Actuarial Science Degree Overview

Updated September 26, 2022

Actuarial science programs prepare students for stable, lucrative careers in financial risk assessment. Explore undergraduate and graduate options.

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Actuarial science overlaps with accounting. Both disciplines focus on compiling and reporting numerical data to inform organizational decision-making. Some schools even treat actuary programs as a specialized study path within accounting.

However, actuarial science focuses on risk assessment. Actuaries use advanced mathematical modeling and statistical analysis strategies to evaluate financial risk. Actuarial science programs mainly work to develop these modeling and analysis skills in students.

This guide introduces the various types of actuary programs offered by educational institutions. Readers can explore subject matter, actuarial skills development, and insights into the career opportunities at each degree level.

What Is Actuarial Science?

Actuarial science has a history dating back more than 300 years. It emerged as early insurance companies grew in popularity and experienced a rising demand for their coverage.

Beyond teaching the tools and strategies actuaries use in their daily duties, the top actuarial science programs prepare students to succeed on actuary certification exams. Actuarial certification is optional but may enhance job prospects and earning potential.

Some schools offer actuarial science degrees as specializations within accounting programs. However, prospective students should know the differences between actuarial science and accounting.

Accountants record financial transactions, prepare financial statements, and analyze financial data from an operational point of view. In contrast, actuaries calculate risks associated with insurance and risk rather than tracking the organization's financial health.

Many graduates of actuary programs pursue work as actuaries, usually in the finance or insurance industries. Actuary programs also prepare learners to consider careers as risk consultants, business analysts, and investment analysts.

What Skills Do Actuarial Science Programs Teach?

The best actuarial science programs develop technical abilities and general business skills. According to the Society of Actuaries, successful actuaries have strong groundings in finance, economics, business, and computer science.

Programs generally feature intensive sequences of actuarial science courses. These courses develop and apply concepts and tools from a broad cross-section of mathematics disciplines, including:

  • Calculus
  • Linear algebra
  • Probability
  • Statistics

Specific skill development and subject matter vary by level. Learners can earn certificates in actuarial science or pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees. In general, actuary programs become more technical, rigorous, and specialized at higher levels.

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What Are the Types of Actuarial Science Degrees?

Actuarial science certificate programs offer a solid introduction to the discipline. They are generally considered suitable for candidates seeking entry-level jobs in the field.

Notably, candidates do not necessarily need degrees to become actuaries. Optional certification exams are open to any test-taker with the requisite knowledge and skills. However, undergraduate and graduate degree programs offer a targeted path to acquiring the necessary skills.

The subsections below explain in greater detail.

Certificate in Actuarial Science

Certificate programs in actuarial science mainly appeal to learners looking to build actuary skills in shorter timelines. They usually cover about 18-21 academic credits in 6-7 courses. Students usually complete them in 2-3 academic semesters, depending on if they choose part-time or full-time enrollment.

Some certificate programs act as standalone academic plans and are open to all learners who meet general admission requirements. Others function as specialized tracks available to students who hold degrees in related areas, such as:

  • Accounting
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Mathematics
  • Statistics

Certificate programs focus on core actuarial skills, and most do not cover general accounting topics.

Associate in Actuarial Science

Institutions usually structure associate degrees to cover the same or similar material to the first two years of bachelor's degrees in the same field. Students often use them to pursue entry-level actuarial work and gain experience. Associate degrees also function as useful stepping stones to further study at the bachelor's level.

Associate programs in actuarial science usually lead to associate of arts (AA) or associate of science (AS) degrees. AS degrees generally concentrate more on technical learning, while AA programs emphasize theory. The two designations are comparable, with little to distinguish them in terms of practicality or usability.

Bachelor's in Actuarial Science

Bachelor's programs offer a rigorous introduction to core and supplementary topics in actuarial science. Like most bachelor's degrees, institutions usually structure them as four-year programs.

Actuarial science degrees often introduce accounting concepts and may include a small number of accounting courses. However, they take a significantly stronger focus on mathematics, statistical analysis, and other technical risk assessment techniques. Accounting degrees usually place far less emphasis on these topics.

Given their focus, actuarial degree programs generally make a better match for aspiring actuaries and risk analysts than accounting programs. Schools offer multiple actuarial science degree types, including:

  • Bachelor of arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of applied arts (BAA)
  • Bachelor of science (BS, BSc)

BA and BS/BSc options are more common for the specialization, while BAA programs are relatively rare.

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Master's in Actuarial Science

Master's actuary programs usually appeal to students aiming to develop advanced professional skills. They also hold value as prep tools for certification exams.

Some professionals believe master's degrees have little impact on an actuary's job prospects and earning potential. However, some master's programs are designed specifically for students who hold bachelor's degrees in subjects other than actuarial science.

From this perspective, a master's can offer significant value to an aspiring actuary. Learners can usually complete them in about two academic years. This path offers significant time savings compared to the investment required to earn a standalone bachelor's degree.

Doctorate in Actuarial Science

Schools offer doctoral programs specifically in actuarial science and as concentrations within a mathematics Ph.D. working professionals rarely hold these terminal credentials. Rather, doctorates are usually favored by postsecondary academics, researchers, and advanced specialists.

Notably, some actuarial science schools allow applicants with bachelor's degrees in the field to proceed directly into doctoral programs. Others require a master's degree, either in the actuary field or in a related branch of mathematics or accounting.

Doctoral programs in actuarial science are rigorous, intensive, and research-heavy. They usually take about 3-4 years to finish and culminate in a long-form dissertation project.

Is Actuarial Science Better as an Undergrad or Graduate Degree?

An actuarial science bachelor's concentration or degree directly supports career paths in financial risk management. These programs provide capable graduates with a strong knowledge base for pursuing optional certifications.

Some aspiring professionals pursue certification after gaining professional work experience. A bachelor's degree offers an excellent pathway to potential employment in the field.

Debate continues as to whether master's actuarial science degrees offer enough value to justify the associated cost and time commitment. Some commentators believe a combination of a bachelor's degree and professional experience delivers similar knowledge, making a master's functionally unnecessary. However, master's programs still offer strong development of advanced skills and prepare students for certification exams.

Learners seeking fast entry into the professional world are often satisfied with the opportunities associated with a bachelor's-level education. However, master's programs offer an option to individuals with strong backgrounds in related fields who want to earn advanced actuarial credentials.

Ultimately, the answer to this question depends on your academic background, learning interests, and career goals.

Common Questions About Actuarial Science Schools


Is actuarial science a popular major?

Given the high employment projections for actuaries in the labor market, students are drawn to the field in growing numbers. Actuarial science offers employment opportunities and high potential income for students with a strong aptitude for math.

What can you do with an actuarial science degree?

Many actuarial science graduates pursue work as actuaries, assessing financial risk for corporations and insurance companies. However, some become risk management consultants, business consultants, and financial analysts.

What do most actuaries major in?

Many working actuaries majored in actuarial science in college. However, candidates can also become actuaries with academic backgrounds in accounting, economics, applied mathematics, business, and other related fields.

Do actuaries get paid well?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, actuaries earned an annual median salary of $105,900 in 2021. Along with computer science, actuarial science is widely considered one of the best-paying fields for bachelor's degree-holders.


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