A bachelor’s degree in mathematics is one option for students who are good at math, but it’s not the only major to consider. Another popular program of study is actuarial science. This degree incorporates studies in math, business and computer science to prepare students for a career as an actuary, which involves applying mathematical theory to analyze data for the purpose of calculating the cost of risk. While both mathematics and actuarial science degrees require significant coursework in math and prepare students for a math occupation, they are distinct in many ways. Different curricular requirements, different steps needed to advance in the profession and differences in career opportunities separate math degrees from actuarial science degrees.
Pure Math vs. Business Math Curriculum
When your major is mathematics, most of your core coursework will be math classes. Subjects such as differential equations, calculus and abstract and linear algebra are among the most important classes you will take, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Undergraduate math degree programs might also include studies in computer science, physics, life sciences, statistics, economics or education to help tailor students’ education to fit their desired career focus.
Actuarial science is an interdisciplinary program. For aspiring actuaries, classes in business are as necessary as math classes are. In particular, students majoring in actuarial science need to complete classes in statistics, economics and corporate finance, the BLS reported. Computer science and computer programming courses are also valuable, since much of an actuary’s daily work involves the use of computer database software, statistics and modeling software and spreadsheets.
Another distinction between math and actuarial science curricula is the purpose of earning the degree. Though math is part of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, it is often considered a program within the liberal arts and sciences. These broader degree programs equip students with versatile skills in communicating, critical thinking, problem-solving and learning rather than preparing students for one certain job. After graduating, students might pursue careers in any number of areas. Actuarial science, rather, is a degree program intended to prepare students for one specific career path.
Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees in mathematics are as common, and as reputable, as Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees. Among colleges that offer both options, the BS often requires more science courses and the BA incorporates more of the humanities.
Graduate Preparation vs. Industry Certification
What do you want to do after graduating with your bachelor’s degree? Depending on which degree you choose to earn, your answer could be quite different. Most job opportunities for mathematicians and statisticians require a master’s degree or a Ph.D., although there are some jobs in this occupation – particularly with the federal government – available with only a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS. Because of the preference for a graduate school, many aspiring mathematicians or statisticians will ultimately earn an advanced degree in math.
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient formal education for an actuary, but that doesn’t necessarily make advancement in this career easier than in one that requires a master’s degree. Certification from either the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) or the Society of Actuaries (SOA) is necessary to work in the occupation, and attaining full professional status can take years. Even before you earn your undergraduate degree, you will need to complete one or two of your initial certification exams. It takes another four to seven years to become an actuarial associate, and two to three additional years of study and exams to reach fellowship certification status.
In all, aspiring actuaries should expect to complete seven to 10 challenging certification exams – and to spend months preparing and hundreds of hours studying for each exam, the BLS reported.
Both mathematicians and actuaries are high paying careers that currently are experiencing faster than average job growth. Mathematicians make up just a small proportion of mathematical science occupations, accounting for just 3,100 jobs, while statisticians make up the remaining 37,200 jobs in the field. The BLS expects mathematician opportunities to grow by 30 percent, or 900 new jobs, over a decade. Currently, the federal government employs the largest share of mathematicians, 35 percent. An additional 17 percent work in research and development, 16 percent work for colleges and universities, eight percent work in finance and insurance and seven percent work in management, scientific and technical consulting services. The median wage for mathematicians is $103,010, though the median wage for all mathematical science occupations is almost $20,000 lower. Mathematicians working for colleges and universities earn some of the lowest wages, with a median salary of $56,320.
The 22 percent job growth rate predicted for actuaries will translate to 5,300 new career opportunities, the BLS reported. Seven out of 10 actuaries find work in the finance and insurance industry, while 16 percent are employed in the professional, scientific and technical services industry. Just seven percent of actuaries work in management and four percent for the government. Only one percent of actuaries are self-employed. The median wage for actuaries is $101,560, and those who work in the finance and insurance industry have a median salary of $102,510.
Though not nearly as small as mathematician, actuary is still a small occupation, employing just 23,600 Americans, the BLS reported.