By just about any standard, actuary is a very good job. The six-figure median salary, rapid rate of career growth, office employment setting and level of prestige add up to an appealing career path. Students who are interested in an actuary career might wonder how much college education they will need before they can attain this goal. While there are master’s degree programs in actuarial science, they aren’t required and often aren’t recommended for aspiring actuaries. Most actuaries start off with an undergraduate degree, and there are other areas of focus – like passing certification exams – that can offer more value in terms of preparing for career advancement than a graduate degree can in this occupation.
A Bachelor’s Degree in Actuarial Science
Most actuaries have a bachelor’s degree, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Actuarial science is a program of study that prepares students for one specific career path: actuary, a math-related occupation that revolves around calculating the financial cost of risk in industries like insurance and finance.
An undergraduate program in actuarial science blends coursework in math with coursework in business. The Society of Actuaries (SOA), one of the two professional societies that certify actuaries, recognizes more than 180 colleges and universities nationally that offer undergraduate degree programs in actuarial science. Depending on your college, actuarial science programs may be part of the mathematics department or a school of business. An actuarial science curriculum is specially tailored for the needs of aspiring actuaries, such as preparing for certification exams. However, actuaries can also come from backgrounds in general math, statistics or other analytical subjects, the BLS reported.
Though the major doesn’t contain the word “math,” it is very much a math-related program of study. Students of actuarial science should expect to take multiple calculus courses at increasing levels of difficulty throughout their undergraduate studies. Coursework in linear algebra, analytical geometry, mathematical statistics and statistical data analysis are often required, as well. Classes such as Fundamentals of Probability and Financial Mathematics are essential in preparing to pass the first two actuary certification exams, Probability and Financial Mathematics. You might also complete studies in actuarial models of assessing risk and, later in your studies, a seminar or capstone experience that ties together everything you have learned.
Understanding the business side of the actuary occupation is just as important as understanding the advanced mathematics behind calculations. Studies in economics and corporate finance are of particular importance, according to the BLS. Actuarial science majors often take coursework in the principles of microeconomics, macroeconomics, accounting, risk management, insurance and finance. Further studies in investments, financial management, financial risk management and a type of contract called derivatives are also valuable.
Both professional actuary societies require that students complete approved coursework in finance, economics and applied mathematics to meet a qualification called validation by education experience, or VEE, so these subjects are required in actuarial science programs.
Think Twice Before Going to Graduate School to Be an Actuary
By the time you finish your bachelor’s degree in actuarial science or mathematics, you should have all the college education you need to get started in this occupation. Prospective employers will most likely look at three factors beyond your attainment of a relevant bachelor’s degree to determine your value as a job candidate: your progress in passing certification exams, your internship experience and your grades. Generally, employers don’t expect actuaries to have a master’s degree or beyond, and attaining such a degree won’t improve your job prospects.
Who would benefit from going to graduate school for actuarial science? For career changers who already have an undergraduate degree but whose previous education or experience was in an unrelated field, graduate school might be a reasonable way to prepare for a new job. Earning a master’s degree could potentially help students who have a low GPA or never completed an internship as an undergraduate, though it might be difficult for them to get accepted into a program, impress an employer and succeed at getting better grades this time around.
One reason you might consider a master’s degree program in actuarial science is if you are struggling to pass the certification exams. For actuaries, the path to professional certification requires passing numerous exams. These exams are known to be challenging, and they aren’t optional if you want to remain in the actuarial career field and eventually achieve full professional certification. Typically, actuaries study independently for these exams, usually with the help of exam prep materials. Actuaries who are unable to pass their exams through independent study may find that a graduate degree program helps them. They may have difficulty finding the discipline to stick to a study schedule on their own or simply struggle to understand the material when it is being presented in a way that doesn’t mesh with their preferred learning style.
Often, actuaries’ employers cover the costs of their examinations and exam review materials and may even offer time off from work for studying.
What to Consider If You Decide to Pursue a Master’s Degree
Suppose you are a career-changer, or you’ve tried everything still can’t pass your certification exams. Maybe you want to teach at the college level, rise through the ranks of a business or just quench a thirst for knowledge. If you decide that an advanced degree is right for you even though it isn’t a traditional step on the path to an actuary career, think carefully about your education.
In particular, consider which program of study is best for you. Actuarial science is such a specialized, focused program that studying it at the graduate level might not make sense, especially if you already have an undergraduate degree in the subject. A master’s degree in business, economics, statistics or finance might be a more versatile choice.
Ambitious actuaries sometimes move up into executive leadership roles such as chief financial officer (CFO) or chief risk officer (CRO), the BLS reported.