October 2018

Distinguished Academic Actuaries Interview Series: John McCutcheon

Tell us about your background, how did you enter the actuarial profession?

I was born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city (but not its capital). At secondary school (in the 1950s) I spent much time studying classics (Latin and ancient Greek) and mathematics. At that time it was unusual for a pupil at school in Scotland to go to university in England, and even rarer for a Scottish pupil to go directly to "Oxbridge" (i.e., Oxford or Cambridge). Since my school (Glasgow Academy) was one of the very few in Scotland which prepared a small number of pupils each year for Oxbridge, I decided to attempt the Cambridge competitive entrance scholarship examinations in mathematics. I was awarded an "exhibition" (the lowest level of entrance award) by St John's College, and became an undergraduate there in October 1959. (Fortunately, because of my school studies, I had achieved the qualification in Latin which at that time was required for entry to Cambridge!)

I was pleased to be classed as a wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos and to be elected a scholar by my college.

As an undergraduate I had initially no clear idea of the career I wished to follow. By the start of my final year, however, I had decided to become either a lawyer or an actuary. A legal career looked the more likely, but in the spring of 1962 I was introduced to John Young, a distinguished Scottish actuary (and a future President of the Faculty of Actuaries in Scotland). I was, I admit, sceptical—but in the space of only thirty or forty minutes the enthusiasm with which Mr. Young described the role of the actuary dispelled my doubts completely. I still remember, among other things, how he assured me that I would find the work not only intellectually satisfying, but also "exciting" and "challenging." How right he was!

So I bought a bowler hat and joined the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society, a long-established mutual life company based in Glasgow. At the same time I became a student of the Faculty of Actuaries.

At Scottish Amicable I had the huge good fortune to have as my first boss Bill Lundie, whose concern for the wellbeing of his actuarial students was legendary. I shall always remember his personal interest in my progress as a student and the considerable trouble he took to ensure that, as far as possible, at all times the work which I did in the office was closely related to the subjects I was studying for the Faculty's examinations. I wonder how many of today's employers would be so understanding.

Did you work in the insurance industry before entering academia? If yes, what prompted you to move into academia?

On becoming a fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries in 1965 I decided to leave the world of life insurance and become a consultant. At that time consulting actuaries were very rare indeed in the U.K.—perhaps fewer than 70 in total—and I was pleased to join Duncan C. Fraser & Co. in Liverpool, where I encountered a wide range of interesting work.

Although I greatly enjoyed my work as a consultant, I remained vaguely attracted by the idea of an academic career. I was curious, too, to discover whether or not I had the ability to do research in pure mathematics. With this in mind I abandoned actuarial pastures, hung up my bowler hat, and obtained a very junior appointment in the Department of Pure Mathematics at the University of Liverpool. There I taught mathematics—initially to students of physics —while I concentrated on research. After three years, by which time I had several interesting results in algebra (solvable groups) under my belt, I was promoted and allowed to lecture to students studying for an honors degree in mathematics. I felt that I had earned my spurs!

I realized that I was likely to enjoy a career in academia, but I did not wish to spend the rest of my career in the rather arcane fields of pure mathematics. So I looked for academic opportunities in North America to carry out research and teach actuarial mathematics.

I sought guidance from Andrew Webster, a fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries and a distinguished past president of the Society of Actuaries. Mr Webster could not have been more helpful or encouraging and his advice led to my accepting an appointment as associate professor in the University of Manitoba under Ernie Vogt.

At that time (1970) the U.K. had no university department that specialized in actuarial mathematics, but, while I was in Manitoba, Heriot-Watt University decided to set up such a department—the first of its kind in the U.K. This led to me returning to Scotland as a senior lecturer in 1972. I was promoted to professor three years later.

What challenges did you encounter upon entering the actuarial profession?

The main challenge was to ensure the efficient management of my time. Working in a life company while studying for professional examinations required a high degree of self-discipline—much greater than when I had been an undergraduate. As a consultant, too, I could never forget that deadlines were important for my clients.

Who was an influential person in your professional life and why?

In my presidential address to the Faculty of Actuaries, I alluded to one of the great strengths of our profession—the remarkable extent to which its members are prepared, regardless of personal inconvenience or commercial pressures, to trouble themselves to give assistance to a brother or sister actuary. Since I have had more than my fair share of such help, I hope that you will allow me to mention briefly several people to whom I feel especially indebted.

Among North American actuaries, Cecil Nesbitt was helpful and encouraging at the start of my career. In the early 1990s I gained much from my contacts with Walt Rugland, who was far-seeing and invariably supportive. I have benefited, too, from the friendship of Phelim Boyle.

I have to thank Jimmy Gray for giving me my first job as an "academic actuary" in the U.K. and David Wilkie for innumerable interesting research discussions over many years. I am very conscious, too, of my indebtedness to Douglas McKinnon, who—as a senior member of the business community in Scotland—went out of his way to ensure that actuaries in academia were always well supported by their colleagues in the business world.

What is your personal philosophy with regards to teaching and/or research?

I believe that, provided there is no ethical objection to a proposed piece of research, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a laudable aim in any civilized society. I strongly deprecate those who criticize a piece of research solely on the grounds that it has no obvious immediate application. In any event, one can never be sure that such work will not in due course have an important practical application.

To illustrate this point, consider Marian Rejewski and his fellow undergraduates at the University of Poznań in the 1920s. Within a few years these brilliant young Poles used their knowledge of group theory to break the German Enigma codes and lay the foundations for work of critical importance to the allies in the Second World War. How fortunate it was that those students had paid such close attention to their first studies in abstract algebra!

This episode in Polish history is now well known. It is, however, less commonly appreciated that by returning to Poland in 1930 and becoming leader of the code-breakers, Rejewski was abandoning in midstream a course in actuarial mathematics at the University of Göttingen. With hindsight we must be grateful that this brilliant young mathematician forsook an actuarial career.

If you are paid to teach and your students do not understand your lectures, then in my view you are not doing your job properly. I always told my students that, if they did not follow what I was saying, they should politely ask me to go over the material again. (I emphasised the "politely"!) I was always encouraged by such requests and very pleased to respond positively to them.

Thinking back on your career, what are your biggest accomplishments? Any disappointments? Any memories or moments that stand out above the rest?

I think it fair to say that when I qualified (in 1965) the mathematical knowledge of actuaries in the U.K. was relatively low—certainly, for example, well below that of their colleagues in continental Europe. I am pleased to have played a very small part in raising our mathematical standards. Without doubt this has enabled the profession to expand greatly the areas in which its expertise is relevant and highly valued today.

In 1993 I had the pleasure of welcoming the participants in the 24th ASTIN Colloquium, by coincidence held in my old college in Cambridge. The official languages at the Colloquium were English and French, which I had spoken reasonably well as a youngster. Over the years, however, my linguistic skills had deteriorated considerably, and I was a shade apprehensive about greeting the delegates in both languages. I was pleased to do so without too much difficulty, and I retain happy memories of the occasion.

Later that year I had the privilege of addressing the annual meeting of the Society of Actuaries in New York. Fortunately I did not realize how large the audience was likely to be. Otherwise I would have been terrified! On that occasion I was pleased to renew contact with two of the delegates, who had been students of mine in Manitoba more than twenty years previously.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I am not the most practical of people. I can just about repair a puncture on my bicycle—although on occasions even that defeats me—but for minor repairs in our house it is my wife, Jean, who wields the screwdriver, spanner, hammer, or hacksaw. Fortunately, however, I have no trouble with a corkscrew.

How do you see the future of actuarial science in your country?

Optimistically. Nowadays there is a greater awareness of our technical skills and an increasing number of areas where they are seen as relevant. At the same time, in today’s highly-competitive world the profession cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

What would you tell or advise someone considering entering the actuarial profession?

The mathematical foundations of actuarial science ensure that our profession is relatively small, highly regarded, and unusually international.

Becoming an actuary requires a lot of hard work. If, however, you are prepared to make the effort, you will certainly have an enjoyable and extremely interesting career.

As you know, actuarial education has become mainstream and is taught in many universities worldwide. As you reflect on your career, are there any closing comments (advice) that you may want to pass on to current (especially younger) actuarial science faculty at large?

Contributing to the education of the next generation of actuaries is certainly a privilege.

Never forget that actuaries have to work in the "real" world. Try, if possible, to develop relationships with members of the profession in the business community.

In my opinion the most satisfying academic lifestyles are well balanced between teaching and research.

John Mc Cutcheon John J. McCutcheon, CBE, FRSE, is emeritus professor of actuarial studies in the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at Heriot-Watt University.