What I learned at University – How to get a scholarship

It was early 1987 and I was thinking of going back to university after two years working on farms, in bars, wrapping surf skis, as a roof tiler and getting spat out of a Law degree. My confidence was low – I was unemployed and my previous good job was picking up glasses in a bar, a job I got more for looks than any intellectual ability. It didn’t hurt that my Mum ran the cleaning staff of the hotel and asked the bar manager to hire me.

The degree I was considering was in Actuarial Studies. Later I heard that it was like accounting but without the personality, or maybe for accountants who couldn’t hack the pace. I had read an article about it in the Sydney Morning Herald and it looked like it combined mathematics and business and it was a long way from Law. The trouble was I didn’t know anything about what actuaries did apart from the little I read in the article. But in the text was the name of a company that had actuaries – Towers, Perrin, Forster and Crosby, or TPF&C.

I called them up and asked to speak to one of their actuaries. The lady who answered the phone asked why I would want to do that, and I told her I was curious about the field and wanted to learn more. She thought it over, put me on hold then patched me through to a male voice who asked if I could come in to the office and talk to him. Sure, I said, why not?

I rode my motorbike in to downtown Sydney and parked in front. That’s one of the good things about motorcycles – you can park pretty much anywhere. If you can’t find a spot on the road you can park on the sidewalk. I scanned for the company name on the building directory and caught the elevator up. It was a short building among taller ones, just a few stories of people in suits. The receptionist showed me to the waiting room of a plush office, where I waited for the actuary.

I had never been in a business-district office in the hours of daylight before so I was taking it all in. I had snuck into the offices of Vichy (cosmetics) and Shell (oil) after hours to play Trek on their mini-computers back when we lived in London and my Dad programmed RPG-II, but this place was nicer than the rooms they gave the programmers in those offices. There were wood panels on the wall and plants in the corners. There was a water machine and a coffee machine with its cup paraphernalia. This wasn’t the shared factory coffee spot I had seen in previous jobs, with instant coffee scattered over the table, but a machine just for this single office dweller and any lucky guests. There were china cups and steel teaspoons. It made a change from polystyrene and plastic.

The man came out and shook my hand. He was one of the older men in the office, well dressed, and he showed me in to the lovely inner office. The desk was expensive and the office had a view. I put my bike helmet on his desk but he indicated that I should sit at the conference table nearby. It was a big office. I figured he was borrowing from someone so we could talk without interruptions. He called for someone to bring us in some coffee and an assistant came in with the nice cups and spoons.

We chatted away. I did my usual pain-in-the-arse trick of asking endless questions, trying to get into the depths of what it was that he actually did in the hours of his day, where the challenge was, what he was looking at doing in the future. He told me about many interesting things that he had done in the past but that he wasn’t doing much of that any more, that his job had changed a lot. I remember wondering what in the hell had happened to him that he stopped doing all these fun things? Was he assigned to recruitment? I looked into his eyes and asked him if he enjoyed his job. Did he get the things he needed by working here. Was he happy with his decision to join the company. Yes, he said, this was a great place to work. Sitting in the borrowed office, I believed him.

He spoke about how they had ‘cadets’ at Macquarie University, the only place in Sydney that you could study to be an actuary at. I guessed that a cadet was a student that was somehow aligned with TPF&C. It sounding good.

Do the cadets work with you?

Yes, in the summer holidays and after their degree is over.

Does that involve a scholarship?

Why yes. It pays monthly. We have the best scholarship in the industry.

How do I get one?

You apply and come in for an interview, but you’ve had the interview already.

I have? [silence] I can wear shoes other than motorbike boots.

I’m sure you can.

As I left his borrowed office I shook his hand. He smiled and gave me his business card. It was like finding out what Rosebud was. He was the Managing Director and, duh, that was his real office. Of course his job changed – he became the boss and stopped doing all the individual contributor work. I had treated him like one of the peon actuaries.

Shortly after, Macquarie University accepted me to their actuarial studies course and TPF&C gave me their cadetship. There was a drinks gathering for all of TPF&C’s cadets so the new cadets could meet everyone. The other new cadets were two years younger and looked much more clean and eager. They were comparing their high school certificate scores. They asked about mine – I had the lowest by a fair distance. These were the kids who studied very hard all the time rather than the slacker/crammer type of which I was a prime example. The Managing Director was there and the actuaries in the room treated him with the sort of respect that I hadn’t shown him a few weeks earlier.


3 Responses to “What I learned at University – How to get a scholarship”

  1. 1 Carol
    August 28, 2010 at 08:24

    I didn’t know you’d done that before comp sci. I also didn’t know what an actuary was but knew they took maths grads so went for an interview. I almost fell asleep while the guy was explaining the work. I was desperate to find a job but when he finally summed up the actuarial life and said “is that something you think you’d be interested in doing?” I had to say “No, I’m sorry, no.” Total waste of both of our time – I guess I should have tried to find out first what they did, like you!

  2. August 28, 2010 at 14:29

    Hey, I only lasted one summer internship before I quit. You were smart enough to quit before you started!

  3. 3 Deb
    August 29, 2010 at 13:06

    Ahhh, I remember you at this time! I can even picture you in the motorcycle gear! Thank goodness you saw the light and came over to UNSW.

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