Discovering Actuarial Science

Written by Colin Forhan: 270081_10150225951957091_2477355_n

When I left for college, I never dreamed I would end up as an actuary. I attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, a small liberal arts school with a 100% required curriculum centered around the Western Cannon. While in school I studied a broad range of subjects and spent countless hours reading Plato, Augustine, Plutarch, and many other authors who helped shape the world as it exists today. I had spent my whole life thinking I would pursue higher education in French literature, philosophy, or anthropology – but everything changed when I was 19 and met Descartes.

My sophomore year, we studied Descartes’ invention of modern algebra, and how he used his novel creation to solve geometric problems. His work sparked a passion inside me for clever mathematical problem solving. I had always loved math and logic puzzles; during high school, I had torn through four or five books of kenken, kakuro, and other games. To my astonishment, though, it had never occurred to me that I might actually be a mathematical thinker! Most mathematicians know they’re good at math by first grade. I was halfway through college when it hit me.

Over the next couple of years, I became obsessed with the calculus of Leibniz, the physics of Einstein, and even astronomical mathematicians like Ptolemy, Copernicus and Kepler. By the time I was 21, I knew I wanted to work with mathematics, but I had a problem. I had spent my whole life pursuing everything but math! I had no networking connections, no knowledge of any industries that might be hiring and, most importantly, I had absolutely zero experience.

Fast forward one year. After talking to as many people as I could, trying to figure out what on Earth I wanted to do with mathematics, I was describing my love of creative problem solving to my manager at a retail store. At one point she asked, “So do you like… want to be an actuary?” I had never heard the word before. I started looking into it and, lo and behold, it was the word I had been searching for but hadn’t known. Creative problem solving, puzzles, statistics, projections, risk analysis. Answers. It was more exciting than any field I had ever heard of.

Three months later, I decided to enroll in a compound interest class that would largely prepare me for Exam FM. With no idea what I was doing, I went for it. It was a tough semester, working full time and studying. I got through it and am now a year later pursuing my MS in actuarial science. I’ve got one exam down (I passed FM in June ’14!), and MFE is coming up this November. Sometimes I still feel intimidated by my classmates who studied finance, economics, or pure math in undergrad. However, passing FM showed me that I am capable of doing this, and that I love it enough to keep going.

If you’re thinking about going into actuarial science from a completely different field, don’t be discouraged. Just because someone else is more qualified than you right now doesn’t mean you can’t get there. Have a plan and a schedule; study every day; talk to anyone and everyone you can find who might be helpful. Be relentless in your research. Just put one foot after the other and keep moving. The track to complete all those exams is supposed to be a journey, and it will take time. You know what, though? It’ll take all those finance majors a long time too. Practice and patience are your friends. If you know you love it, just go for it.

Soon enough, you’ll land that first job as an assistant, and you’ll start accumulating experience. You’ve got this!