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Inside Job: Actuary

Rachel Bachrach

Is becoming an actuary a good professional choice for a frum woman? What it’s like to study hundreds of hours for tests you take for years on end and why calculating risk is important, not morbid

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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CHESS MASTER “My work is intellectually rigorous and rewarding; I love it!” says Avivya Stohl, an assistant vice president at Farmers Insurance Group in Los Angeles, California. “It’s almost like playing chess, working and concentrating for long periods of time. I’m still, even after all these years, refining my methodology. I spend my time solving puzzles using mathematics, and I’m helping provide individuals and corporations peace of mind in the face of uncertainty”

E ver heard the joke about the difference between actuaries and morticians? These three women have endured their fair share of actuary jokes, and more. They discuss what it’s like to study hundreds of hours for tests you take for years on end (hard), why calculating risk is important (everyone needs insurance for something), and how to respond to someone who asks if you’re depressed because you spend all day deciding when people will die (no).

What is it really like to be an actuary? We began by speaking with Rochel Leah Greisman, 23, an actuarial analyst at Berkley Accident and Health in Hamilton Square, New Jersey. She’s been working in the field for two years.

A lot of people aren’t sure what an actuary does all day. The job description in a nutshell:

It depends on the path you choose. There are two basic routes — life and health is one, property and casualty is the second — and there are many types of actuaries in each field. Some examples: pricing actuaries help price products, like an insurance premium. Reserve actuaries determine how much a company has to set aside to fund possible future liabilities. Product actuaries develop products, from initial research to product monitoring.

In general, an actuary thoroughly analyzes data and uses it to draw conclusions. She might research medical diagnosis categories that have a high probability of large claim amounts, based on her company’s experience and external research, and use that information to price products. I work as an entry-level actuarial analyst for a health insurance company, collecting and organizing data on premiums, reserves, and paid claims. My superiors analyze that data as an indicator of how the company performed.

I also create data-tracking reports. For example, a policy is priced based on expected claims, and we track the actual claims to see if our assumptions were correct. We have a program that can produce these reports, but a lot of the data we need is too specific and complex for a computer to generate, so yes, even with advanced technology and sophistication, there’s still the need for humans.

Friends ask if spending my day figuring out how likely it is that John Doe will drop dead is depressing. I tell them…
While my job isn’t actually figuring out the likelihood of John Doe dropping dead, I’m exposed to a lot of situations with mortally ill people. When I first started working, I overheard someone in the office saying, “Well, if this person would just die, then we’d be able to price this group at a much lower rate,” and “Seriously, so-and-so is on her tenth life, when will she expire?” It’s disturbing, but no one knows who any of these people are, it’s more theoretical than actual. Determining the likelihood of John Doe dying is more of an abstract concept than a real one.
One of my monthly projects includes high-claim analysis, and sometimes, I read details about the claimant’s medical state.

“I often get asked if it’s a good field for young mothers, and I say yes, as long as you can study with babies crawling on your math books!” laughs Roselyn Feinsod, a senior partner and east regional practice leader for the Retirement and Investment Solutions division at Aon in New York, New York

It can be hard to get past the first few lines about what people are going through on a daily basis! It gives me a renewed appreciation for life by teaching me how grateful we need to be for things we take for granted.

The two most crucial traits for an actuary are…
Persistence and dedication — the exam process requires dogged persistence and extreme dedication! You need to pass five preliminary actuarial exams to reach the associateship level, and there’s an additional requirement to become a fellow. The actual exams vary, depending on your path, but the time commitment is similar: Suggested study time is about 100 hours per hour of the exam, which generally run about three to six hours. A four-hour exam calls for 400 hours of serious studying — no exaggeration, you really need all that time! There’s no graduate school required, but the exams more than make up for it.

Actuary is rated as one of the best jobs in America because…
It’s a desk job that isn’t just busy work, you need to use your thinking skills. It’s generally, depending on your position and company, a pretty low-pressure job — aside from the exams, of course — and it offers a lot of flexibility compared to other corporate jobs.

The most challenging aspect of the job is…
Taking exams while working full-time, especially for a wife and mother — sometimes I wonder if the week before an exam is harder for me or for my husband! The company I work for gives me study time at work and pays for exam materials and exams, which is standard. They also give raises for each passed exam, which is a good motivator when the going gets tough.

I’ll never forget the job interview I had where the interviewer said if you have an exam scheduled but a client needs something that day, the client takes priority. The exams are offered only during a specific timeframe, so if you miss it you need to wait a few months — sometimes six — until the next time, and this is after putting in several hundred hours of studying! Needless to say, I wasn’t interested in the job. (excerpted)

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