I've gotten a few emails over the last couple of weeks asking for advice on whether an actuarial career or career in data analytics would be a better career path/better course of study. My short answer, and probably an answer no one wants to hear - you can't go wrong with either. My detailed answer is below if you keep reading!
Who are you? What do you enjoy?
Well, guess what? If you like problem solving and critical thinking - you can't go wrong with either! Similarly, if you like coding and learning how to develop solutions using code, again, either choice would be great! Problem solving and critical thinking is part of the day-to-day job responsibilities whether you are an analytics professional or actuarial professional and there is quite a bit of overlap in the technical skills you'll need to have.
If taking exams isn't your strong suit, it might be worth reconsidering the actuarial career path. Exams are a HUGE part of being an actuary. They say you have to study 100 hours for each hour of the exam. So that's easily at least 300 hours per exam minimum (more in my personal experience). Are you going to have the discipline to follow a rigid study schedule in order to get through 10 exams (assuming the FCAS track)? If you end up failing an exam, will you be able to continue to stay motivated in order to pass the next exams?
If having letters after your name from an established, world renowned organization is important to you, then following the actuarial career path may be a good fit for you. This also helps set you apart from many other non-credentialed professionals. I do have to say, the feeling of seeing that "PASS" message on my three CBT exams was probably one of the best feelings I've ever had. To work so hard to achieve something and get the results you're looking for is incredible.
A career in analytics will allow you to do similar work as an actuary, without the added stress of all of the studying. Sure, you won't get nice bonuses and raises for each exam you pass, but if you start your career at a great company and do well, you should be just as fine. Following a career in analytics may also be good if you enjoy variety in the work you do and don't want to limit yourself to a specific industry. In many cases, as an actuary you will mainly be working in the insurance industry - there are some positions out there outside of insurance, but they aren't as common. If you want to be doing cool analytics or models for a big name, like Google, Coca Cola, Netflix, or NBC, analytics would be the way to go.
Student Loans Won't Pay Themselves
Student loans won't pay themselves.. isn't that the truth?!? Between student loans and the cost of living in some major cities, it's understandable why salary would also be a key component of this decision. I just grabbed a quick comparison from glassdoor below, but I highly encourage you to do your own research based on some of the entry level positions you're seeing in your area. You may also want to throw data scientist into the mix if that's the path you're looking to pursue.
In my opinion, I wouldn't be too concerned with the salaries (or job security for that matter) for either analytics or actuarial roles since they're pretty similar. I definitely wouldn't allow that to be a deciding factor in your career choice, but it is something to be aware of as you are choosing your line of work. Given the nature of actuarial and analytics work, there will continue to be a demand over the coming years. If you're worried about future job security, then I would be careful to choose a solid company and become an expert in your field sooner rather than later.
I Still Can't Choose - Help!
This may not be true for everyone, but the longer you are out of school/university, the more you lose in terms of your study habits and routines, making it more difficult to get back into the swing of things. If you start studying (and passing!) actuarial exams during college, you'll be off to a really great start and have a solid foundation as you continue through the exam track as you're working full-time.
I've always had so many positive things to say to career changers interested in pursuing an actuarial career later on in their life, but the truth is it is HARD. It's definitely possible and there are a lot of successful career changers who have gotten great jobs in the field, but it's much easier to secure a role earlier on in your career.
To pursue a career in analytics after trying out the actuarial path will be a lot easier since there are so many analytics careers out there and a lot of the work you do as an actuary - especially coding in Python, SAS, R, etc. - will be 100% relevant to many analytics jobs out there. It will always be more challenging to flip from analytics to actuarial due to the large number of qualified actuarial candidates at the earlier stages of the career.