Shannon Wiebe attends Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is pursuing a double major in math and statistics, as well as a certificate in actuarial and financial mathematics. She is planning to graduate in June of 2019. We interviewed her in September 2018.
Tell us about your experience at Dalhousie University.
I love this school. I’m originally from the prairies of Canada, so one of the main drawing factors for me is that Dalhousie is so close to the ocean.
One of the best things about Dalhousie is that the school is just big enough, but not too big. The school has about 18,000 students in total. The size of the school means that the school is big enough to offer a wide variety of courses during the first year so you can see what you really like. When you get into the upper year courses, you have a good amount of one-on-one time with teachers and you get a lot of help. In many of my classes, there are as few as five people.
I lived on-campus my first two years, and now I’m living off-campus. The thing I love about campus life is that there are always events going on. Dalhousie really wants to make people feel comfortable and have fun.
If you need help academically, there are lots of tutorials where you can go to get help with study habits. There are always tutors available, and I feel that the school really wants you to do well and enjoy your time here. It’s not a competitive and intense school because they are not trying to weed you out. But they really want you to do well, and they really want you to succeed. You feel like an individual rather than just a number.
How did you choose your majors and what led you to the actuary concentration?
I was in an integrated science program my first year, so I studied biology, chemistry, psychology, earth sciences, math, and statistics. I knew I wanted to study something in the sciences, but I wasn’t completely sure which one. As the year progressed, I found myself looking forward to my math and statistics courses every day. About a quarter of the way through the first year, I realized I wanted to focus on math and statistics.
I took a couple of pure math classes, but I found that the thought process for pure math isn’t the way that I think. After talking to some other people, I realized that I wanted to do something with applied math. Some of the options for applied math included math applied to physics or chemistry, but neither of those is my specialty.
Actuarial science is math applied to something I find really interesting, which is insurance, interest rates, and mortality.
I started taking actuarial courses and I realized that I really liked them. Actuarial science is math applied to something I find really interesting, which is insurance, interest rates, and mortality.
What has been your experience with the insurance program at your school?
The insurance program at my school is pretty small, with about 20-30 students in total, but it is up-and-coming. The actuarial science major was established just 2 or 3 years ago.
Many students, including myself, major in math and statistics and focus in actuarial science rather than majoring in actuarial science. This option gives you a bit more flexibility with which courses you can take. The main actuarial courses at Dalhousie are interest theory, life contingencies, and actuarial models.
To become an actuary, you’re required to take actuarial exams. Some of the exams include the Society of Actuaries (SOA) exam and the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) exam. The courses in the insurance program are preparatory for the actuary exams, and they cover the majority of the content that will be on the SOA exam.
At Dalhousie, you have the option to do a co-op and intern with an insurance company as a part of your studies. I started my actuarial program too late to do a co-op, but someone entering the program as a first-year student can do a co-op and still graduate on time. Many people also do internships on their own in the summer.
The Dalhousie Actuarial Science Society puts on a conference every year about actuarial science. This March will be the third year that we’re having the conference. The society is a great resource to ask for help on when to take actuarial exams, and how to get a job in the industry after graduation.
Professors at Dalhousie are also helpful in guiding us on when to take actuarial exams. There is a professor, Joanna Mills Flemming, who was an actuary for a couple of years. She doesn’t actually teach actuarial courses, but she’s always willing to talk with any student who has questions about becoming an actuary. There is also a Ph.D. student, Iain Beaton, who also worked as an actuary for about 4 years before returning to school for his Ph.D. He’s also very willing to help.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
I really enjoyed intermediate statistics theory, which was taught by Dr. Hong Gu. It was really interesting to see the derivations of the mathematical models that are commonly used in insurance. In actuarial science, you use models to predict what’s going to happen, but before taking this class, you don’t really know where the models come from.
My other favorite course was the theory of interest, with Dr. Gabor Lukacs. It was about the basics of interest and the different kinds of interest that exist. I thought it was really interesting because it’s very applicable to insurance, but it’s also applicable to anyone in any major. If you’re buying a house and you have a mortgage, you’re going to want to know about interest rates. Anyone can learn something useful from this course.
What has been most challenging about studying insurance? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
In my first and second-year math classes, we spent a lot of time doing proofs and definitions. However, when you get into the upper year classes, you’re spending a lot of time doing calculations, and the calculations are very tedious. Actuarial science really requires you to be a very meticulous person and there’s not much room for error, which is kind of hard to adjust to.
However, I think this is great preparation for working in industry as an actuary because making mistakes as an actuary can have real consequences. If you mess up a calculation, you might mess up someone’s pension.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
The use of coding and computing in the insurance industry is becoming a lot more relevant and necessary, and it saves a lot of time. I can’t imagine how calculations were done by hand before, where everything needed to be calculated out. Nowadays, you can just write some code and type it in, and the computer does a lot of the work for you.
Coding and computing is not going to totally replace actuarial workers in this industry because it’s very important to be able to interpret what you’re putting into the calculations.
That being said, an actuary still needs to be able to interpret the data and understand what’s going on. Coding and computing is not going to totally replace actuarial workers in this industry because it’s very important to be able to interpret what you’re putting into the calculations.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I want to be an actuary. I’d love to get my FSA (Fellow of the Society of Actuaries) designation at some point. With actuarial science, there are two major routes you can take. There is the CAS route, which focuses on casualty insurance, and there is the SOA route, which is more focused on life insurance and pensions.
I’ve seen more of the life insurance and pensions side through the courses I’ve taken at university, so that seems more familiar and relevant to what I’ve learned. I think that’s the route I’d like to head toward, but since I haven’t had much exposure to the casualty side, it still seems novel to me. I’m still wondering whether I’d like to do the CAS, so that’s always in the back of my mind.
The majority of the jobs for actuaries in Canada are in the big cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal. There are a couple of insurance companies here in Halifax that need actuaries, but going into this field, you have to be willing to move. Halifax is a smaller city so we don’t have a big hub of finance and insurance here. After graduation, I’m looking for something new, so I’m willing to try a new place and see something different.
Do you have any favorite books that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
The books I recommend are my textbooks which are very relevant and useful. My favorite textbooks are Actuarial Mathematics for Life Contingent Risks by Dickson, Hardy, and Waters, and Loss Models: From Data to Decisions by Klugman, Panjer, and Willmot.
You’ll definitely learn something from these books whether it’s about deductibles, policy limits, coinsurance, or inflation.