ASU's 1st actuarial science grad lands job as analyst
Jeff Durham has always liked math: “Math is something I’ve always enjoyed — the way it makes you think about a problem.”
Durham is the first to earn an actuarial science degree from Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. He also received a concurrent bachelor’s degree in economics from the W. P. Carey School of Business. This combination of business and math skills helped him land his first job in the industry, as an actuarial analyst with Nautilus Insurance in Scottsdale.
“Many candidates have the math and business aptitude, but Jeff’s attitude is what stood out,” said Brent Carr, vice president of actuarial and data analytics for Nautilus Insurance. The company specializes in providing commercial property and casualty insurance within the excess and surplus lines industry.
“Jeff came across as a very genuine person – confident yet humble,” Carr said.
The actuarial science degree at ASU is one of the only offered in the Intermountain West. Although many people don’t know what an actuary is, a recent survey by CareerCast ranks it as the best job in the United States because of its high pay, low stress, robust hiring outlook and healthy work environment. Actuaries put a financial value on risk, such as the chances of a hurricane destroying a home or the long-term liabilities of a pension system.
While a student at ASU, Durham was president of the Actuary Club, which offers many opportunities for students.
“The Actuary Club at ASU allows you to meet professionals, shake hands, ask questions and engage them,” he said.
He also credits a part-time job for helping to hone his people and leadership skills: “Working in restaurants gives you a good background in connecting with people on the spot.”
A line on Durham’s resume garnered some attention from Carr and his fellow interviewers: "Maximized efficiency to increase sales while maintaining high level of service." Carr was impressed with this creative way to phrase a waiter job when applying for an actuarial position.
“Jeff probably doesn’t know this, but we went through over 50 applicants for this position,” Carr explained. “There are three elements we look for: Can do, will do, and will fit. Can do is: Does the applicant have the intellectual horsepower to get the job done? Will do is: Do they have the ambition, are they a go-getter? And will fit is: Culturally is this somebody we think we can work with?”
“We want people who are not afraid to speak up, are comfortable in a group environment, and are strong team players. Jeff’s got all that — personality, confidence and charisma,” Carr said.
Jelena Milovanovic, professor of practice and actuarial science program coordinator, knew Durham would quickly land a job in the competitive actuarial field.
“Jeff is not only a diligent student but also a great role model. He passed the first two actuarial exams within a month of each other, setting the bar high for others to follow," she said.
Students must pass a series of professional exams to become credentialed actuaries. While at ASU, Durham passed his financial mathematics and probability actuarial exams. He recently passed his financial derivatives exam with the support of his company.
“It’s awesome. I get paid study time at work. Thursday and Friday after lunch I switch gears and focus on my studying. It’s been extremely helpful,” Durham said. “They pay for the exams, and they give me study materials to use. It takes a lot of the pressure off.”
Carr agrees that this is one way for companies to stay competitive.
“The best employers, like Nautilus, will offer a competitive and financially rewarding study program. It’s unique to the industry,” he said.
In addition to preparing students for exams, ASU’s actuarial science program provides opportunities for students to meet face-to-face with top employers in the industry with events like the annual actuarial career day.
“My advice to students is network, network, network,” Durham explained. “The actuarial career day is a huge opportunity. I attended this year, and it was great to be able to approach the people I had met the year before. It can help you get your foot in the door so much more than listing ‘database skills’ on your resume.”
Nautilus’ Carr agrees: “The actuarial career day in the spring was outstanding, with many qualified applicants. The school put on a very professional event.”
As a new employee in the actuarial profession, Durham had heard he might have to wait as long as six months before he would really start contributing to his company. He was surprised that during his first week on the job, Carr asked him to prepare a rate review exhibit for a client meeting.
“I was pretty excited that my work was already being used. I was happy to contribute and help my teammates out right away,” he said.
Durham said the education he received at ASU helps determine how he thinks about things, and is actually useful.
After a meeting in his first few weeks at Nautilus, Durham came up with the idea of putting together a break-even analysis based on net income.
“And that was a tremendous insight for somebody that’s only been out of school for a month,” explained Carr.
“Nautilus is excited to be able to attract Jeff and build a pipeline with the ASU actuarial science program," Carr added. “It’s a very strong program.”
Durham is excited for his future at Nautilus.
“The work here is not necessarily easy; it’s definitely thought-provoking and requires you to really think about what you’re doing, which is nice because I’ve always been of the mind-set that you should work not necessarily as hard as you can, but as smart as you can,” he said.