Insurance, finance, and many other industries routinely deal in the business of uncertainty and risk. To guide their decision-making, these companies need professionals with advanced training in mathematical and analytical risk assessment techniques. This specialized discipline is known as actuarial science, and the professionals who practice the discipline are actuaries.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 18% increase in jobs for licensed actuaries nationwide between 2019 and 2029. This far exceeds the average projected growth rate for all professions and marks one of the highest expected growth rates of any mathematics-related occupation.
A master’s in actuarial science is a preferred professional degree and a proven path to well-paid actuary jobs. This guide covers what you need to know to get started with this practical career path.
What Is Actuarial Science?
Actuarial science evolved from mortality tables first developed in 17th-century Europe. Mortality tables seek to define the probability that an individual of any age would die before their next birthday. A small group of entrepreneurs from Equitable Life, a British insurance company founded in 1762, pioneered the use of mortality tables in for-profit enterprise.
As business modernized during the 19th century, actuarial science became more complex. The field expanded beyond mortality tables to include mathematical risk assessments related to insurance underwriting, investing, and management of business assets and liabilities. Actuarial science fully matured by the 20th century, becoming essential to the global insurance and finance industries.
As of May 2019, the BLS reported 27,700 licensed actuaries in the United States and projected nearly 5,000 new actuary jobs from 2019-2029. The BLS cites several reasons for the profession’s strong growth trend.
First, actuaries play a key role in managing the challenges an aging population creates for the insurance industry. Additionally, ongoing technological advancement brings new risks that require specialized assessment. The age of “big data” brings new information collection channels that broaden the scope and utility of actuarial science.
Right now is a great time to train for an actuarial science career. Graduates with a master’s in actuarial science tend to enjoy higher salaries and superior success rates on licensure examinations, making graduate school an appealing option.
Why Get an Online Actuarial Science Master’s?
Actuarial candidates must pass rigorous examinations to earn professional licensure and qualify for jobs. Graduates of the best master’s in actuarial science programs tend to perform better on these exams, given their deeper and more detailed field-specific knowledge.
Earning a master’s degree also sends prospective employers a strong signal about a candidate’s enthusiasm for actuarial science. Thus, job candidates with master’s degrees tend to enjoy an advantage in competitive settings.
Other benefits of a master’s in actuarial science include:
Networking and Recruitment Opportunities
Enrolling in graduate school expands your access to peer networking and professional recruitment programs offered by top employers.
Master’s programs support a wider spectrum of professional concentrations than their undergraduate counterparts, making them ideal for students training for niche careers.
Broader Career Prospects
An actuarial science master’s grants degree-holders the option of completing a doctorate to qualify for teaching positions at the postsecondary level.
What To Expect From Master’s in Actuarial Science Programs
Traditional and online master’s in actuarial science programs usually live within their parent institutions’ mathematics, accounting, or business departments. Most program structures lead to graduation in about two years of full-time study. Some schools offer accelerated one-year programs to students with undergraduate degrees in related areas and/or professional experience in risk assessment or underwriting.
Key learning outcomes include the ability to apply specific economic, financial, and mathematical modeling techniques to real-world questions. Programs strongly emphasize actuarial theory and technical proficiencies. Detail-oriented, mathematically minded learners with strong numeracy aptitudes tend to perform well in actuarial science programs.
Most schools attach master of science (MS) credentials to actuary degrees. Some result in a master of arts (MA) designation. In general, MS programs emphasize mathematical, analytical, and statistical modeling. MA programs focus more on actuarial theory and the practical or interpersonal aspects of professional practice.
Master’s in actuarial science requirements include a bachelor’s degree. However, candidates with undergraduate degrees in the field rarely proceed into graduate programs, which typically serve learners eyeing careers in academia or pursuing professional specializations. A bachelor’s in actuarial science qualifies the degree-holder for general licensure, and most candidates who hold a bachelor’s enter the workforce without a graduate degree.
Admission officials for actuarial science master’s programs consider candidates from all backgrounds, but they may favor applicants with college-level training in accounting, mathematics and statistics, finance, and/or quantitative economics.
Candidates from humanities and social science backgrounds may receive a conditional offer of admission, pending their successful completion of mathematics-related prerequisites.
Application materials include academic transcripts and GRE scores, along with a personal statement and letters of recommendation. Minimum GPA cutoffs vary but usually fall in the 2.5 range. In evaluating GRE scores, admissions departments usually give added weight to the exam’s quantitative sections.
Master’s in actuarial science programs often feature a relatively small set of required courses and give students wide latitude in selecting electives. This reflects the many specialized subtopics and areas of emphasis contained within the broader field of actuarial science. These specializations and concentrations cover the main degree options available at the graduate level.
Many such specializations focus on niche needs of employers in the insurance industry. Examples of these applied actuarial science concentrations include:
Pension benefits management
Life insurance and annuities
Health insurance and disability insurance
Other concentrations extend into more generalized areas of accounting, business, economics, and finance. These include:
Social safety net economics
Enterprise risk management
Financial services product development
Fixed income portfolio management
Research into the concentration tracks and elective courses offered by a particular program can help you determine if its focus or customization options match your professional interests.
Comparing Actuarial Science and General Accounting Degrees
Master’s degrees in general accounting and actuarial science overlap in notable areas. As such, some emerging professionals interested in these subject areas find themselves unsure of which educational path to follow.
In evaluating the similarities between accounting and actuarial science master’s degrees, learners should also keep their many differences in mind. The following table explores general features of each degree path, summarizing their respective points of comparison:
Master’s in Actuarial Science
Master’s in Accounting
Academic Background Requirements
Many programs prefer applicants with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, business, economics, or related fields, but consider candidates from a wide array of backgrounds
Programs tend to more strictly require applicants to have undergraduate academic training in accounting, business, economics, or mathematics disciplines
Core Coursework Subjects
Insurance data analytics, enterprise risk modeling and management, actuarial modeling, probability and statistics, long-term actuarial mathematics
Accounting programs lead to a broader array of career possibilities, and actuarial science programs deliver a more targeted education. Learners seeking to maximize their career options may prefer an accounting degree. Students aiming to excel in a concentrated area of actuarial science may find specialized programs a better fit.
Actuarial science programs often include a smaller set of core required courses than many other academic disciplines. Electives comprise the bulk of many master’s programs, affording students customized control over their learning. Not all programs require a final project, but those that do usually end with an applied project rather than a research-heavy capstone or thesis.
Curricula vary from school to school, but many programs offer courses such as the following.
Many schools offer this required course across two modules that extend over one academic year. Enrollees explore established and emerging data analysis techniques in the insurance industry, with a strong focus on applied data typology. Students acquire the ability to use specific techniques to generate relevant insights into many different data forms.
This course develops student proficiencies with mathematical and actuarial modeling and applies these skills to long-term insurance, such as life insurance, retirement benefits, and annuities. Learners emerge from this required core class with advanced estimation, forecasting, modeling, and data analysis skills.
This elective course presents multiple predictive analysis models used by actuaries in everyday practice. Topics include model selection and limitations, estimating techniques, model validation, analysis diagnostics, and professional methods for communicating findings. The course primarily interests students planning careers in the insurance industry.
Usually offered as an elective, this course examines the enterprise applications of probability. Key topics include theoretical and mathematical risk analysis and risk management modeling strategies. The general scope of the subject matter maximizes its cross-industry applicability.
This elective mainly targets students interested in finance and financial engineering career paths. Stochastic calculus covers such concepts as Brownian motion, Ito sums, Markov chains, and Poisson processes, along with sequence limits and integral modeling. Coursework informs student understanding of price dynamics and economic theory.
How Much Will a Master’s in Actuarial Science Cost?
The cost of earning a master’s in actuarial science varies depending on location and tuition structure. In general, public universities maintain more affordable tuition rates than private schools.
Furthermore, many public schools apply tiered tuition rates, with in-state residents qualifying for lower fees and out-of-state residents paying more. Most states participate in reciprocity agreements, which extend in-state rates to students from bordering jurisdictions. Some schools also offer in-state rates to online learners regardless of where they live, reflecting their reduced consumption of campus resources.
The average cost of attending graduate school in the U.S. starts at $30,000 and can reach $100,000 or more. Degree-seekers who need financial assistance should look to options that do not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, before considering federal or private loans.
Many graduates who study actuarial science go on to become licensed actuaries. However, the best master’s in actuarial science programs also qualify graduates for many other career paths. Opportunities extend across the insurance, finance, banking, business management, and financial services industries.
Professionals with graduate degrees tend to enjoy significant wage and salary premiums. They also tend to have higher career ceilings, qualifying more readily for positions with greater levels of responsibility.
The following careers represent popular for candidates with a master’s in actuarial science:
Actuaries apply statistics, probability, economic theory, financial theory, and risk theory to help companies navigate uncertainty. Professionals require licenses, and graduates of master’s programs tend to perform very well on the associated examinations.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree plus licensure
These finance specialists apply targeted strategies to provide clients and employers with deep insights into prevailing market and economic conditions. Businesses use their analyses to guide their financial decision-making processes. Actuary science graduates are particularly adept at analyzing situations involving uncertainty and risk.
Required Education: Entry-level positions require at least a bachelor’s degree; advancement is more readily available with a master’s degree
Underwriters work for insurance companies, where they review customer applications and make recommendations on whether to offer coverage. A growing number of insurers use emerging financial technologies to supplement their underwriting human resources.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree; candidates with a master’s degree may enjoy a competitive advantage
Market research analysts investigate prevailing economic and financial conditions to determine the viability of particular products and services. Roles that require advanced proficiencies with statistics, probability, and/or risk analysis suit actuarial science graduates particularly well.
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree at entry level; candidates with a master’s degree may advance more readily
Choosing the Right Actuarial Science Graduate Program
Master’s in actuarial science rankings can provide guidance toward particularly well-known and respected programs. However, prospective students should not use them to limit their searches for suitable opportunities. Many excellent programs do not appear on ranked lists, and as such, consider expanding your school selection criteria.
Some of the other factors to consider include:
Availability of experiential learning opportunities, such as work-study programs and practicums
Whether the school maintains strong relationships with recruiters and prospective employers
The relative cost of virtual or physical attendance
Student success metrics, such as the percentage of learners who graduate from the program and the proportion of graduates who find employment within six months to one year
The school’s class sizes, faculty credentials, and reputation among employers
Regardless of where you ultimately apply, ensure that the institution holds valid national or regional accreditation. You can also look for specialized endorsements from respected professional organizations like the Society of Actuaries.
Why You Should Get Your Master’s in Actuarial Science Online
Like many other subjects focused on applied mathematics and statistics, actuarial science has migrated well to online delivery modes. Course content for actuarial science and other accounting degrees does not heavily depend on real-time interactions. Most programs deliver lectures in pre-recorded (asynchronous) formats, allowing students to spend more time reviewing challenging and complex concepts.
Asynchronous course delivery also delivers unparalleled scheduling flexibility, allowing students to attend virtual classes on their own time. Many students considering a master’s in actuarial science already hold full-time jobs and other daytime responsibilities. Asynchronous course structures enable them to honor existing commitments while they study.
Despite the many advantages of online learning, degree-seekers must carefully consider whether their own aptitudes and study habits translate well to the virtual classroom. To succeed in an online program, learners must apply self-discipline and independence.
Some students prefer traditional classroom settings. If you fit in that category, plenty of schools offer excellent campus-based actuarial science programs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are actuaries in demand?
Actuaries currently enjoy very high levels of demand, and the decade ahead looks to continue the profession’s growth. The BLS projects an 18% rise in actuary jobs in the United States from 2019-2029.
How much do actuarial scientists make?
BLS analysis from 2019 found that actuaries earn average annual salaries of $108,350. Given the profession’s strong growth profile, stability, and high pay, labor market experts routinely include actuarial science as one of the best business-related subjects to study.
What can I do after a master's in actuarial science?
Most graduates proceed to sit for the standardized examinations that lead to actuary licensure. Others proceed into different career tracks in the insurance, banking, finance, investing, and financial services industries.
Is a master's in actuarial science worth it?
Career coaches usually encourage people with bachelor’s degrees in actuarial science to proceed directly into their careers. If you possess an undergraduate degree in another field, an actuarial science master’s program offers an expedited way to earn the knowledge and skills required for professional success.
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