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March 10, 2009

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Not everybody is an utter genius at math. In fact, the majority of college students who enter the actuarial field will not become associates of the SOA or CAS. They will, as many actuaries often say, "hit the wall" on one of their exams.


As you may have seen in the previous section, the SOA/CAS exams are hard. The first one or two are a fit challenge for an undergraduate mathematics major. The third and fourth require not only math, but a strong business sense as well. By the time you're on your sixth or seventh, you've either been around actuarial science for years or have an advanced degree in mathematics, business and/or actuarial science.

And at some point, you simply just might not get it any longer. "The first two I passed easily, the third took me two tries, the fourth took three tries," one insurance industry actuary says. "The fifth & three times so far. And at this point, I'm on my own for a fourth try." Indeed, companies will teach and train and prep you only so long -- three times seems to be standard. If for all your hard work and study, you simply can't pass a given exam after three times, then the company likely won't sponsor you for a fourth.

You can certainly try other exams, though after the fourth they tend to build upon one another and increase in difficulty. You can also take the test on your own. Going to graduate school for advanced actuarial science or mathematics work is another option, with hopes of gaining enough experience and knowledge for a better shot at a test.

Or & it may just be that you've hit the wall. As the difficulty of the actuarial exams increases, it becomes something akin to art rather than science, and you'll need to creatively apply the most cutting-edge theoretical mathematics to the problems posed. That kind of work isn't for everyone, and it may not be for you.

That, of course, then begs the question, what happens to your career once you hit the wall? A flip answer would be that you go into management. But like many old business-world clichis, that's sometimes not far from the mark. You may continue to gather experience at the level you've achieved, and ultimately manage others doing what you do now. So if you've passed five exams but not the sixth, and you're currently working on modeling potential prescription usage patterns for a major health insurer, you'll probably keep doing that, and may ultimately manage your business unit.

To further that goal, you might decide to get your MBA or try other management-track options. Perhaps you'll find a position at a different firm that has more management potential. Your own firm may encourage you to take that tack in your career as well. "I'm glad I hit the wall on the tests. They were awful. I hated them," says one pension industry actuary who's now in a management position. "I'm managing the people who used to do what I was doing while I was trying to pass the tests. It's more reviewing their work now, and it's great. I may not do it forever, but the management experience helps me with whatever I want to do next."

Sadly, some firms don't take hitting the wall as kindly. Few working actuaries can name firms who have let people go, but in many larger companies, hitting the wall in your testing regime is the effective end of your career advancement. Of course, a cushy office job that pays $150,000 or so is hardly a stalled career for many Americans. But actuaries are generally more ambitious than that. Should this happen to you, a change of scenery will likely do you and your career wonders.

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Filed Under: Education

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