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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Student: Balancing act

Most people face choices that are either/or: eat in or out, to buy or not to buy, X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, daddy or chips? Of course, actuarial students — while they love their binary — prefer life to be a little more complicated. In the quest for a work-life balance they like to throw in a third, unspeakable variable.

We say that we suffer in the name of qualifying. Perhaps we do it because it offers us a supply of rants about how we never have time to enjoy ourselves — we are either working or studying. We follow the student ABC: Always Be Cramming.

But is it true? Are we selflessly missing out on our 20s and 30s in the pursuit of excellence or are we, in fact, just a bunch of moaners? I hate ambiguity so let’s find out. Compare two people: a student and a person with a job but no study.

The investigation
Any actuary knows to state their key assumptions, so:
• This takes place over six months — the time between actuarial exams
• The student is studying for two CT exams with 14 study days
• Each exam takes 80 hours’ preparation
• There are four types of day: work day, weekend, holiday and study day (exam days will be considered as work days)
• Both take 14 days’ holiday/bank holiday
• There are no external factors, like sick days.

So, over six months, what do our two subjects spend their time doing? The major difference is the presence of study days for the student — more on that later.

It is worth pausing to consider the nature of ‘free time’. Let’s say there are two kinds: Grade A free time comes when there is a substantial block in which to do a meaningful activity. Grade B free time occurs when the subject may be tired or have chores to do. It is clear grade A free time is more valuable than grade B.

Holidays, weekends and work days are broken up as shown in Table 1. Holidays and weekends will always have grade A free time and work days will have grade B.

Table 1

Study days
We can assume that study days offer 12 hours of free time similar to weekends.

The student can do one of a few things:
• They can do a full day of study (about eight hours)
• They can take the ‘day off’ (at their own peril)
• They can do something in-between.
I will assume the student will study more as the exams approach. Also, if they study a lot in a day then free time downgrades from grade A to grade B.

This means that the student might typically enjoy 31 hours of grade A free time and 44 days of grade B free time from study days. However, this assumption means they need to find another 67 hours of study time to prepare for the exam. This will come from weekends.

Whichever way you slice it, the student will end up with about 36 hours less free time than the worker. That’s the deal. Also, with no exam commitments, the worker can choose when to take holidays more freely. But the student can gain flexibility from study days. They can end up with more days with grade A free time than a worker. Some would argue that having more days of free time is better than having more free time condensed into fewer days.

Also, the overwhelming amount of free time that a student has is flexible.
They can choose to have high- or low-quality time depending on how they approach studying — little and often or blitzed all at once. So, when you think about your work/life/study balance, consider the ways you can get the mix that is right for you. This could go a long way to making students feel more content in dealing with the perceived sacrifice of having to study.

Figure 1

Matthew Welsh works as a GI reserving actuary for Zurich Financial Services