Claire Zabel: Doing good as a student — tradeoffs and project ideas

by EA Global20 min read24th Oct 2020No comments

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Personal developmentCareer choice
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In this EA Student Summit 2020 talk, Claire Zabel, a program officer at Open Philanthropy, discusses different potential high-impact approaches to one’s time as a student, and the tradeoffs between them, such as pursuing opportunities to gain career capital versus doing directly impactful research. She focuses on the conditions under which she thinks students should and shouldn’t try to do community building and high-impact projects as students, and some particular project options she thinks are potentially promising for some students, largely from a longtermist perspective.

Below is a transcript of Claire’s talk, which we’ve lightly edited for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube.

The Talk

Anjali Gopal (Moderator): Hi, and welcome to this session on doing good as a student — trade-offs and project ideas, with Claire Zabel. I'm Anjali and I'll be the emcee for this session. We'll start with a 15-minute talk by Claire, and then we'll move on to a live Q&A session where she'll respond to some of your questions. 

Now I'd like to introduce our speaker for the session. Claire Zabel is a program officer at Open Philanthropy, leading their grantmaking on effective altruism and contributing to their grantmaking on global catastrophic risks. Claire's job is to figure out which opportunities have the highest expected value per dollar in terms of increasing the chances that the long-term trajectory of civilization goes as well as possible, and to help those opportunities come to exist. She's also a trustee of the Centre for Effective Altruism. Here's Claire.

Claire: Hello. My name is Claire, and I want to talk to you today about different ways that I think students can have a really big impact, and the different strategies and tradeoffs they face in doing that. 

First, a bit about me: I learned about EA [effective altruism] during university and started going to the Stanford EA student group meetings when I was there. When I graduated, I joined GiveWell as a research analyst. I also started doing a variety of projects at Open Philanthropy (this was back when Open Philanthropy and GiveWell were still part of the same organization). 

I currently work on EA and other kinds of long-term grantmaking at Open Philanthropy. I decided I wanted to give this talk because I was thinking about my time as a student — and [what other EAs experienced as students] — and how it could have gone better. I wanted to give the talk that I wish someone had given to me. 

So, I want to discuss several different strategies that I think you can take as a student to try to have a big impact. I won’t cover all of them; I think there are several more, but I think that [those I talk about today] are some of the more common ones. Then, I'm going to focus a bit more on how to have a direct impact as a student. 

I think that all of the different strategies have merit, and that each can be the right strategy for some people [to select] as a dominant one. I also think that many people shouldn’t just do one; [neither should many] do a little bit of everything. Focus on a few. And [it’s probably best not to blindly pursue] the strategy that your parents or friends have followed or recommended. Instead, think critically about whether that's right for you [given] your goals, skills, and interests.

This talk is somewhat less relevant for graduate students. I’m sorry about that. It’s because I think some of the strategy questions are more baked into the choice of which graduate degree to choose, or whether to even get a graduate degree. With undergrads, however, there are a lot more options that they might be thinking through. 

Finally, these are just my personal thoughts, not Open Philanthropy's thoughts. They're based mostly on my experience and that of other undergraduates in the United States. So there might be all kinds of biases and pieces of information that I'm missing. So please, take [everything that I have to say] lightly, and think about how much it does [or doesn’t] apply to your own situation.

Pursuing knowledge and understanding

The first strategy for students that I want to discuss is pursuing knowledge and understanding. That's the one that I see as the default or nominal way for how you might think about attending university. It’s [an opportunity to become] more knowledgeable about the world, to become an educated person and pursue deep questions about reality, existence, history, and science. 

I think that this is mostly a good option for people who might want to do this over the long term. If you’re one of those people, you might want to do things like make sure that you have a really firm foundation in your field and take challenging classes, where you’re pushed to learn about more complicated methodologies and advances. And you might want to spend time trying out research itself, not just taking classes. 

I think this is most likely to be a fit for people who realize that they have research questions. They really want to get to the bottom of something, and may find themselves pursuing questions in their spare time. I think that's correlated to being the kind of person who might be a really strong researcher and find research rewarding. I think those are the people who should focus on gaining knowledge, particularly in an area they're interested in, might want to stay in for the long haul, and can push themselves really hard when they're [doing work related to that area]. 

I think the main downside of this strategy is that there are fewer options if you pursue one area or go to graduate school, which I've done, and then decide that it's not for you. That might not translate as well to other options. 

(I’ve scattered in some pictures of myself doing things as an undergraduate that were representative of these different strategies, because I did pursue the “little bit of everything” strategy, which I don't think is optimal.)

Accruing prestige

Another strategy is to accrue prestige. I think this one might get a bad rap, but it's actually a fairly good one for a lot of people. The way I see it is you try to get good grades and do impressive-seeming things. And often things seem impressive because they are at least somewhat impressive. 

This strategy requires a lot of organization and conscientiousness; you have to juggle many things. You might learn a lot about being a professional person who doesn’t drop responsibilities. I think people are rightly somewhat attracted to that. And I think it rightly gives you a lot of option value. 

I think this is a particularly good strategy for people who want to go into an area where generic prestige is quite helpful, and who enjoy “playing the game” and responding to social incentives.

I think the downsides are that it can be hard to know if it's not working. You can become kind of incentivized to keep craving social rewards and the feeling of being admired. It can be hard to say to yourself, “This isn't working — I want to do something that people maybe won't like as much, or that won't get me as much prestige.” You might also be incentivized to not listen to yourself when you have feelings of boredom or lack interest in a topic because you are generally required to push through those feelings in order to [apply the strategy effectively]. And finally, it can be tiring and easily lead to burnout. 

(I’ve included a picture of me at a fancy conference that probably had a lot of cool stuff going on that I didn't get a chance to experience at all.)

Get out of college quickly

A strategy that I think is less frequently considered is to get out of there. There are great reasons to get a university degree. It opens up a lot of different options to you. But maybe you should try to get it as fast as possible. I think if you try to take easy classes, you might be able to potentially get a degree a year faster. 

This is one that I probably wish I had done, because I think I could have just joined GiveWell a year earlier and [that would have served me just as well] throughout my life. I would be a year ahead of where I am right now, and that would be really nice. But I think for a lot of people, the other strategies feed more into the kinds of things that they want to do in the long run.

But some people want to pursue strategies where the stuff you learn at university just doesn't help that much. It's good to recognize that and be aware of it, especially if you have good fallback plans and easy-to-demonstrate skills, or if you just hate being at university. I know a lot of people who really don't enjoy their time at university. It feels competitive. It's very fast-paced; things change all of the time. You have to sit and listen to people a lot when you might prefer doing things. It can be pretty valuable to move on to a different phase of life.

Having a direct impact as a student

Finally, I want to talk about having a direct impact as a student. It might seem a bit odd to think about that because you're so young. Maybe you have an instinct that you should try to set yourself up well for success later, rather than trying to optimize for success and impact now. I think that's a really good instinct to listen to, and I put a lot of weight on it.

But I do think that there are important things pushing in the opposite direction. First of all, often the best way to do something well is to practice it a lot. And it can be a bit risky to say, “I really want to have a really big influence and a lot of direct impact, and I'm going to set myself up to do that 20 years from now.” You might not realize that actually doing that requires different skills or credentials, or the ability to overcome different challenges than the ones you thought. And you could spend a long time not doing exactly what you need to be doing. 

Secondarily, I think that students are strangely well-positioned to have an impact in certain respects, mostly because of their access to fellow students and professors. Fellow students represent this big body of people who are often smart and open-minded, and they're at the stage in life where they're really open to new ideas. You have a lot of social and geographical proximity to them and the ability to work and engage with them. The same is true with professors. They're some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the world in their areas. And you have a lot of access to them as a student that you might not have after you graduate. It’s very hard to replicate that. 

An obvious path to impact is organizing student groups. I think this is sometimes a bit underrated, although people are starting to [recognize its] importance. But we did a survey of a subset of people that Open Philanthropy thinks are doing promising work. We asked them a variety of questions, and one of them was “What factors helped increase your positive expectancy impact — what helped you become the kind of person who can do a lot of good in the world?” 

The most frequently listed factor was EA groups, including student groups. Therefore, I think student groups are extremely important and formative for a lot of people. And as a student, you can help make student groups great and use them to engage more students, in different ways. 

I think there are a lot of options. I list a few here, like teaching a class or running a different group [other than an EA group]. I don't think everything needs to be about EA. You might invite interesting speakers to campus and just expose people to a lot of important ideas that are related to doing good.

You can work with professors as well as students. I know that some students have inspired professors to teach classes about relevant topics. Stanford MBA students engaged with two professors, Steve Luby and Paul Edwards, to create a summer fellowship program [the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative]. I think that's a great example of collaborating with professors and using your position as a student to benefit from professors’ greater knowledge, status, and experience in the world, while also making an important project happen by being willing to help them out.

There are other ways that students can have a huge impact as well. I list a few different options here:

I think this is not the type of list where you can just think about which option is best for you. Instead, these options are the product of folks thinking really carefully about what would be a good fit for them and what they really want to do — and then being clever about it and pulling it off.

A better takeaway from this list is [the recognition that] there are many great options out there — everything from doing impactful research that helps people engage with effective charities, to doing forecasting, to teaching younger folks, and even to starting an organization (that one is pretty hard for most students). Many students have succeeded at doing really impactful things. Perhaps you can too. Or perhaps it's better for you to pursue a strategy that doesn’t focus as much on direct impact right now. But if something is a good fit for you, don’t rule it out. 

Finally, I'm enthusiastic about students trying to have a direct impact. But please be careful when you do it. First impressions are really sticky. If you're doing outreach, you're going to be responsible for a lot of people's first impressions about EA or whatever other important topic you're talking about. Obviously, you want those impressions to be positive ones. Therefore, I think this is an area where you can do harm. 

I think a way to minimize that is to seek feedback from trusted friends and advisors. Sometimes people go through a checklist and they're like, “Oh, I should ask for feedback from people,” and they do that, but they don't necessarily set up the conditions for someone to feel comfortable giving them negative feedback. I think you really want to ask yourself: “If what I'm doing is wrong — if it's not a good fit or if it might be harmful — have I done what I need to do to increase the likelihood that people will feel comfortable bringing that to my attention?” If not, that might be something you want to focus on.

Also, there are more and more resources for people to try to avoid downside risk when they're trying to do good. The Centre for Effective Altruism has several resources, and other group organizers do too. It’s important to seek those out and make sure that you’re aware of the pitfalls of the projects that you're doing. It’s awesome that people are making more resources available for that.

Unfortunately, you will make mistakes. Some of them will do harm in the world. I've made those kinds of mistakes. I think probably every speaker at this summit has. It's inevitable and it's always hard to talk about, but its inevitability doesn't mean you shouldn't try to avoid it as much as possible. 

However, I think everyone understands that these kinds of things happen, and that it's part of trying to be a good and active person who is trying to change the world. People will forgive you, and see past it, especially if they see that you have made a good faith effort and did common-sense things to try to mitigate risk. And even if you didn't, when you're young, you make mistakes and that's part of learning. So I'm trying to avoid mistakes, while realizing that they'll happen — and that, when they do, it's not the end of the world.

Next steps

 [In terms of next steps], you're all different. I don't know what you should do, but I think you should be thinking about your career path and reading the 80,000 Hours website, and then consider what you're doing as a student and whether you're setting yourself up for success — for something that's a fit with your interests, skills, and personality. And always think critically about whether you really know why you're doing what you're doing. Did you accidentally start doing something just because everyone else was doing it, or start doing it and forget why? Maybe it doesn't make sense anymore. Or are you thinking critically, and still on the path for you to do a lot of good in the world? 

I think if you do those things, then there's a good chance you’ll make the most of your time as a student, and hopefully help the world in the course of that, or when you graduate. Thanks so much.

Q&A

Anjali: Thanks for that great talk, Claire. 

We have a few questions that have been submitted already. I'd actually like to start by expanding on some of the key points that you covered in your talk. First, you talked a little bit about your own career path and trajectory. Can you expand on that? What are some of the decisions you made while choosing your career that you think were good, and what would you have changed in hindsight?

Claire: Thanks, Anjali. One of the reasons I was motivated to give this talk was that I wasn't entirely satisfied with my own approach to student life. I did a little bit of everything, which I think is the default for a lot of people. Because of that, I didn't learn as much in college that would have been helpful. I also didn't do as much to make myself look good to more credential-centric employers. Luckily, I ended up finding my way to a role where people weren't as focused on that. It was very early on at GiveWell [when I joined], so there was a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of people. That has been great.

Since graduating, I have basically taken what I guess is a direct impact-focused approach. I think my current trajectory has caused me to take a very scattered approach to learning. With grantmaking, you learn about several different people's projects in a relatively superficial way, with occasional moments of depth. Also, it's an odd enough job that I don't know how prestigious it would seem to most employers. 

But I'm satisfied with the impact that I'm having. And overall, I'm glad that I'm doing that instead of trying to balance having an impact with doing something that looks good on a resume. 

Anjali: That leads into my next question: How important is personal fit when it comes to making career decisions? Especially in EA, I think a lot of people hear the message [that you should] go into the most high-impact field. How do you think that should [be weighed] against questions of whether the career or role is right?

Claire: In general, I would like to see the community take personal fit more seriously. I've seen a lot of people either burn out or fail to realize that they have a really important skill because it doesn't fit in a cut-and-paste way into a path that 80,000 Hours talks about. I think we lose a lot of value [when that happens].

The way I think about it is we can use EA to choose a cause area, but then think about personal fit to understand what you should do in that cause area. Try to find something that you're really excited about, or that [lies] between a few different potentially impactful cause areas.

Anjali: So you're definitely in the camp of emphasizing personal fit a lot more.

Claire: Yeah, although I wouldn't go so far as to say something like “Just follow your passion.” I think I would say something like, “There are so many ways to contribute to the most important causes. It's good to find one you'll be really excellent at and motivated by, but also there's a huge difference between causes.” That's why I use EA for cause area selection.

Anjali: That makes sense. A few questions have been submitted about courses and training in school. One person asks, “How worthwhile are online free courses rather than university classes for exploration and gaining knowledge?”

Claire: Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to that. I've never taken an online course. I guess they vary a lot, in that some of them are probably really excellent for learning — potentially better than in-person courses. And certainly some of the stresses of an in-person course are relieved. For example, maybe with some, you can take them on your own schedule and take the time you need with each part of the material. But presumably, it doesn't have the same prestige as having it be part of your degree (although I know some online course credits are affiliated with a university, so it could be okay on that front). 

So I don't think I have a very useful answer to that, but it seems potentially worthwhile, especially for people who find that the university schedule isn't a good fit for their learning.

Anjali: There’s also a question from a graduate student who asks, “For graduate school, how should we weigh the tradeoff between working on a high-impact project versus getting the best training possible?” Do you have any thoughts on that?

Claire: Annoyingly, there's not just one answer to that. I think it depends a lot on the person. Basically, I would say the same thing that I said in the rest of my talk: I think it's good to mostly [focus on] one or the other, although sometimes they mesh well (for example, if you aren’t burned out after doing your research for 40 hours a week, and you actually have a lot of energy to do something else for 20 hours a week). 

But barring that, I would say that some people can probably have a huge impact when they're in grad school by focusing on that directly, and other people don't have as much of that opportunity. It depends on what your long-term goals are. And it depends on having a lot of self-awareness about who you are, what you're motivated by, and what options are open to you. I wish there was a simple answer. That's just my opinion.

Anjali: That's still very helpful. For our last few minutes, I think there are several questions on the topic of EA student groups, which I think you also emphasized in your presentation. What would you recommend to students at universities where there aren't local EA chapters yet? Do you have any tips for how to get that started? And similarly, are there specific examples of things you think EA groups have been especially effective at doing, or in your own experience at Stanford EA? What types of activities have you found particularly helpful or insightful?

Claire: So the obvious, overly flippant answer to “What should I do if there's no student group at my university?” is to start one. I think that many people are not a good fit for starting one, though, and that's okay. Other things you can do are to invite speakers to campus or have a very low-key group with your friends that’s not trying to expand quickly. Or you might weave EA into an existing course if you're a teaching assistant, or if you have a close friendship with a professor. I think there's a lot you can do to give back. 

[In terms of how to get] involved personally, there are a lot of online EA resources. And when I was at Stanford EA, we had people who were not even at the university come to our groups sometimes. So I wouldn't rule out things like joining a nearby group [if there isn’t one at your own university]. But I don't think that's a fit for all groups, because some are more strictly focused on just people who are at the university and others are a little broader. 

You can also try to do things like attend EA Global and events like this [EA Global Student Summit] to meet people, increase your knowledge, and keep thinking about how to have a really big impact.

Anjali: Well, that's all the time we have for this session. Thanks again so much to Claire and  to our viewers for watching.

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