Summary

Actuarial science could be a good option for someone who wants to earn to give, has strong quantitative skills, and values security and work-life balance.

However, someone capable of pursuing an actuarial career should also consider quantitative finance, which offers higher expected earnings, spending a few years in management consulting, which offers superior flexibility and prestige, or training for data science, which offers more flexibility and opportunity for direct impact.

Pros

  • Reasonably high salary and reliable employment
  • Moderate intensity of work allows for a long-lasting career and even side-projects
  • High chances of career progression

Cons

  • Little opportunity for direct impact or advocacy, though we doubt actuarial careers are harmful
  • Lower prestige and salary growth than some adjacent careers requiring similar skills
  • Professional certification exams require impressive quantitative skills

Ratings

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Direct impact: 

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Our reasoning for these ratings is explained below. You might also like to read about our approach to rating careers.

Key facts on fit  

Strong quantitative and computer skills, attention to detail, willing to have social impact mostly through donations.

Next steps

Admission to a Master’s courses or trainee position will usually require having done well in a significant number of quantitative courses, such as mathematics, economics, or finance as an undergraduate.

Professional bodies in all major countries offer guides to becoming actuaries, and you should read them for details (e.g. USA, UK and Australia).

What is this career?

Actuaries most often analyze statistical data, such as mortality, accident, sickness, disability, and retirement rates, and construct probability tables to forecast risk and liability for payment of future benefits on insurance payouts.

Actuaries have also been increasingly applying their training outside insurance to help to manage risk in other parts of the financial sector, as well as working in management consulting firms and governments.

Reasons in favour of an actuarial career

  • Salaries are just as high in the UK, ranging from £55,000 for graduates to £170,000 for ‘practice directors’.
  • Actuarial work is a growth industry in the USA and actuarial graduate unemployment rates are low.
  • The intensity of work is on the low end for the salary, with most actuaries reporting working 40-50 hours a week. The less intense nature of the work allows many actuaries to work full-time for decades, which is less common in other ‘up or out’ roles in the financial sector.
  • You would have opportunities to promote effective philanthropy to reasonably wealthy colleagues.

Arguments against an actuarial career

  • Typically the work you do will help provide incrementally more insurance to the wealth or health of the richest 5% of people in the world, which is a not a very valuable direct impact.
  • Initial entry is fairly competitive; actuarial professional associations reportedly make certification exams more difficult than the job itself to limit the supply of actuaries. Accurate and fast mathematics skills are essential.
  • There are limited opportunities to advocate about important issues publicly.
  • The skills developed in actuarial studies job – though not so much the initial coursework – are relatively narrow and not as easily transferred into other jobs as the skills developed in some other quantitative professions. Actuarial science is also less prestigious than some nearby alternatives.
  • The potential for rapid salary growth is somewhat lower than in other professions such as medicine, consulting and software engineering, and much lower than financial trading, which requires some similar skills.

Other notes

  • Actuaries often assist with personal and commercial insurance products, which are likely to be among the most reliably positive or neutral parts of the financial industry. If the risk of doing harm puts you off careers in banking or quantitative trading, actuarial sciences could be a reasonable alternative. If you move outside of traditional insurance, risk management in, (e.g.) the derivatives market can be disastrous if done poorly, though reduce systemic financial risk if done correctly.
  • If you are leaving high school, many countries offer four year Bachelor’s degrees in actuarial science. In theory this allows you to start earning to give in a serious way very early in your career. However, we would strongly caution against committing to being an actuary at a young age, and would instead suggest doing an impressive and general quantitative degree, and then doing actuarial science at the Master’s level if you remain interested at that point.
  • Note that as of mid-2015, 80,000 Hours staff think that too many of the most talented people we coach are going into earning to give relative to other top options.