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Careers in finance and financial services: Profile of an actuary Back  
An aptitude for mathematics is a primary skill required for anyone considering a career as an actuary, but the need for this is sometimes over-stated with many professionals coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, including theology and physics, says Brona McGee, head of Royal Liver’s actuarial division.
What is your educational background? I went to secondary school in LHS Beaufort in Rathfarnham and then studied Actuarial and Financial Studies in UCD for 3 years. This course gave me exemptions from half of the actuarial exams and I completed the rest while working as a trainee actuary.
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'When I did the course in UCD there were 5 girls out of a class of 30 - these days it's more like half-and-half.'

How did you get into actuary? I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do when I left school. I wasn’t too sure exactly what being an actuary involved but liked maths in school so chose the course in UCD on that basis. I also thought a career in finance sounded quite glamorous!

Are your peers from similar backgrounds? No really – you get actuaries from all walks of life. Most people have some sort of mathematical background but you get everything from theoretical physics to theology. What is good to see is the increase in the number of female actuaries in Dublin in recent years. When I did the course in UCD there were five girls out of a class of thirty – these days it’s more like half-and-half.

What has been your career path to date? I started as an actuarial trainee with Irish Progressive – the life assurance arm of the Irish Permanent. That was brilliant – I was working in a small team with some great people and learnt loads. Irish Life and Irish Permanent merged in 1999 and I moved to Irish Life in Abbey Street. I got some great experience there managing their actuarial operations team. In 2001 I took a career break to travel for a year before returning to Irish Life. Finally I moved to Royal Liver in 2003 to head up their actuarial team.

Have you worked abroad? Would you do so again? I worked with Munich Re in Sydney for 12 weeks while travelling in 2001.

How would you compare career prospects internationally to those in Ireland? We’re lucky in Dublin to have such a thriving financial services industry. Career prospects here are pretty good and it’s possible to do very well if you work hard. There’s probably still more money to be made in London or the States but I’m not convinced the quality of life is as good.

Have you undertaken any additional professional training since becoming an actuary? No formal training as such however I have completed a few different courses over the years and try to keep up to date with what is going on in the industry. The Society of Actuaries in Ireland host a number of evening meetings and seminars which I attend as part of my CPD (continuous professional development).

What skills/aptitude would you identify as being key/beneficial to a career in actuary? The obvious one is an aptitude for mathematics although I think the importance of this can be overstated. There isn’t all that much maths involved in actuarial work anymore – computers have taken away a lot of the hard sums! It’s important to have a logical brain and a good ability for problem solving. Communication skills are becoming increasingly important. These days people are less inclined to accept a fact simply because an actuary says it (definitely a positive development!) and it is important to be able to explain actuarial issues to those who don’t have a similar qualification.

What aspects of the job do you like most? I enjoy working on new developments, particularly new products or systems. It’s great to be part of a team when there’s a sense of excitement and when everyone is focused on the same goal. I enjoy getting involved in broader issues beyond the strict actuarial scope, being out with the Royal Liver sales force, meeting our customers and seeing the different issues that arise from different parts of the business.

What aspects of the job do you like least? I suppose I dislike the boring stuff – doesn’t everyone! Mundane tasks that simply have to be repeated on a regular basis aren’t the most exciting aspect of any job but have to be done.

Where would you see yourself in five years? What is your goal in actuary? How do you define success in actuary? Five years is a long time! Actuaries in life insurance tend to work towards one of two goals – they either follow the strict actuarial road with the ultimate aim of becoming appointed actuary of a life company or they move into a more general management role and move away from simply actuarial work. So far I’m following the second route and enjoying it. As part of the Royal Liver management team I am acquiring a boarder knowledge of other departments and general operations which is very enjoyable. I wouldn’t rule out a return to the actuarial route at some stage but my priority for the moment is to get more general management experience.

Is there anyone in particular you admire in your industry? Lots of people! I’ve worked for and with some great people both in Irish Life and Royal Liver. Shay Browne who was my first boss taught me a huge amount and both Aidan Holton and Bill Hannan always struck me as impressive. I’ve got to admire our new chief executive in Royal Liver, Steve Burnett, who has made huge changes since he joined two years ago. Finally I really admire people who have the guts to take a risk and do something different with their qualification. Colm Fagan is an example of an actuary who left his job in a life company to set his own consultancy ‘Life Strategies’ which has proved a phenomenal success.

What advice would you give to others who might like a career in actuary? There’s a number of different ways of entering the profession and it’s important to talk to people and research the various alternatives. There’s no doubt that choosing a degree that receives exemptions from some of the actuarial exams speeds up what can be a long slow process. Everyone who wants to be an actuary needs to be prepared to put their head down and slog away for a couple of years, which I suppose is the case with a lot of professions nowadays.

In what areas are there the most opportunities in Dublin – domestic insurance business, or ‘IFSC’ type operations? Actuaries work in four main practice areas – life insurance, pensions, general insurance and investment. The majority of Dublin based actuaries specialise in the first two categories and most of those work in the domestic market. However the IFSC is certainly offering employment to more and more actuaries, which is a real plus for the profession, allowing potential entrants a wider choice of options.

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