*Disclaimer* The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent Open Philanthropy. In particular, my views on EA community building aren't meant to represent those of OP's program staffers in that area; none of them reviewed this full post ahead of time.
Valentine’s day 2022 was my first day of work at Open Phil. As a 24-year-old who had spent two post-grad years as a poker dealer/cardroom union representative, I had little in the way of white collar context or transferable skills. Recently, a few undergraduates and early career professionals have reached out to learn what the job is like & how they can get further involved in EA. In this post I’ll try to provide the advice that I would have benefited from hearing a couple years ago.
I’m hoping to widen the aperture of possibilities to early career professionals who are excited to use their time and talents to do good. I know how difficult it can be to land an EA job - it took years of on-and-off applying before I got an offer. It’s normal to face a string of rejections and it’s valid to feel frustrated by that, but I think the benefits to individuals and organizations when a hire is made are so great that continuing to apply is worth it. I encourage anyone who is struggling to get their foot in the door to read Aaron’s Epistemic Stories - I found it really motivating.
- Before starting this job, I underestimated the $ value of person-hours at EA orgs. I may have done this because:
- There’s a disconnect between salary and social value generated (even though salaries at EA orgs are generous). Most for-profit companies value their average staff member’s contributions at about 2x their salary, and I suspect EA orgs value their average staff member’s contributions at more like 8x+ their salary.
- It could be uncomfortable to think that time at an EA org would be very valuable, both because of what it would imply for labor/leisure tradeoffs and because it could lead to imposter syndrome.
- It can be easy to mentally compartmentalize work at EA orgs as creating a similar level of social impact to work at nonprofits in general, despite believing that EA interventions are much more cost-effective than the average nonprofit’s interventions.
- Due to this underestimate, I now think I should have focused on working directly on EA projects and spending more time applying for EA jobs earlier. Here are some of my recommendations to early career professionals:
- Don't feel like you have to put multiple years into a job before leaving to show you’re not a job-hopper. EA orgs understand the desire to contribute to work you find meaningful as soon as you can!
- I suspect people apply to too few jobs given how unpleasant it can be to job hunt, and I strongly encourage you to keep putting yourself out there.
- I applied to a few hundred jobs before landing this one, as did many of my friends who work at EA orgs. Not getting any jobs despite many applications isn't a sign that you're a bad applicant.
- Doing even unsexy work for an organization that you’re strongly mission-aligned with is more motivating than you might expect.
- I write about impactful ways that anyone can spend time at the end of this post.
A ~Year in the Life
What I did at work
It’s hard to look at a job description and get a sense of what the day-to-day looks like (and see whether one might be qualified for the job). Success in my and many other entry-level jobs seems to be a product of enthusiasm, dependability (which I’d define as the independence/organization skills to manage a task so that the person who assigns it doesn’t need to follow up), and good judgment (when to check in, what tone to use in emails, etc.) In my day-to-day as a business operations generalist (assistant level), I've:
- Helped manage the physical office space:
- Purchased, rented, and set up workstations,
- Facilitated the installation of improvements to our office, such as videoconferencing displays,
- Communicated with the building and janitorial staff about requests,
- Troubleshot wifi issues as they came up,
- Kept groceries, office supplies, and spare tech equipment in stock.
- Helped manage the virtual office space:
- Provisioned SaaS accounts for new hires,
- Handled the billing for our tech accounts,
- Helped staff when they had account issues.
- Helped staff with ad-hoc requests, event scheduling, travel, work test testing, works cited creation, spreadsheet work, and undergrad-level research (e.g. googling around for hard-to-find info and qualifying my level of certainty in the sources I find).
- Supported a program officer on a long term basis with note-taking, scheduling, and grant research (this has been a highlight and I’ve learned a lot!)
- Wrote documentation and internal communications for some operational org-wide policies.
- Edited and published small pages on Open Phil’s website, like individual grant pages.
- Processed invoices and onboarded contractors.
- Helped welcome new staff by introducing elective benefits and ordering items for their home workspace.
- Pitched ideas for process changes to save time or money, then implemented approved changes.
- Trained new hires on some of the above bullets.
- Acted as a sounding board when peers wanted feedback for event logistics, communications, or policies they were working on.
I had no experience with any of the above before starting - I hope that seeing how I spent my workdays will embolden you to apply to positions like mine! Generalist jobs are a wonderful way to figure out what you like and to start building momentum in your career. And while the work may not be glamorous by nature, operations serves as an exciting multiplier to the entirety of an organization. Check out this fantastic post on operations in EA if you’re interested in learning more about EA operations jobs specifically.
How it felt
This job is the best thing that has ever happened to me. My coworkers, EA housemates, and friends from community events have helped me learn more and gain skills faster than I ever have in a year. It’s relieving, empowering, and freeing to have found a place where I can live my values every day. *Overconfident mid-20s take incoming*: for me, work doesn’t get better than this.
But there were a couple (self-imposed) downsides. I lost motivation for personal productivity in the wake of how important work was. I lost interest in reading fiction, because non-fiction related to EA seemed so important. I lost interest in practicing my instrument because it expended mental energy, and landing gigs wouldn’t be lucrative enough to justify the time spent practicing. I felt emotional swings over small successes or failures at work. I can remember my face heating up and my stomach turning after getting off an informal call with coworkers where I thought I’d used the word “like” too much. (To be clear, these coworkers are the most down-to-earth people ever - this was all in my head.)
To me, this is just a signal of too much of a good thing (caring about my job). I’ve felt less of this and more like my happy-go-lucky self over time.
What I Learned
Valuing my time
A huge culture shock from starting this job was the extent to which EA orgs prize the time of their staff, even entry-level generalists. I took a moderate pay cut to switch jobs, yet it feels like the social impact of an hour of my work is ~5x as valuable as donating an hour’s pay at my last job. This is in large part because it’s surprisingly easy to trade time with senior staff at a close to 1-1 rate, and the current number of generalists don’t fully absorb all delegable tasks. As weird as this feels, and despite my still not spending money to save time at this rate, this has caused me to shift my thinking with respect to:
Earning to give should still have a high bar
I’ve seen memes about how earning to give is “back on the menu” given the lost FTX funding. The amount of money in the movement divided by the number of people working at the orgs that influence when and how it’s spent is still staggering. I think that an early-career EA should take “earning to give” to mean “picking one of a few professions that earn $20MM+ (in today’s dollars) in expectation over the course of a career and figuring out how to sustainably commit to it". Otherwise, I think their focus should be on building personal runway and spending as much time as possible learning information and skills, applying to jobs at EA organizations, kicking ass once they get to an EA org, and contributing to effective projects via the methods listed in the “Impactful Uses of Time Open to Anyone” section.
Something that doesn’t get said as much as it should about the classic earning to give options in this community of high achievers is that it’s hard to “just get a job at Jane Street, Blackrock or Bridgewater”. These types of companies are pretty credentialist, and e.g. arts majors from lesser known schools may have a hard time getting their foot in an ultra-high-paying door through any path besides entrepreneurship (which is often quite risky, stressful, and totalizing for early career founders). If you’re able to thrive in one of these lines of work you can use the money you make to do a fantastic amount of good, but careers in research, operations, and program delivery can be similarly impactful yet easier to start.
Early-career EAs may want to take non-traditional steps to land a job in direct work, or to increase their involvement in the community
Given that lifetime impact is the main goal of most early career EAs, I think a few deviations from conventional career wisdom make sense. I don’t believe EAs should feel obligated to “put in a full X year(s) at their first job” if the jobs they’re applying for are at orgs they would be happy to stay with for a while. EA orgs mainly care about legible accomplishments, skills, and mission alignment. “Sticking it out at your previous job for e.g. 2 years” is a signal to most employers that an applicant will stay long enough for the company to recoup its investment in a new hire. I suspect this is less important to EA orgs, that trust that a new hire will try to do the most good they can whether that means staying in their current role or leaving.
I also think most EAs should feel less of a pressure to apply for positions in the field they majored in. A lot of the accessible jobs for early career EAs involve tasks without a closely related major; even my liberal arts college didn’t offer majors in “event planning”, “EA community building”, “office managing” or “executive assisting”. Important qualities for many entry-level roles are soft skills like good judgment, a good attitude, and communication, so shoot your shot!
If you think the social impact of your current role is low (e.g. you’re a poker dealer like I was), it’s probably a better idea to spend less time trying to stand out at work or make more money, and more time submitting many high-quality applications to jobs you’re excited about, and building up a track record of great work within the community (see the “Impactful Uses of Time Open to Anyone” section).
Finally, exploration value within your current company seems especially high for developing skills that let you hit the ground running with your first job at an EA org. Many companies offer leadership development programs where you can rotate through different professional service functions to figure out what you like. This seems like the secret backdoor to job-realistic learning that pays you. The more generally relevant the skills (recruiting, finance, legal, staff engagement, business immigration), the better! While you’re in the process of applying for roles at orgs you’re passionate about, diversifying your knowledge at your current org will help you learn skills in the meantime.
Motivation gains from working on what you care about
I enjoyed working in the cardroom. I was a poker strategy nerd through college, the personalities of the players were entertaining, and most of my workday involved chatting about sports or cards - it certainly didn’t feel like work in the way that completing schoolwork did. But it did feel like a means to an end - a low-friction route to make money for runway, donations, and grad school. I didn’t feel motivated to e.g. research interesting conversation starters to be the most charming table presence I could be, or to perform tasks outside my job description that would have made the cardroom more money. I took my role as a union rep seriously when colleagues filed grievances or suggested improvements to working conditions, but by volume of working hours this was a small minority of my job.
In my current job, where I’m able to contribute to the efficiency and morale of an org whose work really matters to me, I’m itching to do high quality work. My energy levels for reading, writing, administrative work, and logistics coordination are much much higher than what they were for similar tasks in college (even though my majors aligned with my interests). For me, and I expect for many others, the mission and people at an org make a bigger difference to maintaining motivation than the function of work.
Why there is a “talent constraint” with so many eager applicants
If staff at EA organizations deliver many multiples of their salary in value to the org, and there are so many smart, talented and caring people applying for jobs at EA orgs, why do orgs still face a talent constraint? A few reasons that seem to contribute include:
As a relatively new movement, EA orgs may have a hard time finding managers (who are often more experienced and coming from outside EA) for the number of junior staff they would hire in an ideal world. Frequent check-ins (on work projects and professional development) with effective managers are important for skill development and retention. Early career staff usually need the most guidance and feedback of all staff at an org, further bottlenecking manager capacity.
Small orgs can run up against hiring backlogs. Some EA orgs have 1-3 recruiters and 10+ open roles that tend to be quite time-intensive given a high number of interview rounds and the presence of work tests. When recruiting teams are stretched thin, the junior positions are usually deprioritized. Additionally, because mission alignment, character, and good judgment are more important to EA orgs than most similarly sized orgs, and because EA orgs generally value hiring processes that are predictive of job performance (using work tests and multiple interview rounds), EA orgs’ hiring timelines for all positions may be slower than similarly sized non-EA orgs’.
Slow Build to Work Autonomy and Turnover Risk
Given the number of tasks that a junior role may perform, and that the person starting this role is unlikely to have much experience with any of the tasks, it takes a while for the hire to gather context and build aptitudes. At the same time, early career professionals (especially those just out of high school or college) value exploration highly, and are more likely to learn that a role isn’t what they are looking for than a more experienced hire in a more senior position. These factors lower the average value-add of junior positions, and may lead orgs to deprioritize hiring junior roles relative to other projects.
You can read about the reasons orgs are slow to add staff in high-skill positions like econometric research in this GiveWell blog post.
Misc. Career Advice for Early Career Professionals
- You’re probably qualified for more jobs than you think. Hiring managers for non-technical junior positions are often looking for candidates who learn quickly and who are easy to work with, rather than people who necessarily have experience doing similar work.
- Apply to more jobs and invest time in the process. People generally apply to too few jobs, and/or spend too little effort per application because of how unpleasant the process is.
- Learning more about cause areas and effective organizations will help you become interested in and aware of different jobs to apply to.
- Executive assistant positions for a team or individual you admire are both highly impactful and fairly background agnostic. The more flexible you are in taking on part time work, the more executive assistant work you could be a fit for.
- Don’t feel pressure to work at a nonprofit whose mission you aren’t excited by, thinking that it will signal you’re a do-gooder. It’s totally OK to work at a for-profit company, especially if it gives you more time or mental effort to spend on applying for jobs or doing EA-flavored side projects.
- Read 80,000’s career guidance book (or the web version). It contains a variety of Cal Newport-esque nuggets of wisdom that will save you tons of time in your job search. I also recommend applying for 80k’s careers advising, checking out the 80k podcast episodes with Michelle and Habiba, and using the 80k job board to find openings for impactful jobs.
Impactful Uses of Time Open to Anyone
If you’re in college:
Get involved with your university group, or start one
The returns to community-building at a university are tremendous. For $10 a head you can buy an hour of attention from a few dozen of your peers in the form of a lunchtime EA presentation. This is a screamin’ deal for the expected excitement about doing good you’ll drum up; the most well-run student groups led by highly engaged organizers may produce as many as 10 engaged EAs per academic year, not adjusting for counterfactuals, who have their whole career ahead of them. My biggest college regret was not founding an EA group. Even if you’re a second-semester senior, finding a successor and putting the infrastructure in place for your university to have a full-force EA group in the fall does a ton of good.
University EA groups are a uniquely outsized opportunity for impact in the context of alternatives for similar levels of experience. Students (undergrads and grad students) are typically flexible in where to work, and are unusually open-minded about changing their values. I wouldn’t be surprised if the average EA university organizer (who is also a full time student) has more impact than I do (and I’m really proud of my work)!
Write an Effective Thesis (if you’re interested in writing a thesis)
You can expedite the daunting task of finding a socially valuable thesis topic tailored to your strengths and interests by getting in touch with the team at Effective Thesis. They’ve mapped out gaps where student research could meaningfully influence political, philanthropic, or behavioral decision-making. You can even apply for free coaching to build your skills and resolve your uncertainties.
If you’re out of college:
Participate in and facilitate EA virtual programs
This is an engaging and approachable way to learn more about EA - shoutout to the EAVP team! I’ve participated in and facilitated a few of these programs, and the quality of the curriculum and thoughtfulness of other participants exceeded my high hopes. I also really enjoyed the format of meeting for eight weeks - it gives participants time to get to know each other well enough to form lasting friendships and strong professional connections.
Write about EA-relevant material that you have a unique perspective on
By EA-relevant material, I mean anything that the community of people trying to do good would benefit from reading. If you have an EA-flavored personal blog, I’d recommend crossposting to the EA forum. This could be:
- Fiction that motivates readers and fosters important dialogues to support the mission of helping others.
- Practical advice that could help save time/money, and isn’t already online somewhere else.
- Research or literature reviews you’ve done that others might find interesting or action-guiding.
- Your feelings about the community or about doing good broadly.
- Questions that you or others could benefit from getting answered.
Gig work based on your comparative strengths
- Contracting on EA platforms like Bountied Rationality.
- Claiming tasks and prizes on Superlinear.
- Narrating valuable writing (feel free to reach out to the author or CEA).
- Translating valuable writing into non-English language (feel free to reach out to the author or CEA, and note that you can apply for funding from Open Philanthropy).
Filling in community gaps
- Submitting forecasts to develop skills and enrich community consensus on important issues.
- Start an EA discussion group or giving drive at your workplace.
- Getting involved in your local city group and volunteering at EA events (not just EAG(x)s, also city EA get-togethers). If you aren’t sure whether your city has a local EA group, reach out to CEA (and start one if it doesn’t)!
- Giving your thoughts to EA infrastructure orgs about what they can do better by taking the EA survey and sending your feedback about the EA Handbook and various EAVP curricula to firstname.lastname@example.org (e.g. what felt out of order, what was difficult to understand).
- Anything else you can think of! Are there better systems for coordination between orgs? Can you find a process improvement in the community’s approach to fundraising? How could we build a more inclusive space to enable everyone to do their best work?
Don’t lose faith
The recent community growth coinciding with the FTX funding fallout has left some early-career EAs I know feeling demotivated by the scarcity of jobs at EA orgs that they’re qualified for (especially in the current job market). There’s survivorship bias in this post, and there was certainly a lot of good fortune that helped me land my job. But take it from an ex poker dealer: keep putting yourself out there - it’s almost certainly the right thing to do :)
In this post, I use the term "EA jobs" to refer to direct-work positions that seem unusually impactful. Some of these take place at orgs that use an EA label, but many do not. For example, someone working at USAID could easily have an "EA job" in this sense.