What is an actuary?

Keely Lockhart chats to Kathryn Morgan, a member of the IFoA, about this challenging and fascinating profession

The actuarial world is a challenging and stimulating area of finance that favours intelligent graduates with an interest in mathematics and the sciences.

In particular, it's become an appealing option for women interested in the world of finance thanks to its high pay, stability and commitment to equal opportunities. In 2012/2013, women represented just over 40 per cent of the profession, but it's predicted that this figure will reach 50 per cent within 10-15 years.

Why should you be an actuary?

"Being an actuary opens doors rather than putting you in a box," says Kathryn Morgan, a manager at the Bank of England's Prudential Regulation Authority, and a member of the IFoA for over twenty years. "It's a job that rewards you for the amount of effort you put in, rather than by what gender you are."

Being an actuary offers breadth and depth of work, and allows you to use your skills in a variety of ways. "If you want to get your hands dirty doing maths, you can find actuarial jobs where you're programming in complex languages," says Kathryn. "Or, at the other end, you could work in a more managerial environment and use your actuarial skills to analyse a company."

Kathryn's role involves examining insurance companies and assessing the big risks on their balance sheets, as well as analysing the industry as a whole to detect trends in the ways that insurance companies are approaching actuarial calculations.

"I can spend one day looking at some detailed charts and spreadsheets; the next I could be having coffee with someone from the Bank of England's monetary policy team. It's both current and interesting," says Kathryn.

As a member of the IFoA, Kathryn also contributes to consultation papers shaping the future of the profession and has been part of an umbrella organisation for actuaries across Europe, the Groupe Consultatif, and has the opportunity to travel and see things from the perspective of actuaries in different countries.

The general insurance work that Kathryn does also has a strong international dimension as she regularly works with insurance companies who insure transport assets such as cars, ships and planes.

She's also been part of a government scheme to set up professional bodies for actuaries in former communist countries. "I've been out to Croatia four times to lecture on actuarial science as part of helping the Croatian actuarial society get going," she says.

When it comes to her working schedule, Kathryn spends four days a week working in London but on Fridays she usually works from her home in Manchester. That way, she has the opportunity to spend more time with her daughter and her husband. This flexible approach to work is something that is not available in all parts of the finance industry. "That's why I think working as an actuary is a good choice for women like me with childcare responsibilities," says Kathryn. "That said, if I didn't love my job, I wouldn't dream of doing it.

"I also like it because it's not a job where you tend to have crises day-to-day," she adds. "It's more future-focused than some of the more well-known jobs in finance."

In the world of finance it's just as important to understand any future risks as it is to grasp the current state of the market. Consequently, there is a high demand for actuaries.

In addition, the tough entry requirements mean that those who do make it into the profession can be assured it's a secure one.

Could you be an actuary?

It usually takes three to six years to qualify as an actuary, and most students who want to join the profession find a job with an employer that supports them financially and professionally through their studies.

To be an actuary you have to have strong numeracy skills and need to be a good communicator in order to explain your findings to other people. Kathryn points out if you want to study to become an actuary, that the first and most important thing you need is "an awful lot of self-discipline".

Actuarial exams are notoriously hard and require a lot of commitment. Says Kathryn: "You have to make a big investment into actually qualifying. Not everybody qualifies - even really intelligent hard-working people. You have to be quite resilient."

As an actuarial student you'll work in the office during the day, with time off during the week or in the lead up to exams to study - as well as learning in your own time. To qualify, you'll complete 15 exams, plus assignments and online courses.

You'll have plenty of guidance from the IFoA, colleagues and other students who'll help you fully understand the topics you're being examined on and get the correct exam technique.

The high level of qualification standards means actuaries regard their colleagues as their peers. "It's because we share the same experience of passing these difficult exams and coming to understand a complex area of finance," says Kathryn.

She adds that, in her view, this camaraderie and fellowship among actuaries makes it one of the most supportive and sociable financial professions you could join.