The 80,000 Hours job board is the skeleton of effective altruism stripped of all misleading ideologies

by henrycooksley1 min read7th Aug 20209 comments

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This post originally appeared on hnryjmes.substack.com.

Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian political economist, once stated that “the budget is the skeleton of the state stripped of all misleading ideologies”.

Why should this be the case? I think the answer is something like what we have for ‘skin in the game’ considerations: what can you get someone to pay you to do?

I recently started following the Civil Service Jobs website, as many who work in the UK public sector do, to think about my next role, but recently started following every job posted on there, at least for London. Why? It’s a great way to learn about what the government spends money on. (And, those who post jobs on there often don’t use the categories in a consistent way, so at least looking at everything is a good way to not miss interesting stuff!)

The 80,000 Hours job board currently has 521 roles on it, at the time of writing, and is updated daily. I’ve begun to think of this in the same way as I think about Civil Service Jobs, not as a utility to use occasionally and forget about until I need a job again, but as a valuable knowledge resource: what can one get paid to do, in EA?

These positions focus on the global problems where we expect additional work to have the biggest impact. This list is particularly focussed on opportunities to reduce extinction risks or positively influence the long-term future. It includes promising opportunities for direct impact, and also roles that will help you get the career capital you need to work directly on these areas later.

You get a perspective on EA that is sometimes very different from that you might gain from reading people’s blogs, Facebook posts, or listening to podcasts. You see that the EA community at large is a diverse collection of different roles across research, government, media, law, entrepreneurship, etc. Mostly, work at these organisations is considered highly valuable, even if the organisations themselves aren’t particularly associated with effective altruism.

I think this is an encouraging picture and one that we should remind ourselves of as often as we can. EA is about doing good, but it’s also about actually getting valuable stuff done. It’s not about having “effective altruism” somewhere in the name of your employer.

I strongly and happily encourage you to take a look for yourself!

https://80000hours.org/job-board/

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Thanks for the post Henry! I work at 80,000 Hours and have thought a little bit (along with Maria) about some of the indirect effects of the job board recently - especially about the degree to which it’ll be seen as representing our all-considered views of the best jobs. So it’s good to have some discussion of it!

Like you, I’m really excited about people using the job board to expand their ideas of what EA/long termist roles can look like, especially to types of roles which don’t have (something like) “effective altruism” somewhere in the name. Rob wrote a bit more about this here.

That being said, I do share many of Habryka, Aidan and Ben’s concerns about people thinking of it as representative of good opportunities in EA. It’s missing roles which orgs don’t advertise, lots of opportunities at early stage orgs, roles you design yourself and doesn’t foreground graduate school enough (yet!).

You can read more about In the user guide/FAQ about how we hope for people to think about the roles we list. In particular, I’m keen for people to keep this in mind:

there is a good chance that your best option is actually a role that is not featured on the board. If you find a role that seems promising but is not listed on our board, you should not infer that it is less promising than the roles that we do feature.

Thanks for your comment! To build on my comment to Habryka above (“Thanks for this! If I were rewriting this post, I would take more care to emphasise that it's not 100% my view per se, but it is a view you could have that I have some credence in. The flaws in the view being broadly what you've laid out here.”) I would also add that stripping something to its skeleton is not always desirable, and certainly not what you want as your everyday framing of some issue.

In particular I liked your summary of what's left out of the job board, namely: “it's missing roles which orgs don’t advertise, lots of opportunities at early stage orgs, roles you design yourself and doesn’t foreground graduate school enough”.

Or, the skeleton !== the body

Another point to make is that Schumpeter's “all misleading ideologies” works as a quick phrase in an aphorism, but probably works better when describing the state than describing the effective altruism set of ideas and community.

Makes sense! FWIW, I really enjoyed reading your post. There’s definitely something nice about how listing specific vacancies forces us to get down to get really concrete about what all this theorising actually means, even though doing so has been a bit challenging sometimes!

Hmm, I think I would warn against this framing. In particular the job board systematically omits people working on small projects or organizations that don't really have much of a need for public hiring or recruitment rounds. Some concrete examples: 

  • None of the people the LTFF funds to do research would be represented by a slot on the job board, but I do think it's a viable path for people to take
  • I think there are very few PhD positions advertised on the job board, even though that's obviously a pretty frequent career path, and people can have quite a bit of impact through their PhDs. Like I see no representation of places like CHAI and MILA which have many good safety researchers working there.
  • Some projects that I know have hired people recently, but aren't on the job board, presumably because they are hiring from their networks and friends:
    • LessWrong
    • Quantified Uncertainty Research Institute
    • Epidemic Forecasting
    • The EA Hotel
    • Center for Applied Rationality
    • Centre for Effective Altruism
    • And probably many more that have recently started, or have hired, but didn't see much of a need for a public hiring round

Overall, when I look at the job board, the list of jobs feels highly unrepresentative to me (and I am also honestly not very excited about someone working in 90% of these roles, but that's probably a larger disagreement between my thoughts on cause prioritization and 80Ks thoughts on cause prioritization). 

I am curious about your disagreement with 80k on what types of jobs EAs should look for, if you ever want to get into it

I'm not Oli, but jotting down some of my own thoughts: I feel like the job board gives a number of bits of useful selection pressure about which orgs are broadly 'helping out' in the world; out of all the various places people go in careers, it's directing a bit of energy towards some better ones. Analogous to helping raise awareness of which foods are organic or something, which is only a little helpful for the average person, but creating that information can be pretty healthy for a massive population. I expect 80k was motivated to make the board because such a large order of magnitude of people who wanted their advice, and they felt that this was an improvement on the margin that had a large effect if thousands of people tried to follow the advice.

As I wouldn't expect this was a massive change to your health to start eating organic food, I wouldn't suddenly become excited about someone and their impact if they became the 100th employee at John Hopkins or if they were the marginal civil servant in the UK government. 

In fact (extending this analogy to its breaking point) nutrition is an area where it's hard to give general advice, the data mostly comes from low quality observational studies, and the truth is you have to do a lot of self-experimentation and building your own models of the domain to get any remotely confident beliefs about your own diet and health. Similarly, I'm excited by people who try a lot of their own projects and have some successes at weird things like forming a small team and creating a very valuable product that people pay a lot of money for, or people who do weird but very insightful research (like Gwern or Scott Alexander to give obvious examples, but also things like this that take 20 hours and falsifies a standard claim from psychology), who figure out for themselves what's valuable and try very very hard to achieve it directly without waiting for others to give them permission.

Thanks for this! If I were rewriting this post, I would take more care to emphasise that it's not 100% my view per se, but it is a view you could have that I have some credence in. The flaws in the view being broadly what you've laid out here.

An important difference between overall budgets and job boards is that budgets tell you how all the resources are spent whereas job boards just tell you how (some of) the resources are spent on the margin. EA could spend a lot of money on some area and/or employ lots of people to work in that area without actively hiring new people. We'd miss that by just looking at the job board.

I think this is a nice suggestion for getting a rough idea of EA priorities but because of this + Habryka's observation that the 80k job board is not representative of new jobs in and around EA, I'd caution against putting much weight on this.

Absolutely right, we would want something like a breakdown of EA spending that could come from the EA survey if we wanted a more robust metaphor of this kind. Marginal spending on new jobs can miss out information about employers with irregular hiring cycles (or who do very little hiring at all), so looking at a snapshot of a job board on any given day is likely to give you a biased picture of EA spending in general.