Training and progression

Professional qualifications: what to expect from your actuarial, insurance, pensions or retail banking career

21 Jun 2023, 15:39

Once you’ve secured a graduate job in financial services, the learning doesn’t stop: your employer may offer you the chance to qualify with a professional body. Find out what it’s really like to study alongside full-time work.


You are not expected to pass each exam the first time around; in fact, most people need multiple attempts.

Graduate roles in areas such as insurance, actuarial, pensions and retail banking often allow you to gain a professional qualification while working. These can open doors to future career opportunities by demonstrating that you have the knowledge and skills to do your job well. Professional qualifications also help to bring all the graduates on a scheme (who may have studied a variety of degree subjects) up to the same level in terms of their technical knowledge. Read on to see what options are available and what the qualifications involve.

Financial services professional bodies | What the qualifications involve | What to consider when comparing employers

Key professional bodies in financial services

Professional qualifications in financial services vary as widely as the range of career paths. The professional body you study with, and whether the qualification is compulsory or optional, depends on the sector you’re working in.

  • Actuarial: qualifying as an associate or fellow with the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) is a prerequisite for actuaries in the UK. It normally takes three to six years to qualify as an associate (the minimum level to become an actuary and use the letters AIA or AFA after your name).
  • Insurance: you may be encouraged to study with a professional body such as the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) to develop your knowledge of the industry. For example, Aviva has been known to offer the CII’s certificate for insurance to those on its global graduate leadership programme, though it is not a compulsory requirement of the programme.
  • Pensions: the Pensions Management Institute (PMI) is the main professional body for pensions employees in the UK and offers a range of qualifications at different levels, but there is not one specific qualification you need to work in this area.
  • Retail banking: no specific qualifications are required but a wide range are available from the Chartered Banker Institute (CBI) and The London Institute of Banking & Finance (LIBF), for example, which may help you to get a good grasp of financial topics. Lloyds Banking Group and RBS have been known to offer a variety of professional qualifications to graduates, depending on the area in which they specialise.

What do financial services professional qualifications involve?

Combining work and study

A certain amount of relevant work experience is often essential to gaining a professional qualification, so graduates normally complete them while in full-time work such as a graduate scheme. All professional qualifications involve some element of study in your own time, although there may also be training provided by your employer or an external organisation.

Fern Lai is an associate consultant at LCP, is currently on its graduate scheme in pensions actuarial and is studying to become a fellow of the IFoA. She told targetjobs: ‘Study is mostly independent. To supplement this I attend tutorials run by a company called ActEd. These are classes of ten or so students from a variety of firms and allow me to discuss the topics face-to-face and talk through any areas that I am finding challenging.’

The topics you’ll cover

Professional qualifications are divided into modules just like many degree courses. Each module carries a certain number of credits and has a recommended number of study hours. Depending on the qualification, you might be given a choice of the modules you take. Topics covered often link to skills used in the workplace rather than being purely theoretical.

‘Many of the mathematical techniques I have studied so far are directly applicable to my day-to-day work,’ says Fern. ‘This will only increase as I move into the specialist and applied exams, where the content is increasingly tailored to your industry of choice.’

Support from your employer

Employers of graduates working towards a professional qualification typically cover costs such as exams and study materials and offer paid study leave on top of annual leave allowance. This could be a number of days per year or a set day each week or month.

‘I get a bank of 40 study days per year, which works out at around one day per week after holidays,’ says Fern. ‘On study days, I do not do my day-to-day job but instead study for the exams, either by attending a tutorial or studying independently at home. Everyone has their own personal approach to studying: usually I start to study on some evenings and weekends from around one month before each exam, but for the rest of the year my weekly study day generally gives me the time I need.’

How you’ll be assessed

‘The exams vary in size and format,’ explains Fern. ‘Most are three-hour written papers, but some incorporate computer programmes such as Excel. There are exam sittings twice a year. Students will typically take two to three exams per sitting to begin with and one to two for the later exam sittings.’

One major difference between professional qualifications and the exams you will have taken at school and university is that you are not expected to pass each exam the first time around; in fact, most people need multiple attempts. How long it takes to qualify depends partly on the number of attempts you require to pass each module. As Fern says: ‘You just need to remember it is a process. Failing a few exams is acceptable and common. Try to appreciate the opportunity to continue learning and improving as part of your job. The qualification is a big commitment, but it is possible to study, work and stay happy!’

Exemptions from exams

Check when you start your qualification whether the degree you’ve studied allows you to be exempt from some exams. This will save you repeating learning and ultimately help you get qualified more quickly. You will need to have studied a course that is accredited by the professional body and possibly also to have taken certain modules and obtained certain grades. Check the relevant professional body’s website for a list of the universities and courses that can make you eligible for exemptions.

Comparing employers with professional qualifications in mind

Professional qualifications are an important factor to consider when choosing where to apply for graduate jobs and during the recruitment process (eg when asking questions at the end of interviews). Make sure you find out:

  • what qualifications are offered in your sector and by each employer, and whether you’ll be given a choice of qualifications
  • what teaching the employer provides and how much studying you’ll be expected to do in your own time
  • whether the employer will pay for your tuition and exams (and check whether you would be required to repay these costs if you left the graduate programme early)
  • whether the employer will cover the cost of study materials and any other expenses
  • how much paid study leave you’ll get per week or year.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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