What Does an Actuarial Graduate Student Do?

Written by Randy Refeld: 1002234_610788708938915_86604121_n

A lot of people will ask me some version of “What do you do?” Sometimes, this gives me pause because I don’t know what I do or why I am doing it. I have a couple of plans. I am planning to pass some more actuarial exams, and I am planning to complete a PhD. My eventual goal is to spread the knowledge of actuarial science.

There was recently a comic posted at http://www.twisteddoodles.com/image/80627598834 entitled “Things People ask PhD students. Some of these questions are related to what we do during a typical day.

This morning I got up early as I do every morning to take my daughter to kindergarten. Graduate students are older than undergraduate students and many of us have responsibilities outside of school. After I dropped my daughter off, I get myself to school in time to work in the math tutoring center.

The math tutoring center is where the bulk of the work done by graduate students occurs. This is also where many graduate students gain a deeper understanding of material. The teaching of others is where one can truly verify that he understands the material. For anyone that is reading this I would recommend getting a part time job or barring that volunteer to tutor students. This is a good opportunity to be able to think through problems without preparing specifically for them and any computational weaknesses you may have will come out when explaining to others how to work problems.

After the math tutoring center, I had to TA a class. This consists of assisting a professor. On this day they were in a computer lab, so I answered questions and worked a couple sample problems on the board for the students. This differs from tutoring because it is more structured in that all the students are taking the same class and covering the same material.

After that it was time for my own classes. My classes were pretty uneventful and I will spare you the details because I know most people have sat in classes. The two classes were Linear Statistical Models and Measure and Integration.

After class I rushed home to spend some time with my daughter and then retire to my office to study and contemplate what is it that graduate students do. A couple very common and very annoying questions that people will ask are “What is your research about?” and “Are you going to be a teacher?”

Research is very complicated. If you are thinking about asking a PhD student what their research is about, just don’t. Unless you happen to also work in their field, you won’t understand it. They will try to explain it to you in general terms, but research is so specialized that you may even have a degree in the same field they are working in and still not understand their research.

The other big question is “Are you going to be a teacher?” Since you asked, the answer is no, I plan to get a tenure track position at a research university; in other words I plan to be a professor. Yes, professors teach, and no they are not teachers. This is by no means meant as an insult to teachers, teachers are very important to society, but by getting a PhD and becoming a professor, one goes through a process where they conduct original research and contribute to the literature in their subject. I enjoy teaching, but if I wanted to be a teacher, I could go do that now. A professor does research and has many responsibilities beyond teaching.

So this has come full circle back to “What Does a Graduate Student Do?” Mostly graduate students stay up late working on projects, drink a lot of caffeine, teach undergraduate students, and go to classes themselves. In my particular case, I am already doing what I want; I am studying actuarial science and helping others to learn it at the same time.