Perceptions and Misconceptions of Actuaries

In this student column by Gaurav Singal from UNSW, two major stereotypes of actuarial students are investigated. Gaurav challenges these stereotypes and illustrates the reality of being an actuarial student.

Thirteen years of schooling can seem like a lifetime for most students, however when faced with the difficult decision of choosing their career path many students are still left dumbfounded. As students weigh their career options to optimise their job security, salary and working hours, many mathematically inclined students will eventually decide that actuarial studies is their calling. For these students, myself included, a worthwhile career awaits them as they embark on the journey of becoming a qualified actuary. Unfortunately, however, many others are deterred by the false perceptions surrounding the actuarial profession. This misnomer, fuelled by deeply engraved misconceptions passed on through the generations, has discouraged many students from choosing this career path, despite possessing the right mindset and set of skills. There are two major stereotypes that many students like myself have been widely exposed to in the past:

“Actuaries are confined to the isolations of their workstation

It is a common misconception amongst students that actuaries sit hunched behind a computer, crunching numbers into Excel using their excellent mathematical knowledge. Monotonous, boring, dry – these are all words commonly associated with the profession, yet this is far from reality. As an active and inquisitive student who dreaded the thought of spending the rest of his working life glued to a seat at an office desk, this perceived lifestyle seemed daunting.

Even after starting my degree at UNSW, this thought still lingered the back of my mind; had I made the right choice? My first careers fair with the Actuarial Society of UNSW quickly dismissed any lingering doubts in my mind.

Conversations with a range of representatives from different firms and positions were quick to shatter stereotypes. Although they acknowledged the importance of strong technical and problem-solving skills, they also identified the necessity for strong communication skills. One representative’s words had a particularly resounding effect on me. “As actuaries, you do not work for yourself – you work for other people. Your job will be to find a solution to problems they may not even know about. You must communicate with them to figure out what their problem is and show them how your model will resolve it.” It is this interactive lifestyle that can become habitual as an actuary that is often overlooked by naïve students like myself. This is a product of the constantly evolving profession and has consequently resulted in the actuarial skillset being utilised in many other non-traditional industries. This is another misconception that I too was exposed to as a student

If you become an Actuary, you have to work in Insurance

As a student, this statement felt like the unofficial motto of the actuarial profession and insurance felt like the resounding focus of most university actuarial courses. However, it also seemed to have a negative stigma attached to it. Whenever I revealed that I was an actuarial student, people would pessimistically reply “Oh, so you’re going to be working in insurance.” Maybe it was this constant response or perhaps it was my lack of knowledge, but I would begrudgingly accept the fact that I would be working in the insurance industry.

The range of firms that presented themselves at the Careers Fair however told a different story. Not only was it refreshing to see a multitude of firms not associated with insurance, but as an aspiring commerce student, I was also interested to see what other prospects lay in the financial sector. The possibility of working in non-traditional roles such as financial services, e-commerce or even genetics seemed almost too good to be true. Yet it was clear that the actuarial industry was not how it was perceived – it was constantly adapting to the increasingly globalised society we live in today. This is reflected in the expansion of actuarial majors being offered by universities. UNSW for instance has responded with a new major aimed at actuarial risk management for financial organisations.

The reality of the actuarial profession is that whilst it is constantly evolving, perceptions about it are lagging. It is essential that these misconceptions change to accurately reflect the dynamic and expansive scope of the profession and prevent these false conceived notions from dissuading potential budding actuaries.

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