of people calling you an "actuarial."