Realities of the Entry-Level Actuarial Industry

Written by Yeng Chang: Yeng

It’s as if it were yesterday I started my college career at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire (UWEC), not knowing at all about anything I was getting myself into. If you had asked me what an actuary was when I came to UWEC as a freshman, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m a senior. I’m going to graduate in one more semester. I’m searching for what I’m going to do with my life when I’m out of here. Applications. Opportunities. Interviews. Rejections. And hopefully an offer or two.

And after all of that, I will know what I’m going to do with my life. I haven’t figured out exactly what that is yet. But very soon, I will.

Then outside of myself, there is the university environment in which I live: people relying on me for help on their coursework, asking me for advice and maybe even some support.

I remember when I was in their position, having to struggle through everything and working hours and hours for days, and weeks, and months. There’s an actuarial exam I need to take. I need to get studying. I don’t understand this solution. Where did this shortcut come from?

And after all of that struggle, I am satisfied with the position I am in. I managed to pass P/1, FM/2, and MFE/3F in one year. If I have three exams done, I’ll definitely have a full-time position lined up.

Nope, not true, as I was told by the numerous rejection e-mails I received. Everything that I applied for resulted in rejections. But wait. I have done many extracurricular activities. I’ve worked at least four part-time jobs during each semester. I’ve done research with faculty. I’ve chaired committees. I know Excel, Access, and VBA and have used them on the job. I’ve passed actuarial exams. I’m in the university honors program. I’ve been a teaching assistant for two semesters. I’m an active musician.

I’ve had my resume looked at by everyone that I can talk to. I’ve had a lot of interviewing practice. And on top of all of this, I’ve had 18 to 20 credit semesters. What more do you expect me to do?

That question bothered me for a long time. What do you expect me to do? It took me a while to realize that the world does not work that way. I wish I had realized this earlier.

As a consequence of my realization, I feel the need to write this blog post to assist people who are college students and want to go into this field. Although the advice I give here is meant to assist people who are college students, some of it is definitely applicable to entry-level actuarial position seekers, regardless of whether they are in college or not. I am by no means claiming that my advice is 100% correct (and of course, every situation is unique), but I feel that there are points which need to be made that are rarely made about the entry-level actuarial field out in public. Every point I raise here is strictly my opinion, and has not been endorsed by anyone.

1. The entry-level actuarial industry is becoming increasingly competitive.

If you had asked me about the State of the Entry-Level Actuarial Industry two years ago (back in fall 2011), I wouldn’t have told you this. At that time, it was not unheard of to hear of people who had no exams and no experience obtain internships and full-time positions. Now it has become difficult for people to obtain internships even if they have passed exams, and even more difficult for people to obtain full-time positions.

2. There is an increasing need to broaden the skill set of actuarial students.

Most actuarial science majors, from my experience, cringe when they hear the words “Real Analysis” and “Abstract Algebra.” Contrary to popular opinion, I have found these courses extremely useful in that they teach you logical reasoning of ideas and communication of those ideas, in addition to LaTeX, which is a mathematics typesetting language.

I recently started typing everything on LaTeX because, in my opinion, it is much more efficient than typing on Word, including a set of notes I posted online. Some very prominent people in the actuarial industry got their hands on my notes, and contacted me privately for opportunities, discussion, criticism, and even with support. There is no way I would have had these exchanges if I did not take these courses.

Furthermore, it seems like many actuarial students know the standard Excel, Word, Powerpoint, Access, and Visual Basic. From talking with others in the field, it seems to be the case that the more programming experience (C++, Java, Python, SQL, R, and SAS as examples) one has, the better. Actuarial companies are demanding more of the entry-level candidate. What used to be on-the-job training is now demanded of entry-level candidates before they enter the industry.

3. Employers tend to hire those whom they like (personality-wise) over those who are qualified for the position. Interviewing and networking skills are becoming more essential than technical skills, if your desire is to get an actuarial position.

This is an unfortunate statement I have to make, but it is unfortunately a situation that I have seen come up over and over again. I have witnessed too many instances of people applying for internships and full-time positions with exams and previous experiences just to see that the person who gets the internship or full-time position is the person with no exams and no experience because of a coincidental connection.

One needs to be a good interviewer to get these sorts of positions; however, I know that people have obtained positions because of inside connections, and by making use of these connections, it is an easy way for them to get into the industry. Networking may become a necessity in the future. It might even be so now. I’m not sure.

4. An actuarial internship will soon be (or perhaps, is already) a necessity to obtain an actuarial position.

In my personal experience, actuarial employers are not going to care about any internships or prior experience you have obtained unless they are actuarial in nature. Many of the companies that have full-time position openings have now made the internship a requirement.

You may be looking at what I have written above, and may be thinking that some of my advice is contradictory. The nature of what actuarial employers are looking for, as a whole, is complex.

However, despite the rather complex nature of what entry-level actuarial positions are actually looking for, what can you do to prepare yourself so that you have a good chance at getting an actuarial position?

In the second and third parts of this series, I will talk about resume building and interviewing. There are specific nuances which are not talked about much when it comes to applying for an entry-level actuarial position, and it does help one’s application if one is informed about these nuances.