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Hi everyone! This is my first post on the forum, so please let me know if I messed up something.

Epistemic status

I’m neither a career advisor nor a grantmaker. I just recently started exploring the world of optimizing my actions for impact and struggled deciding between the two options of donating and investing into my own career in the short term. No strong opinions but I feel that talking a little more about the question could be helpful.

Summary

I’m writing the story starting from a relatively well-paid mid-career perspective but I think the thinking could potentially be generalized to anyone who is relatively well-positioned financially (e.g. having significant runway or other source of financial resources e.g. from family, etc.) but I did not put much thinking into this yet.

The dilemma arises when such a person is both willing to make a change in career plans and is also either already donating a significant part of income or now willing to take a significant “pay cut” (at least on a short term). But it does not need to be a literal pay cut, it can be anything from switching to a significantly less-paid job, through doing unpaid self-development/volunteering to even paying some tuition fee to gain career capital. The point is that it involves “giving up” a part of the financial position for this.

I’ll try to argue that for fairness and short-term reasons, such a dilemma should be also worth discussing with members of the community who are experienced in short-term prioritization (e.g. fund grantmakers). The idea is similar to how long-term plans are worth discussing with career advising experts and potentially quite close to how those with similar career investment plans but without similarly good financial positions must actually do this consulting (through the funding application processes) in order to get the investment costs covered. 

Things I’m not trying to do

In this post I’m not trying to argue on whether people should consider doing a career transition to do more good or whether they should accept a worse financial position for the same. This is only based on thinking that we (the community) should be really happy if someone decides to do either of these and we should then help the person get the best/most out of these resources. And if someone decides to go with both at the same time, then making tradeoffs between the two could (should?) be a difficult question and with no good approach to address this, it can even be paralyzing.

Another thing I’m not trying to do in this post is arguing for changing long-term career plans based on short-term considerations. It’s quite the opposite actually. I think it’s quite fair to assume that career advising experts consider the long-term impacts of a career decision including the contribution of future donations (like earning to give). I can also imagine that short-term considerations affect only a relatively small proportion of the overall expected impact which makes it impractical to be included in long-term estimations. So to me it definitely feels like you’d first want to get your long-term plan right and make sure that you have a strategy to make progress towards that but if you are also happy to put some more work into optimizing in the short term as well, then my feeling is that this might have some additional benefits too.

My story

Background

I've been working as a developer in the tech industry for ~5 years before finding EA. In my career I prioritized learning over earning so far so I probably don't have the highest paying job in the market but I have a decent salary.

Then realizing how much good my donations and a transition to a higher-impact career could do, I decided that I'd like to take both opportunities and also try to get the most out of these.

The dilemma

All good so far, great opportunities ahead! But I soon realized that these two are not completely orthogonal and I might need to make tradeoffs between them.

E.g. If I decide to quit my current job and spend say 6 months up-skilling to enter a different career path. (let's assume for now that I can very likely get a job in the new field after that) Then I will not be able to donate during this 6 months period.

On the other hand if I decide to keep earning and donating I will have much less time for doing the up-skilling required for the career transition so I will only be able to enter the new field much (maybe even a couple of years) later.

You can also think of these as two ends of a spectrum with the middle options of working part time and up-skilling in the remaining time if that is viable as well.

Original approach

Obviously, one could do some expected value calculations and get advice on what the better option would be in your particular case in the long term.

I'll share some details about myself as it feels like it's needed to justify how I got to the first result but I think the problem may apply more generally and I want to keep the rest of the post in such a general way. Personally I'm prioritizing the reduction of catastrophic risks and based on external feedback I seem to be a good fit for some of the potentially high-impact direct work paths. These are widely agreed to be a better option than earning to give and donating in these areas.

As a result I ended up thinking that quitting my job to do up-skilling and pausing donations for the time being would be the best option. But something just did not feel right with this plan. Is this actually the best thing I could do?

The problems

I think the first concern I had was about fairness. Knowing that someone’s plans are way more thoroughly scrutinized in a grantmaking process than being told after a 30 minutes call to “yeah, sure, please do what you have in mind”, it just feels like these processes are not symmetric but it feels like they kind of should. To me it feels like making the grantmaking process much more lightweight is probably a bad idea but I could indeed see an option of suggesting to such people to submit a grant proposal in order to get feedback on their plans from a short-term perspective as well before actually acting on them.

Later I also started to think about whether this could have consequences on the expected impact of my career decision. In an ideal world, everyone who wants to increase the good they do with their career and require funding for this would actually be able to get that funding. In reality, those working on prioritization of long-term career paths obviously consider the expected distribution of funding over time and similarly the expected demand for funding as well. But despite the fact that these estimations likely work out on a longer term, there might be significant, unexpected glitches in the short run like a significantly decreased amount of funding being available or a significantly increased amount of demand raising during a certain period. As I mentioned, short-term glitches can easily cancel out during a longer term so updating the long-term career priorities just because of such may not make sense. Obviously if it turns out to be a long-term deviation from the expected unfolding, then these must also be updated.

Considering the possibility of short-term deviations from the expected funding available and the expected (justified) demand for these can mean that there are significantly higher expected impact opportunities out there. There might be different projects/proposals where the expected impact is higher but these do not have enough funding to run. Or it might be that other people have similar plans to you but they may have better chances for a large success (due to e.g. experience, talent, personal fit, etc.) but they don’t have the required money to cover their costs and funding is also not available to them. In an ideal world, you’d both be able to act right away, but in a world where resources are way more limited than usual. you need to prioritize somehow. What’s more, if the long-term model is correct, which I think is fair to assume, you both will actually soon be able to make significant steps towards your long-term plans. Still, if you can only choose one right now, you might want to let the other person go first.

Potential solution

Thinking about the problem and trying to talk this through in my (so far relatively very limited) EA network, it feels that the best strategy to address this question is to separate the financial and the career aspects.

It felt really hard in this abstract problem to think about what fraction of my financial position do I want to be involved in this decision. Would I consume some of my runway or get a grant to cover my living costs only? Separating this aspect from the rest of the problem just felt like it simplifies a lot. So that’s what I did, I separated the part of my savings that I’m happy to live without and calculated a baseline for myself which I’m happy to live on in the future (making a commitment to this baseline as well is basically what the GWWC further pledge is BTW).

At this point I had a clear picture of what my financial needs were. Assuming I’m in contact with a single fund (I donate to this one if I can and I also apply for a grant here when in need) I could easily calculate how much my career decision would “cost” the community behind the fund.

For example If I could be earning net 4,000$ a month doing approximately neutral work, then doing unpaid self-development for 6 months means that I’m not earning 6x4,000$ in total during this period that I could have earned otherwise.

What about my baseline? Let’s assume my baseline is e.g. 1,500$ per month. This is the amount I spend on living. That is 6x1,500$ = 9,000$ altogether. But is this value relevant for calculating the opportunity cost? Well, I’ll need to cover these costs anyway so we’ll see it cancels out. I need to cover this either from salary, savings or grant. Let’s go through:

  • Let’s assume I don’t have savings that I’m happy to use
    • Doing the paid neutral work, I can donate everything above my baseline, so I can donate 2,500$ each month.
    • Doing the unpaid self-development I’ll need 1,500$ per month grant to cover these costs. As a result the fund is worse off by 4,000$ a month (I don’t pay them 2,500$ and they pay me 1,500$).
  • If I’m fortunate enough to have 9,000$ savings I’m happy to live without
    • Doing the paid work, I can also just donate the amount of my savings and cover my costs from the salary. That is I can donate a single 9,000$ + 2,500$ each month which ends up being 4,000$ per month on average.
    • Doing the unpaid self-development, I can not donate any because I need the savings to cover the costs. This scenario also means the fund is worse off by 4,000$ a month on average.

The conclusion is that my self-development would make the fund worse off by 6x4,000$ = 24,000$ in total. This is an amount which might be worth careful consideration. And as I mentioned funds do actually do this careful consideration when they need to pay out such amounts. My suggestion is that individuals should also do this or preferably even ask for help from experts such as grantmakers when making decisions involving such amounts.

Now I’m not sure how feasible it might be but I can imagine grantmakers offering proposal evaluations (similar to evaluating grant requests) to support individuals on such decisions. In the example above the question would be “are my self-development plans meeting the current bar for 24,000$ of the fund’s money?”

And I did not think about this but I’d guess you could also somehow make this thinking work across different funds and/or cause areas as well. So you could get a clear picture of how much your alternative options would cost/benefit different funds and/or cause areas.

Credits

Huge thanks to @gergo for guiding my exploration and providing valuable feedback on this post.

 

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:06 PM

You have obviously put a lot of thought into this, which I think is super valuable both for deciding your own next steps and for other people in the community to see how it relates to them. I strongly encourage you to apply for 80,000 Hours Advising; I think chatting through these considerations with an advisor would be super useful. Also, it's free ;) https://80000hours.org/speak-with-us/

My hot take is, at the level of donations you're considering, your main consideration should be how impactful your actual job is/how impactful the job that you're pivoting into could be. Seems worth taking a hit on impact done right now if it allows you to become super high impact in the near future. 

These are my personal opinion and do not reflect those of my employer.

Thank you for taking a look and for the suggestions! Not saying I've tried super hard to talk these through with an advisor but my attempts did not get much attention so far.

Completely agree that one should prioritize long-term impact. I'm just saying that in case of a temporary funding constraint, choosing not to donate may prevent other, at least equally promising candidates who are in need of funding from investing into their own careers.