• Bio: Undecided between a career as an actuary or a paramedic, Nicole chose to study Actuarial Maths and Statistics at university and gained an internship with Standard Life. Now a qualified CERA actuary she looks back over the three roles she has held within the company and offers advice to anyone considering the profession.
  • Role: Financial and Insurance Risk Actuary
  • Organisation: Standard Life

Nicole Dowling

Paramedic or actuary – the two front runners in my answer to the old ‘what should I do with my life?’ question after finishing high school! Two very different career choices I’m sure you’d agree, but both of them equally well aligned to my strengths and ambitions – on the one hand I was good at maths and loved problem solving, and on the other I was calm under pressure with a keen desire to help others.

The decision

When I left high school I was still undecided as to what career path I wanted to take, but I made the decision to go to university to study Actuarial Maths and Statistics. I figured that this would give me the opportunity to learn about the work that actuaries do so that I could make a more informed decision, and if it didn’t work out I could always consider the paramedic route (as this didn’t require a university degree at the time).

In my first year at Heriot-Watt University I enjoyed the maths subjects we were taught (not surprisingly) but it wasn’t until second year, when we got more into the actuarial topics that I decided I wanted to pursue a career as an actuary. I was particularly interested in learning about all the different types of insurance and pension products available and how actuaries could price these appropriately taking into consideration the risks and uncertainty involved. From there on my interest in becoming an actuary only grew as I finished my degree, and I knew this was the right decision for me.

The exams

My decision to study at Heriot-Watt proved fruitful and, with a little hard work, I left after four years with exemptions from all eight of the CT professional exams. The bad news – I still had seven exams left to go! But with the help of a generous study support package from my employer I was exam free after only two years of working. I even went on to study for an extra qualification in risk management (CERA) as this was one of the topics I found most interesting throughout my study and work experience.

The work

Between my third and fourth years at university I took up an internship position with Standard Life and off the back of this secured a permanent graduate role for the following year. I’ve been with the company ever since and as such have had three different roles within the company.

My first role as a graduate was in the MoSes Testing team in our Actuarial Development department. My main tasks in this two year role involved:

  • Testing our liability cashflow models following any developments made to the models.
  • Building replica models in spreadsheets using VBA macros.
  • Communicating any bugs found in my testing to the model development team.
  • Problem solving to identify where any issues were coming from and suggest ways to overcome them.

I’m currently 18 months in to a two year role in Financial and Insurance Risk – an area I was keen to work in following my studying towards the CERA risk management qualification. This role is much more varied than my previous roles were and there are opportunities to get involved in a wide range of work. Some of the work I have been involved in so far is:

  • Running the Reverse Stress Testing exercise (where we analyse the possible risk events that could cause our business model to fail).
  • Performing calculations and creating graphs/charts to show how much capital we need to hold to be able to meet our expected outgoings with 99.5% certainty (and showing how much each of the risks our company faces contributes to that amount).
  • Supporting the work required for our business to be compliant with new regulations coming into force in January 2016 (pulling together applications, documents, gap analyses, presentations, etc).

The satisfaction

I have enjoyed different things about each of the three roles that I have had to date. In my internship role, I mostly enjoyed just getting to know what it was like to work in an office and the types of tasks that actuaries get involved in. It was also interesting to work in a team made up of both actuaries and accountants and see how they learnt from each other’s expertise.

In my role in the MoSes Testing team the thing I enjoyed most was being able to use my problem solving skills to find out where things were going wrong and why. It gave me a real sense of achievement when I was able to go back to the modelling team with a solution, instead of just asking them to fix the problem themselves.

In my current role the thing I enjoy most is the variety of work that I can get involved in and my exposure to senior management and Board committees. It is particularly interesting to hear the nature of the discussions that happen at a senior level and the things that they are really interested in. It helps to put things into perspective for a perfectionist like me!

One thing I’ve enjoyed that’s common to all three roles is the people that I’ve worked with. It’s cliché, but these are the people who you spend most of your time with in the working week, so it really helps if you get along with them and can ask them for help when you need it.

No regrets

There are days where I wonder how different my life would have been if I had taken the other fork in the road and pursued a career as a paramedic. But in the end, I think I have managed to achieve the best of both worlds. In my day job I am now a qualified CERA actuary and, now that I’m finished studying for exams, I’ve filled up some of my free time as a First Aid volunteer with British Red Cross. I think 17 year old me would be very proud indeed!

My advice

If you are considering a career as an actuary, or in the financial industry in general, my advice to you is this: find out as much as you can about what the job involves – speak to people in the profession, actively seek out internships/ work experience and ask questions! And keep on asking questions throughout your career – you don’t stop learning just because you’ve stopped sitting exams!

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