Catherine Williams is a senior at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, where she is majoring in Actuarial Science. Catherine is the director of advising for FSU’s Actuarial Science Club, Future Seminole Actuaries, and interned this past summer at the National Council on Compensation Insurance. We spoke with Catherine in August 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
Both my parents are actually accountants, so I was supposed to be the next Williams at Williams & Williams, CPA. That’s what I thought all throughout elementary and high school. In the first part of high school, I was thinking about majoring in accounting. Because both my parents were accounting majors, I was always fascinated by numbers.
I love that actuarial science lets you apply math and statistics to the real world to mitigate risk. I’m always fascinated by the fact that you can apply it to the real world.
I remember as a kid, I loved driving past mailboxes and seeing the four-digit addresses. I loved thinking about the relationships between the numbers, and as I grew up, math was always my second language. I found actuarial science about halfway through high school and decided to ditch the accounting major, and now I’m an actuarial science major.
What has your experience at Florida State University been like?
My experience at Florida State has been very supportive. Whether it’s been academically, financially, or socially, FSU has given me a lot of opportunities to grow and develop into a successful future actuary.
Academically, FSU has a great actuarial science program. They give students a lot of support, even before we start. My position right now in our actuarial science club, Future Seminole Actuaries, is dedicated to helping students choose their classes and figure out what classes are a right fit for them.
Students are able to contact me even before they come to Florida State. If they’re interested in the major and want to know if this would be good for them, or if they’re wondering what classes they should take their senior year of high school, they can reach out to me. So the program here is definitely very supportive academically.
Also, FSU has been very supportive financially. They provide exam reimbursement if you pass your actuarial exams, which has been great motivation for passing exams.
Socially, FSU has also been great. I know a lot of actuaries are associated with being introverted and antisocial, and I would say FSU provides community to expand and go out of your comfort zone. I actually struggled with being introverted in my first semester, and then I joined a sorority, which really helped me to learn social skills. It helped me not only socially, but professionally as well.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Florida State?
All of my family went to Florida State—my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my brother. I’m the youngest Seminole, but I’m the last one here. I still had to decide between different schools, though. I wanted to find the best program for what I was interested in, so I considered FSU, the University of Florida, and New York University.
I chose FSU specifically over the University of Florida because FSU has a dedicated actuarial science program. The University of Florida doesn’t have the major of actuarial science. They only have a minor. I wanted a program that would help me prepare for exams while getting my degree.
I chose Florida State over New York University because they didn’t have an actuarial science major. I applied and got in for an economics and mathematics major, and again, I just wanted a dedicated actuarial science program.
What influenced you to pursue actuarial science?
I found out about actuarial science online. Once I read about it, it fascinated me, especially the fact that you could apply math to the real world. In the real world, there’s so much gray area that’s open to interpretation. If you’re in English, or writing, or even sometimes science, there’s a gray area where, “I don’t know if this is true.” But in math, there’s always this one right answer, so it makes the world this black-and-white place where everything’s simple. It’s an enclosed little bubble.
I love that actuarial science lets you apply math and statistics to the real world to mitigate risk. I’m always fascinated by the fact that you can apply it to the real world. And I think risk is everywhere, and it’s something that every organization deals with, even an insurance company, which is supposed to mitigate risk. I think it’s very interesting how you can apply math to manage risk.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
The program has been very supportive, and it provides a lot of opportunities to help students succeed right from your first semester. The entire program for the degree and our club, Future Seminole Actuaries, are run by Dr. Stephen Paris, who, even from my first semester, has always been very welcoming and supportive of me.
He kind of became a personal advisor to me, and even when I was a freshman, I could go to him with questions like, “How many exams do you think I should strive to pass by the time I graduate?” And even though I still had three years to go, he would still talk to me about it, and I could even ask him something as small as a statistics problem that I was struggling on. He’s definitely been there to give the personal touch of actuarial science and support students through the program.
The program has been great, and in our club, we have different companies come to present on Thursday nights, so we get to learn about different insurance companies. They’ll have interviews the next day on Fridays for students that are interested in the company and want to get an internship or a full-time position.
We also have an annual career fair. Around 20 or 30 companies come to Florida State to recruit actuarial science students for internships and full-time jobs, which has been very helpful. It helped me get my internship, and I hope to get my full-time job at the next career fair.
Our actuarial program also gives you class credit for study hours. Future Seminole Actuaries is actually a one-credit-hour course that you take four repetitions of, and a part of the course requirements are taking one study hour a week.
You get class credits for encouraging you to study at least one hour a week. In those study hours, there are tutors available who have already passed Exam FM or Exam P. So you get free tutors and study hours.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
My favorite class so far was MAP 4170: Introduction to Financial Mathematics. That’s the class that teaches you the material for Exam FM. That was my favorite class not because it was the easiest class I ever took, but because it was the hardest class I ever took. No one ever told me that it was the weed-out class, or a lot of people fail it. I just thought it was a normal class.
I’m sure a lot of actuarial science majors are used to having math come easy to them. I was used to doing CALC II and CALC III, and just being able to study the night before an exam and then get an A. I was used to relying on my memorization skills in order to pull through and get an A.
I took my first exam for MAP 4170, and I think I got a 70, and I was so heartbroken, and I didn’t get it. I thought, “What’s wrong with my study skills?” On the next exam, I got an even lower grade, so I had to really look within myself and figure out, “What am I doing wrong here, and why am I not studying correctly?”
It really made me change how I view studying, and it changed my study habits, where now I can’t just memorize the night before. I have to actually understand conceptually the material, and I then learn to enjoy the struggle of studying. I think that class really taught me to enjoy the struggle of studying, and that actuarial science is supposed to be hard. I didn’t choose actuarial science because it’s something that comes easy to me; I chose it because math is something that’s going to make me work harder, learn more, and dedicate myself.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
The most challenging thing is learning to be self-restrained and learning that you have to balance your social life and your personal pleasures. Sometimes, you have to sacrifice that in order to get your study hours in, and be self-restrained enough to know that, “Hey, I can’t go hang out with my friends tonight. I have to study.” That’s something that I know a lot of people struggle with and can’t pass those exams because they don’t have that restraint.
The one thing I wish I knew earlier was to start studying for exams earlier and to start studying for them correctly. I wish I had taken an exam earlier in my freshman year. I didn’t sit for one until the summer of my freshman year, and I wish I would have known to take it earlier, so then I could have been more competitive with getting an internship earlier on, and then maybe have three exams passed right now instead of two exams.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
This past summer, I interned at the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) in Boca Raton, Florida. I was in their actuarial science and economic services division. In their actuarial department, they have different teams like class ratemaking, and I was on the legislative team. What was unique about that was throughout high school, I was actually very interested in the legal field.
It was so great that my first internship combined both the legal field and actuarial science. The legislative team basically prices legal changes in workers’ comp throughout the country. They are in charge of the workers’ comp insurance for 38 states across the nation. Whenever states change the percentage rate they want to pay out for a certain injury type or benefit type, we would price that change and figure out how much more carriers would pay for that change in the state.
I really enjoyed that internship. It really helped me build my technical skills. I came in with very little knowledge of Excel, and I only knew C++. I didn’t know any other coding languages. They gave me the opportunity to learn and develop my skills, not just doing menial intern tasks. They actually cared about me developing into a successful actuary. I became proficient in Excel through my tasks on the legislative team, and I also became proficient in VBA.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I’m actively applying for jobs now, and our job fair is in September. I want to get a full-time job in actuarial science before winter break—that’s my goal.
I don’t know which side of the field I want to go in yet, whether it’s SOA or CAS. But NCCI, my internship this summer, they were CAS, so I got to experience their exam process, see their student program, and see which exams they take and struggle with the most on the CAS side. I’m open to either one, and it definitely depends on what my first job has.
In the long term, I’m hoping to get my ASA or ACAS within five years after graduation, and then from there, my FCAS or FSA.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
While I was at NCCI this summer, they released an economic briefing about the rise in alternative work and how that affects workers’ comp insurance. What they mean by alternative work is working for Uber or having a YouTube career—something that’s not a classic 9-to-5 job, which usually has workers’ comp insurance. If you’re working for Uber or you’re working on YouTube, you’re an independent contractor, so there is no workers’ comp insurance. NCCI researched how that’s actually affecting the workers’ comp industry as a whole, which I found very interesting.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
Definitely like math and be passionate about math. If you don’t like math, then I don’t think you should go into this field. I also think it takes more than just being good at math to be a successful actuary. There are some people that begin this field, and they know inherently that they aren’t a good test taker. If you aren’t a good test taker, then I don’t recommend that you go into this field. Definitely be a good test taker in order to go into this field.
If you have those qualities, then I would say this is a great field to go into. It’s a growing field, and there is job security, where you could have a full-time job offer before you even begin your senior year of college. It’s a fascinating field if you like math and can think about how you would apply math to the real world.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
One thing I recently watched on Netflix was a Nova special called Prediction by the Numbers. It’s about how the science of forecasting and statistics began, and how we first developed how we can predict things by the numbers. Before, people literally thought statistics was made by the gods. They had different methodologies to predict things that were very archaic, and we somehow developed that we could predict things with numbers. It was crazy how statistics developed.
The special also talks about how we use statistics in different realms of the world that you wouldn’t really think about. It talks about how the Coast Guard uses statistics in forecasting to find people lost at sea, and I thought that was fascinating.
I’m also really into an actuarial science subreddit on Reddit (r/actuary), where you can ask any questions like if you’re new to the field, or if you’re transferring from a different part of insurance. I go there a lot whenever I’m about to take an exam, and I’m seeing who else is taking that exam, what they thought about it, and how I should prepare. Or even if you’re looking for a job, they can give you recommendations and look at your resume.