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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Rebel with a cause

Jessica Elkin advises students without a mathematical background not to be discouraged from joining the profession

06 MARCH 2014 | JESSICA ELKIN
Student_March-2014
©Phil Wrigglesworth

I have this attitude problem – a personality disorder you could call it – whereby I want something more when I’m told I cannot have it. Not very original, you might say, but there it is.

This spirit of rebellion would, I’m sure, make me some sort of revolutionary hero given the right circumstances. However, my life is quite ordinary, so it usually manifests itself in wanting the Monopoly piece someone else chose, or deciding I fancy someone only after they’ve moved on to someone else.

I’d hate to give the impression that I pursued my career in such a way. My path of choice was naturally judicious, well-researched and carefully planned. But perhaps I was spurred on a bit by the notion that the job was something I couldn’t have.

You see, I was studying a discipline considered ‘non-traditional’ in this field – one of those pleasantly woolly subjects that is sometimes disparaged due to lack of tangible applicable knowledge. At one memorable careers event I was told by a professional that I would ‘struggle’ to get my foot in the door. Yet I’d always loved maths, and I was interested in this specialist, stimulating and technical line of work. So I persevered. Some would call this pig-headedness.


Right brain, wrong brain

I have long sensed that many people like to split brains into two types, ‘scientific’ and ‘arty’, and prefer to categorise themselves and others as one or the other. This has always seemed a little short-sighted to me; many people have skills on both sides of the coin. An impressively quick qualifier and all-round smarty-pants at my firm studied music and maths at university, and completed a music performance Masters before pursuing an actuarial career. He’s in a band and always accompanies at office Christmas carols.

In The Actuary in 2000, Rob Guthrie expressed some benefits of employing a diverse range of actuaries, suggesting that “initiative, problem solving, teamwork, and communication skills” would be found in abundance in graduates from non-mathematical backgrounds. He pointed out that while a good level of mathematical understanding is required to pass the exams, “mathematical ability is not the be-all and end-all any more”.

I agree. Actuaries are dealing with widening demographics, now that our field of practice is expanding, and communication of complicated concepts is just as important as understanding the concepts in the first place. Once the ‘maths’ box has been ticked, employers are often looking at other abilities that will allow one to work with others, manage projects and meet deadlines.

Of course, highly mathematical graduates will always be sought-after for certain roles. As with pure mathematicians that go into actuarial work having not studied applied statistics, the point is technical skills are useful, but equally important are the transferable skills that can be applied in performing the role.


Information asymmetry

In my day, it was difficult to find much information on the possibility of becoming an actuary from an arts background. I remember hearing a rumour that a prominent actuarial consultancy had hired a music graduate to be a trainee actuary, but I couldn’t find verification anywhere. Perhaps it was a freak occurrence, or not true, I thought at the time. 

Skipping a few years down the line, things feel very different. There is a music technology graduate training at my firm. I’ve heard of a law graduate going into the profession, and I know a qualified actuary who studied geography. And eventually I made it in, too. 

Reading Guthrie’s article when I was still at university gave me some much-needed encouragement, and when I contacted him to express appreciation he kindly responded with some great tips. Having been thus encouraged in my day, I am always keen to pay it forward and advise those in similar positions if I can.

On starting this month’s page, I intended to impart words of wisdom for that purpose. However, on reflection, I’ve realised that my advice would be the same for graduates from arts and science backgrounds alike. You know: do your research. Be enthusiastic. Consider taking CT1 to bolster your CV. Make sure you want to be an actuary for the right reasons and not because of its sex appeal and glamour! Or because you were told not to.

It is reassuring to know that non-traditional graduates needn’t take extraordinary measures. If each individual can be considered on merit, and not on the basis of black-and-white criteria such as their chosen degree, the industry will find the best recruits, and others like me will have a chance to prove themselves.

It is hard to convey extreme wisdom in one page. If you are an applicant from a ‘non-traditional’ background, feel free to email student@actuary.com with any questions. And good luck!