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What Is an Actuary?

A word picture of how an actuary calculates risk

In your search for a major or career path, you may have come across the actuary field and wondered, what is an actuary and what do they do?

Actuaries help companies identify and manage risks to their business. And while you can major in actuary science, there’s more to becoming an actuary than graduating with a degree. In this guide, you’ll learn:

What Is an Actuary?

An actuary analyzes data to determine the risk a company may face and help it make strategic business and financial decisions.

Ken Williams, FCAS, MAAA, and staff actuary for the Casualty Actuarial Society sums it up: “Actuaries are financial forecasters. [We] use our knowledge of statistics, finance, data science, and business operations to place a financial value on determining risks.”

How Much Does an Actuary Make? 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for actuaries in May 2021 was $105,900, with the top 10% earning more than $206,820. The BLS predicts that between 2020 and 2030, the employment of actuaries will grow 24%, with approximately 2,400 new openings posted each year.

What Does an Actuary Do?

An actuary’s job sits at the intersection of math, statistics, and business management. They analyze data to predict risk and help their employer choose a course of action.

“Actuaries primarily quantify risk,” says Williams. “By putting a financial value on a risk, they help companies determine if they need to avoid, mitigate, or even take on more risk if they have the resources to do so. This can be as simple as determining what a company should charge to insure your car to developing large commercial policies to cover losses from major events like hurricanes and wildfires. For many financial products, the key risks are the interest rate of performance of financial markets and the impact on risk being assumed.”

A Typical Work Day

Brian Fannin, ACAS, CSPA, MAAA, research actuary with the Casualty Actuarial Society, says that most days, an actuary conducts numerical or statistical analysis to analyze and predict risk. However, there are also times when an actuary will work collaboratively with others to map out a plan for conducting analysis, communicate their findings with key people, or help shape company strategy.

What Industries Do Actuaries Work In?

Actuaries mainly work at insurance companies and at businesses that support the insurance industry. But they can find work in other sectors, such as banking, accounting, and consulting. Williams notes that actuaries have found employment in a variety of fields like start-ups, education, and government, as well as at companies like Google, GM, Uber, and Tesla.

What Skills Do I Need to Become an Actuary?

To become an actuary, you’ll need to be proficient in several hard skills, including:

  • Analytical skills: Much of an actuary’s role includes analyzing data and information. They need analytical skills to be able to forecast, research, and present their findings.
  • Business and management skills: Actuaries need a deep understanding of things like finance and logistics. But they also need project management skills to keep their various tasks on track.
  • Written communication skills: A large part of an actuary’s job is presenting their findings in a clear and concise manner. Translating their findings into written, actionable suggestions is a crucial skill.

But while you may think an actuarial job is all hard skills, actuaries also need a variety of soft skills to be successful in the role:

  • Teamwork skills: While much of an actuary’s work may be accomplished alone, they need to work with others to get their job done. Actuaries often collaborate across teams to get the necessary data and strategize suggestions and recommendations.
  • Problem-solving skills: Actuaries do a lot of data analysis, but they need to extend their problem-solving ability beyond the data set. Once they have the results, they need to apply them to the challenges the company is facing to help it make sound decisions.
  • Verbal communication skills: Whether it’s presenting their findings or asking for additional information, the ability to verbally communicate with the rest of their team and company is a crucial skill for an actuary. “An actuary needs to be skilled in communicating risk to a nontechnical audience,” says Williams.

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How to Become an Actuary

“Becoming an actuary is like other professions that require a higher degree of equation,” says Williams. “The primary difference is that instead of obtaining a master’s degree or a Ph.D., actuaries pass a series of exams and modules covering mathematics and statistics, data analytics and data science, and insurance company finances and operation.”

While you can start taking the exams while you’re in college, if you’re wondering how long does it takes to become an actuary, you’ll need between five and 10 years to complete the entire process. However, during that time, you can work as an actuary to gain relevant experience while you complete the exams.

While you can major in actuarial science, it’s not a requirement. You could also study:

  • Math
  • Statistics
  • Finance
  • Business
  • Economics
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering
  • Management Information Systems (MIS)
  • Physics

SOA vs. CASACT 

To become an actuary, you have to pass all of the exams. While that can take up to 10 years, you can start working as an entry-level actuary once you’ve passed between one and three exams.

There are two credentialing bodies: the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS). The main difference is that each body has different standards and regulations relevant to people working in different industries. The SOA credential is primarily for those who work in life, health, pension, and retirement insurance, while the CAS is for actuaries in the property and casualty industry.

No matter which organization you choose, the path to becoming an actuary is similar. You’ll take a series of exams that test your knowledge on topics like:

  • Probability
  • Statistics
  • Strategic decision making
  • Risk management
  • Regulations
  • Reporting
  • Financial mathematics

You’ll also have to complete several Validation by Educational Experiences (VEE). The VEE is an additional requirement over and above the education and exams you’ve taken. These are specific classes you must take after passing at least two exams from either the SOA or CAS.

What About an Internship?

Employers want to know you’re serious about committing to the actuarial career path. So, while an internship can help demonstrate that commitment, many actuarial internships require that you’ve passed at least one exam, though that’s not true of every internship.

Williams notes that the selection process for internships can be competitive. “Actuarial internships can be hard to obtain depending on the geographical area. For example, there are many actuarial programs in the Midwest, so it may be harder to get an internship in this area. Start early as many summer internships are posted in the fall of the prior year.”

But if you don’t land an internship, that’s OK. It’s not a requirement for obtaining an actuary role. “One of the most important things about the actuarial profession is that everyone takes the same exams. Passing a couple of them will often give you a leg up over someone who had an internship but only passed one exam,” says Williams.

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