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Actuary vs. Accountant: Which Career Is Right for You?

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If you're considering careers in the financial industry because you enjoy working with numbers, performing calculations, and other mathematical problem-solving tasks, two jobs to keep in mind are those of actuary and accountant. While both involve making use of numerical data to help companies make decisions about how to operate, accountants work primarily with financial information whereas actuaries deal mostly with statistical data. Actuaries also work in a more specific capacity within the insurance field, compared to accountants, who may work in any number of industries.

So how do you know whether you should be an actuary or accountant? We've broken down the basic skill sets, job duties, and education required for each below.

What is an Actuary?

An actuary uses statistical data collected in the past to make predictions about the degree of risk for potential insurance claims in the future. This may include scenarios like the likelihood of an individual to make medical claims based on their personal health history or the risk of property loss in a particular geographical region. Based on complex calculations of risk using previous historical data, actuaries estimate possible financial loss for a company in paying out such claims in order to recommend pricing for premiums.

If you like working with large sets of information in order to identify correlations across many different categories, you may want to consider a career as an actuary.

  • Typical Job Responsibilities & Skills Required – Because actuaries need to work with many complex data sets simultaneously, you must be comfortable with databases and statistics software as well as advanced mathematical operations. Actuaries also need to be comfortable communicating findings to supervisors (and potentially larger groups) since their work will be used to ensure profitability and contribute to future financial decisions.

  • Degree Required – If you are considering an actuarial career, you'll need to first obtain a bachelor's degree (preferably in mathematics, actuarial science or statistics). Coursework needs to cover not only math and accounting, but also some aspects of business management.

  • Additional Certifications – To work as an actuary you typically must have passed at least one of the initial exams offered by either the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) or the Society of Actuaries (SOA). The CAS offers certifications for actuaries in the property and casualty field, requiring candidates to pass seven exams for their associate certification. The SOA grants associate certification after five exams for actuaries working in health and life insurance, and related fields. A more advanced fellowship certification is available from both organizations following additional study.

  • Job Outlook – The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a strong 26% growth in the actuarial field from 2012 to 2022, and in 2012, the median annual salary for actuaries in the U.S. was $93,680.1

What is an Accountant?

Accountants may work in a broader capacity than actuaries, helping companies reconcile internal financial data like customer and client transactions, payroll, investments, and other expenses. While accountants and actuaries both help ensure a company's profitability by analyzing complex financial data, accountants work to ensure an accurate picture of the current state of a business, while actuaries use current information to anticipate future risk.

  • Typical Job Responsibilities & Skills Required – Accountants often keep a company's financial records up to date, analyzing costs vs. expenses and making recommendations for future decisions and investments. If you enjoy completing mathematical calculations and get satisfaction about ensuring that everything adds up correctly when put in its proper place, a position as an accountant may be right for you.

  • Degree Required – A bachelor's degree in accounting is typically required for most entry-level accounting positions, though a master's degree is sometimes preferable for upper-level management roles.

  • Additional Certifications – While many accounting jobs require just a bachelor's degree, some require a CPA or CMA certification in order to advance after a few years of entry-level experience.

  • Job Outlook – The number of available accounting positions is expected to grow by 13% from 2012 through 2022, according to the BLS. The median annual wage for accountants in 2012 was listed at $63,550.2

Ready to learn more? Explore accounting degrees at AIU.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Actuaries, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/math/actuaries.htm (visited November 07, 2015).

2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Accountants and Auditors, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm (visited November 07, 2015).

The presence of specific potential jobs on this list does not guarantee availability of career opportunities. All statistics referenced are national historical averages and the figures in your area and at the time of your job search may be different.

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