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What are the skills you need to be an actuary and to impress future employers? In the actuarial profession, numerical aptitude is a given, but you also need softer skills in order to analyse and communicate complex concepts. Dr Geraldine Kaye advises on the qualities you need to develop in order to be a successful actuary.

Maths was always my favourite subject. I lived, ate and slept maths. But it was not until a friend mentioned actuaries that I first thought about a career as an actuary.

She told me that actuaries not only used maths and economics every day of their working lives, but they required good interpersonal skills, as they are in regular contact with clients, senior colleagues and the staff they manage. This certainly appealed to me. But my eyes really sparkled when I heard of the salaries that actuaries could command at that time. And they still sparkle over some of today’s levels!

The right degree

Ideally, you should be studying for a degree with significant mathematical content; statistics, maths, engineering, science and economics are all ideal subjects. The advice that I was given as a student, and that I still give, is to study a subject that you enjoy. You are better with a good class of degree than a poor degree and some exemptions and you are more likely to do well at something you enjoy.

Tenacity is essential, as the actuarial exams are demanding. To be accepted as an actuarial student usually demonstrates that you have the ability to qualify. The two reasons for not qualifying are that a) the student ‘learns well how to fail’ and gives up, or b) gives up, albeit for some wholly justifiable reasons (such people are often referred to as ‘unqualified successes’).

Actuaries need good communication skills. It used to be said that you know you are talking to an extrovert actuary because they look at your shoes rather than their own when they speak. This is no longer true. As an actuary you will often need to explain complex technical information to non-technical audiences.

Ready for anything

Actuaries work across diverse industries, from insurance, pensions and benefits, investment and asset management through to banking, healthcare, capital projects and risk. Working individually or as part of a team, you could find yourself being a consultant, analyst, trouble-shooter and risk assessor – all in the same day; so because your own future will be wide open, you will also be the kind of person who’s ready for anything. You need to be able to distinguish between the essential and the inessential, and once qualified, to have a long-term perspective. I often describe the actuarial qualification as a qualification in ‘applied common sense’.

In theory, exemptions make it easier to qualify, but you need practical experience in an office in order to integrate the theoretical knowledge and to learn the jargon. Take advantage of the long summer holidays before you graduate to gain as broad a range of experience as possible. While at university I chose something different each year.

First, it was the City head office of a large life assurer, The Northern (before it was taken over by what is now Aviva). The second summer, I chose Dominion Lincoln, a minnow of a life office based in London’s West End. Then, in the final year, I tried my hand at consulting, at Lane Clark & Peacock. On leaving university, I started my full-time career, as an actuarial student and trainee analyst in the investment department of Sun Alliance (now RSA).

Be curious

Born with an inquisitive and acquisitive mind, I have never been slow in asking questions and I certainly asked plenty during my days as an actuarial trainee. If I have any one message for today’s graduate entrants to our profession, it is ‘never be afraid to ask questions’. It is a superb way of building up knowledge.

It is important to remember that different employers are looking for different things; actuaries are a diverse bunch and one size does not fit all. Before you apply, research the different companies, read their websites and speak to their representatives at careers fairs. Get a feel for the companies so that you can apply to the employer that is right for you.

Skills in brief:

  • Excellent academics
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Strong numeric and logic skills
  • Be able to distinguish between the important and the unimportant
  • Never be afraid to ask questions.

NB: it may be possible to demonstrate these other than just by examination results.

About the Author

  • Name: Geraldine Kaye

Dr Geraldine Kaye is Managing Director of GAAPS Actuarial.

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