Thomas Nguyen is a fourth-year student at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where he is majoring in Actuarial Science and Financial Mathematics. Thomas served as the co-president of the McMaster Actuarial Society last school year, and he is currently interning at Deloitte as an actuarial analyst. We spoke with Thomas in August 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
One thing that’s not on my resume is that I’m really involved in fitness, and I believe the secret to performing at a high level and being good at your job is to maintain a healthy body, have a clear mindset, and feel confident about yourself.
I’m really into weight training and training to get into powerlifting. I previously did bouldering a bit, too, and I enjoy watching basketball and volleyball.
What has your experience at McMaster University been like?
The actuarial program at McMaster University is relatively small, which I like because you get to know your other classmates quite well. At McMaster, you get the opportunity to develop long-lasting friendships with your peers and get to know them on a more personal level, which could be challenging at larger schools. There are many opportunities for you to get involved in clubs and have a sense of belonging in the community. The culture at the school is very diverse, with people coming from many different backgrounds, and everyone is very welcoming and approachable!
The thing that really attracted me to actuarial science was that the field draws on concepts from a wide variety of subjects, such as economics, finance, business, and computer science.
As for the campus, it’s located in Hamilton, Ontario, which is well-known for the scenic areas around the university. The campus is relatively small, but at the same time, it feels spacious because there are a lot of open areas. There are also many hiking trails and waterfalls near campus, so getting out into nature is always a great stress reliever from school.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose McMaster?
Coming out of grade 12, I wasn’t planning to do actuarial science at all. I actually applied to McMaster for their life science program, which the university is really well-known for. I was planning to work in the medical field in the future, but it was in my first year that I really developed a passion for analytical subjects and ended up enjoying my first-year math and stats classes.
Making the transition from life science to actuarial science was quite tough. I spent a lot of time researching career opportunities that require a mathematical background without a graduate degree, but not many appealed to me. One day, a friend suggested that I try actuarial science. Since then, I decided to make the transition at the end of second year and never looked back. As I explored more into the field and got some industry experience, I found that being an actuary is an extremely satisfying career that offers both a challenge and variety in day-to-day work.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
The thing that really attracted me to actuarial science was that the field draws on concepts from a wide variety of subjects, such as economics, finance, business, and computer science. But, at its core, actuarial science is centered heavily around the field of math and stats, so I thought that it would be a pretty cool idea to join the actuarial program at McMaster.
Even if I didn’t end up really enjoying my math, stats, and actuarial science courses, I thought I’d still get a lot of exposure to other fields, because actuarial science draws on concepts from so many other specialties.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
The McMaster actuarial program is relatively new, but I think that for a still-developing program, it has a strong foundation. There’s already a McMaster Actuarial Society that’s set up at the school that offers support and guidance to students who are looking to join the field and just get their feet in the water a little bit.
I actually served as the co-president of the society for the last year. The society helps plan any events for the co-op students, to help them be successful in their job search at an early stage. This may involve reaching out to employers, asking them to come on campus, and having info sessions and networking events. We also provide exam support, like tutoring sessions for the preliminary exams.
In terms of the professors and the teachers at McMaster, they’re all pretty approachable and really helpful. This ties back to what I said before about how McMaster is a relatively small school, so you get to know people, including your professors, on a more personal level. You get the opportunity to discuss future career goals or anything that’s on your mind about the program.
The actuarial program at McMaster also has a co-op program that allows students to have 16 months of work experience before they graduate. In today’s world, co-op experience is extremely valuable, especially for a fresh grad coming out of actuarial science.
McMaster’s program is also set up to provide support on four of the preliminary actuarial exams, which is a bit more than half of the preliminary exams to becoming an actuary. I think the school does a pretty good job in providing exam support to their students, as well as giving them even more knowledge. On the chance that a student doesn’t end up wanting to pursue actuarial science, they’ll still have learned a lot that goes beyond the curriculum.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
I really liked the mathematical statistics course because that course breaks down complex findings and relates it back to first principles. Even though that course is very theoretical, and maybe you wouldn’t really come upon these situations in real life, I think it’s still a very valuable skill to have in general, to be able to break complex issues down into the most granular level of ideas, and to be able to put together these ideas and come up with a valid solution that really applies to what you’re working toward.
What is unique about focusing on actuarial science relative to other majors you could have chosen?
Actuarial science is unique in the sense that since it’s drawing ideas from a variety of fields, it allows you to build these skills that are extremely transferable to other industries. For example, I know a lot of actuaries who are switching from the actuarial field to data science and analytics because the skills are very transferable between the two careers.
Actuarial science is also a rapidly growing field, and there’s always going to be demand for actuaries. I think it’s a very good time to be an actuary right now because of the great career growth and the extra opportunities that also come with the position.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
The actuarial exams can be extremely challenging. On average, it’s recommended that you study about 300 hours just for one exam. I feel like that’s very important for someone to know before entering the field, because they should get the full picture of what they’re actually going to be doing throughout their career.
The exams are a very big commitment. There are a lot of companies that actually push you to become a fully qualified actuary, and they will provide support, which I think is very helpful. But it comes down to you to have that motivation to be able to complete these exams and really get through them to become a fully qualified actuary.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
Right now, I’m at my third internship. I completed my first life insurance internship as an actuarial analyst at Sun Life Financial. My second internship was non-actuarial, and it was more like a risk analyst position. This was at Scotiabank. And then my third position now, I’m an actuarial analyst at Deloitte, part of their Actuarial Centre of Excellence.
The internship has been really good. I really like how your work as an actuary actually strongly relates to what you’re studying in school. I know this kind of relationship is perhaps not too evident in some other career areas, but I feel like in the actuarial industry, whatever you study in school is highly applicable to your day-to-day work. I feel like the structure of the actuarial exams also really helps you in your day-to-day work, which is why I believe it’s also very important to get these exams done.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I think a really evident trend in the insurance industry today, and also one of my interests, is that the actuarial profession, as well as the data science profession, are kind of merging into one. If I weren’t to become an actuary, becoming a data scientist or someone working in analytics would be my fallback plan. And to see that these two professions are actually merging together and coming into a combined position in the industry today, I think it’s a very good time to be an actuary, and I’m really hoping that I can get some experience in that field full time.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
Currently, a lot of the typical tasks of an actuary can be very low-cognitive-type work, where it doesn’t require much thinking. It’s just kind of copying documents from one area to another. These tasks can be extremely time consuming, and I know that one of the trends in the industry going on right now is that people are working with machine learning, AI, and automation tools to automate these tasks. This really transforms the role of an actuary to move to a more strategic standpoint.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
For someone getting started in the field, I’d say that they have to develop that competency to work with numbers and be able to work with large datasets. They should be very comfortable with working with numbers and also work on their problem-solving skills. It’s also very important to keep up with any trends that are going on within the industry and to adjust your own personal skills to make sure that you are meeting these industry standards.
The actuarial industry is constantly changing, so it’s very important to stay on top of the trends that are happening right now. A good place to find these trends and read up on them would be The Actuary Magazine. A new issue comes out every month, and it just talks about certain trends that are happening within the insurance industry and how actuaries can use these tools and emerging technologies to their fullest potential.