False Starts, by Tiffany Eaton

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled. And then it got dark and scary, and I ran back and went down the other one.

I never had to work too hard at my math classes in undergrad, and I took more than I needed for my degree. I enjoyed the people I was with and decided that teaching college math was the thing for me (having already transferred from the School of Education, where I decided teaching high school math was not). When I graduated from undergrad, I was admitted to a graduate program in mathematics at a well-respected school. The program was small, but very warm and welcoming. I made friends and enjoyed the environment. The faculty were friendly, and while I was the only female in my class, there were a handful of others ahead of me that I could look up to.

Fast forward several months, and I was taking my first oral qualifying exam. Leading up to it, classes were more challenging than undergrad, but still mostly fun. My exam, though, was a disaster. Despite having practiced successfully with other graduate students, I froze on the first question, which was really a gimme, a warm-up. It was so bad that I asked to be excused and ran outside to cry to a friend on the phone. I now know that it was anxiety, but after that, I started to really question whether I was cut out for a PhD in math.  I was never really motivated by the research aspect of being a professor at the college level.  I just wanted to teach something more exciting (for me) than Algebra II to a bunch of high schoolers who didn’t want to be there, and in my mind at the time, this was the way to do it.

Our school had an option where you could take a year of leave and return to the program if you wanted to, all financial aid staying intact.  So, I did some exploring, looking into alternative career paths, and I stumbled upon actuarial science as an option.  I ended up getting an internship as an actuary over the summer and enrolled in a master’s program in actuarial science while technically still on leave from my math PhD program.  I figured I could leave the actuarial master’s and go back to math if I wanted, but if it worked out, I would be fine.  It worked out great!  I finished my program in a year and secured a job at a start-up Medicare plan.

Actuarial science was a great fit for me because the environment was dynamic and challenging but also combined some softer, business skills with the analytical ones.  And there were no oral exams.  Lots of written exams, yes. Presentations, yes, but no oral exams.  And I was in an environment where I was the only actuary, so I was respected and looked to as an advisor.  The best part was that I could still teach, which is what I wanted all along.  After I earned my Fellowship in the Society of Actuaries, I taught actuarial students in the graduate program where I earned my degree on the weekends.

After a decade or so of that, I have “retired” to stay home with my family and volunteer in my community, though I taught a little preschool for fun.  I can think of a lot worse jobs than being an actuary, but focusing on my children is what’s right for me at this point.  (Also, it’s ok to stay home with your kids, if you can, but that’s another topic.)  Looking to my next phase of life, I am still figuring out “what I want to be when I grow up”, and I still haven’t ruled out a PhD in something else.

Looking forward has also made me think back more on my decision to leave academia in the first place. I used to feel like a failure and still sometimes wish I could throw that PhD behind my name, but mostly I know that I did what was right for me, and I now have seven letters behind my name (FSA, MAAA).

I could have stayed and struggled and probably ultimately graduated, but I suspect I would have ended up in a place where I constantly faced doubt and inadequacy.  Instead, I took the skills and way of thinking that led me to academia in the first place and applied them in a totally different environment where my efforts directly contributed to improving lives and were rewarded handsomely without me having to constantly question if I was in the right place.  Even though I definitely doubted myself for a while (see also: anxiety), I eventually came to be respected as an expert in what I did and was sought after for my skills and opinions.

My journey has taught me a few other things, too.  Career exploration is hard and not addressed adequately anywhere, in my opinion.  Mental health is important, and even recognizing when you need help is hard.  I encourage anyone with doubts about whether they’re on the right path to first make sure their mental health is addressed and then explore a bit more.  It’s definitely possible that there are careers out there that you have never even heard of, particularly if you’ve been headed in one direction for a long time.

Tiffany Eaton is a stay-at-home mom. In her past life, she was a health actuary for a small Medicare Advantage Special Needs Plan. As the plan’s sole actuary, she worked across cross-functional teams to communicate technical ideas to senior management and oversaw forecasting, reserving and analytics. Having traded Excel models for Lego models, she now spends her time volunteering in her community, sewing, and planning science experiments as well as outlandish birthday parties for her two kids. 

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