One of the Best Jobs in America
The University of Missouri’s actuarial mathematics program requires students to complete courses in mathematics, statistics, economics, and finance; undergraduates are encouraged to pass at least two of the rigorous exams required to become an associate of the Society of Actuaries; and it is recommended students complete a summer internship prior to their senior year.
If you are a high school student who enjoys mathematics and has an aptitude for it, if you would like to work with the most advanced tools and big data, and if you are creative and intuitive, you should consider becoming an actuary.
Actuaries are business professionals who analyze and assess the financial impact of risk for insurance companies, consulting and investment firms, government agencies, employee benefit departments of large corporations, hospitals, or banks. They perform quantitative analysis using skills in mathematics, statistics, economics, and finance to decrease the impact of an uncertain event.
US News and World Report, CNN Money, and others consistently rate actuaries as one of the best career choices in the country—in terms of salary, benefits, job security, work environment, and growth opportunity.
But this is not an easy road to travel—the University of Missouri’s actuarial mathematics program requires students to complete courses in mathematics, statistics, economics, and finance; undergraduates are encouraged to pass at least two of the rigorous exams required to become an associate of the Society of Actuaries; and it is recommended students complete a summer internship prior to their senior year.
Despite the demands of the program, those who have made the journey say it’s a path to a rewarding and successful career.
The MU Actuarial Program
The actuarial mathematics program at the University of Missouri, Columbia is SOA accredited and is part of UCAP (Universities and Colleges with Actuarial Programs). The program is housed in the College of Arts and Science (Department of Mathematics) and is designed to prepare students for five SOA actuarial exams. Students are strongly encouraged to pass at least two of these exams during their undergraduate career. It is also strongly recommended that students complete a summer internship before their senior year.
Becoming an actuary requires obtaining an associate designation with one of the two main actuarial associations—the Society of Actuaries or the Casualty Actuarial Society. Associates are then encouraged to take additional exams to become a fellow of one of the actuarial societies.
The MU program recently received accreditation as an advanced curriculum program by adding a second class in long term actuarial mathematics.
“In order to obtain these designations, there is a long and difficult process of examinations,” says Luciana Bobitan, an instructor of actuarial mathematics at Mizzou. “The main goal of our program is to prepare students for those exams. Of course, they are not expected to pass all of the exams while they are in college, but taking three to four exams while in college is an excellent start.”
Bobitan says students also are strongly encouraged to get a summer internship while they are in the program, and most internships now require first passing at least one exam.
Internship Leads to Employment
Taylor Stover, BS ’18 mathematics, of Channahon, Illinois, says her high school guidance counselor suggested she consider pursuing a degree in actuarial science since she has always liked mathematics.
“I would suggest to any high school student interested in actuarial science to take advanced math and computer science courses,” she says. “I also would suggest doing some research on actuarial exams, and job shadow an actuary, if possible.”
Stover says preparing for the actuarial exams is challenging and that time management is an important skill.
“Studying requires prioritization and sometimes sacrificing time spent doing social activities in order to study,” she says. “Once you start working full time, this prioritization becomes essential. This can be extremely challenging and even mentally exhausting at times, but it will be absolutely worth it in the end.”
Stover did her internship at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Chicago, one of the “Big Four” auditors in the world (along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG). She says the experience helped prepare her for a position with PwC, where she now does actuarial analysis for retirement and health care accounts. Stover credits the actuarial mathematics program at MU for providing her with the skills needed to pass the exams and start her career.
“What I enjoyed most about MU’s actuarial program would be the relationships I formed,” she says. “Specifically, Professor Bobitan and Professor (Steven) Goldschmidt have gone above and beyond to help me and many other students. They are both so genuine and knowledgeable, and I always felt they were there for me if I needed them, and most importantly, they know what they are talking about.”
Program Grows to Meet Demand
Instructor Steven Goldschmidt, assistant chair of the Department of Mathematics, says the program has experienced a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the last three years, at a time when freshman enrollment at Mizzou was declining.
“If you make a list of every good-paying profession that is accessible to you with just an undergraduate degree, what professions are on that list?” Goldschmidt asks. “Engineer, architect, computer scientist, and actuary. From the perspective of a family, they might ask, ‘What is the profession I’d like my son or daughter to go into where I can justify the return on investment?’ Actuaries make that cut and very few other professions do.”
Goldschmidt says because more students were enrolling in the actuarial program, they knew they had something that was appealing to students. Still, they wanted to know how Mizzou’s offerings compared to similar institutions. Three seniors in actuarial mathematics analyzed actuarial programs at the University of Nebraska, Drake University, and Maryville University and suggested adding a class that MU did not offer—a second course in long term actuarial mathematics.
Goldschmidt says analyzing pension fund sufficiency is one of the most crucial actuarial tasks right now, especially since most defined-benefit pension programs are currently underfunded. Other actuarial fields include work in the insurance industry, financial risk management, and asset and liability risk management, to name a few. Actuaries also work with government institutions such as Social Security, the Department of Labor, and Medicare to manage social programs and to develop regulations and legislation.
Start Preparing Early
Zack Rowling, now a senior at MU, says he decided to become an actuary when he learned how challenging and rewarding the work could be.
“As a senior in high school in Grafton, Illinois, I was considering studying finance or accounting, but I was drawn to actuarial science because of the job security and incentives that came with doing such a difficult job,” he says.
Rowling says taking a calculus course in high school helped prepare him for the rigorous actuarial program at Mizzou. Bobitan also recommends students take calculus in high school, if it is offered, so they can jump right into the actuarial classes and start preparing for the exams, rather than spending a couple of semesters or more in college catching up on their math requirements.
Rowling, who is majoring in mathematics with an emphasis in actuarial science and math finance, says he has taken two actuarial exams and will take his third exam this month. He says it is impossible to overstate the difficulty of the exams.
“They each cover a vast amount of information and require you to solve exceedingly difficult problems under time pressure with little room for error,” he says. “Hundreds of hours of preparation and complete mastery of the exam content is needed to pass each one.”
Despite that, Rowling says there is no more satisfying feeling than walking out of an exam room with a letter saying you passed. He plans to become an associate of the Society of Actuaries in the next two to three years and then plans to pursue his fellowship.
Goldschmidt and Bobitan intend to maintain the momentum the actuarial mathematics program has achieved by drafting proposals for three new programs: a master’s degree in actuarial science/mathematics; a post-bachelor’s certificate in actuarial mathematics; and a five-year bachelor’s/master’s degree. Both say early preparation is the key to success, and that preparation begins in high school.
"We do have students who didn’t know much about the actuarial career and decided to pursue it as sophomores or juniors, so it’s not impossible to go that route,” Bobitan says, “but if they come prepared, they are more likely to get an internship.”
She says the focus on internships is twofold: students who complete an internship are more likely to get a job soon after graduation, and it is also part of the College of Arts and Science’s commitment to ensuring students are career-ready.
Learn more about MU's actuarial mathematics program.