Common Points of Advice for Students and Early-Career Professionals Interested in Global Catastrophic Risk

by SethBaum22 min read16th Nov 20212 comments

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College adviceResearch methodsSocial scienceGlobal catastrophic riskGlobal Catastrophic Risk InstituteCareer choiceExistential risk
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This is cross-posted from the GCRI website

GCRI runs a recurring advising and collaboration program in which we connect with people at all career points who are interested in getting more involved in global catastrophic risk. Through that program, I have had the privilege of speaking with many people to share my experience in the field and help them find opportunities to advance their careers in global catastrophic risk. It has been an enriching experience, and I thank all of our program participants.

Many of the people in our program are students and early-career professionals. In my conversations with them, several common themes tend to emerge, which is to say that I find myself offering certain recurring points of advice to a wide range of people. This post summarizes these themes for anyone who may benefit from it.

The post covers the following themes:

  • Seek a mix of advice
  • There are many paths to success in global catastrophic risk
  • Get the right balance between specialization and generalization
  • Work across the divide between (A) humanities-social science-policy and (B) engineering-natural science
  • Know your allies
  • Some graduate school options
  • Some fellowship programs
  • Advice for graduate students
  • Professional networking and etiquette

 

Seek a mix of advice

Perhaps the most important advice I can give is to seek advice from a range of different people. What follows below is my own advice from my own particular experience. Other people may reasonably disagree, or may have ideas that I’m less familiar with. My advice is probably worth something, but I would caution against treating it as definitive.

Similarly, the words of advice written here may differ from the personalized advice I would give someone in a one-on-one conversation.

 

There are many paths to success in global catastrophic risk

One of the most common questions people ask me is what they need to be doing to prepare for a career in global catastrophic risk. They want to know things like which subjects they should study at university, which professional experiences they should pursue through jobs and internships, and what cities or countries they should live in. They may likewise worry that they’re on the wrong path.

This is certainly an understandable question. Global catastrophic risk is not a typical career option. There is no such thing as “pre-GCR” in the way that there is “pre-law” or “pre-med”. And so it is less obvious how to position oneself for a GCR career.

The answer I give to this question is that there is no one single answer. There are many paths that one can take toward a successful career. Global catastrophic risk is a highly multifaceted topic. One can start from virtually any background and find a way to fit in. This is good! One need not stress out about being on the wrong path. Whatever path one is already on, there is almost always a good way forward. Likewise, instead of recommending a generic course of study and work, I recommend people find a path that is customized for their own background interests and abilities.

My own career is a case in point. I started out in engineering, did a PhD in geography with a dissertation on climate change policy, and a post-doctoral fellowship in environmental psychology. These topics provided a good basis for work on global catastrophic risk, though they are also not the primary focus of my ongoing work at GCRI. Instead, I continuously learn new topics to keep up with the mix of activities needed to advance efforts to address global catastrophic risk. My background has worked well for me, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, and I could have also done well with other backgrounds.

 

Get the right balance between specialization and generalization

The multifaceted nature of global catastrophic risk requires a multifaceted skill set. We cannot rely on a division of labor across a highly specialized workforce—global catastrophic risk has too many facets relative to the available workforce. Specialization also hinders our ability to work at the intersections between different facets and to transfer insights from one facet to another. Work on global catastrophic risk needs generalists.

People I speak with sometimes express the concern that pursuing a diverse skill set will put them at a professional disadvantage. They worry that in being a “master of none”, they will struggle to compete for opportunities. This can happen, but it often does not. A lot of opportunities require work at the intersection of some eclectic mix of topics, especially for multifaceted topics like global catastrophic risk. It can be difficult to find people for these opportunities because so many people are trained in just one specific area. The generalist is at a considerable advantage for these opportunities.

On the other hand, too much generalization can also be a problem. Any given piece of work on global catastrophic risk will have some sort of focus. It could be a highly multifaceted focus involving a multitude of topics, such as insights from environmental politics for future public discourse on AI or the relative size of nuclear war and asteroid risks as it pertains to policies for preventing asteroid collision events, but it is a focus nonetheless. Some degree of specialization is needed to do this work well.

It is important to get the right balance between generalization and specialization. A good starting point is simply to recognize that there should be a balance. I encourage people to pursue opportunities for both specialization and generalization. People new to global catastrophic risk can add value by having one or a few strong specialties while being able to relate to people working in other domains. Then, steadily over time, one can build capacity in additional specializations while improving one’s overall knowledge of global catastrophic risk. Indeed, some of the best opportunities (university programs, job experiences, etc.) are those that let people add value via their existing specialties while being exposed to topics that let people cultivate new specialties.

One important but often overlooked advantage of being a generalist is that it positions people for leadership roles. Groups working on complex topics like global catastrophic risk often involve people with a mix of different backgrounds. These groups benefit from leaders who are able to interface with the various team members and help everyone collaborate productively. A generalist is more able to do this. In general, the higher up one goes in the “org chart”, the wider one’s responsibilities become, and the more of a generalist one must be. There are also generalist leadership opportunities for more junior workers, including as assistants to the senior leadership and as leaders of smaller but nonetheless interdisciplinary groups.

 

Work across the divide between (A) humanities-social science-policy and (B) engineering-natural science

Being a generalist is a matter of degree. Someone with expertise in two fields is more of a generalist than someone who only has expertise in one. Additionally, someone with expertise in two dissimilar fields—for example, psychology and mechanical engineering—is more of a generalist than someone with expertise in two similar fields—for example, psychology and political science.

Perhaps the most difficult and important divide for the generalist to overcome is between the humanities, social sciences, and policy on one side, and on the other side, engineering and the natural sciences. These two sets of fields constitute two distinct clusters of subject areas, intellectual traditions, and professional communities. Both sets of fields have vast internal diversity: there are major differences between, for example, philosophers and sociologists, or between chemists and computer scientists. However, in my experience the internal differences within each set of fields are small relative to the differences between the two sets of fields.

Unfortunately, people tend to be trained in one set of fields or the other. There are relatively few people who do both well. This is unfortunate because there is a lot of work that strongly benefits from the capacity to do both well.

To illustrate this, I like to tell a story from when I was in grad school. I took a course called “Science, Policy, and International Affairs”. According to the syllabus:

This course will examine the differences between the science and policy communities, the importance science and technology have had in international affairs throughout history, and the major scientific issues that are affecting international policy today and are likely to affect international policy in the future. Topics such as energy, climate, biologic resources (biodiversity, and invasive species), natural resources, biotechnology, nanotechnology, space exploration and use, information technology, and others will be examined. Case studies will be used. Methods of identifying scientific issues with foreign policy implications will be presented. Importance of science to diplomacy and diplomacy to science will be discussed along with numerous other topics. Existing and potential concerns of a variety of interest groups, sectors, nations, and groups of nations will be addressed.

That list of science topics is incredibly diverse for a single graduate course. There is a story behind this. The professor, John Kelmelis, was a geographer with expertise in remote sensing. He spent many years working at the US Geological Survey and later worked at the US State Department. As he explained in the course, when he got to the State Department, other people there kept asking him to handle work on all sorts of science and technology topics, including those quite unrelated to remote sensing. When he tried to explain that he lacked relevant expertise, they responded to the effect of, “you’re a scientist, you figure it out”. Apparently, the State Department (or at least his corner of it) was sufficiently lacking in people with backgrounds in natural science and engineering that he was in many cases the most qualified person to take it on. And so, the course I took provided a taste of the experience he had on the job. Since then, I’ve encountered any number of people who have had similar experiences in their jobs, including in other government agencies. For my part, I am often the “token social scientist” on projects with engineers and natural scientists, even though I myself have a Masters degree in engineering.

The divide between humanities-social sciences-policy and engineering-natural sciences is highly important for global catastrophic risk. There are some positions in which people may not need to work across this divide—for example, analyzing astronomical data about asteroids or writing computer code for safe AI systems—but these are very much the exception, and even these positions commonly benefit from being able to work across the divide. For everyone else, this ability is a core part of the job. I would encourage anyone interested in global catastrophic risk to develop the ability to bridge this divide.

 

Know your allies

Depending how it’s defined, the field of global catastrophic risk is perhaps a bit small. However, the field (or fields plural) of people who work on adjacent topics and have similar aims is much larger. These people are our allies. They might not be doing quite the same thing that we are doing, but they like what we’re doing and want to help where they can. There is a lot of value to knowing them, and to having them know you. They can provide training, career opportunities, and general support for our work.

The size of the field of global catastrophic risk is a matter of debate. If the field is defined narrowly in terms of people who explicitly embrace the term “global catastrophic risk” in their work and embrace a certain underlying argument for focusing on global catastrophic risk (in particular, a consequentialist moral argument), then the field is relatively small. Alternatively, if the field is defined broadly in terms of people who work on any of the global catastrophic risks, then the field is relatively large. This larger set of people working in some way on the global catastrophic risks is perhaps the most important set of allies to know. 

Another major set of allies comes from those who work on similar sorts of topics. This includes people in fields like risk analysis and science and technology policy. Indeed, to a large extent, global catastrophic risk could be considered a subset of either risk analysis or science and technology policy. These fields cover similar sorts of topics, use similar methodological approaches, face similar challenges such as the balance between specialization and generalization, and have similarly diverse career paths. These fields are also at the forefront of crossing the divide between humanities-social sciences-policy and engineering-natural sciences. In short, those of us working on global catastrophic risk fit right in among people in these fields.

Finally, there are allies among those who work with similar normative perspectives. Attention to global catastrophic risk is often motivated by a moral concern for the extreme severity of global catastrophes, including harms that occur worldwide and into the distant future. Similar perspectives can be found across people whose work involves risk analysis, cost-benefit analysis, welfare economics, effective altruism, and related normative frameworks. In the private sector, catastrophe insurance and, to a lesser extent, financial and operational risk management are additional like-minded domains. These are all professional communities we can turn to for help amplifying our argument for the importance of global catastrophic risk.

 

Some graduate school options

Just as there is no one single best path for careers in global catastrophic risk, there is also no single best grad school option. I encourage people to choose grad programs that work well for them based on their particular situations. That can include their prior background, future interests, skills to develop, networks to cultivate, etc., or in short, all the usual factors for selecting grad schools.

That said, there are some options that I tend to suggest for a wide range of people interested in global catastrophic risk. These programs aren’t for everyone, but they may work well for many. A big running theme across these programs is that they are interdisciplinary ways that are similar to the interdisciplinarity of global catastrophic risk. In particular, they cross the humanities-social sciences-policy and engineering-natural sciences divide, and they bring a range of perspectives to bear on major societal issues.

A great set of options are the handful of programs in science and technology policy and related topics. The Technology, Management, and Policy Consortium is a primary hub for this space and contains a list of schools with relevant programs. One of these programs is the Carnegie Mellon Department of Engineering and Public Policy; GCRI has close ties to them, including via Tony Barrett, who did his Ph.D. there. A new entrant in this space is the ETH Zurich Institute of Science, Technology and Policy. These programs excel at taking people with natural science and engineering backgrounds and training them for work in policy, governance, etc. Some of them (perhaps all of them—I’m not sure) also welcome people with backgrounds in social science, policy, and the humanities. These programs are among the leaders in risk analysis, science and technology policy, etc. They provide great educations and great gateways into careers in these realms.

For people with backgrounds on the social science, policy, and the humanities side, I might suggest certain programs in public policy. These have less emphasis on natural science/engineering, but some programs still do well in that regard. One of my favorites is the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington in Seattle. The faculty includes two former Presidents of the Society for Risk Analysis (Ann BostromAllison Cullen), a Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, and a faculty with a great mix of interests. The School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University is another good one, with a professor who specializes in global public goods (Scott Barrett) and has close ties to the Earth Institute. These are two examples that I’m relatively familiar with. There are probably a lot of other good ones out there.

My Ph.D. is in geography. My prior background was in engineering. I chose geography largely because it enabled me to keep one leg in natural science-engineering while having one leg in social science-policy-ethics. My program, at Penn State, was especially strong at “nature-society” geography, which specializes in integrating across the humanities-social sciences-policy and engineering-natural sciences divide. Geography had additional appeal to me because it would push me further outside my comfort zone than the programs in science and technology policy. The science and technology policy programs are more rooted in topics like risk analysis that I was already familiarizing myself with. In contrast, geography pushed me to learn a wider range of topics, including things I would not otherwise have learned, like continental philosophy and social theory. I wouldn’t recommend geography for everyone, but it worked very well for me.

One last option to consider is public health. This is another one that integrates people from a mix of different backgrounds. This is naturally a good fit for people with a biology background and/or an interest in pandemics and biosecurity. I’m less familiar with this space, but a good starting point is the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which is well-placed within the field and has an interest in global catastrophic risk.

 

Some fellowship programs

Fellowship programs can be great opportunities to learn more, strengthen one’s skills, build connections within a field, and gain outside-the-classroom professional experiences. There are some great options for people transitioning to global catastrophic risk and for people trying to advance their position within the field.

Within the global catastrophic risk domain, there are fellowship programs run by the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative(SERI), the Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative (CERI), and the Swiss Existential Risk Initiative (CHERI). These programs support early-career researchers on supervised research projects across a wide range of global catastrophic risk topics.

There are some excellent fellowship programs focused on specific global catastrophic risks. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a large think tank based in Washington, runs several programs under as part of the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI). The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University runs a program called Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship (ELBI). PONI and ELBI take early-career scholars and professionals from a range of relevant fields and provide them with a shared cohort experience within the high-level science and policy realms of nuclear weapons and biosecurity. GCRI Director of Research Tony Barrett participated in the conference-series part of the PONI program and I participated in the ELBI program. We both had excellent experiences.

One great program on topics adjacent to global catastrophic risk is the US National Academies runs a Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. It takes people with natural science and engineering backgrounds and gives them an initial policy experience. I’ve crossed paths with many of that program’s participants over the course of my professional career, and they tend to speak highly of it. People with relevant backgrounds should definitely consider it. Similar programs may exist in other countries.

Finally, GCRI has a fellowship program, but it is structured a bit differently. The GCRI Fellowship Program serves to recognize individuals who have excelled as collaborators with GCRI. Fellows are invited by GCRI; there is no application process. Instead, people interested in getting involved in GCRI activities should apply into our Advising and Collaboration Program as described here.

 

Advice for graduate students

I have several points of advice that I often give to grad students. A lot of it isn’t specific to global catastrophic risk, but it’s important nonetheless.

My main advice for anyone in any grad school program: graduate. There can be a temptation to get caught up on side projects on global catastrophic risk, especially if one’s degree program has a different focus. One can even feel a moral obligation to get sidetracked on global catastrophic risk, given its inherent importance. However, it’s important to look across one’s whole career, to “play the long game”. Getting the degree may mean less immediate contribution to global catastrophic risk, but it positions people for more and better contributions throughout their careers. For some grad students, those side projects involve collaborations with GCRI. I always encourage people to let their GCRI collaboration slide whenever they need to for the sake of pursuing their graduate degree.

A second point of advice is, when deciding what to study for a thesis or dissertation, first find a big overarching topic and then pick a small subtopic within it. There is a common tendency for grad students to pick out big, ambitious topics for their thesis/dissertation and then for their faculty advisors to have them narrow the scope. The big topic seems more compelling and exciting, but the smaller topic is more tractable. For research on global catastrophic risk, the big overarching topic could be something like “military artificial intelligence” or “policy attention to global catastrophic risk”. The smaller subtopic could then be something like “how autonomous underwater drones affect anti-submarine warfare” or “the history of United States legislation on asteroids and comets”. Taking on the smaller topic provides an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the bigger topic—in research, it’s important to be able to relate the general to the particular and vice versa. It also makes it easier to complete the research, which is needed to graduate. It then positions people to do further work on the bigger topic after graduating. There can be exceptions in which bigger topics are tractable, but it’s important to be prepared to take on a smaller topic.

Third, try to be practical. This can be a significant challenge, especially for grad students in programs that have a more theoretical, academic orientation. I’ll always remember one of my classmates in grad school had a shirt that said, “Yeah, but does it work in theory?” An overly theoretical focus can be an easy pitfall for research on global catastrophic risk because it’s such a theoretically rich topic. But theory doesn’t reduce the risk, at least not directly. There can be a role for theory, but it’s important to be able to connect it to some sort of way that the risk can actually be reduced in practice. One good way to do that is to connect with the practitioners who are working at the front lines of the risks. Try to learn from them what is relevant from their perspective and build that into one’s research.

Finally, consider career options in research management. This is a valuable role, and one for which there is often a shortage of qualified people. A lot of people who go into research have neither the skill nor the interest needed to succeed in managerial roles. Instead, they are often more of the introverted, “lock me in the library and let me explore my ideas” sort. But research needs management. This is especially important for complex, interdisciplinary topics like global catastrophic risk, because the research often involves collaborations across team members with different specialties. Being more of a generalist can be valuable in these sorts of management roles: teams need people who can relate to the various team members and help them interact to make the whole be more than the sum of its parts.

 

Professional networking and etiquette

As with just about any field, networking is important for people starting out in global catastrophic risk. It provides learning experiences, gets you plugged into ongoing activities, and gets your name out there so people think of you when opportunities arise. This is a primary reason why GCRI runs our advising and collaboration program: to give people the chance to network with us and with other people in our networks.

When networking, it is important to follow appropriate professional etiquette. This can determine whether one whether one gets a favorable response from the people one is networking with. However, using the right etiquette can be a challenge for students and young professionals who are new to the field and have not yet learned its customs. University programs and other training experiences often don’t teach professional etiquette. Instead, it ends up as an unspoken skill that people have to figure out for themselves.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that different professional communities have different standards of etiquette. This is a significant issue in the field of global catastrophic risk, which cuts across multiple fields and countries. Networking across the global catastrophic risk space requires navigating these various communities. For example, policy communities tend to be more formal than scientific communities, though physics is more formal than computer science. Older communities tend to be more formal than younger ones, and more senior professionals often expect an extra degree of formality when being approached by more junior people. Academics tend to value extra words for added politeness, whereas journalists are more to-the-point. And exceptions abound to any rule one might come up with.

My advice is to err on the side of being more formal, at least at first while you’re still getting to know a person or community. In my experience, it’s a lot more common for people to get upset when someone is not formal enough than when someone is too formal. Formality conveys respect and professionalism, especially coming from someone more junior. One can then observe how the other person(s) behave, and consider adjusting to match them, though be mindful that they may expect some people, such as more junior people, to behave differently than they do.

An extra degree of formality is especially important when interacting with people who have different backgrounds and who are in different communities. Formality is important when working internationally, especially when interacting with people in countries that one’s own country is less friendly with. For example, as an American, I will tend to be more formal when interacting with someone in China than I am with someone in Canada. Formality can also be important when working across demographic groups. For example, there has been a troubling tendency to be less formal in interactions with female professionals than their male counterparts. This should be avoided.

Formality can be conveyed in many ways, such as via speech, writing, mannerisms, and clothing. For example, in an email greeting, “Dear Dr. [last name]” is more formal, whereas “hi [first name]” is less formal. “Dear Dr. [last name]” is appropriate in most circumstances when emailing academics for the first time, especially more senior academics. I would not use “hi [first name]” for anyone unless I already know them well.

For the specifics, there are lots of resources available online, e.g. thisthisthis, and this.

I would also advise people to not get too caught up on the minutiae of etiquette, especially if it causes them to abstain from networking. Reaching out to someone in not-quite-the-right-way is almost always better than not reaching out at all. Quoting Gretzky, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

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I think there's a disadvantage in giving advice to people that are in an exploration-exploitation problem and telling them "explore more":

Very early stage professionals who are considering how to join an unknown field (such as software development, or global catastrophic risk) are not even sure how much exploration to do, how to do it, what benefit an extra hour of exploration is expected to have, how big the exploration space is, and so on. You have an advantage over them in all those areas. 

Also, I think it's more efficient if one person does this research and then tells everyone, compared to having every person do this research themselves.

What do you think?

 

I acknowledge there's a failure mode on the other side too: If your advice isn't good but nobody notices it because everyone only talks to you. I wonder if this is what you're trying to avoid (?) I have ideas on how to counter it

 

Or perhaps it's hard to structure concrete advice in this area?

I'd consider approaching it by optimizing for (1) getting a first job, and (2) personal fit. [I don't know the space at all, so no idea if this model makes sense, consider it just a first draft]

I'm implicitly assuming things like "the growth rate during an actual job is going to be really high compared to whatever came beforehand" and "working on something that fits me well means I'll improve quickly and that will determine a lot of the 'variance' in how useful I'll be years ahead"

Do you have somewhat concrete suggestions for software developer roles in this space?