Chris Zhang is a third-year student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, where he is majoring in Commerce (Finance) and Actuarial Studies. Chris is the vice president external of the Actuarial Society of UNSW, and he will be interning at EY this coming summer. We spoke with Chris in September 2019.
Tell us one thing about you that’s not on your resume.
In my spare time, I’m learning calligraphy, and that’s probably best described as both modern and traditional calligraphy, but it’s not the Chinese brush calligraphy. It’s more so your oblique, pen-holding calligraphy. It’s great for making birthday cards, writing some invitations for mates, and letterheads.
What has your experience at the University of New South Wales been like?
Overall, the experience at the university is really good. There are a lot of societies that I’m in, and right now I’m actually doing a few things with the Actuarial Society, which is quite a big and active group on campus.
The connection to industry for actuarial students is absolutely fantastic. The opportunity is definitely there if you want it. The really great thing about the actuarial profession is that the community is very tight.
Classes have been quite all right, and the university does a really good job of trying to get you to try and integrate the content with an interactive learning experience as best as they can. We have seminars, tutorials, and lectures, where there’s a lot of different ways that content can be delivered. Overall, I think I’ve had quite a well-rounded experience at the university in terms of extracurriculars, sports, and academics.
What other schools were you considering, and why did you choose UNSW Sydney?
If you’re based in Sydney, then the major universities that offer the actuarial degree are UNSW, Macquarie, and ANU. I was deciding between those three, and I think it was very clear that I wanted to go to UNSW, mainly because of the very heavy society involvement that is on campus. I didn’t want to be the student that goes to uni for lectures and classes and then goes back home. I wanted to try and put myself out there and get involved in all sorts of activities.
What influenced you to pursue actuarial science?
When I was in year 12 tutoring, I had a few friends who had graduated the year before, and they were the tutors at the tutoring center. We struck up conversation about the degrees they were doing, and that’s how I learned about actuarial science and also about society life in general. I was attracted to the idea that actuaries are trying to solve problems using statistics. It’s more so a mathematical point of view, which is what I was more inclined to in year 12.
What has been your experience with the actuarial science program at your school?
I’ll start with classes. The classes are actually quite well in terms of the amount of time required to be on campus. I generally find myself to be at uni for two days a week, so it is not that heavy of a workload, but a lot of the workload does come from studying at home, and that would probably take up a large part of your day.
As with professors and tutors, they’re all very professional, but they’re also really great people. They’re very on board with trying to improve the way that they teach and improve the experiences that students have.
As for extracurriculars, they’ve been wonderful. It’s been a really good three years that I’ve had with the Actuarial Society, and I would recommend it for anyone going into university—no matter the degree, find a society that’s active on campus. I’m currently serving as the vice president external of the Actuarial Society, which means I’m covering career events, as well as sponsorship for our other events.
The connection to industry for actuarial students is absolutely fantastic. The opportunity is definitely there if you want it. The really great thing about the actuarial profession is that the community is very tight. Since everyone has graduated and had the same experience with teachers, professors, and the Part 1, 2, and 3 exams, there’s a very strong sense of community there.
I find that you’re never short of people willing to help out, whether they’re recent graduates, senior consultants, or even managers. There’s always someone that’s willing to help out, and that’s really been reflected in the career events that both the university, as well as the Actuarial Society, have run. We’ve got a wide range of experience for all these networking events and firm visits. There’s always a lot of opportunity to have a look into what companies are doing and what the industry is doing.
What is your favorite class so far and why?
My favorite class so far has been ACTL 4303: Asset-Liability Management. It’s a very real-life setting in the idea that the lecturer puts a very big picture up, and we work through the whole story, in terms of how economic conditions affect your equities or your fixed-income investments.
That’s the attractive bit about most of the classes that I’ve had, is that if you’re able to put it into a real-life perspective, it makes learning much more interesting. And I suppose that is a drawback with the actuarial science program. There isn’t always a lot of real-life experiences that you can put to some random theory that you’re writing on the board, but if you can look from the big picture as to general insurance and what policy you’re writing, then it can get quite interesting.
What has been most challenging about studying actuarial science? Is there anything you wish you would have known ahead of time?
By the nature of the degree, it is quite difficult, so the most challenging part for me would be organizing my time to make sure that I understand the content. It’s difficult keeping up with my academics because there are a lot of things going on outside of academics that you want to enjoy. You want to travel, or you want to do some extracurricular activities, or you want to play a sport—finding the time to balance all of those aspects of your life is challenging.
In terms of what I wish I would have known ahead of time, I suppose I would’ve liked to be informed that university is shorter than it seems. Four years goes by faster than you would imagine. I would’ve wished to know that I should have made the most of my time in my first year as well as my second year, but I’m realizing that now, and it’s okay.
What are your future aspirations or career plans?
In the short term, if I enjoy my time during the summer interning at EY, then hopefully I get called back for a graduate position, and that would basically be it for the next three to four years. EY is really great because they do have fields in life and wealth, general insurance, the government and public sector, as well as banking and capital markets. So they have overall broader exposure. I hope in the next five years to figure out which one I want to be in and stick with for the long term.
What are the latest developments or trends in insurance?
The aging population is one trend, and that really does affect a lot of the fields in the actuarial industry, mainly because of life insurance annuities. The second trend is around environmental impacts. I know a lot of different consulting firms are now building models to actually try and anticipate the damage that can occur from all of these environmental catastrophes. So your 1-in-100-year cyclone might not actually occur every 100 years. It’s probably more frequent than that now. That is a problem that needs to be addressed in a lot of the financial products offered in the actuarial sphere, probably more so in general insurance, but also life insurance.
What advice would you give someone interested in the insurance field?
For someone interested in the actuarial field, I would say to just do it. Of course, be informed, but just do it. You shouldn’t be in the mindset of hitting the nail on the head on your first swing when it comes to picking a university degree or even picking the right university. But you should always be open to trying new things. One year compared to your whole life is quite minute, so to do something for one year, or two or three years even, and find out that you don’t want to do it, it’s still very much a viable opportunity for you to switch and do something else. So don’t be afraid to be wrong. The cost of being wrong is quite low.
Do you have any favorite books, websites, or media that you would recommend for someone interested in insurance?
I would definitely recommend checking out the Actuaries Institute. I’m sure they might have different variations of their websites across different countries, but I would recommend just having a look at the Actuaries Institute website. They offer a lot of news into what’s upcoming, what’s trending in the actuarial field, information on workshops or programs that they might have, as well as just a lot of information about the profession itself.