Spitballing EA career ideas

November 2014

The standard way of thinking about using one’s career for effective altruism focuses a lot on narrowing down what fields you’re interested in. For instance, 80,000 Hours has a list of just four “top careers” and ten or so other second- or third-tier options.

Thinking about specific fields is important, because some fields do contain more high-impact opportunities than others. But another important piece is the variation you’ll see in the best opportunities available within each field. Factors of personal fit also mean that some people might not be well-suited to a lot of the current “EA-approved” careers.

Because of this, I think it would be interesting to see some wider-ranging career thinking, considering more possible fields and more different types of skillsets. So I’ve made a list of as many jobs as I could think of that sound potentially interesting from an EA perspective.

I don’t think all of these jobs necessarily contain high-impact opportunities, and probably most high-impact opportunities lie outside the fields on this list–my only goal is to help get people started thinking more broadly and creatively about their altruistic impact.

Thanks to Ruthie for suggesting many of these and reading a draft of this post.

Contents

Interesting skillsets

Lots of jobs seem worth exploring purely because they build interesting skills that are very different from the current demographics of the EA movement. This has a ton of benefits: it makes the movement more robust, adds diversity of thought and of capability, and set a good role model for prospective new aspiring EAs who aren’t cut from the software-engineer/philosopher cloth. (Many of these apply to some extent to jobs in other categories as well, but especially strongly to jobs in this category.)

Product management

At tech companies, product managers are responsible for coordinating engineering efforts on a product–making sure that the engineers respond to what users want, that they work on important features, that everyone is properly coordinated, etc. It’s not necessarily a technical position, and it involves a lot of interesting work.

Event organizing

The fact that I currently have any authority on the subject of organizing EA events should be enough to justify the inclusion of this skillset.

Recruiting

A good recruiter’s job is basically to build strong networks of awesome people. Given the current insularity and mediocre networking abilities of the EA movement (and most groups of people in general), it seems like an incredibly underrated skillset.

Sales

One of the biggest cheap wins that Harvard Effective Altruism ever got was when I read something Nick Beckstead wrote about doing sales and invented a new Giving Game pitch based on it. You can read about it here–it practically quadrupled the number of email-list signups we got. The point is, HEA members had trouble even with basic sales moves like “don’t be super awkward about it,” and upping our game there was incredibly helpful.

Marketing

I know of one marketer who hangs around the EA movement. He has one of the more interesting EA blogs. He probably has a lot of other interesting things to say, but I don’t really know because I have no idea how marketing works. I feel like this is probably true of a lot of this post’s audience.

Promoting

As a promoter, you basically get paid to make places look like attractive places to be. That seems like a pretty useful/generally cool skill. For instance, the guy who runs charity: water was originally a club promoter.

Influencing money

It’s pretty obvious that jobs where one can influence a lot of money have the potential to do a lot of good.

Venture capital

A lot of venture capital seems to be deployed towards pretty dumb things and in a pretty dumb way. If you can shift some capital towards investments that are more likely to have a good impact on the world, you could potentially be responsible for a huge amount of impact. A thought leader in venture capital could do even more good by influencing what kind of companies people start even without investing in them.

I haven’t worked very closely with VCs, so I’m not sure how easy it is to become influential in the field–my impression is that since it’s prestigious there are a lot of associates who basically don’t have any input on investment decisions and just do a lot of grunt work. So it may be hard to break in. That said, it seems worth thinking about.

Grantmaking

A GiveWell conversation had this to observe about NIH grants:

Grant reviewers at NIH tend to fund similar projects year after year, and NIH’s grant system is often biased toward those researchers who have become savvy about applying for funding through NIH. Moreover, since 1991, NIH’s grant applications no longer require information about researchers’ existing resources. Previously, it was possible to evaluate researchers’ productivity as a factor of their funding, but now the researchers with the most existing funding appear to be the most productive and so are more likely to receive additional funding. A better mechanism is needed to remove biases in the grant system and reduce the size of some grants. A start has been made: a few NIH agencies, such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), require an extra review when researchers being recommended for more funding already receive more than $1M a year from NIH.

source

Wealth management

Wealth management seems to have a similar problem to venture capital where a lot of the money is pretty dumb. (I’m basing this on what I hear from Theorem’s sales team talking to wealth managers.)

The bad news is that this means that being smart probably isn’t a big competitive edge. The good news is that if you do manage to compete successfully on whatever dimensions wealth managers compete on (connections? fancy clothes?), you can probably do much more interesting things with the money than other people do.

Influencing politics

Public policy is also a subject of some EA exploration, but I think people aren’t aware of many careers outside elected party politics which made it onto 80k’s website. But policy is another great tool of leverage. This area seems under-explored compared to influencing money, probably again due to demographics of the EA movement.

Lobbying

Lawrence Lessig on lobbying:

The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway.

Sign me up!

Regulation

Elected party politics is one way to get a lot of leverage, but non-elected officials also have considerable power to do altruistic good. This seems especially important in light of the huge problems with regulatory capture in many agencies; it seems likely that you could do a lot of good simply by being a regulator who is more resistant to capture than most.

Think-tank work

Lots of think tanks publish research that ends up being used in policy reform. My impression from this GiveWell conversation with Steve Teles is that think tanks’ research on any particular problem may be very effectiveness-driven, they don’t often explicitly seek out high-leverage areas to do research in, so some EA-style priority-setting could be quite influential.

Influencing people

People are another leverage point that seems relatively neglected by the current EA movement compared to money or even policy influence. Here are some ideas in that department.

Mainstream career advising

I think that 80,000 Hours wants to get their career counselors into colleges at some point, but you don’t have to wait for them to do this! Most colleges already have career-advising offices that might benefit from the EA perspective. (Caveat: I’m not sure how much they give students substantial career advice compared to, e.g., resume proofreading; you’d obviously want to look for positions that would be heavy on the former and light on the latter.)

Life coaching

My impression is that many people get interested in the effective altruism movement for similar reasons that people look for life coaching (wanting a sense of purpose/goals/motivation). So as a life coach you might have the chance to pique a lot of people’s interest in effective altruism.

Religious/pseudo-religious leadership

I suspect this is underrated right now because the EA community is fairly atheist-heavy, but Harvard Effective Altruism has always gotten a great response to EA ideas from religious service groups. Even for atheists you could become a pseudo-religious leader like Greg Epstein. Again, this is a natural place that could benefit from the EA perspective since people are already looking for ways to improve the world.

Teaching

Not very many teachers end up being huge influences on their students down the road, but the ones that do seem to influence lots of their students very strongly. Being this kind of teacher could result in a lot of kids being more interested in improving the world than they otherwise would be.

Running a summer camp (or other extracurricular)

When I was young I was pretty strongly influenced by the summer camps I went to. This seems a lot like teaching, except lower-commitment and with more influence relative to the amount of time you spend doing it.

Writing

There are a number of examples here already: Peter Singer, Larissa MacFarquhar, Will MacAskill, Scott Alexander. Obviously it’s very tough to be as influential as these folks, but the payoff is enormous. I know plenty of people who have gotten interested in effective altruism through essays like Scott’s Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others…. In fact, I even know of a few people who got interested through my own blog–so there may be good payoffs from writing even as a side thing and even if you’re nowhere near the level of Scott Alexander.

Generic leverage

There are a bunch of other things I thought of that give you a lot of altruistic leverage without fitting into one of the above categories. So, rounding out the list:

Developing-world entrepreneurship

It’s been estimated that American entrepreneurs capture on the order of 1% of the value they create. In the developing world, a dollar of social value is worth about 100 times as much as in the US (for instance, in the developing world a good program can achieve $5,000 per life saved, whereas in the US $500,000 per life saved would be extraordinary). A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on these ratios suggests that a startup in the US would have to be worth about 50 times as much to have the same impact as one in the developing world. This calculation is obviously not definitive, but it’s suggestive that the idea of developing-world entrepreneurship has potential.

Data science

I stole this one wholesale from Bayes Impact. Basically, it seems like there are a lot of places where data science has the potential to do a lot of good but those improvements are hard to capture (government and healthcare leap out). Hence a motivated altruist could make a lot of improvements.

Consulting for nonprofits

GiveWell has observed that many nonprofits don’t keep careful enough track of the results of their programs to even know how well they’re doing. And even for charities that do collect data, they can interpret the results in a bogus way. Even if a charity’s intervention isn’t effective enough to compete with GiveWell’s top charities, if you can make it more effective you can do a lot of good, especially if the charity is large.

Technology in academia

Hat tip to Dario Amodei for this one. My impression from talking to academics in e.g. biology is that this area is seriously under-resourced. Lots of research is held back by shoddy software but there aren’t many people with the skills to fix it, and it’s not sexy enough to attract the attention of many funders.

Generally solid jobs

There are a number of jobs that aren’t as “sexy” as typical EA picks (that is, they’re not incredibly strong on any one dimension), but are generally solid, pay fairly well, aren’t super competitive or difficult to break into, and have fairly robust demand.

I’m going off of fairly weak impressions when I list these, so I’m just going to list them instead of writing paragraphs. But I think this category is worthy of a lot more consideration than it gets right now.


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Ritu

Great post!

I myself study Biomedical Sciences. For anyone interested in that field, the following interview might be interesting:

https://80000hours.org/2012/12/how-to-choose-a-research-topic-an-interview-with-anders-sandberg/

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Julia

I’m not sure elder care belongs on that last list because of the low pay. E.g. home health aides and nursing home workers make around $24k/year. Lots of demand, though.

http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes311011.htm

http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nursing-assistants.htm

Linch

I agree with the point about elder care. Nursing seems to dominate it as a profession, and if you can’t/won’t afford a bachelor’s degree, being a general Nursing Assistant pays a bit more than elder care.

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