This article was first published on CoachingActuaries blog in June, 2014.
I was fortunate enough to be selected as a member of an actuarial development summer internship program this year. Although it has been only one month, it has been one of the best learning experiences in my life. I would love to share what I have learned so far as it may benefit all other actuarial students who will be looking for internships.
1. Actuarial Science is a great profession
When I first heard actuaries have the #1 job ranking in the U.S., I was quite surprised and skeptical – it is a high-paying job, but certainly not as high as a surgeon or a petroleum engineer. Solving real-world business problems is fun, but certainly not as fun as being a water slide tester (no kidding, this is a real job). A ranking is like a model and “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” so I won’t argue whether actuaries have the #1 job, but I did observe many things, aside from being a high-paying and intellectually-rewarding job, that contribute to actuary’s shining crown:
a) Low stress: I’m sure some research on stress index have proven this scientifically, but I feel on a personal-level, every single actuary I’ve met at my interning company is always smiling and happy at work – their positive mental status reflects a positive work environment.
b) Less time and money spent in school: most actuaries only have undergraduate degrees, as their qualifications are measured not by diplomas, but by work experience and the number of professional exams passed. And most companies have great exam support, in the form of paid study time, reimbursement of study materials and seminars, and peer support within the actuarial community.
c) Opportunities for other roles: Many companies have a very extensive rotation program, in which actuaries have a great degree of autonomy deciding where they want to take their career path to. I’ve talked to actuaries who worked in underwriting, corporate auditing, investor relation, and even HR-nature roles. It is commonly believed actuaries can only crunch numbers and build models, and they are not good with people – this stereotype intentionally limits an actuary’s potential in a corporate world and I’ve seen countless counterexamples just within one month in one company. Many of the actuaries I met are among the most sociable people I know; actuaries can be great business leaders – for example the current business financial officer at my company is a graduate of the actuarial program.
2. Learn horizontally
Having the drive to learn things beyond one’s original field of expertise appears to be a common attribute among many very successful leaders in my interning company. During a speaker series, an Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Services mentioned the phrase “learn horizontally” – learn new things that may not seem to be relevant in the short-run, but broadening your knowledge and experience will only be beneficial in the long run. One of my mentors took an actuarial role in underwriting early in his career, gradually transitioned into an underwriter himself, and ended up becoming an underwriting senior director, managing underwriters across the country, but he didn’t settle there. He is still challenging himself and “learning horizontally” by doing something completely different in his current role in investor relations.
3. Communication is the key
Being able to communicate what you want to convey is important, but being able to communicate in the ways that your audience prefers is even more important. This allows aligned expectations between parties, thus avoiding confusion and conflicts. In the corporate world, that means putting yourself in colleagues’ or clients’ shoes when communicating. In my third week of my internship, my direct manager had to go on a business trip to Scotland; long distance and the 5-hour difference made communication especially important. Suggested by my mentor, I wrote to my manager an “executive summary” at the end of each of my business days, updating my manger on the progress of my project, asking questions, and suggesting possible next steps. This way, when my manager’s business day starts (3am my time), he can quickly look over the highlights of my project and prepare to chat with me about it later. Standing in my manager’s shoes, if I were him, I would want the same kind of communication: I most likely won’t have the time to look at each single cell of the Excel model my intern sends me, but an “executive summary” would allow me to quickly and effectively understand the progress of a project and the needs of my intern.