Elizabeth Peplinski is a senior at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is pursuing a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in Finance, with a specialization in Actuarial Science and Insurance & Risk Management. Elizabeth is president of the Alabama Insurance Society at UA and is interning this summer at Travelers Insurance. We spoke with Elizabeth in May 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
I’m an avid sports fan. For obvious reasons, I’m a big Alabama football fan, but aside from that, I’m actually from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so I love local Milwaukee sports. I like the Brewers, the Bucks, and Marquette University basketball. I’m also a volleyball player myself. I play on the club team at Alabama, and I’m a big fan of the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team.
What has your experience at the University of Alabama been like?
Overall, my experience at Alabama has been fantastic. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, and I’d never moved anywhere my whole life. Going to a school that’s about 800 miles away was a really big adjustment to make. I never envisioned myself doing that, but I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Actuaries are at the heart of most or all insurance companies. They’re an integral part of ensuring the success of these companies, and they get to pursue really meaningful work.
I feel like Alabama has been a great institution that allowed me to blossom not just academically, but also professionally and personally. They’ve really fostered an environment where I can explore different parts of my life, not just academics, and I really appreciate that.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Alabama?
I was considering attending somewhere closer to home, like Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Missouri. I also looked at some other Southeastern schools. I toured the University of Louisville, and I looked at Troy University, which is in Southern Alabama. I ultimately chose Alabama because they had everything I was looking for in a school. I really wanted the full out-of-state experience. I felt like if I pushed myself to do that, it would probably be a good turnout, and it was.
I wanted to attend a really big school, and Alabama definitely fits the bill in that regard. The other factor was that Alabama offered really generous scholarships. Something that I really admire about Alabama is that they use their successful sports programs, like football, and they’ve used that money to invest heavily in their academics and build up their reputation as an institution. I really respect that. The extra financial support made my decision a lot easier too.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
I initially heard the term actuary when I was in eighth grade at a math meet, as nerdy as that sounds. They basically told all the students there participating that they should consider careers as actuaries, and that’s where I first heard about it. I kept it in the back of my mind, and I didn’t think too much of it until my junior year of high school. I was in a stats class, and a few students from the University of Wisconsin actually came and did a presentation on actuarial science and why you should study it. After I took stats and calculus in high school, I was pretty set on studying actuarial science.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
I think it’s a really great way to reconcile your analytical skills with business skills. Also, I think actuaries are really at the heart of most or all insurance companies. They’re an integral part of ensuring the success of these companies, and they get to pursue really meaningful work.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
The actuarial science program at Alabama is actually about to change pretty drastically. As I mentioned earlier, I major in finance, and I specialize in actuarial science and insurance. These specializations are about to change to minors. Originally, the specializations were only open to finance majors, but now the minors are going to be open to everyone. Our actuarial science program is housed in the business department, but I think there’s probably a lot of math majors that would want to pursue this that don’t know about it.
I think the minor also being open to math majors is really great, and I’m excited to see those changes come. I personally am in a secondary program myself. I’m in the accelerated master’s program, so I’m pursuing a Master of Science in Finance at the same time as my undergraduate degree. I’ll still get to graduate on time, but due to some scheduling issues, I had to actually opt out of our actuarial exam prep courses and study on my own for the first two exams. With that said, I can’t really speak on behalf of the specific exam prep courses. But what has been really wonderful about the actuarial science program here is the advisor, Dr. William Rabel, and our student organization, the Alabama Insurance Society.
Anyone who is reading this is probably familiar with Gamma Iota Sigma. The Alabama Insurance Society is essentially the same thing, and within the society we have a chapter with Gamma Iota Sigma. The Alabama Insurance Society is a professional student organization that is run by students with the advice and help of Dr. Rabel. We have monthly meetings and we’ll have a different speaker come in every month to present on a new area of insurance.
The Alabama Insurance Society encompasses all students studying any part of insurance, but we also have a section devoted just to actuarial students. It has its own monthly meetings where a different actuary will come in and give students more insight into the actuarial field.
Dr. Rabel oversees the entire insurance, risk management, and actuarial science program. He’s been fantastic and so instrumental in my involvement on campus in the Alabama Insurance Society. Almost all of the professional opportunities I’ve gotten are because of him. So while I feel like some people might look from the outside and think that I may be at a disadvantage because we don’t have the actuarial science major here, I feel like it’s been made up for in other ways, and I don’t feel like I haven’t had the same opportunities that other students have had. Plus, I like that I’ve been able to study other parts of finance, and I’m not confined to learning only about insurance or actuarial subjects.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
Aside from the actuarial exams and the amount of discipline it takes to study for them, I think I didn’t realize how difficult it can be to actually communicate any analytical findings that you have in your work. It’s really important to be able to communicate the results of data analysis because not everybody speaks in numbers.
I had a stats professor who would always remind us, “In practice, how would you explain these results to the average person who doesn’t necessarily understand how statistics or data analysis works?” I understood that that was to be expected, I just didn’t realize how difficult it can be.
What is unique about focusing on actuarial science relative to other majors you could have chosen?
I think actuarial science is a great way to combine both math and business. Other career opportunities I was exposed to were all in the financial services sector, so it was banking, financial planning, or something along those lines. I think what people don’t realize is that there are a lot of big changes coming to the insurance industry that you just won’t necessarily see in other financial services industries. Actuaries will get to tackle these challenges head-on and see everything firsthand, with changes like new technology and new political climates.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
My favorite class has been my financial management class. I feel like it did a really great job of balancing financial math and conceptual financial issues. Despite actuarial science being a heavily analytical field, it is important to understand that business decisions involve more than just pure data. This class really got me thinking about the more conceptual side of decisions, taking a step back from the math, and looking at other issues that need to be tackled.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
Last summer, I had an internship with Cigna in their actuarial program, and I had a really great experience there. I loved it. I got to work on the commercial healthcare pricing team, and I feel like they gave us really meaningful work. They gave us every opportunity to present our work to other people, and they also had different speaker series and other activities planned outside of the work.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
This summer, I’m interning with Travelers Insurance in their actuarial program. I’ll be working in their business insurance department. I chose Travelers because I wanted to get a look at the property and casualty side of the industry. Working for Cigna, I got a lot of exposure to health insurance.
In the long term, I definitely want to become a fully credentialed actuary, whether that’s FSA or FCAS. In the short term, part of the reason I really like Cigna and Travelers both is they have leadership development programs. These rotational programs allow you to rotate every couple of years to a new position. I like the idea of getting exposure to a lot of different work in a relatively short time period while also moving up in the company.
I would like to eventually fulfill a more managerial role and work my way up. I don’t know exactly which path I’d like to go down, but hopefully at the end of the summer, I’ll have a better idea of what kind of actuary I want to be.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
I know everyone always says we need to network, but it’s so true. I wouldn’t have found the opportunities I have found or have been able to do what I have done, without a strong network. If you’re at a school that has a similar organization as the Alabama Insurance Society, I would highly recommend joining.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
Specifically with exam preparation, I love using The Infinite Actuary for my exam prep needs. I think if somebody is in the same boat that I was, where they didn’t take a formal exam prep class but still need to study for actuarial exams, The Infinite Actuary was really awesome for learning the material.
Aside from that, I think just staying up to date with the latest trends in business is pretty important. Any news apps or business apps, like The Wall Street Journal or Business Insider, are really helpful for learning more about the industry.