Taking the Scenic Route (to an Actuarial Career) — Online Version

by Leisha Cavallaro, ACAS

If you want to achieve a goal, naturally, you may find inspiration by looking at others who are where you want to be. In the actuarial space, many followed a path involving an actuarial degree (math, statistics, economics or computer science), potentially an internship and an exam or four passed before entering the field. Honestly, I might be slightly envious of those who have taken any or all those paths — I took the scenic path to the actuarial field. I started as a psychology major, then got a masters in higher education, worked in sports management and then retail management until I became a loan underwriter – my bridge to the actuarial world.

Many people are career changers, but entering the actuarial space can be tough. Listening and connecting with those who have succeeded can show you that you’re not alone. Even if you aren’t a career changer, there are lessons that can be applied to many aspects in life.

I recently interviewed Helen Davidson, Annemarie Sinclair, FCAS and Aubrey Chewe, three career-changers who told me about their paths to the actuarial career.

Leisha Cavallaro: Tell me about your path to work as an actuary?

Helen Davidson: My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, with minors in mathematics and philosophy. My first career was as a biomedical researcher. From there I became a life and health insurance agent. After that, I earned my Class A CDL and spent several years traveling cross-country as a professional driver. Finally, I attended graduate school part-time to earn a master’s degree in actuarial science, landed an internship and turned that into a full-time position, where I am still happily working.

Annemarie Sinclair: I have an undergraduate degree in mathematics and mathematical statistics and started my career in a military environment. While working in that field, I did a post-graduate degree in operations research, a field that developed in the U.K. during World War II. I then spent a few years in banking until I landed my first job in a property-casualty insurance company as a statistical analyst. During that time, I was asked to calculate IBNRs for the company, which was my first introduction to actuarial science.

Aubrey Chewe: I have been in auditing, banking and financial reporting consultancy/academia for 12 years. From the consultancy work, I realized that the major investors are pension funds and insurance companies; as such, I thought it would be interesting to better understand these investors with mammoth balance sheets that seem to drive most decisions making in the finance space. That is how my actuarial reading started. I had a fairly good background on the business and finance applications, but I had little or no idea as to the reading time required to get through exams.

LC: What made you want to change careers?

HD: As a trucker, I didn’t have much (read: any) upward mobility in my career. My family was growing, and I needed something that would grow alongside it. Struggling to find my ideal next career on my own, I put the question to my friends—What do you think I should be when I grow up? The answer, from multiple fronts, was actuary. I had never heard of the job before, so I did some research, and strongly suspected it would be a perfect fit.

AS: I am a South African and am still living and working in South Africa. After my undergraduate degree, I considered actuarial science, but it was the early ’80s and, at that stage, all actuaries in South Africa worked for life insurance companies. I had to relocate to Cape Town if I wanted to work for a life insurer, which was not possible at the time. When I realized many years later that there is a whole actuarial field in the non-life actuarial space, I was immediately interested. 

AC: Well, I did not really change careers. I view the addition of actuarial knowledge as an enhancement to my current academic, financial and investment consultancy offerings. I was looking for mathematical reasoning underlying most investment and financial solutions, and actuarial science has provided most of it.

LC: What was your biggest hurdle getting to where you are today?

HD: By far, the biggest hurdle for me was getting my foot in the door at a company. I was warned of this, and the advice I received was to enroll in a program that would get me access to the industry. I had to continue trucking while attending graduate courses at Temple University, and I took advantage of the career services of the local Gamma Iota Sigma chapter (Sigma Chapter for the win!) to get an internship. That summer, I did everything in my power to prove my value and convince the company to make a position for me. On the weekends, I continued truck-driving part-time to continue my family’s benefits and make ends meet. For a full year, I was pulling double duty between school/internship and work — I was lucky my dispatchers were willing to give me a flexible work schedule. Many others I’ve spoken to haven’t had the luxury of being able to keep their past jobs while pursuing their education, and without the option of continuing to earn money, they have not been able to pursue an actuarial career.

AS: I was already working for an insurance company, so the transition into an actuarial role was easy. However, my biggest hurdle was getting accepted in the South African actuarial community. When I started studying, I was the only actuary doing the CAS qualifications in the country while all the other actuaries did the Institute or Faculty [of Actuaries U.K.] exams. Because the qualification was unknown, there was a general skepticism about the quality of the exams. Luckily, this is something of the past, and the CAS qualification is now widely accepted and respected.

AC: I feel I paid a good price through exam retakes for not having a first degree in mathematics. The biggest challenge though has been securing adequate time to study while growing a business and family (four children).

LC: Did you have any help along the way or role models? (Bonus material)

HD: From the start of my marriage, my husband and I had a deal where I would be the breadwinner and, when the time came, he’d be the stay-at-home spouse. Despite the difficult path I chose, he supported me every step of the way, and he never stopped believing in me. The faculty at Temple were amazingly supportive as well. My advisor, Dr. Thorsten Moenig, helped me carefully schedule each semester to maximize the time I could spend making money for my family while getting through my program requirements. The friends I made along the way offered me support and help when I needed it, and I honestly, fully believe now that actuaries are the nicest people!

AS: My biggest help and role model was Jacque Friedland, FCAS, an actuary currently working in Canada. In 1996 Jacque and her fiancée (now her husband of many years) took a year off to travel through the world and spent six months in Cape Town. Jacque did consulting work for the company that I was working for at the time, and she introduced me to non-life actuarial science and the CAS. She encouraged me to start studying and gave valuable advice during those first few years.

AC: Yes. I had an opportunity to meet Mundia Mubiana, FCAS, who is based in the U.S. and who gave me good guidance on the industry setup and exam study techniques. And certainly Annemarie, FCAS, of South Africa, who encouraged me not to worry about taking on new, albeit not-so-easy, knowledge in my mid-30`s.

LC: What advice would you give anyone considering a career in actuarial (career changer or not)? (Bonus material)

HD: If this is what you truly want, put your all into it. Don’t be afraid to fail an exam. If you do fail, analyze your own study habits to learn how to optimize your own abilities. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

AS: If your passion is mathematics, finance and business, then actuarial science is a great career choice. Exams are difficult and it might take a long time to qualify, but it is definitely worth it. Don’t give up, even if you experience a few setbacks.

AC: It is never too late. Just get started and make the most out of it. The knowledge you will acquire will be invaluable. When you do not make it on an exam, take stock and look forward to making it in the next sitting.

LC: What advice would you give someone to help career changers transition to the actuarial space?

HD: It’s a tough road. The best way I’ve seen, is to go through a university’s program that will give you access to internships. Internships are generally paid in this field, something I did not know at first. It’s never too late to chase your dream. Take exams as soon as you can; having exams passed and internships on your resume will make all the difference.

AS: In South Africa, the best way to do this is to start writing the exams, either through one of the universities or through an international actuarial institution. It is very difficult to get a job in an actuarial team without having passed any exams.

AC: Actuarial knowledge is versatile; with some tweaking, you can apply it to provide business solutions in your current work environment without necessarily transitioning to mainstream insurance.

As you can see, there are many different paths that can lead you to the actuarial career. These are just a select few stories of those who have taken a nontraditional path. Whether taking a traditional or nontraditional route, we all hit obstacles, some bigger than others, and not one of us have the same story or path as the other. This make me confident that we can all reach our goals with the support of each other along with our own personal determination.