Or alternatively: “A message for 2018-me: quit your job and start doing ‘EA work’”
Note: I wrote this post a bit quickly (~9 hours) so it’s a little rough, and likely contains minor errors. If the post turns out to be really useful for people, I can try to give some better advice tailored to you — another reason to get in touch if this resonates with you!
In this post I want to provide encouragement and information for mid-career people who are sympathetic to EA ideas but haven’t seriously tried doing EA work. Basically, I think there’s tons of amazingly impactful, fun, well-compensated work that skilled mid-career people could do, and that this is maybe much less obvious from the “outside” than it is for a relative EA-insider like me.
Note that I focus on longtermist EA work here because this is what I know about. But I imagine an EA-insider who is in another EA area might share similar sentiments. Similarly, while I focus on mid-career people here, I imagine a lot of what I’ll say will be relevant for people at other career stages.
Also note that, for the purposes of this post, by “EA work” I mostly mean working at EA orgs. But I also think it would be great if mid-career people considered switching to really impactful stuff that isn't at EA orgs, and if they're already doing really impactful stuff that isn't at an EA org maybe they should keep doing that. And a lot of what I say here is still relevant for switching to highly impactful work that isn't at an EA org.
Here’s what I’ll say:
- Doing longtermist EA work right now is extremely valuable, and there’s a wide variety of roles and skills needed and really exciting projects to work on.
- I had a lot of misconceptions before I moved into EA work. I’ll describe what these were and what I now think the reality is as a relative EA-insider.
- Finally, I’ll admit that there are some downsides to switching to EA work right now.
If you’re a mid-career person interested in switching to EA work, I’d be interested to chat and maybe help. Please get in touch by sending me a private message on the Forum or emailing me at hello[at]bensnodin dot com.
Doing longtermist EA work right now could be very fun and well-compensated, as well as very valuable
There is an absolute ton of very valuable work that needs to happen right now, such as:
- Helping to deliver some technology or infrastructure that makes a meaningful dent on biorisk. (Some examples here.)
- Making progress on technical AI safety (e.g. by working at Redwood Research).
- Doing high-level cause prioritisation work (like Open Philanthropy's worldview investigations).
- Helping incubate longtermist megaprojects (e.g. by working at Rethink Priorities).
Based on my experience working with EAs, I’d expect that you’d do this work with incredible colleagues: people who are driven, passionate, kind, very capable, and who share your goals.
Similarly, many EA organisations seem to put a large emphasis on employee wellbeing and on creating an excellent working environment, and I’ve personally been very impressed by this at the EA organisations I’ve worked for so far.
Also, in case you haven’t heard, there is now a lot of money available to fund longtermist EA work, which allows longtermist EA organisations to pay more than in the past. My impression is that salaries are often in the $60k-150k range (for a concrete example, see the researcher pay ranges on Rethink Priorities’ website). (Side note: if salary is blocking you from doing longtermist EA work, please talk to someone, e.g. me.)
In addition, I think mid-career people have a huge amount to offer thanks to having pre-existing skills and being able to hit the ground running when starting out — this is especially valuable at the moment given the relative lack of management time available. There seems to be a need for a wide range of skills, and I expect this need to increase as we start seeing more longtermist EA projects that are “doing things in the world” (like Alvea). You don’t have to be a researcher!
Finally, I think EA community culture benefits significantly from having people of different ages and with different personal and professional backgrounds.
In summary, I think there’s an incredible opportunity right now for mid-career people to do really exciting, rewarding, and high-value work with incredible colleagues in a great working environment.
Misconceptions I had before moving into EA work
I started my first “EA job” in March 2020, when I joined the Research Scholars Programme (RSP) at the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI). Prior to that, I’d completed a PhD and worked for 5 years in finance. I had been a bit of an “EA lurker” for many years, and built up many misconceptions over that time. Here are some misconceptions that seem particularly relevant:
- Misconception: Because everyone’s time is so valuable, it’s not worth anyone’s time to talk to me.
- Reality: Some people probably are genuinely overwhelmed with people trying to talk to them, but I think a lot of people in “EA roles” (including me) would be very happy to give more of their time to people who are serious about exploring EA careers.
- Misconception: Everyone doing EA jobs is extremely altruistic and I’ll probably be judged for things I do that don’t maximise total utility.
- Reality: I was surprised by the range in the extent to which people are optimising hard for altruism. And in general there’s a lot of acceptance that doing the most good might not be someone’s only priority, and that in any case we’re all human. Also, people vary a lot on moral and empirical views, which means a lot of things aren’t “obviously wrong” even from a ~purely moral perspective.
- Misconception: Everything is moving really fast; if I take 2 years to (for example) learn a new skill, things will have moved on and the cause area will be “full”, people will have decided that this isn’t important, etc.
- Reality: I think 80K’s top causes have been pretty stable over the past 5-10 years. E.g. if I’d decided to go into technical AI safety in 2015 (which is plausible), it would be far from the case that things would have “moved on” before I was able to make useful contributions. On the contrary, I would have a ton of experience by now, and presumably (assuming I turned out to be a good fit) be doing pretty valuable work in an area we still want to grow a lot.
- Misconception: I need to find a new / special area to work on.
- Reality: I think the instinct here is good, and some people should go hard on this. But I think in a lot of cases, just slotting into an existing field / organisation / role and taking advantage of the existing infrastructure (like management, research agendas) is the best approach.
- Misconception: The challenge will be finding a great new idea for something to work on.
- Reality: It became clear to me after starting at FHI that there are a ton of ideas floating around — the bottleneck is people having the time to develop those ideas and turn them into useful research or action. (Also, unlike the situation in academia, people are generally not at all possessive of their ideas — they want to see important things get done, regardless of who does them.)
- Misconception: I don’t have the right credentials to apply to EA jobs. When I first looked at the RSP job ad, I thought it was very unlikely I’d be a good candidate given my CV, which I thought had little relevance to anything FHI did.
- Reality: That story ended with me being offered a position on RSP. More generally, I think people often don’t apply for things because they’re worried they’re underqualified.
- Misconception: There’s a very good chance I’m not well suited for any kind of EA work. When I joined RSP, I guessed there was a 50% chance I’d feel that the work wasn’t for me and I’d end up rejoining finance.
- Reality: There are so many different flavours of “EA work”. So far I’ve ended up mostly doing fairly theoretical / conceptual research, but I could be doing lots of kinds of research, or focusing on research management, or doing the legwork to help set up a biorisk startup. It seems unlikely that I’d be unsuited for all of these.
- Misconception: Most of the interesting work is public.
- Reality: EA is relatively good at this, but actually there’s a lot of work that doesn’t end up being made public somewhere (consider that making something public means that potentially anyone in the world can access it, now and at any point in the future). Generally if you message people, they’ll be up for sharing things.
- Misconception: There’s tons of people working in all these important areas.
- Reality: Once you start meeting people, you’ll realise that most areas have surprisingly few people giving a significant fraction of their time to them. And people are liable to spread themselves over multiple topics or switch to new things, so you can quickly become one of the “main people” in an area just by sticking around for a bit.
- Misconception: Everyone is an expert on everything.
- Reality: There’s way too much out there for anyone to be an expert in all of it, so any given person you talk to might well know less than you about your favourite topic. Even if someone once wrote a great, well-thought-out article on the topic a few years ago, they might be pretty rusty on that topic nowadays.
- Misconception: Everyone has everything figured out.
- Reality: Basically everyone is pretty confused about a lot of the important questions. Which isn’t surprising, because they’re pretty hard! And most people’s day jobs aren’t devoted to figuring these things out, even if they have an EA job.
But I’ll admit there are some downsides to switching to longtermist EA work as a mid-career person
I have to admit there are some things that aren’t ideal about switching to EA work as a mid-career person. (I think improving the situation here would be very valuable.)
- You may have to sacrifice some career stability. Even though I think things are improving, I still think a large proportion of the most impactful work (especially if you’re starting out in EA work) doesn’t offer huge career stability (for example, 6 months of funding from the Long-Term Future Fund for career exploration). Having said this, there are many options that do involve permanent employment, such as roles at Open Philanthropy or my current employer, Rethink Priorities.
- You may well see a pay cut. The pay range guess I gave earlier (“my impression is that salaries are often in the $60k-150k range”) compares well to, say, UK academia, but would probably represent a pay cut for people working in very well-paid industries like finance and consulting.
- It might be initially unclear exactly what you need to do. Depending on how hard you want to optimise for doing the most good (and I think it’s worth optimising pretty hard), finding your most impactful work might require a lot of thinking and exploration. (If you’re interested in doing this and don’t feel like you have much support, get in touch!)
- You’ll probably be rejected for lots of things. Hopefully mid-career people are familiar with what applying for jobs is like, but, to be explicit, as with other areas of work there are no guarantees that applying for EA jobs will lead to job offers. I don’t think everyone who hasn’t yet explored EA work will be able to find a job doing impactful EA work; rather, I think there are lots of people out there who would be able to get job offers to do higher impact stuff (or funding for new projects, etc.) if they explored this.
Finally, I should say I generally tend to see the positive side of things and enjoy the things I do. Maybe others would give a more nuanced view.
Also, just to reiterate that it’s very possible you’re having a really amazing impact doing something that isn’t “EA work” right now (or are gaining skills that will allow you to have a large impact later). If you think that’s you, maybe you should stick with that!
To reiterate, I think there’s an incredible opportunity right now for mid-career people to do really exciting, rewarding, and high-value work with incredible colleagues in a great working environment.
I haven’t said much about how you might go about switching to EA work, but I’ll just quickly note that this doesn’t have to mean switching to full-time EA work straight away. Smaller experiments are possible, like learning about an area of interest, or doing consulting or part-time work.
If you’re a mid-career EA lurker like 2018-me, don’t wait for permission! Get in touch with 80,000 Hours for free career coaching, or with organisations / individuals you might want to work with. Start working on impactful and rewarding projects!
Thanks to Holly Elmore, Max Räuker, Abi Olvera, Gavin Taylor, Linch Zhang, Claire Boine, and David Reinstein for feedback, and Katy Moore for feedback and copy editing.
With “mid-career” I have in mind roughly the age range 27-50. But this is pretty arbitrary, and anyway, a lot of what I’ll say will be relevant for people at other career stages. I focus on mid-career people here partly because I think EA career advice for mid-career people is undersupplied at the moment.
And with “EA org” I roughly have in mind: and organisation with an EA-motivated mission and (probably) mostly staffed by EA-motivated people. (It doesn't need to be explictly EA-branded.)
I don't think Rethink Priorities has live job ads for this right now (as of April 26th), but I understand that expressions of interest in working on megaproject incubation at Rethink Priorities would be very welcome. See this form.
This misconception is related to Holden Karnofsky’s misconception #3 in Important, actionable research questions for the most important century (see the 3rd bullet in the first bullet point list in the post).
The recent post My experience with imposter syndrome — and how to (partly) overcome it seems very relevant here, as does Don’t think, just apply! (usually).
The 2019 EA Forum post After one year of applying for EA jobs: It is really, really hard to get hired by an EA organisation seems relevant. While looking for the link to that post, my eye was caught by Is it no longer hard to get a direct work job?, which I haven’t read but which might be relevant.
But to get an idea of the jobs available, you could check the 80,000 Hours job board.