Charity Entrepreneurship is running a second edition of our Research Training Program (RTP) – a program designed to equip participants with the tools and skills needed to identify, compare, and recommend the most effective charities and interventions.
In this post, we discuss possible long-term career paths for researchers and a gap assessment of what skills people might want to prioritize to pursue those. This discussion may be helpful for people considering the RTP program or those more generally wanting to find other ways of building career capital in research.
These five roles are based on what we think are potential placements or jobs for our first cohort in the RTP. We have made these all a bit more clichéd and separate than they are – in practice, there is a lot of overlap and nuance among them, and a successful research career often involves aspects from all these role types.
These paths can all be exciting for someone who is the right fit. Each of them will inevitably have a high variance in impact, with some low- and some high-impact roles in the mix. Most importantly, we think people tend to forget the vast range of career paths open to someone with strong research skills. In the RTP, we aim to coach participants on what we think would be most cross-applicable between these areas, with a mind to make these positions as impactful as possible.
Beyond these specific roles, it is worth noting that being a proficient researcher can be highly applicable to many other positions that require lots of decision-making, such as leadership and executive roles in high-performing organizations. In this sense, good research skills are all about helping you ask the right questions and find the right answers.
Role: Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) for a High-Impact Organization
Mechanism for Impact: This role has an impact by ensuring an organization achieves its goals. Great M&E can often be the difference between highly impactful charities (e.g., GiveWell recommended) and those that are not. M&E helps demonstrate impact, identify pain points, and supervise progress toward stated goals. When done well, it can increase the odds of a charity improving to reach the top of its field.
Our sense is the impact of an M&E role correlates quite strongly with the charity's quality and its interest in M&E. A more junior role in an impactful charity may lead to more impact than a senior role in a much less impactful one. Charities also have very different attitudes toward M&E, where working for an organization that values M&E facilitates the impact of your role, and working for one that doesn’t can amount to paper pushing. M&E work is sometimes only used as signaling for fundraising, not to determine if the organization is having an impact or identify potential improvements.
Persona: The type of person who is good at this sort of role is a bit non-conformist and fairly detail-oriented. Enjoying finding flaws or possible areas for improvement ends up being a pretty helpful disposition here. Relative to other research roles, this role is a lot more applied, so it could be a good fit for someone who wants to spend time in the field and create evidence rather than relying on secondary sources. M&E can be a good fit for someone early in their career who wants to leave options open for more direct charity work and theory-based research.
Top skills to build: Although some cause areas (such as global poverty) have a decent pipeline for M&E training (such as the MIT MicroMasters or specific university courses), other cause areas have virtually no way to train up and get good at this sort of research (animal advocacy and EA meta mainly come to mind).
Some things to focus on include being strong at making theories of change and other mental models that help you understand how something works, research synthesis, and going deep into methodologies, particularly finding inconsistencies.
Role: Researcher in a Grantmaking Role / for a Foundation
Mechanism for Impact: Impact-wise, this is likely the most straightforward path. Research influencing charity grants can be fairly quickly evaluated based on the amount of money affected and the counterfactual of where that money went. The overall impact is significant if a grant size is large and significantly influenced by the research.
Examples of this might be being a program officer at a foundation or a researcher working directly on projects connected to a specific funding body. For example, our funding circles have commissioned research to address a critical question that then determined significant donations.
Persona: Grantmaking research is often about identifying critical factors and relative priorities. Knowing where to dig is more important than the speed at which you do it. This role requires communication skills, as foundations are unusually time-poor relative to other consumers of research. Grantmaking is often about comparing and contrasting complex options; if you made a spreadsheet to compare the last toaster you bought and then convinced your roommates of the best option, this might be a good fit for you.
Top skills to build: Getting good at reasoning, transparency, and communication – this research is often at risk of never getting picked up if it is unappealing or unclear. Being good at modeling cost-effectiveness, particularly under time pressure or uncertainty, is also helpful.
Role: Charity Evaluation Staff
Example: Senior Researcher at GiveWell
Mechanism for Impact: In some ways, this type of role shares many characteristics with grantmaking positions: your bottom line impact is dollars moved to more effective charities. With charity evaluation roles, there are fewer concerns about whether your research will be listened to but perhaps deeper concerns regarding the counterfactual value of your research relative to the next best hire.
Persona: Compared to the three roles above, this sort of role typically allows you to go deeper in your research. Charity evaluation typically prioritizes transparency and involves fewer options evaluated at a time than most grantmaking situations. This can make it an excellent fit for someone who is most excited about going extremely deep into a topic.
These roles are also a good fit for someone who can build on and contribute to pre-existing work (as in, not creating things from scratch). You may be a fit if you tend to go ten times deeper on a topic than your other fairly research-heavy friends.
Top skills to build: A lot of the best skills here are about quality and depth. Can you spend ten hours looking through a model and suggest the three most important improvements? Working with an existing model and changing a significant factor, such as what this implementation would look like in a different country, or conducting a quality expert review would be useful skills when getting into this path.
Role: Direct Research (such as academic, think tank, or EA meta)
Mechanism for Impact: This is a pretty big bucket, including lots of different types of research (although mostly involving primary research) – impact ranges a lot. Research studies often influence policy, charity operations, and philanthropic funding through varying mechanisms.
These sorts of research organizations are often a bit broader and more cross-cutting in their research, meaning there can be research done that affects multiple avenues/actors. Sometimes, research can lack a clear connection to a specific actor or activity, meaning that a lot of research results in no actual change. The critical thing to look for here is the exact mechanism for how a given piece of research affects the world positively.
Persona: Depending on the role, these positions often involve a good mix of spread and depth regarding research topics. Thus, they can be a good fit for generalists currently unsure of their core focus or people most drawn to more abstract research. This might be someone who tends to get into a deep philosophical conversation at every party they go to.
Top skills to build: The most common missing skill for people in these fields tends to be in the research translation category. For instance, it would be good to practice research communication (e.g., how to make three years of research into action through a one-pager that someone else might pick up). Writing skills and summarizing complex topics are very necessary for deep, less clearly targeted research like this.
Role: Charity Founding (example: CE Incubation Program)
Mechanism for Impact: As a charity founder, you will, in most cases, not spend a lot of time on research in the traditional sense. Having said this, the importance of the research skillset for a founder should not be understated: knowing how to set up grand theories of change and investigate if their program has an impact is the aspect that distinguishes some of the best charities from the pack.
Persona: This is the most generalized role and among the most demanding, on average. You have to be able to make decisions under uncertainty and quickly become well-versed in topics that others may have been studying for years. People who are a good fit for this are ambitious and see their research skills as one skill set among a few that they have. This might be a fit for someone who wants to take the research they have conducted and apply it directly by starting a charity working on the issue they have investigated.
Top skills to build: The most important skills here are getting fast and decisive in your research. When founding, it is often about making ten calls and reversing two of them later. This does not come naturally to many researchers, so practicing doing research under time-bound scenarios and with imperfect information is key.
If you’re interested in our Research Training Program, you can still apply by 28 January 2024 here. If you want to learn more, visit our website or watch our online presentation and Q&A session: https://youtu.be/PCotAlZru3I?si=3rSAAHjSYjefNxFC