I was clueless in college. The unfortunate part is, I didn’t even know just how clueless I was. Like other 20-year-old math nerds, I had spent ¾ of my life proving I could get the “right” answer. I had taken all the necessary calculus classes and picked a career that would allow me to spend the rest of my days happily getting the right answer. This year is the five year anniversary of my college graduation. Having gotten older (but only marginally wiser), I look back at my college years and reflect on the advice I would give to my younger self.
Many college students spend a lot of time hand-wringing about selecting their major; I was no different. From the time I was a sophomore, I constantly worried about the marketability of my major, even though I already knew I wanted to be an actuary and I was in the actuarial science program. In my experience, however, employers are more concerned with a high GPA in a quantitative major than they are in the semantics of mathematics vs. actuarial science as a major. Since beginning my career, I have neither felt at a substantial advantage nor disadvantage by selecting actuarial science as a major. Instead of worrying about how marketable my major was, I should have spent more time strategically selecting classes. For example, I only took one computer science class in my four years of college. As most actuaries know, the profession is increasingly become one where programming skills are required. The sooner you can learn a programming language for data analysis purposes, the better. A formal class is not even required, as many programming languages can be self-taught. The sooner you can become friends with a computer, the better (just don’t let a computer become your only friend). Many actuaries I know still keep a calculator by their desks and periodically use it to crunch numbers even though they have a computer right in front of them. This seems to stem from an inherent distrust of computers, and the tendency to fall back on the trusty calculators we spent our school life using.
I always hated English class. In addition to having to read entire books (the horror!) and write meaningless essays, the grading was never clear. Teachers would instruct me to write my perspective, then turn around and give me a grade. Somehow they had the power to adjudicate my opinions, which I never appreciated. I carried this attitude with me to college. Like my fellow left-brained people, I shunned all classes that didn’t require quantitative analysis. In my freshman year, I actually tried to be exempted from all core English classes, since I had just spent six years of high school1 writing about what Shakespeare meant when he wrote Hamlet. Now that I use Microsoft Word almost as much as I do Excel, I regret that attitude. Writing skills are some of the most important in this profession. Technical expertise is obviously the core of our profession and acquiring them is important; however, writing skills are invaluable. If you can become an actuary who is adept at clearly and eloquently describing technical concepts, you will be successful. Performing the most advanced analysis with the most convoluted statistical methods will do you no good if you cannot explain it to others, particularly the nonactuarial majority of your company. If I could go back to college, I would take my writing classes more seriously. I would have even read books for fun (I never read for recreation because my thinking was every good book has been made into a movie, so my time is better spent at Blockbuster2 than reading a book for days). If your college offers it, take some business writing classes. They will increase your vocabulary for technical purposes.
As a clear math geek, I was perfectly alright with being the quiet girl in the corner. I had expected my career to take place in front of an open Excel screen and all my conversations to be with other math geeks. Boy, was I wrong. Having now worked for a few years, I find that the more senior I get, the less time I find myself talking to other math geeks who know what a pivot table is. In fact, I tend to be in meetings where I am the only person from the actuarial department and am surrounded by underwriters, claims personnel, lawyers, and the scariest creatures of all: senior management. Most of these meetings end the same way—a swarm of questions coming at me. I learned early on that using “actuarial” talk would only increase confusion and the amount of time I had to spend trying to explain myself. If only I had known this when I was younger, I would have tried to include a public speaking class into my curriculum, tried to do a case competition which involved a presentation, or even joined a debate club—anything that would help me learn how to better explain myself to others. In fact, the next time you learn a new statistical concept, try to explain the concept to your non-actuary friends. If they understand you, great! Otherwise, practice makes perfect.
The final piece of advice I would give myself is to be openminded. I came into the profession very adamant about wanting to be a techie. In reality, actuaries are becoming less and less number crunchers and more business problem solvers. That requires flexibility and dynamic thinking. If you are in college now, my advice is don’t box yourself into an area of the profession you think you want to be in, or the kind of work you think you want to be doing. You may think you know all of the ins and outs of the actuarial profession, but you have no idea. It will likely take you your entire career to find out, and that’s the beauty of the profession.
1 Yes, I had to do six years of high school. But not because I was slow. At least that’s what they told me.
2 Yes, I am old enough to have used Blockbuster in college. And no, I’m not going to explain what it is for those of you born after 1995. Google it.