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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Adjusting for experience

Jessica Elkin outlines why she, as an actuary, feels birthdays should be avoided on the whole, but how being older and wiser pays in the end

Student November
© Phil Wrigglesworth

Terrible things, birthdays. Evil. They creep up on you. They say that life happens while you’re busy making other plans – I’d correct that to read that birthdays happen while your head is turned elsewhere. Insidious and sinister, they are.

Of course, I say this as a grumpy old walnut. You readers may be spring chickens, full of youth and vigour. Please forgive the malaise of this month’s student page. This is my birthday month, you see, and they’re getting less and less welcome each year.

I can’t deny that being a trainee actuary makes birthdays a little harder, thinking about old age and death in pensions and life insurance. Looking at the actuarial tables provides me with evidence that my chance of dying this year is higher than it was last year. Now there’s the proof of the wickedness of birthdays – wiping us all out one by one, like smudges on a whiteboard...

The icing on the cake

Oh very well. There are some upsides. Good wishes and obligatory smiles in your direction, and the occasional present. Neighbours can’t begrudge you a noisy vice-ridden party, and you are morally obliged to eat as much cake as you can cram into your face. Plus, looking at a graph of mortality rates allows me to celebrate being over the accident hump – I survived my teens! That deserves a pat on the back.

I can’t sustain my moral outrage at the existence of birthdays any longer, truth be told. Only, this is that time of year I think, “It’s been x years since I started university, and y years since I graduated, and z years since I started training as an actuary.” And while the latter point is somewhat welcome, as it’s a chance to realise how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learnt, there is also a visceral panic regarding the time flying by.

So, assuming that differentiating wisdom with respect to time gives a positive value, 

I think it would be appropriate for me to divulge some of my accumulated insight to those of you who might be new to the trade.

Gravitating to gravitas

Firstly, and I think this has been a common theme of mine, don’t forget to study. It’s a good idea to set up good habits early on and reap the rewards of early nights and regular breaks as exams approach. It is obvious, of course, but that doesn’t mean you will do it.

Secondly, don’t study too much. Actually, that’s not what I mean. I mean, don’t think that you need 100% to pass actuarial exams. Everyone panics after their first exams because they feel they haven’t gone well, but it’s partly because we were all so used to having to get high marks in exams throughout school and (to a lesser extent) university.

Thirdly, use the resources around you. Hopefully you’re employed by a company that gives ample study support and allows you to order in assignment marking and attend tutorials. But you’ll also be surrounded by a wealth of people who have been there and done that, and while they may not remember all of the annuity equations, they are usually happy to help where they can. Actuaries are nice like that. Don’t be too proud to admit you need help. This goes for work stuff as well – you’re new, so you’re not expected to know everything. 

The time to ask questions

A few months ago I wrote a column on work-based skills, and I had a few responses from people telling me it made them feel guilty. Good! Don’t forget to keep this up. 

A kind soul in my team has set up a work-based skills club so that the students can sit down together and go through some of the tasks in an organised, methodical fashion before the next set of exams get in the way. He’s also a fantastic baker and beer-maker. But I digress.

Getting your head down at work is obviously good for showing your dedication to your chosen profession. However, you should make the most of what will probably be the least busy time in your career and get to know your colleagues. Forge social connections. This is not only fun, but it will make working more pleasant, and it will even be good for your career as it will improve communications and working relationships.

Finally, when you’re a few years in, don’t forget to adopt a world-weary tone and patronise as many people as you can. I think you’ve earned that right.