I found myself having the same conversation with several university group organisers during EAGxBoston, sharing the highlights since others may be facing similar challenges. This post (like the conversations I had) raise more hypotheses than answers, and a series of potential experiments the intrepid EA group could conduct. I hope this can spark more idea generation by providing a useful framing and hopefully pulling out the key challenges and what needs to happen to address them. 

The issue: Students want to do things during the school year, and do internships (and jobs) that have an impact, are meaningful (often this means EA-branded due to availability bias), but there are limited opportunities. 

An example: Aria is a second-year university student who participates in an Intro to EA fellowship at his university and finds it really interesting. She's ready to get involved and wants to do good with her spare time in college. However, she finds that there isn't much to do easily. What can Aria do?

Background assumptions

EA doesn’t have many things for students to do and demand for EA "branded" opportunities outstrips supply

You can address this by: 

  • Increasing supply (creating or defining more opportunities)
    • It seems worth creating more opportunities for activities during school-time
    • For internships or more intensive opportunities, it seems less clear that this would be optimal given we’ll hit natural mentorship constraints at some point (although we don’t seem to have hit it yet). We could call this “spoon-feeding” - which may be appropriate for some people, but is probably not good for most.
    • Some amount of centralised research will be good because it’s more efficient for the community (e.g. identifying and making socially desirable high absorbency career paths, the best version of this is unclear), but ultimately individuals need to make their own decisions on what’s best for their unique situations.
  • Decreasing demand - changing attitudes on what students want, or doing more targeted outreach to smaller groups - see the next point

Community builders want to encourage students to do certain activities but don’t have ready-made opportunities for them

  • Examples include encouraging independent thinking, career planning, career experimentation etc.
  • However, students have many things competing for their time and these kinds of activities do not always seem most interesting.
    • We need to frame activities in a way that is meaningful and exciting to students
  • We want the EA movement to have more people who are self-starters, willing to take risks and exhibit entrepreneurial behaviours. It seems plausible that the highest impact careers in any career path require a lot of experimentation and proactiveness.
    • People can be inspired to be (a lot) more [proactive], but they need to already be at least a little proactive to start (e.g. it’s possible to go from 20 to 100, but not 0 to 50).
      • We might need to have some basic filters in place on who we are selecting, but it's not clear what those filters are and how accurate they are.
    • Students are impressionable - an EA group has an opportunity to positively (or negatively) impact student members. 
      • We can create a group culture that has a positive effects on participants and makes them more proactive and ambitious.

Experiments

“... I think the way to mitigate potential negative effects of too rapid or indiscriminate growth might not be "grow more slowly" or "have a community of uniformly extremely high capability levels" but instead: "structure the community in such a way that selection/screening and self-selection push toward a good allocation of people to different groups, careers, discussions, etc." - Max Daniel

Here are some things that most university group organisers could experiment with: 

  • Engaging people during the busy school year
    • Help people carve out time in their schedules to learn more interactively - e.g. organisers at Haverford / Swarthmore tried out an independent study group to do learn by writing. Does your university let students run their own courses or can you talk to professors about flexibility within coursework to do more EA-aligned projects?
    • Figure out ways to make projects more fun and attractive! MUN seems popular - can we try to emulate them? Can uni groups coordinate to run inter-university small team programs or competitions which could be more exciting than independently run programs? What other clubs are popular on your campus and how can we emulate them?
  • Cultivating highly engaged groups / changing attitudes: Create a high intensity culture of doing things seriously and supporting each other to be more risk-taker, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, being kicked in the butt if that's what we need. This could help finding useful internships or jobs outside of EA. I propose some suggestions here.

Here are some more ambitious programs we could run pilot MVP programs of: 

  • Coaching. Train up a dozen career/life/professional coaches to periodically check in with people. Have small group discussions, 3:1 instead of 1:1 to make it more scalable and create the opportunity for creating culture.
  • Career events & retreats. Run 20-person career values to action retreats with 4 senior-ish EAs. This may be more beneficial if you can narrow it by career path -  e.g. policy in EU or something. Needs to be intensely action oriented, with follow-ups for 6 months. You could run pilots and scale this up yourself, or (if successful) right up a detailed guide & train other organisers so that they can run events locally.

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Thanks for writing this up - I definitely feel like the uni pipeline needs to flesh out everything between the Intro Fellowship and graduating (including options for people who don't want to be group organizers). 

Re: career MVP stuff, I'm running an adaptation of GCP's career program that has been going decently! I think career planning and accountability is definitely something uni groups could do more of.

I'm glad to see that more people raise these points, and thank you for writing about them! I've been thinking about these things for over a year now, and I am in the process of writing two forum posts that will cover most of these points. The first post is about engaging students through projects focused on developing competence and planning their career. This post will likely be published within a week from now. The second post is about a model of engagement-driven student groups especially tailored towards giving students opportunities to do good during their studies. I expect this second post to be published late June. Both of the posts will be grounded in theories of motivation, the model used to organize EA NTNU, and data gathered from internal surveys. Hopefully, they will provide just the answers you need to start engaging the students at your university in meaningful projects despite the limited opportunities.

Meanwhile, here is a specific example of a project with good track record that you can now run at your university group, and here is a template you can use to outline your own projects. Additionally, here is an Overview of projects at EA NTNU that can give you a rough idea of an what an engagement-driven group can look like.  Note however, that the post about EA NTNU is outdated, which is why I am writing new forum posts. We have learned a lot since then, and I can't wait to share about our improvements!

While I'm at it, I might as well share with you a suggestion I have made to Lizka about "[...] making a library of student projects at the EA Forum. This suggestion resulted from the post-EAG London 2022 GCP group organizers summit, where a bunch of group organizers expressed interest in making a library of student projects. The rationale behind this is that more an more student groups are transitioning to an engagement-driven model using project work as a funnel for engagement to EA. The success of engagement-driven groups is dependent on having promising projects to work with, which are not always easy to find, especially for student with little to no prior knowledge or experience. Instead of having engagement-driven groups spend time and energy on generating projects separately, I think we should have an international library of student projects that all groups can contribute to and use for inspiration for their own projects. My recent forum post - Successful student project for engaging with AI alignment - EA Forum (effectivealtruism.org) - is an example of a transferable project with good track record that is readily available for other groups to work on. I wish to see more sharing of repeatable projects with good track record, but instead of having them all as separate forum posts, I think it's a better idea to have them located in a dedicated library.

Initially, I want to hear your thoughts about such a library for student project. Is it something you think is valuable to spend time on developing?

Here is my suggested segmentation of such a library of student projects:
(Template for project descriptions)

  1. Transferable/repeatable projects with good track record
    1. Robert Miles' AI Safety Discord Channel & Stampy's Wiki
  2. Conditional projects with good track record
  3. Promising project ideas
    1. EA Outreach Through Ethics Classes
  4. Unexplored project ideas
  5. Projects with mixed track record
  6. Projects with poor track record "

Unfortunately, I have not yet received a response from Lizka, so getting feedback from you will be valuable for me to know if this is a good idea or not, and whether there actually is a demand among community builders to have such a library of student projects.  

Vaidehi, Thanks for this post. I like these ideas and have wondered about this too. I like how you lay out possible operational models.
 

Miranda, what you are doing looks promising to me; thanks for sharing!