Moving between industry and academia can provide great personal insight, as the first part in our series shows
What is it like to put aside a career in business in order to pursue a role in academia – or vice versa? Swapping big teams, client meetings and corporate salaries for student lectures and solitary study. Moving between the business world and academia – a sector riddled with issues around funding, student uptake and institutional management constraints – can feel like a huge risk.
Some actuaries do it, though. We spoke to three individuals about the challenges involved in making the switch.
My current employer is BaFin, the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority in Bonn, Germany, where I am part of the Quantitative Risk Modelling department.
Until March 2020 I was an associate professor and deputy head of the Department of Actuarial Mathematics and Statistics at Heriot-Watt University. Before my return to academia in 2010 I had been a management consultant for eight years, and had passed my actuarial exams while at KPMG. As part of McKinsey’s Risk Management Practice, I ran several exciting projects in the wake of the 2008-9 financial earthquake.
Feeling that I needed a change of perspective, I was lucky to obtain a university appointment in risk management upon leaving the firm. The first few years were challenging as my background was in pure mathematics –actuarial maths was not on my radar nor even on offer at Cambridge, and my PhD was in operator theory. I had to invest a lot of time to get up to speed with the actuarial literature and relevant methods.
Compared to management consulting, academia appeared much slower: good research needs patience and perseverence, nothing can be rushed. Another example is the feedback cycle. While consultants can turn documents around virtually overnight, the academic peer review process takes months. However, the transition from management consulting to university was surprisingly smooth, since both involve a large amount of communication and analytical thinking. I also enjoyed the management aspects of university, although administrative duties can at times be overbearing.
Heriot-Watt was great at giving academics the freedom to work on topics of their choice, which led to strong results. I was involved in a novel actuarial modelling approach for cyber risks, which won several research awards, and was presented at the 2018 International Congress of Actuaries in Berlin. It is, however, difficult to make an immediate impact on the profession or the financial industry, as concepts developed in academia may take years to be implemented in practice. The impact of regulatory or consultancy work is more direct, which is gratifying. I also like the shorter project timelines, which mean I can work on different topics in rapid succession.
I thoroughly enjoyed both consulting and academia, and never had any regrets, but due to the heavy investment in acquiring technical skills when moving to academia, this is not for the faint-hearted.
I work as a lecturer in actuarial science at University College Cork (UCC). I qualified as an actuary in 2006, and prior to joining UCC in January 2018 I had a varied actuarial career, with about two-thirds spent in traditional pension scheme actuary roles, as well as time in health insurance and digital start-ups.
Many of my family are teachers – either national school teachers or secondary school maths teachers – and it has always been an interest. I gave guest lectures to actuarial science students for many years while working in industry and enjoyed it. University jobs are typically one-third teaching, one-third admin and one-third research, and it was definitely the teaching element of it that attracted me most. The first few months were challenging as you are reintroduced to maths and stats that you might not have seen for quite a while. Having a network of mathematician and statistician friends and colleagues within the university makes things easier.
Initially I was a little daunted about the research requirements, but I was fortunate to find a very interesting research area in pension tontines that has allowed me to build on my past experience as a pension scheme actuary, and research an innovative new approach to pensions. It’s important to find a research area you enjoy.
You have a lot of autonomy over your time, but overall you are just as busy as a typical actuary working in industry. I find it busier during term time, but in the summer you have extra time to learn new things or progress research.
There is usually quite a good vibe around the university, which is nice. Actuarial students typically have a decent attitude and are eager to learn. Excel and R have recently been added to the core principles syllabus, so part of what I teach in financial maths and life contingencies uses software I would have worked with in industry. Another interesting part of my job is that one of our three actuarial programmes is a joint programme with a Chinese university and it gives me an insight into the rapidly developing Chinese actuarial world.
COVID-19 has moved all levels of education online overnight. While this is temporary, it has showcased what can and can’t be done online, and it will be interesting to see how this impacts actuarial education and third-level education in the medium term.
It’s 20 years since I finished university. The world is changing fast, but the groups of students I see each year remind me of my own time in college. So while the world changes, I’m not sure people change that much.
I spent 17 years working in the pensions industry, first as an actuary for KPMG LLP, supporting trustees in the funding and security of pension arrangements in the early 2000s, and then as a corporate pensions actuary for PwC LLP, supporting finance directors with the financing side of pension arrangements. I made the move into academia in 2013.
In my current role, I am the programme director for all accredited actuarial science programmes at the University of Leicester. I am responsible for supporting around 250 students in their actuarial journeys and dreams, as well as teaching CB1, CB2, CP2 and CP3. What better way to support the actuaries of tomorrow than by bridging the gap between university and industry?
Two things drove me to seek a career in academia. The first was to provide future actuaries with the support and guidance that I never had access to when at university, and faced with what was the most important career decision in my professional life.
The second was to ensure graduates entering the actuarial industry are ‘fit for purpose’, with skillsets that ensure their long-term progress and success. In my experience, many enter the industry without understanding what is involved and what the path to success looks like, often giving up a few years into their journey.
It is vitally important that future actuaries are truly passionate about what they do and appreciate the value they can add to an institution. It’s all about our young actuaries recognising and appreciating their self-worth, and learning that nothing is impossible. This applies to students embarking on an actuarial career or succeeding in exams, but also to those who want to change their area of practice – the actuarial skillset is so versatile that it can easily be adapted to many different roles. This can’t be said for every industry or career.
I must admit it was a real challenge having to pick up my books again and move away from industry, but the opportunity to shape education policy and the experience of future actuaries has been a privilege.
My days in industry bring back nothing but fond memories – excellent colleagues and opportunities to add value and make a difference at an institutional level. For this, I am forever grateful.
In the university environment, I have the opportunity not only to share this experience with the actuaries of tomorrow and shape university education, but also influence the DNA of our profession. That is a privilege, and one that makes a difference at a personal level.