Thoughts on being overqualified for EA positions

by Ben_West2 min read30th Apr 202118 comments


Working at EA vs Non-EA OrgsEA HiringCareer choice

I sometimes hear of people not wanting to work for EA organizations out of a fear that they are "overqualified". I believe the reasoning is something like:

  1. In the for-profit sector, projects with some characteristics (e.g. building a website with less than 100k pageviews/day) are usually done by more junior people. 
    1. This is presumably because it's not cost-effective to hire more senior staff (i.e. the value senior staff add to the project is less than the extra cost of hiring them).
  2. Projects in EA organizations have these characteristics.
  3. Therefore, there is not enough benefit for it to be worth having senior people do these tasks in EA organizations over having junior people do them.

I think (3) is not justified for a few reasons.

The most important is that it equivocates between "an analogous profit maximizing entity might not hire a senior person" and "senior people don't provide much benefit". It's basically always possible to do things faster/cheaper/with fewer errors/with a better user experience/etc. I don't think it's possible for any mortal to be "overqualified" in the sense of "could not perform the task better than someone who was less skilled," for all but the most trivial of tasks. 

Often, the reason it's not profitable to hire more senior people is more about leverage than about their ability to perform better. E.g. maybe a senior software engineer makes any website they work on 10% better than a junior engineer would – they can make a small website 10% better just as easily as they can make a large website 10% better. But they will still only get hired to work on the large website because a 10% increase in a large website is a greater absolute return than a 10% increase in a small website.

Startups often have their early success boosted by "overqualified" founders doing all the work – customers are impressed that they get to speak to the brilliant founders instead of normal salespeople so they are more likely to purchase the product, bugs get fixed more quickly because there are extremely talented engineers working on fixing them, etc. It's common for startups to hit problems once they grow and have "correctly qualified" people in their positions, because they no longer benefit from those advantages.

Smaller EA organizations are somewhat like these startups whose success can be boosted by "overqualified" employees. 

A secondary reason is that the intuition that EA organizations are "small" seems to often be based on comparing inputs rather than outputs. It's true that this forum is read by many fewer people than, say, view the home and garden section on, but I suspect that global welfare is more easily increased by improving this site than Amazon (both because there is lower hanging fruit, and because the value generated per viewer is higher).

Finally, something I underestimated before working at an EA organization is the extent to which the novelty of EA work meant that similar tasks are more challenging. I've created a software product used by most hospitals in the US, started a successful company, and am now managing one of the smallest teams I've ever managed, but am not at all finding it easy. Things like impact analysis have received ~0% as much focus from experts as for-profit analogs like fiscal accounting have, making it much more challenging to answer basic questions like "was our project successful?"

A better argument for believing that one is overqualified

Often when employers speak of someone as being "overqualified", what they mean is "this person might get bored with the work or dissatisfied with the low pay and quit to work somewhere else." Expecting to be bored with a job is a very good reason to not take it, but I would encourage people to ask prospective employers about this issue directly, instead of not applying or being worried about being "overqualified". 

80,000 Hours has written about how passions are more malleable than most people expect, but briefly I will say that working at EA organizations has provided me with a lot of value I did not get in the for-profit sector: e.g. my social network is well integrated with EA, so at social gatherings I regularly hear how projects I worked on help someone get a job or pass a law or something else that's cool, which basically never happened when I was at a for-profit.

In CEA’s most recent hiring round, we offered candidates a "tour of duty" format, where they would join us for one or two years, after which we would support them transitioning to other employers. I'm not sure if we will do this in the future (it might have been more confusing than helpful), but I would encourage anyone who's worried about being overqualified for some EA position to consider a "tour of duty" approach and join the EA organization for a year or two.

Charity work is valued at ~0 in many career paths, meaning that there is an opportunity cost from pursuing it but it’s not actively harmful. Exploring alternative career paths is valuable for your own planning, even ignoring the good you would do, and I expect that for many people the benefit of exploring additional paths outweighs the opportunity cost.

I’d like to thank Aaron Gertler, Julia Wise, and Michelle Hutchinson for reading a draft of this, and Michelle for suggesting I write about it.


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Another point I've heard made a few times (and at-least-a-little agree with):

Let's say Bob transitions from COO at a mid-sized org to finance manager at a small org. Bob has done finances before, and within a few months has set up some excellent systems. He now only needs to spend 10 hours a week on finances, and tells his manager (Alice) that he's interested in taking on other projects.

Alice doesn't currently have projects for Bob, but Alice and Bob saw this coming and set clear expectations that Bob would sometimes run out of things to do. Bob was fine with this, he's happy to spend his extra time at home with the kids.

But also... Bob notices that their HR systems could use an upgrade. He writes up a plan and shares it at the next team meeting. Some people think this is a good idea, but the HR manager doesn't want to implement the plan and Alice doesn't want to put Bob in charge of HR systems.

Bob is a little confused but shrugs and goes back to building a chicken coop.

This happens a few more times, and it's taking up more and more of Alice's time to review Bob's proposals. She likes Bob's ideas and wants to find ways to implement them, but doesn't like Bob's leadership style so doesn't want to put him in a leadership position. A couple other people in the org do like Bob's style, and are confused about why he isn't put in charge of more projects.


So the takeaway is something like: even if you are hiring an experienced person to a junior role, you are essentially hiring them to a senior role because they think like a senior hire. If their work and ideas are not given the space to thrive (which means basically treating them as senior staff), then it'll likely be a source of tension. 

It's harder to carve out a senior-shaped-hole at an organization and higher stakes to hire someone with more seniority (which in my mind means autonomy over a budget and maybe a report or two). Organizations do this successfully all the time but it's a much more significant effort than hiring a junior role. 

Or put another way: the more agent-y the person you hire, the more you'll need to be careful about principal-agent problems. 


There is a bunch of nuance in here and various solutions, but I think it contributes to some hesitance around senior>junior transitions. 

Thanks! I agree with the concern, but I think I disagree about the root cause:

She likes Bob's ideas and wants to find ways to implement them, but doesn't like Bob's leadership style so doesn't want to put him in a leadership position

In general, I'm skeptical about "putting" people in leadership positions, especially when their colleagues don't want to be led by them.

If people aren't listening to Bob because they don't like his leadership style, then I would say that Bob is a bad culture fit (or, to be blunt, not a good leader). I wouldn't describe this as the organization "not letting him thrive."

I do agree that it's harder to hire senior people though:

It's ... higher stakes to hire someone with more seniority

There's a related thing you might be pointing to like "in a big organization, Bob can just come up with ideas and someone else will implement them, diminishing the costs of his abrasive leadership style. But in a smaller organization he has to both come up with ideas and execute, and maybe he's not enough of a generalist for that." I definitely agree with this concern.

If people aren't listening to Bob because they don't like his leadership style, then I would say that Bob is a bad culture fit (or, to be blunt, not a good leader). I wouldn't describe this as the organization "not letting him thrive."

I could also imagine it being that the org has a bad culture (e.g. they systematically don't listen to the ideas of people in more junior roles)

Sure, but that's also a reason against appropriately qualified people working there also, right?

What I'm pushing against is the assumption that employees love outsiders coming in and telling them all the things they are doing wrong, and if they don't like you pointing out their mistakes it must mean you are "overqualified".

I actually hear the opposite more frequently: having a more junior title makes it easier for people to listen to your suggestions, because it's less threatening for you to point out mistakes.

This really matches my experience. As a high skill worker (software engineer at a FAANG), I strongly view top down proposals without team buy-in as a leadership failure.

If your idea is good, you should be able to convince the team that it is good and ought to be implemented (contributing to the implementation yourself is going to win you big favor points). Going over the team's head to force the solution by forcing the HR team to accept the proposal in the example is going to burn bridges. Maybe it's necessary if the proposal is incredibly important, but mandating a solution on a team after pushback should generally be viewed as an organizational failure to mourn.

Found this a really clear explanation (and I liked the scenario, made it more concrete).

Thanks for this, I feel like I've seen this too.

I'm 30 now, and I feel like several of my altruistic-minded friends in my age group in big companies are reluctant to work in nonprofits for stated reasons that feel off to me. 

My impression is that the EA space is quite small now, but has the potential to get quite a big bigger later on. People who are particularly promising and humble enough to work in such a setting (this is a big restriction) sometimes rise up quickly.

I think a lot of people look at initial EA positions and see them as pretty low status compared to industry jobs. I have a few responses here:
1) They can be great starting positions for people who want to do ambitious EA work. It's really hard to deeply understand how EA organizations work without working in one, even in (many, but not all) junior positions.
2) One incredibly valuable attribute of many effective people is a willingness to "do whatever it takes" (not meaning ethically or legally). This sometimes means actual sacrifice, it sometimes means working positions that would broadly be considered low status. Honestly I regard this attribute as equally important to many aspects of skills and intelligence. Some respected managers and executives are known for cleaning the floors or providing personal help to employees or colleagues, often because those things were highly effective at that moment, even if they might be low status. (Honestly, much of setting up or managing an organization is often highly glorified grunt work).

Personally, I try to give extra appreciation to people in normally low-status positions, I think these are very commonly overlooked.


Separately, I'm really not sure how much to trust the reasons people give for their decisions. I'm sure many people who use the "overqualified" argument would be happy to be setting up early infrastructure with very few users for an Elon Musk venture, or building internal tooling for few users at many well run, high paying, and prestigious companies.

It seems like one solution would be to pay people more. I feel like some in EA are against this because they worry high pay will attract people who are just in it for the money - this is an argument for perhaps paying people ~20% less than they'd get in the private sector, not ~80% less (which seems to be what some EA positions pay relative to the skills they'd want for the hire).

Agreed. Also, there are a lot of ways we could pay for prestige; like with branding and marketing,  that could make things nicer for new employees.

Similar to Ozzie, I would guess the 'over-qualified' hesitation often has less to do with, "I fear I would be under-utilised and become disinterested if I took a more junior role, and thus do less than the most good I could", but a more straightforward, "Roles which are junior, have unclear progression and don't look amazing on my CV if I move on aren't as good for my career as other opportunities available to me." 

This opportunity cost (as the OP notes) is not always huge, and it can be outweighed by other considerations. But my guess is it is often a substantial disincentive:

  • In terms of traditional/typical kudos/cred/whatever, getting in early on something which is going up like a rocket offers a great return on invested reputational or human capital. It is a riskier return, though: by analogy I'd guess being "employee #10" for some start-ups is much better than working at google, but I'd guess for the median start-up it is worse.
  • Many EA orgs have been around for a few years now, and their track-record so far might incline one against rocketing success by conventional and legible metrics. (Not least, many of them are targeting a very different sort of success than a tech enterprise, consulting firm, hedge fund, etc. etc.)
  • Junior positions at conventionally shiny high-status things have good career capital. I'd guess my stint as a junior doctor 'looks good' on my CV even when applying to roles with ~nothing to do with clinical practice. Ditto stuff like ex-googler, ex-management consultant, ?ex-military officer, etc. "Ex-junior-staffer-at-smallish-nonprofit" usually won't carry the same cachet. 
  • As careers have a lot of cumulative/progressive characteristics, 'sideways' moves earlier on may have disproportionate impact on ones trajectory. E.g. 'longtermist careerists' might want very outsized compensation for such a  'tour' to make up for compounded loss of earnings (in expectation) for pausing their climb up various ladders.

None of this means 'EA jobs' are only for suckers. There are a lot of upsides even from a 'pure careerism' perspective (especially for particular career plans), and obvious pluses for folks who value the mission/impact too. But insofar as folks aren't perfectly noble, and care somewhat about the former as well as the latter (ditto other things like lifestyle, pay, etc. etc.) these disincentives are likely to be stronger pushes for more 'overqualified' folks. 

And insofar as EA orgs would like to recruit more 'overqualified' folks for their positions (despite, as I understand it, their job openings being broadly oversubscribed with willing and able - but perhaps not 'overqualified' - applicants), I'd guess it's fairly heavy-going as these disincentives are hard to 'fix'.

The disincentives listed here make sense to me. I would just add that people's motivations are highly individual, and so people will differ in how much weight they put on any of these points or on how well their CV looks.

Personally, I've moved from Google to AMF and have never looked back. The summary: I'm much more motivated now; the work is actually more varied and technically challenging than before, even though the tech stack is not as close to the state of the art. People are (as far as I can tell) super qualified in both organizations. I'm happy to chat personally about my individual motivations if anyone who reads this feels that it would benefit them.

One reason I don't see here: if you take a big decrease in level of responsibility, it can be hard to reverse.

For example, imagine you manage a team of 10 people and a budget of $10 million at a private corporation. You're on track to eventually take on a C-suite position, which will either allow you to earn to give significantly or bring really great skills to an EA charity at that point.

If you leave the team you're managing and take two years to write Forum posts on behalf of an EA charity, you may lose the opportunity to become a CEO. Maybe that's fine - maybe you know ever cared about that because of the social status you could get from it - but maybe EA needs people with experience as successful CEOs and bringing in private sector rising stars for entry level positions is a bad idea.

I just wanted to flag one possible failure mode.

I've come across a few people who said that "getting management experience", for the purpose of eventually helping with direct work, was a big part in not wanting to do direct work directly. So far I haven't seen these people ever get into direct work. I think it can be great for earning to give, but am personally skeptical of its applicability to direct work.

From what I've seen, the skills one needs to lead EA organizations are fairly distinct, and doing so often requires a lot of domain specific knowledge that takes time to develop. Related, much of the experience I see people getting who are in management seem to be domain specific skills not relevant for direct work, or experience managing large teams of skills very different from what is seems to be needed in direct work.

For example, in bio safety orgs, the #1 requirement of a manager is a lot of experience in the field, and the same is true (maybe more so) in much of AI safety. 

I think non-direct-work management tracks can be great for earning to give, as long as that's what's intended.

Thanks! I agree that the amount of career capital a position will generate is an important factor in any career decision, "overqualified" or not.

I'm curious about your "it can be hard to reverse" statement though: how frequently do you think this happens? At least in US tech, it's pretty common for people to take a year off to organize against Trump or whatever, and a year of charity work is definitely not irreversible. When I've talked to recruiters they basically just ignore charity work, at worst.

Anecdotally it always feels like now is the wrong time to leave your job because (good thing) is right around the corner, but it's usually perfectly fine to leave in actuality. Received wisdom (supported by some evidence) is that regularly switching jobs actually makes you more successful.

I'm not sure about tech! I was thinking the more business/management career track.

I definitely agree that regularly switching jobs is a good thing - this isn't an argument against switching jobs, just against taking a much more junior role

Noting that the link you shared also shows that people who are externally hired seem to perform worse than those who are promoted. So if you care about performance more than pay, it may not be that good to switch jobs often? 

Interesting point – my interpretation of that statistic is that external people are hired into more senior roles than internal people. I guess it's also consistent with the hypothesis that external people get less mentorship though.

I really liked CEA's "tour of duty" framing for the recent hiring rounds!  I thought that was a great signal to potential candidates of what they could expect in the job. I think employers should be more explicit with candidates about what they're expecting from new hires in terms of tenure.

Conversely, I would encourage job applicants to be candid with employers about their tenure expectations for a role. For some roles, only staying in the role for 1-2 years is perfectly fine. For other roles, especially ones that require a lot of role-specific knowledge and training, that would be harmful to the organization. I also would ask candidates to introspect honestly - do they feel that a certain role is in any way "beneath them?" It's can be damaging to morale to have a colleague who feels like the job is just a stepping stone to something else.