Work. Stop. Restart.

An (unfinished) story of getting back to work Priya Rohatgi

Photo: Shuttershock/KieferPix

I am a Society of Actuaries (SOA)-certified life actuary living in New York City. As a consultant, I worked on audits, cross-border merger and acquisition (M&A) transactions, and valuations for clients that encompassed insurers, reinsurers, investment banks and hedge funds. Despite the demanding schedule, I enjoyed it immensely and at the time did not imagine that one day I’d stay at home and not look for work. But life happened, and my family grew. And after a year-and-a-half, a corporate restructuring nudged me to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.

Slowing down allowed me to consciously reprioritize my young (and growing) family over returning to work, and I decided to stay the course over the next several years. Our extended families were a trans-Atlantic flight away, and as newly minted parents, my partner and I found ourselves scrambling to figure out everything—mostly in real-time! We welcomed our second child two years later, and even though I wasn’t working, I felt like I was clocking two shifts.

Fast-forward and my kids are now in first and fourth grade. They both are (unnervingly) comfortable with Zoom in this pandemic era and need me less and less. I have enjoyed my time with them and am happy I was able to go the extra mile. However, as time has worn on, the part of me that thrived in the high-octane work environment has been gnawing at me, and I find myself thinking about going back to work.

Two Things Held Me Back

First, I was not sure that I wanted to pick up linearly from where I left off. Over the years, I have read about climate change and watched with concern as corroborating evidence arrived at an accelerating pace. I believe it is the existential crisis unfolding in real-time that will impact us and future generations. I want to be engaged and invested in something with a larger sense of purpose that speaks to my values and objectives.

Next, I had pangs of self-doubt about my ability to find my stride again—especially in our profession, which tends to be highly technical, data-driven and expects us to be abreast of the latest industry developments. Though I have experience in many facets of the industry, I have limited exposure to property and casualty (P&C) insurance.

Reflection Provided Comfort

With no previous experience in child-rearing, first-time moms are instantly put in charge of a life without any manual or simulation, and success is generally attributed to a universal “maternal” instinct. In reality, we are far from automatons that receive instructions from a mystical inner instinct. The motivation may be nature, but mostly everything else is nurture—learned by researching, trial and (lots of) errors. Juggling multiple schedules and calendars makes us ace multitaskers and experts in time management. Organizing events at school and volunteering on different committees were new skills, too–but for the most part, we do fine.

These accomplishments may be underappreciated, but motherhood has been by far my most challenging “job,” and I am pleased with how I have discharged my duties thus far. I did not need external validation, but rather I needed to communicate that my alternate vocation taught me many useful life skills.

A Support Network Is Critical

The importance of staying and getting in touch with people in your network cannot be overstated. People who have been in similar situations or those working in the area that is of interest to you are invaluable resources and sounding boards.

I was fortunate to have forged lasting relationships that outlived my tenure at work, and I was able to hear their points of view on hot-button issues and the evolving tools at work. Feedback from my network reinforced my concerns on climate change and its impact on our profession.

Since 2018, I have been on the SOA Catastrophe & Climate Strategic Research Program Steering Committee and involved with various research projects, including the ongoing environmental risk paper series as the chairperson of the Project Oversight Group. In addition, for 2021, I am working as the research consultant for The Actuary.

The volume and velocity of data is increasing rapidly, and the trend is expected to accelerate in a world mapped and measured in real-time by ubiquitous sensors enabled by always-on broadband. This also has augmented, and in some cases supplanted, traditional methods of underwriting risk and created a new class of InsurTech firms. The traditional silos/labels like data scientist and actuary seem to be breaking down, and I feel a multidisciplinary mindset is the best way to future-proof our careers.

I formulated a plan by whittling down the scope of the toolkit needed to succeed in this environment to a few critical skills that lay a solid foundation for analyzing big data and leveraging machine learning. Specifically, I have been pursuing courses on data visualization, SQL and Python.

The Industry Could Do More to Reengage Returning Actuaries

In my experience, “returnship” programs for actuaries are still few and far between. Because of the lack of a structured approach, the process is fraught with a lot of anxiety, guesswork and most consequentially, luck.

A returnship program, typically structured as an actuarial development program, is more inclusive and secures access to a talent pool that is often overlooked. It provides an opportunity to find the right fit to teams over a “long-form interview” like rotational engagements.

The typical career trajectory moves linearly, and the incentive to switch out of one’s area of expertise decreases over time. On the other hand, returning actuaries have the opportunity to reexamine their interests, and the opportunity cost of realignment is as low as it will ever be. This dynamic makes it easier to recruit highly motivated mid-career actuaries and potentially bolster cross-disciplinary experience in teams.

The Road Ahead

My journey is still a work-in-progress—my search for a permanent position was on hiatus in 2020. I am not sure if the ideal role fits into the neat boundaries of life and P&C insurance. The more I learn about climate change risks, the more concerned I am about the interconnectedness and spill-over effects of those risks.

I am interested in integrating climate risks and taking a more comprehensive systemic approach to resolving their impact. In the interim, I count my blessings and continue to march on, intent on enjoying the journey and the opportunity for advancing my skills and myself, instead of worrying about the steps to my destination.

Priya Rohatgi, ASA, is a member of the SOA Catastrophe & Climate Strategic Research Program Steering Committee and a research consultant for The Actuary.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.