Advice for actuaries of the future

Prof Dickson, Chair of Actuarial Studies and Head of the Department of Economics, is set to retire after 26 years with the Faculty. Here, he shares his wisdom and plans for the future.

In 1993, Professor David Dickson started working at the University of Melbourne as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics' Centre for Actuarial Studies. Over the course of his time at the University, he became Chair of Actuarial Studies and Head of the Department of Economics. Last week we celebrated his upcoming retirement at the Centre for Actuarial Studies Reunion.

What led you into actuarial studies? Did you always know you would become an academic?

I was good at maths in school, but I didn't know of an actuarial career. My mother had worked in an insurance company, so when this was mentioned at a careers evening, she had some idea of what it was.

I always thought I would be at University for three years and then I'd get a job and make lots of money. But at the end of my first degree I decided to do a PhD. Even when I finished that, I didn't really think of an academic career, because at that stage, I was in the UK and there were only two academic programs in the UK. So, it was a small number of staff, and an even smaller number of openings. So, my first job was not an academic job, and it was only after I did that for a couple of years that an opening arose, and my PhD supervisor contacted me and asked if I was interested.

How has the landscape of actuarial studies changed since you started?

When I came to Melbourne in 1993, only the University of Melbourne and Macquarie University had actuarial programs with staff. Now, there are seven programs in Australia.

In terms of students, the first class I taught, a third-year class, had less than 15 students. This year, my third-year class had about 120 students. There's also been a huge influx of international students, mainly Chinese students. For a long time, the international students were mostly from Malaysia. In China, insurance companies have expanded greatly, and the number of policyholders has skyrocketed over last 20 years.

What advice would you have for someone considering studying actuarial studies?

You must be prepared to work hard. Even after you graduate there are still exams that you must do if you want to obtain a Fellowship, which is the highest level of qualification.

In terms of careers, one thing I would say to any student is, just get into the job market. Your first job will certainly not be your last. I think all the students have this idea that they want to be a consultant, or they want to work in general insurance, or whatever, but the reality is that the job market is very competitive. What employers seem to crave is experience, so you've got to get experience. If you want to work in general insurance, say, your first job doesn't need to be in general insurance and if you ended up getting a job in a bank, that wouldn’t hinder you from interviewing for a very different role two or three years in the future.

What do you see as the next major challenge for actuarial jobs in the future?

If you're asking people who are within the profession, they would definitely say data science. But you're asking me, and I don't necessarily agree with that. I don't see data science as being something that's uniquely actuarial. I think the bigger challenge that's more actuarial is people getting older. I had to deal with this in a personal way about four years ago when my mother went into a care home, and it was a huge eye opener. How do you finance a situation like that? There’s a lot of scope for actuaries to develop care products for an ageing population.

What’s next for you?

More golf, longer lunches, more travel. Going forward, I have an Emeritus appointment, but I haven't really decided how much academic work I might do next year. One thing that I am open to is teaching overseas. You don't know what will come along, but right now I feel that I want much more time for myself.