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Math Math major, need career and schooling advice

  1. Jun 14, 2011 #1
    I'm majoring in math (2nd year) right now at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I'm considering switching to a bigger/more well known school that has more credit in the real world. I want to be employable immediately when I graduate, and having an Honours in math from Lakehead to me feels about as practical as ... well it doesn't seem practical at all. I feel that if I had an Honours from a school that people of heard of, they might be more inclined to hire me.
    I initially intended to go for my Ph. D. but upon further investigation, realize that there aren't many jobs from that point. I was thinking about becoming an actuary, but I was also considering switching programs into engineering. I don't really know which is better. Something I should clear up, however, is that I would like a career involving math, but to be honest, my main concern is money. I wouldn't mind doing less math for more money. This is where 'actuary' comes in; apparently if one works as an actuary for over 9 or 10 years, they can make upwards of 150K.
    I think what I'm getting at is that I don't want to waste any time. I'm willing to do a ridiculous amount of work, under the condition that it pays off sooner than later. If anyone has any advice on what I should do, pertaining to switching schools or future jobs, please let me know.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 23, 2011 #2
    Being in Canada complicates things; they tend to turn out a very large number of Act Science grads compared with the job market. Lots of people do still get jobs, but the number that don't is higher on your side of the border than on mine (I'm in the US) and the requirements to get considered are higher.

    I don't think you necessarily need an Act Sci degree up there to get a job, but you'll want to shoot for having 4 exams by the time you graduate and an internship if you can get one.

    Also, 150k is not uncommon for an actuary with 10 years of experience on the US side, but note that lots of actuaries make less, and some make more. Salaraies tend to be a little lower in Canada.

    I've been an actuary in the US for a few years and like it a lot. Your mileage may vary.
  4. Jul 1, 2011 #3
    Thanks for the advice. Something I should have mentioned is that I do intend to move after I finish school; I plan to move to Finland, but if a good job were available elsewhere, I wouldn't be against relocating.
    Seeing as I'm speaking to an actuary, may I ask what a standard day would be like? I have a general grasp of the idea behind the job, but what one would do on a day to day basis is beyond me.

  5. Jul 5, 2011 #4
    You’re either working on a computer or you’re dealing with people. Most actuaries spend most of their time doing the former, and this group includes me. A typical request will require me to first figure out what they’re asking and how to get to it. Secondly, hit the databases (SQL) to get the information I need. Thirdly, extract useful information from the data. Finally, I have to put it in a form that’s presentable without losing its integrity. I have monthly duties that require less effort in step 1 & 4, since I repeat them all the time, but still have to be thought through carefully to make sure they’re saying what people think they’re saying.

    Ultimately much of the work actuaries do only has value in what the rest of your organization (or, if you’re a consultant, your customer’s organization) does with it, and this interface between the work we do and the people that use it is a difficult and important job. Our chief actuary works twelve hours a day and spends at least eight of them in meetings. His time is much too valuable to be piddling around in Excel. On the consulting side the important people spend their time working with their customers and drumming up new business. It’s safe to say you can be an actuary and spend most of your time working the data, but the really good actuaries have skills that go way beyond that.
  6. Jul 5, 2011 #5
    This is an example I sometimes use for how actuaries have to think at their jobs.

    You sit down in a meeting with a manager in another department. They say the following:

    “Thanks for meeting us here. We have a little problem though. You produced a report for us last month on drug costs and we can’t make heads or tails of it. You show here that Generic drugs increased in cost per script over the prior year, and here that Brand drugs increased as well. But look, you have the overall cost per script going down. You have both categories (there are only those two) going up in cost, the overall going down, and yet Bob from the Pharmaceutical dept. contacted me and confirmed that in this period of time the average cost of our pharmaceuticals didn’t change. A few went up, a few went down, no overall difference. Don’t you think there’s something wrong here?”

    What do you say? Well, first you say “No, there isn’t.” But then, what do you say after that?
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2011
  7. Jul 11, 2011 #6
    I actually haven't the slightest clue, however due to some fantastic math teachers I've had over the years, I'm inclined to think that the answer is very straight forward and I'm going to feel very stupid for not getting it. There is a part of me, however, that feels if it were that simple it wouldn't be such a demanding job.
    I apologize for my ineptitude with the question.
  8. Jul 11, 2011 #7
    Sorry if it sounded like a quiz – I’m not sure you had enough information to answer it, though I’m sure you could come up with an example where it would occur if you had to. The mistake management is making is assuming that changes in average drug prescription (script) costs must be caused by changes in the prices of the drugs. Changes in average prices can also be impacted by changes in the mix of scripts purchased by consumers. This particular case is utilization driven, and the manager should have realized that.

    The solution looks like this:

    • There was an educational campaign to encourage people to move from Brand drugs to Generic drugs, and this was combined with a small increase in copay for Brand drugs.
    • The Brand drugs people stopped purchasing were relatively inexpensive compared to other Brand drugs (precisely because a Generic was available). Thus the average price of Brand drugs purchased went up.
    • The Generic drugs the bought instead are comparatively expensive compared to other Generic drugs (because they are newer) and this pushes the average price of Generic drugs up.
    • However, there is still (large!) savings to be had with the move from Brand to Generic, so the average cost per script went down.

    The lesson is that you cannot assume a segment of a population shares characteristics with the population as a whole. This is especially true if there is mixing going on.

    A similar issue happens with premium per contract. Let’s say there’s a block of business with several health plans that gets only one rate increase a year, in January. I’ve seen other people (non actuaries) in the building wait until the numbers for January come in, calculate the new average premium per contract, and then assume that value will be true the rest of the year, since there are no more rate changes.

    What they don’t realize is that there’s mixing going on between different plans; furthermore, people who turn 65 are leaving (Medicare). Thus the actual premium per contract goes down throughout the year and actual revenue falls short of their forecast.

    There are a few more complicated riddles that I’m not sure how to explain here. The point is that in each of these there’s nothing more than algebra going on; they’re mathematically simple. However setting up the problem right can sometimes be a feat and I’ve done a few things I’m proud of.

    Much of mine and my coworker's jobs centers around coming up with metrics to help understand what is going on in the system and then turning them into a report that can be passed up the management chain. Reserving and rate filing are probably the two other big categories of duties, but note that all three of these activities overlap considerably.
  9. Jul 12, 2011 #8
    I was in a similar place 7 years ago: I chose math as my major because I liked it and i was good at it. I initially thought I was going to get my PhD and teach at college, but towards the end of school I had a change of heart and just wanted to start making money. I got a job doing CAD at an Engineering firm and have had a hell of a time trying to move up without an Engineering degree. Essentially, I could have gotten to the same place I am now without any degree at all. I'm now in the process of getting my engineering degree through night classes.

    My advice to you: switch majors. If you want to be an actuary, make sure you have the actuarial science concentration with your math degree. If you want to teach, get the teaching certificate along with your math degree. And if you want to do engineering DEFINITELY switch to an engineering degree! It's a heavily regulated industry and to become a licensed Professional Engineer it is law in most places (I don't know the details about Canada but in the US) that you need to have an accredited engineering degree. Anything anybody tries to tell you about "you can get a good job having any degree because you've proved that you're smart and can be trained" is a lie. I wish someone had told me that my second year of college!
  10. Jul 13, 2011 #9
    Appreciate timsea81’s input, and want to clarify one thing for others who might read this – this advice may be okay in Canada (and the OP mentions they are located there), but it is not a good plan in the US. Even in Canada there’s probably a better way.

    The problem is that an Act Sci degree or concentration will close a lot of doors and open very few of them. The Act Sci programs in Canada are very good at both getting you through some exams and at getting you an internship, so this might be worth it. However the trade off is over specialization. In the US I would strongly advise for concentrations in probability and statistics. They have a lot of flexibility and will look just as good to any US (and most Canadian) employers of actuaries as an Act Sci degree would.
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