Catrin Townsend considers some effective ways to answer this often-dreaded question
During party season, the question “so, what do you do?” feels unavoidable – and, if you’re an actuary, it often feels unanswerable. After all, most people don’t know or understand exactly what we do. But giving a great answer doesn’t just improve your chances of being invited to a party again: learning to network with non-actuaries can also supercharge your career, and raise the profile of the entire profession with it.
So, here are answers you should avoid, and ones that you might try instead.
Don’t just give your title
“I’m an actuary.” You might have tried this one before, so you’ll already know that this a usually a conversation killer. It is often followed with: “Is that something to do with pensions?” This answer, as factually accurate as it may be, is likely to lead to some awkward silences; Google Analytics shows that on average, there are 2,900 Google searches per month for the question “What is actuarial?” in the UK alone (see Table 1).
Don’t just give your industry
On the plus side, people do tend to know what insurance or finance entails; on the downside, they might have fairly negative views of these industries. It is easy to become embroiled in explaining that no, you can’t get them a discount on their car insurance – and a definite no to fiddling the rates so their Audi is cheaper to insure. It starts a defensive conversation that has a divide almost baked into it – you are on the inside of a profit-making public necessity, and they are not.
From a career perspective, it’s also really limiting. Actuaries are no longer confined to pensions or insurance, and if you’re looking to take a step up in your career, non-traditional roles can offer fantastic opportunities for both growth and impact. Don’t limit your choices by stating that you’re in one industry when you would be open to a role elsewhere.
Don’t give one single task
You might be tempted to say “I analyse investments”, as it gives slightly more detail on your role’s focus. Of course, the main problem with generalising in this way is that you might get mistaken for an accountant. The other problem is that one task can’t possibly explain what you do all day! You risk making yourself look one-dimensional, and it makes a role in actuarial science seem rather dull.
Instead, try contrasting a recent piece of work with your current project to show multiple skills – for example, “I’ve actually just moved to analysing inflation risk, but previously I was working on a metric to incorporate environmental concerns into investment decisions.”
Not only does this show two skills, it also demonstrates that you are comfortable with changing focus. It’s also a fabulous get-out for heading off questions about what you do all day, as you can reiterate that there is so much variety. Plus, it gives your acquaintance two topics to spark further conversation.
Do emphasise your soft skills
You’re an actuary – being numerate and having strong technical skills is a given. By highlighting the soft skills needed in your role, you are not only demonstrating that you personally have a wider skillset, but also making actuaries as a profession seem more people-focused and likeable. That, in turn, helps the party-going public to recognise that you – and all actuaries – have skills that are applicable not just to their traditional industries but also to any problem that involves risk.
Soft skills are also the trick to future-proofing your career: as artificial intelligence and computing capabilities improve, technical skills will become a smaller proportion of actuarial work. That’s not a bad thing – we are already freed from tedious mental maths by computers – but it does mean that actuaries will need soft skills as well as sharp technical minds if they are to stay relevant.
Do talk about the big issues
People might not want to hear about the technicalities of actuarial work at a party, but they love hearing about things that affect them. And actuarial work really does affect everyone! From private health insurance and climate change to social care and cyber insurance, there are lots of converging global risks that can start a great discussion about the role that actuaries – and by extension, you – can play in mitigating the financial risk of these issues.
So, if you’ve had the “what do you do?” conversation before, mentioning one or two big topics is often welcome relief from the usual party talk. Plus, sharing that capable professionals with integrity are working on these problems not only spreads festive good cheer, but also shows how the profession is adapting and innovating.
Do be interesting
There’s nothing wrong with keeping it light at a party. “I do some modelling…” is a great starter, and you can follow that up with a bit more information about exactly what you do. This is where perceptions kick in – modelling seems more exciting than calculating, and solving problems is more interesting than assessing. Or you could talk about one interesting project that you recently worked on: were you launching a new product?
“Use it as an opportunity to unravel some of the preconceptions about actuaries – not least that we hate parties!”
Were you part of a team of global actuaries proposing sustainability metrics? Do you present to the board a lot? Giving examples of your best moments helps people to appreciate the highlights and challenges of actuarial work and shows the variety of work you do.
No one wants to stand around politely as someone gives their entire CV – or, worse still, offloads about their latest work problems. Turn the conversation around by drawing similarities between your role and their role. What risks do they face? How do they measure or model that? Asking thoughtful questions about their role not only makes you a great conversationalist, but also plants the seed that maybe their circumstance might benefit from an actuarial perspective or risk quantification and transfer.
Grab the opportunity
The next time you are cornered at a Christmas ‘do’ and you’re asked about your job, don’t mumble something into your drink. Use it as an opportunity to unravel some of the preconceptions about actuaries – not least that we hate parties!
The problem with work-related small talk is not that actuaries have nothing to say, or that actuarial work is innately tedious. It’s not a lack of innovation, nor a lack of relevance to non-actuaries. The reason it is difficult to respond is because it is a heterogeneous, fast-paced, globally important profession.
Perhaps the answer to ‘what does an actuary do?’ is complicated, but the answer to ‘what can an actuary do?’ is easy. An actuary can do almost anything.
Catrin Townsend is the author of A Risky Business: An Actuary's Guide to Quantifying and Managing Risk in Society (published by Springer, 2022) and technical pricing manager at AXA UK
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