Silong Chen is an honours student at the University of Melbourne, where he is majoring in Actuarial Science and is expecting to graduate in November 2019. Silong is currently doing research on the topic of modeling human mortality rates by using advanced Markov chain models and hyper-parameter learning. We spoke with Silong in May 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
I really like this question, because I think it is necessary to address my enthusiasm for skiing. I started skiing when I was 13. I’ve skied in numerous places around the world, including Switzerland and Japan. In Melbourne, the Falls Creek mountain is my favorite place to go during winter break.
I attended a training course last year, organized by the New Zealand Snowsports Instructors Alliance, and I’m going to gain a certification from the alliance doing this winter break. So if one day, I decide to jump out from a career in the actuarial field, being a professional skier will be my first choice.
What has your experience at the University of Melbourne been like?
I’m really glad to be studying actuarial science at the University of Melbourne. The actuarial program at Melbourne Uni has over 30 years’ history, and the quality of education is recognized by the IAA, the International Actuarial Association. Once we pass a certain level in our subject, we are guaranteed an exemption on the professional exam of the Actuaries Institute.
Actuaries in the finance industry are in high demand and have a real advantage in gaining positions at the best firms downtown.
In addition to the top-tier education, student life at the University of Melbourne is also amazing. The main campus is located one stop from downtown. The campus provides me with a place to concentrate on my studies, while dynamic city life is just an arm’s length away.
Another element that makes me love the university so much is the people. People here are so intelligent and always full of passion. I feel so lucky to have my schoolmates who are always motivating and encouraging during school, and who are also always ready to explore new things with me together after school. The experience at the University of Melbourne is just splendid.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose Melbourne?
It was actually a hard decision to make between the University of Melbourne and Australian National University. Both universities have great reputations academically and with employers. There are also a few unis in Australia that provide actuarial science courses. However, my expectation for college life is not just studying, but I also want to spend three years somewhere I can enjoy life. And Melbourne has what I want—the modern city facility, multicultural society, and convenient traffic. And, of course, the culture of coffee has been one of the unique elements of Melbourne. I really love coffee, so I never regretted choosing the University of Melbourne.
What influenced you to pursue an actuarial science program?
Mathematics has always been my favorite subject, ever since primary school. Finance became attractive to me after I watched some finance movies, like The Wolf of Wall Street.
As far as I knew, actuarial studies involved high-intensity practices on implementing mathematical models in the finance field, which means I would have a two-in-one experience for my preferred areas. So therefore, actuarial science came to me as my first choice when I was choosing a major.
Why should other students consider a focus in actuarial science?
The most important reason is that becoming an actuary has good job prospects and a relatively high salary, compared to other financial industries. This is actually one of the reasons why I chose this major.
Actuaries in the finance industry are in high demand and have a real advantage in gaining positions at the best firms downtown. Additionally, the professional skills in actuarial science can also be extended to other industries. We’ve learned a lot about the actuarial control cycle, like a feedback loop to monitor and update your professional advice based on new market information, which also strengthens your risk management abilities. These are things that really help you to improve your working ability.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
First of all, I will say Dr. Xueyuan Wu is one of the most important people to me at the university. He has a kind personality and a high proficiency in academics. He always focuses on the application of what we are learning and gives us advice on our future careers.
Needless to say, the other lecturers and professors at the University of Melbourne are well prepared, and they’re always willing to support me with my queries, even after school. They also provide us with up-to-date case studies to help us to adapt to new market environments and spark enlightening ideas on how we can apply math to complex reality.
There’s also a career expo hosted by the university, which exposes us to job opportunities at many of the big firms.
Secondly, the University of Melbourne has a strong academic research atmosphere. As a research student, Uni Melb provided me with a comfortable study area and high leadership permission. More than that, my research supervisor Dr. Ping Chen guided me through the path of academic research and helped me get in touch with cutting-edge academic knowledge in actuarial science, which really promoted my research study. It makes me feel that I am fully supported and encouraged to fulfill my academic objectives.
And it is true that actuarial science is one of the hardest majors in the Bachelor of Commerce. Many of my schoolmates gave up and changed to other majors. It does bring anxiety to the rest of us, but things always have two sides. The rest of us will band together and be more enthusiastic for our future studies.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
One of my favorite classes was Engineering Computation, which taught us how to code based on the C language. I found it interesting because it gave us a wide view and basic logical thinking about how to solve a problem in programming. The C language is a fundamental language in programming. It has helped me a lot on further learning with Python and R. Programming is very important in actuarial modeling, so it is good for you to get prepared in this.
Another of my favorite classes was Actuarial Practices and Control. Lectures in this class were given by working actuaries across life insurance, general insurance, and superannuation. They taught us how to solve different realistic problem across the whole insurance industry, based on the actuarial control cycle and a wide range of theoretical techniques. The class successfully transformed pure theoretical technique into some practical tools, which can be easily used in your job. I feel like I really have gotten a taste of potential industries where my degree can take me and what the future has in store.
What is unique about focusing on actuarial science relative to other majors you could have chosen?
That’s a hard question, but I want to explain that the traditional application of actuarial science includes designing and pricing insurance products, setting the capital in reserve held by the insurer, and some other superannuation things.
Compared to other professionals, an actuary can be a good generalist to take into account a whole lot of material matters, not just going down and considering a little part of the economy. Rather than coming up with point estimates, we are used to dealing with variability and long time frames.
For example, nowadays, actuaries are applying their skills in some nontraditional roles and helping to solve some of the big picture problems facing our society, from analyzing the impact of emerging climate change on business plans, to finding some solutions to support our aging population. As the measurements of those big picture problems are usually uncertain estimations of uncertain outcomes, we often end up with a range of answers, instead of a correct or wrong answer.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
The thing that is really challenging to me in actuarial science is time management because you should spend plenty of time on core studying, but you also need time to develop individual interests. For me, I really love networking and attending lots of social activities, and I spend several weeks skiing during the winter. I also need time to find a suitable internship during summer holidays. Those are my interests and career plans, and they’re pushing me to have effective time management. Otherwise, I may fail on both my interests and studies.
Have you had any insurance-related internships? If so, how was your experience?
I had one summer term internship with the Hong Kong Prudential Insurance Company. I worked in the market and administration department. The internship was about process and management, managing daily sales and claims data, and putting that data into Excel and processing it.
The internship really helped me to understand how an insurance company works and to learn more about the characteristics of different insurance products. Nowadays, an insurance product is not just a single product to protect consumers from some special risk. It is a combination of many products, tailored for an individual consumer in order to provide comprehensive protection on all major risks they will face in the future. learned a lot about different customer needs and how to match the service we provide with consumer needs.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
One development I’m pretty interested in is the digital footprint. Every day, whether you want to or not, most of us contribute to a growing portrayal of who we are online. This portrayal helps insurance companies target content at a specific consumer, and it gives an insurance company a view on a customer’s personal characteristics and preferences before the underwriting process has been taken. It also helps insurance companies to advertise by tracking your movement across multiple websites. But I think there are still some problems regarding personal privacy.
Another development is big data. Insurance has a clear advantage with big data. Big data can help an insurance company to predict the future and also prevent and mitigate insurance—for example, set an appropriate level of reserve and adjust the premiums for ever-changing markets.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
I want to start a research program in actuarial studies after I graduate from the honours program. Maybe I will pursue a PhD degree in the future because learning and discovering new things is always attractive to me. For career plans, product design and pricing products have come to my mind, but I’m not too sure because I really love to do research in the actuarial field.