Actuarial science is a difficult degree program to define. Often referred to as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary, an actuary degree program combines studies in mathematics, business and computer science. Many actuarial degree programs are part of colleges’ math departments, but others are offered out of universities’ schools of business.
Actuary is such a math-heavy career that the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies it as one of the three types of math occupations, along with operations research analyst and mathematician and statistician. While the precise math requirements for this degree vary from one school to another, there are many similarities between bachelor’s degree programs in actuarial science. For example, aspiring actuaries should expect to take multiple courses in calculus, including an advanced course such as Calculus III or Multivariable Calculus. Courses in financial mathematics, such as Introduction to Financial Mathematics and Financial Mathematics for Actuaries, are important, as are studies in probability and statistics, linear algebra, interest theory and actuarial models.
Actuarial science is a career-focused major that prepares students for a very specific, and somewhat small, occupation – one that employs just 23,600 Americans but is seeing above-average job growth, according to the BLS.
Business Courses for an Actuary Career
Courses in economics and corporate finance are as important for actuaries as math classes are, the BLS reported. Students of actuarial science should expect to study both macroeconomics, or the study of scarcity and resource use in the national economy, as well as microeconomics, or how resources are used at the individual, group or company level. Finance courses for actuarial science majors might include financial management, financial derivatives and investment theory. Having a solid grasp of accounting principles and practices is also beneficial. Aspiring actuaries might take a broad accounting class such as Survey of Accounting Concepts as well as courses in financial and managerial accounting.
Other business subjects that can be valuable for actuarial science students include business ethics, business communications and leadership and organizational management.
Studies in Computer Science and Programming
You might associate computer science and programming courses with careers in information technology, technical support, software development or building websites. However, having a solid background in computers is essential for actuarial science majors. Computers are integral to “most actuarial work,” including gathering information in the form of databases and using software for statistical analysis and mathematical modeling of this data, the BLS reported. Some of the courses that are valuable for actuarial science majors include introduction to programming, technical computing and problem solving and information systems in organizations.
Though computer programming won’t be a main focus of your work as an actuary, having knowledge of coding languages such as SQL, JAVA, C, R and Python can help you with using the database and statistics and modeling software needed to calculate risk.
The Benefits of Specialized Coursework in Actuarial Science
Strictly speaking, you don’t need to major in actuarial science to ultimately become an actuary. Another analytical major, such as statistics or general mathematics, is acceptable for this career path, according to the BLS. However, there are clear benefits to choosing this major, if you are confident that you want to be an actuary.
For one thing, the career-oriented actuarial science program is already interdisciplinary. You don’t need to find a way to incorporate studies in statistics, finance, economics, accounting and computer science into a degree program based around math courses. Another benefit is the emphasis on exam preparation found in specialized actuarial science courses. Since aspiring actuaries typically begin taking their first certification exams even before they graduate with their bachelor’s degree, many actuarial degree programs focus on preparing students for the first two exams in Probability and Financial Mathematics. Depending on your college and degree program, the coursework you take as an undergraduate student may prepare you for additional exams, such as Financial Economics and Life Contingencies, as well.
To attain full certification, aspiring actuaries also need to fulfill another set of requirements by earning Validation by Educational Experience (VEE) credits. Unless students specifically plan for these requirements, they are unlikely to meet them as part of a general mathematics degree program. However, actuarial science programs are often set up so that students who perform well in their major coursework will earn the credit needed to satisfy VEE requirements needed for certification from either the Society of Actuaries (SOA) or the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS).
When is it a better idea to major in mathematics than actuarial science? If you are unsure what you want to do with your degree, you might be better off choosing a more versatile major. Math is a broader field of study with a wider range of possible applications.