Josiah Daniel Smith is a junior at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, where he is majoring in actuarial mathematics. We spoke with Josiah in April 2021.
Tell us one thing about yourself that’s not on your resume.
I play the piano all the time. It’s mostly just a way to express myself, but I also find it very relaxing. I’ve been playing the piano for close to 10 years.
What has your experience at Asbury University been like?
It’s really easy to get involved in Asbury. I attended a co-op for high school, so I wasn’t attending a public school every day and didn’t have as much social interaction. When I came to Asbury, there were a lot of ways to get involved with people, and I find it really great.
I’m also really good friends with some of my professors now, particularly Dr. David Coulliette and Dr. Duk-Hyung Lee. I talk to them all the time outside of class about my actuarial exams and all sorts of things like cars, the piano, and the guitar. That’s been a really great experience.
There are also a lot of different events going on here, and they’re always really great.
There are job opportunities everywhere since the actuarial field is growing. I looked up actuarial summer internships, and the list was huge. There are so many opportunities for careers—I think that’s a great reason to pursue the actuarial field.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Asbury University?
The main school I was considering was the University of Kentucky, partly because I have two older brothers who both went there. One is graduating this May and the other one graduated a couple of years ago before getting a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. It felt like charted territory.
I decided to go to Asbury instead because I felt that if I went to the University of Kentucky, I would be just a speck in this swarm of students. I participated in a program called Asbury Academy during my senior year of high school, and I got to meet Dr. Coulliette.
I really liked the class experience, and there were only about 20 people in my class. It was a lot smaller and more personable, and I enjoyed that aspect of it. I would be able to ask more questions and, perhaps, dumb questions, without feeling as if they were dumb questions. I really enjoy the atmosphere and the smaller dynamic that Asbury has.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
Originally, I was going to be a computational math major. I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea of getting a Ph.D. because I wasn’t convinced of going to grad school or doing research. Dr. Coulliette introduced me to the actuarial field because his son just got his FSA, and it piqued my interest.
Asbury had an actuarial roundtable where they had two FSAs and a couple of data analysts come to Asbury and talk about their work, and I thought it was very interesting. I decided to take a probability class my spring semester of freshman year. It kicked my butt, but I enjoyed the concepts. I think I failed my first quiz, and I started thinking that maybe entering this field was a bad idea, but I stuck with it. I really enjoyed the program.
The less academic reason is that my grandma is elderly, and she had to go through a lot of difficulties trying to obtain health insurance. That has given me a perspective into what it’s like to deal with the health insurance world. It gives me the motivation to want to work in the health insurance world and be able to possibly help people who have to deal with those difficulties.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
Actuarial science is competitive, but it’s not killer. If you put in a lot of effort, you’re essentially guaranteed a really stable job. You’ll have really great opportunities after a pursuit that is honestly not that difficult compared to other fields. You have to pass the exams, and it takes time, effort, focus, and hard work, but I’ve never felt that horrible pressure as an actuarial student because it’s really consistent.
You know what you have to do and there are job opportunities everywhere since the field is growing. I looked up actuarial summer internships, and the list was huge. There are so many opportunities for careers—I think that’s a great reason to pursue the actuarial field.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
Dr. Lee is the head of the actuarial science program at Asbury University, and I didn’t get a chance to know him well until I started taking classes related to the actuarial field. A good thing about those classes is that they’re smaller, and Dr. Lee is really good at helping you through the problems and preparing you for the exams.
Some of the classes we have—such as the probability class and financial math class—are tailored for the exams. The probability class got me through most of the exam material, and the financial math class got me through the first half of the material. I really enjoyed how small and personable the classes were. There were times when we would just work through problems since there were only five or six of us in class. I felt like I was free to ask questions and to really learn about the material.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
I really liked the concept of financial math, but I also know that the FM exam has a lot of assumptions that are inaccurate for the real world. You have to assume that yield curves are typically flat, which is not true at all. While I love the concept of cash flow and the time value of money, I enjoy probability more because it’s almost a different realm of math.
Probability opened up this whole different dynamic. Financial math was kind of a mature version of algebra. With probability, you could just have three numbers and after you multiply them together, you’re done. But in order to do that, you have to be able to understand the problem, and that was so fascinating to me. The math itself was almost incredibly easy sometimes, but it was so hard to figure out what the problem was asking and the concepts behind it. It was really fascinating. It’s honestly my lowest grade so far, but it’s still my favorite class. It’s a whole different realm of math.
What is unique about focusing on actuarial science relative to other majors you could have chosen?
There’s almost this desire for actuarial companies to immediately get their employees involved and working for them as soon as possible. If you want to pursue a computational math degree, you have to go to college for four years, get a Ph.D., and do some research that might not even be related to your field or what you really want to pursue. If you want to be a professor, you have to wait until you finish your Ph.D. to become one.
As an actuary, all you have to do is pass the preliminary exams and have a bachelor’s degree, and then you’re automatically eligible for a full-time position. I have an internship this summer, and they’re already inviting me to learn about what the job really is. There’s this immediacy to the actuarial field, so even with an internship, you get a good idea of what you’re really going to be doing for the rest of your life.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
Sometimes it’s good to take breaks—especially with probability. There were times when I would beat my head against the wall over a problem, spend hours on it, and still get nowhere. Then the next day, I might figure it out in a couple of minutes. There were lots of times when I didn’t understand things, and I came back to them later and solved them.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t understand something immediately, especially with probability because it’s so different than calculus. If you’re just consistent, then you’ll get a lot further than you think you will.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
I have an internship this summer with AIG, and I’m really looking forward to it. They give you a real project that one of the employees would work on over there, and you’re on a team of people. It immediately puts you into your field, and it gives you an idea of what actuaries really do. You have real employees helping you throughout the whole thing, and I think it is going to be very interesting.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I’m undecided as to whether I want to get my ASA or CERA, so I’m going to look into the benefits of both. After that, I want to get my FSA in group health insurance or in annuities and life insurance. I want to work for AIG or Cigna. Right now, I’m definitely interested in AIG because they offered me the internship, so I’m excited to see how that goes.
I really want to stay focused on taking the exams. I’ve been successful with the first two, and I want to pass four exams before I graduate college.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
It’s not just math. Yes, there’s a lot of math involved, but it’s also really important that you pay attention in the accounting classes, the economics classes, and the finance classes to understand the concepts.
One thing I didn’t realize when I was going into the insurance field was how important economics is. I had already taken macro and microeconomics, but I didn’t realize how important they were until I got to the exam. I realized that I had already learned a lot of the economic concepts they were talking about. Things made sense to me because I understood the laws of supply and demand, treasury bills in the central bank, and how banks work together.
So my advice is don’t just do the math. Understand how the economy works because it definitely will come up, and it’s very important to your employer that you understand.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
If you’re interested in the insurance field, specifically the actuarial field, the SOA website is really great. There are also a couple of different actuarial study guide websites that can help prepare you for exams. You can also find really good YouTube videos on some of the basic concepts of probability and the economy. There really are a lot of great resources you can find out there for this whole field.
» If you liked Josiah’s interview, check out our other actuarial science student interviews.