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Mechanical engineer vs. actuary

  1. May 4, 2014 #1


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    hey pf!

    the title pretty much sums up my question: what are the differences between actuarial work and engineering? if you have experience OUTSIDE of academics, please share your insight, as i'd really appreciate it.

    my brief background: i have a double major in mathematics and economics. 3.77 gpa. have been tutoring math for 3 years. recently have been excepted into a master's program for mechanical engineering starting this fall.

    friends and family ask me why i want to be an engineer. i tell them i don't actually know what a practical mechanical engineer does but i love the physics/math of it. hopefully, if the field is similar, i'll like that too.

    however, recently actuarial work has caught my eye. i love studying new material, and with all the actuarial exams it seems studying is common (a huge plus). it seems the analytical side stays, at least in a mathematical construct. from the engineers i've talked to, it seems formal math/physics is pretty much gone in the real world. one senior boeing engineer said "school is mainly a right of passage".

    can anyone who practices let me know about either or? i'm planning on job-shadowing an actuary. however, is it even worth shadowing an ME since it seems their jobs are so drastically different?

  2. jcsd
  3. May 4, 2014 #2
    Similarities: Both are largely professional careers, with credentials involved. Many engineers have typical days that sound very similar to mine - work at computer, meetings, and manage direct reports when applicable. Both careers are more technical at low levels, and less so at higher levels.

    Differences: Obviously a very different subject matter. I get the feeling credentialing is more critical to actuaries than engineers. Different educational paths. Some MEs will have radically different day-to-day duties, involving experimental work that is outside of a cubicle. Actuarial work likely starts out at a lower pay, but likely ends up at a higher one.

    Note that the typical actuarial day is pretty similar across actuarial work, but that the nature of the work can vary widely. I've come to believe that there are some horribly boring actuarial jobs out there, despite the fact that I really enjoy and am engaged by mine.

    Some thoughts that might act as boundary conditions on your thought process:

    First, jobs in which the person mostly does math are much rarer than the public seems to realize, and the people capable of doing those jobs are much more common than the typical panicked media article would have us believe.

    Secondly, I started out my actuarial career expecting to stay in a technical role because those were the problems I enjoyed solving. However, as time has gone on I've come to appreciate the kinds of problems that organizational and leadership challenges pose. There's an army of people who would love to sit in the corner and push numbers around, but very few people understand health insurance & financing like I do, and I've come to enjoy the bigger problems. I say this because you might find yourself feeling the same some day, and I would be farther in my career if I had realized this earlier.

    Finally, studying for exams is not a plus of the actuarial career. The existence of the exam system is a plus, and the advantage it gives career changers is a plus, but studying and taking the exams is four to eight years of hazing that will leave a mark. Be prepared for it.

    I'd be happy to expand or answer other questions you have. Best of luck in your research!
  4. May 4, 2014 #3


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    thanks locrian! i appreciate your thorough and rapid response! i have a few more questions for you if you don't mind?

    what do you dislike most about your job?

    what do you like most about your job?

    if you had the chance to go back and do it again, would you still choose actuarial science, or does something else catch your eye (while this question doesn't really apply for me, i'm still curious)?

    if i decide to go this path, what is my first step? should i try for a summer intern or study and try to hurdle the first two exams?

    what is the job market like for actuaries? how difficult is it to obtain employment once committed to this career?

    thanks so much for your time! i really appreciate it!

  5. May 4, 2014 #4
    I'd say the office setting. Sitting at a computer has been surprisingly hard on my core. Cubicles suck. The office atmosphere just isn't very interesting. I look forward to the day where I can work anywhere I want on a tablet.

    I love learning something new from data that no one else caught. I love coming up with a way of looking at data that no one has seen. I love providing insight that leads to good business decisions. I love using business knowledge to make connections that others didn't.

    Well I wouldn't do it twice. I love actuarial work. I would happily tell my younger self to get into it, and get into it quickly. I hate how long it took me to start this career. But the world I live in is too rich and interesting to do the same thing twice, if given the chance.

    I think that question is trickier than people give it credit for.

    Yes, pass a couple of exams and try to get some office work. An internship would be nice, but may not be available. Any kind of office work would be a plus on your resume. Underwriting experience would be golden.

    You'll probably need at least three exams to get an entry level job, but there are lots of exceptions to that rule.

    Actuaries are in tremendous demand, and hard to find. Actuarial analysts, which is the typical entry level terminology, are a dime a dozen and trivial to find. It's a hard career to break into, but once you get some experience under your belt you have a lot of opportunities. I recently went through a job search myself and the demand for my services was really empowering.

    If the ME program you're about to start is funded, then stay with it and pass some exams. No harm in graduating with options. If you're paying for the degree, it's a trickier question.

    Best of luck!
  6. May 5, 2014 #5


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    Thanks so much for your reply!!!
  7. May 5, 2014 #6
    Hi Josh,

    I was a Chemical Engineer in industry for 35 years when I retired, and I loved every minute of it. I once told my wife that I couldn't understand why they paid me so much money because I would do it for free. I liked the combination of science and math so much more than (I would have liked) just mathematics alone. In high school, I was considering majoring in math, but decided instead to go into engineering. I have never regretted that decision (although, of course, that's just me).

    As a broadly trained engineer, during my career, I not only worked in Chem Engg. There was also a very healthy dose of mechanical engineering systems as well.

    The thing I liked best about being an engineer in industry was that we got to work on real world problems. I can tell you that one of the greatest thrills is to see what you have done actually applied in the real world, in terms of new designs of products or new or improved processes. I also liked the idea that there was real money riding on the outcome of what you did, and there was the excitement of the risk of failure.

  8. May 7, 2014 #7


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    Thanks for the reply chet! i had a few more questions for you (if that's ok?)

    what kind of mechanical engineering systems? could you describe them to me? it's difficult for me to imagine, as i only know the academic side of engineering.

    what kind of real world problems? also, what industry(ies) did you work in? it seems engineering is so widespread, at least compared to actuarial work.

    thanks a ton for your response!
  9. May 7, 2014 #8
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    Mechanics and failure of airplane wing flap (a hard composite structure)

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    Kinematics of yarn twisting operation

    Electrical connector insertion deformational mechanics

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    Film casting and coating dies (Mylar, Clysar, Cronar)
    Unsteady state filament spinning to produce variable diameter polymer filaments for paint

    Solid Polymer Processing: Stretching and orientation of polymer films (Mylar, Clysar)

    Combined fluid mechanics, heat transfer, deformational polymer mechanics models of fiber spinning:
    Nylon, Polyester (Dacron), Elastomer (Lycra), Kevlar

    Development of plastic soup cans (physical chemistry and deformational mechanics during soup processing)

    I worked for DuPont in Wilmington, DE. Chemicals, Films, Fibers, Paints, TiO2

    Cyclohexane oxidation to produce adipic acid for nylon manufacture
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    Groundwater Modeling: Fluid flow and transport in deep underground geological formations for deepwell disposal of hazardous wastes

    I'm sure there are others that I've left out, but I can't think of them now.

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