David Phillips is a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he is pursuing a Master of Science in Professional Science with a concentration in Actuarial Science. David did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in Statistics, and expects to earn his Master’s in May 2020. David is also the president of the Actuarial Math Student Association at MTSU and will be interning this summer at Fortitude Re. We spoke with David in May 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
One thing that is actually on my resume that I like to brag about is that I’m a freelance crossword constructor. I create my own crosswords and sell them to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, or whatever outlet will take them.
Something that’s off my resume is that I’m a big fan of board games—not the traditional board games like Monopoly or Sorry or anything like that. I like board games with a little bit of crunch to them, like these new legacy board games, where the board game evolves as you play it. I’m also interested in escape rooms, logic puzzles, or anything that involves some sort of changing intellectual environment.
The thing that really stands out about the actuarial science program at MTSU is that I get the impression the faculty truly care about their students.
What has your experience at the Middle Tennessee State University been like?
I definitely have to contrast my experience at MTSU with my time at UC Berkeley. With Berkeley, the enrollment numbers in a lot of the classes often reached the hundreds. Sometimes, I would be in a class where I would just be one person in a large auditorium, and it was very easy to just get lost in the crowd.
At MTSU, it’s not just a different makeup demographically, but the classes are also much smaller, usually no more than 30 students per class. It makes the campus environment feel homier and more inclusive. I almost feel as if I’m a big man on campus here because of how the class structure is set up. I don’t feel like I’m just one person getting taught at. I feel like I’m part of a process here.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose MTSU?
I was considering a number of California schools in addition to a number of non-California schools. I was balancing a lot of different factors. First, did I want to major in actuarial science, or did I want to major in something closely related to actuarial science? Second, did I want to stay in California, or did I want to go outside of the state? And lastly, what was I able to afford? Those were my three big factors.
I considered Columbia University, which has a very good master’s program. However, Columbia was one of the most expensive programs on the list and is in New York, meaning that living expenses were going to be very high. Also, the program there was going to be very competitive. So Columbia was more a pipe dream than anything. I considered Boston University’s actuarial science program, but attendance cost made me think otherwise. I considered a lot of California schools, namely UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside, and Cal State San Bernardino.
However, I noticed that many of the California schools did not offer a master’s program in actuarial science, which was a downside for me. They offered statistics programs and finance programs, but I was looking for a career in actuarial science, so having the major was important to me. One thing that made MTSU stand out was that it looked like they were more career focused. They were focused on getting their students jobs right out of their master’s program, and their curriculum was designed to prepare students to more easily get a job.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
My journey into an actuarial science program started when I was in tenth grade. In high school, they always give you these career aptitude tests. I took the test, and the top choice was museum curator. I certainly laughed when I saw that. I’m not bashing the job, but it was a curious result. I wouldn’t have guessed that.
More interestingly, the second choice was actuary. In tenth grade, I had no idea what an actuary was.That sparked my interest in the field. I then started to research the occupation a little bit more and found out that actuaries create mathematical models for insurance companies or consulting firms and manage various types of risk.
However, during my undergrad years, I didn’t really specialize in it. I had this idea of being a Renaissance man, so to speak, trying to have a bunch of different interests and excel at all of them. I tried to do too much. Since UC Berkeley didn’t have an actuarial science degree, I pursued a degree in statistics and passed my first actuarial exam because of my success in Berkeley’s probability class.
During this time, I also got interested in crosswords, started creating some of my own, and even taught a crossword elective class I designed through one of Berkeley’s special programs. Through this class, I found a love for teaching and eventually found a number of jobs in education. But after teaching for a few years, I discovered that, while I certainly enjoyed spreading knowledge, I grew increasingly dismayed that most of my job involved being a disciplinarian. This frustration reignited my interest in actuarial science.
During nights after work, I resumed studying for actuarial exams and applying for entry-level positions. I even got close to landing a job at a few companies. However, from these failed applications, a trend emerged: many companies thought I had the knowledge for the job but disliked my lack of relevant work experience. Enough of these kinds of results led me to apply to the master’s program at MTSU, which requires students to complete a capstone internship in lieu of a thesis. Since many employers said I was missing work experience, this program seemed like my ticket into the industry.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
If you’re comfortable with numbers, data, coding, and analysis—those are really the big four things you’re going to be doing in actuarial science—it’s certainly a profession to look into. Once you land an entry-level position, you can expect some pretty good job security. There’s a fairly high demand for actuaries, and they have pretty steady jobs, and steady career growth as well. If you continue to pass actuarial exams that get you accreditation, you can expect to receive nice little pay bumps as you progress through your career.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
My experience with the actuarial science program here at MTSU has been very positive so far. It’s noticeable that the program is gaining some popularity. Enrollment within the actuarial science program has tripled since 2005. The program’s growth was another reason I wanted to join the program. However, the thing that really stands out about the program is that I get the impression the faculty truly care about their students.
Dr. Don Hong, for example, who is the actuarial science program coordinator, always checks in with students. His office is always open. He’s willing to talk about anything, but most frequently, the topic is job searches. He tries to highlight opportunities with companies he has connections with.
There’s another professor here that I’ve gotten to know a little bit better, Dr. Lu Xiong. He tries very hard to give his students practical experience, even having them work on some personal projects he’s working on. He also advocates for his students getting internships. One memory that stands out to me is when he, another student, and I drove to a local consulting company near Nashville, just to have us sit in on a meeting.
But at the end of this meeting he got to brass tacks. He was still friendly, but he was like, “If you want to work with us, I need my two students here, and they’re going to help me. They’re going to be interns, and this is going to be their hourly wage, and this is the number of hours they’ll get.” An act like this really shows how MTSU’s professors advocate for their students and try to make them feel like a part of the program.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
One favorite specifically based in actuarial science was a class called Actuarial Models for Life Contingencies. I liked this class for its comprehensive breadth. In actuarial science, you learn theoretical skills from a number of different quantitative disciplines: statistics, economics, probability, calculus, and finance, most notably. However, in this class, I actually got to see these concepts converge and work in a way I had never seen before. They weave together quite elegantly from a mathematical perspective.
My favorite non-actuarial class was a business class at MTSU called Managerial Communication. I enjoyed this class because it gave a solid academic foundation for how to communicate in a business context. This class answered such questions as: What is the standard protocol for a cover letter? How and when should you send emails? How should you phrase emails? When I was younger, I often structured sentences from my perspective, using phrases like “I think” or “I believe.” But in this managerial communications class, the professor said that in order to draw people into your email, you should use “you” instead. That was blasphemous for me. I was taught in high school never to use the second-person personal pronoun “you.” Small tips like this helped me break out of the communicational shell I had created for myself.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
One of the most challenging things for me and many other students are the actuarial exams. The second exam I took, on financial mathematics and interest theory, really kicked my butt. I failed it the first time. These exams are fairly pricey, too. The cheapest exams will cost you two hundred dollars a pop, and that’s not including the cost of test prep. If you’re studying using an outside source, which most people do, that could significantly increase the total expense, depending on whether you self-study with an exam manual or utilize an online seminar. In short, these exams are not cheap to prepare for, and each time you fail, it’s costly.
I wish I had known just how difficult these exams were, and to treat every exam as if I were preparing for Jeopardy or some sort of intellectual war zone.
One other thing that was difficult for me was the networking. I didn’t realize just how important networking was when I first started. I used to cling to this idea that if my skills were good enough, my talents would shine through, and employers would see that.
Being here at MTSU really has shown me how necessary it is to have good contacts and to constantly be in communication with these companies. That way you’re familiar with them, and they’re familiar with you. They feel that it’s more of a friendship. They’re hiring someone they can trust—not just a stranger they find in their application system.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
One of the biggest developments—not really just in insurance, but in many fields—is predictive analytics or AI. The Society of Actuaries has deemed it so important that they’ve created a new exam to test students on the subject. Basically, by using big data and a number of different black box algorithms, your goal is to predict some important statistic, like retention rates or mortality. If somebody’s already been into a hospital, one thing we’d want to know is, “What is the probability they’ll get readmitted?” Because that will affect costs.
Another big trend is the advent of wearables. Smartwatches, for example, are one thing we see in our normal, everyday life. These items can track our health, or sometimes employers might modify these trackers for safety, like for workers’ comp insurance. I’ve even heard of devices companies install in semi trucks that will beep or alert drivers if they’re going too fast or doing something unsafe.
This class of products helps insurance companies get more data so they can provide lower premiums and potentially lower insurance costs. If people are willing to sacrifice their data privacy, they’ll get lower costs. That’s a big trend you’ll see in many industries—not just insurance.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
It’s not insurance-related per se, but I do read The New York Times DealBook every day. DealBook provides a fairly detailed overview of daily economic and business happenings. One thing they published recently was a special report on the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, so I got a kick out of just reading everything that Warren Buffett had to say. That’s something I read to keep up with the latest business news and trends.