Writing about my job: Content Specialist, CEA

by Aaron Gertler10 min read19th Jul 20212 comments

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I'm following my own advice and writing about how I got my job + what the job is like.

While my job is a bit unusual in the specifics (I wear many hats), lots of organizations have writing positions that cover at least some of what I do. 

This post might be especially informative for people who:

  • Really like writing and want to make use of that.
  • Have been working outside of EA for a while and want to get more involved.
  • Want to hear my thoughts on writing a resume for some reason.

I might add more to this post later. If you have questions, please send me a message or ask in the comments — that will help me figure out what to add!

Background

  • Overall: I had a good amount of experience with EA (ran a couple groups, was well-read), but the thing that made it possible for me to get my current job was lots and lots of writing practice. I did student journalism, worked as a freelance copyeditor, wrote a blog, took notes on most of the nonfiction I read, read a huge number of books and articles by good writers (trying to absorb their skills through osmosis), and made sure I just had a ton of experience putting words on paper.
    • I wasn't trying to get a writing job specifically (I didn't know my current job existed until I was already mid-work trial), but I had one generically useful skill that I'd honed to a professional level. Having one of those makes everything much easier in the job market (web development, data science, legal expertise, management experience, event organizing... there are lots of options).
  • I started an EA group at Yale and ran it just well enough that it didn't collapse. (We started with ~10 members and ended with ~8 members.) I didn't display any impressive skills besides maybe "an entrepreneurial spirit".
    • In one sense, this was easier to do back in 2014 (not nearly as many groups around). In another sense, it's much easier to do a good job of organizing things now, because the available resources are unbelievably better.
  • I also did a lot of student journalism, where I learned to write, edit, and interview. This was really useful, and I'd recommend it to many different kinds of people as a college activity.
  • I studied cognitive science, which taught me a little bit about how to persuade people of things (but much of what I learned probably wouldn't replicate).
    • The most important thing I did with my major was to write an EA-related thesis. I'm not sure how much this helped anyone else, but it built good instincts for me about how people relate to certain EA concepts.
  • After graduating, I worked at Epic for 16 months, doing fancy tech support; I learned a lot about explaining things, a moderate amount about managing personal workflow without "deadlines" or "homework", and a small amount about working on large software projects (never used that again).
  • Then I applied to GiveWell, made it to the last round, got rejected, and spent the next 16 months drifting around, never thinking to apply to another EA-related job. That was dumb and I regret it. Instead, I did:
    • A bit of freelance copywriting (kept up my writing skills)
    • A bit of freelance consulting for a local foundation (gave me some experience evaluating and working with charities)
    • A lot of tutoring (kind of useless, paid the bills)
  • Then I applied to Open Philanthropy, made it to the last round, got rejected, and was all set to drift again when they referred me to CEA for an event focused on "people interested in doing ops work", which led to me applying for a bunch of other jobs, including my current job.
    • I got lucky in the sense that CEA happened to be running this event.
    • On the other hand, there's a lot more focus on helping people get jobs now than there was back then (e.g. via formalized mentorship at EA Global), and I never used obvious resources like the 80K job board (which has many more jobs now than it did back then).
  • Between the ops event and my big application round, I wound up running ops at a CFAR/MIRI workshop and assisting with ops for a small CEA event; I learned a bit about ops, but more importantly, I got to meet a bunch of people in the community and show that I had basic competence at accomplishing things.
    • This can be done in lots of other ways: Write something good on the Forum, volunteer for EA Global, help to facilitate a virtual program, etc.

Application

I already wrote about my application process.

All told, I applied to ~10 places, spent ~130 hours on applying + interviewing + work trials + travel (counting travel hours as 30 minutes each), and was paid ~$3000.

Application process for CEA:

  • Aside from my brief summary in the above link, I don't have much to add.
  • Notes from the on-site trial:
    • I tried to avoid "wasting CEA's money" and got the cheapest AirBnB I could find in Oxford, instead of using the hotel they recommended. This was a bad idea. If you have the chance to stay in good lodging with functional plumbing and no inebriated hosts accidentally locking themselves out in the wee hours of the morning... you should do that. Show the org your best self!
    • I resisted the urge to spend a ton of extra after-hours time on the work I was assigned, instead trying to spend a "realistic" amount of time to give a better estimate of how fast I worked. It seems like that went fine.
    • I was very nervous and I'm certain that this was obvious to the people I spoke with, ate with, etc. But it worked out okay in the end — it maybe helped that I was open about this instead of trying to fake more confidence than I had.

Advantages I had that would be hard for most people to replicate:

  • Degree from Yale + outstanding standardized test scores (some places cared about this at the time, I don't know if anyone still does)
  • I'd been around for a while by the time I started applying (starting one of the earliest university EA groups, going to a CFAR workshop). No one really "knew me" before I went to the ops event, but my resume showed a history of interest.
  • I got really lucky to be referred to an EA-focused foundation that was in my city and looking for a local assistant, though I don't know how important that job was compared to the rest of my resume + all the other parts of the application process.

Disadvantages I had that many people wouldn't have:

  • Degree in a subject with no direct relevance to the jobs I wanted; medium GPA
  • I was pretty checked out of EA stuff generally
    • I never looked at the 80,000 Hours job board or the EA Newsletter; I only applied to Open Phil because I saw the job in their newsletter.
    • I lived in a city with a barely-active EA group (I'm still the only member in San Diego who has an "EA job")
    • I went to EA Global in 2015 but then zero events for the next 2.5 years.
  • I had no idea what I wanted from my career; my resume didn't tell a particular "story", and I'd just spent a lot of time on random freelancing.

My resume

  • Here's the resume I used for my application process (sometimes with slight tweaks depending on the job).
  • Note that I emphasized the most relevant jobs, not the one I spent the most time on. I think this is fair: the skills I picked up through a few hundred hours of copywriting + consulting were more important than whatever I learned through 1000+ hours of tutoring.
    • Especially when applying for EA-related jobs, you might worry about how much to "sell" yourself in a resume vs. presenting the truth in a bland way. After reading lots of resumes myself, I recommend the approach: "If I were a hiring manager, what would I want to know about me?"
      • Hence my use of certain key details (people trusted me to send emails to a ton of people + work with large, important clients) and lots of links, with a minimum of fluff (e.g. not listing all the subjects I tutored or all the random copywriting projects I did). As a hiring manager, I want to know more about someone's "peaks" and their current skills than the full history of their working life.

What my job is like

Leaving this part fairly short because it's an unusual job and much of this won't generalize. But I'm happy to add more detail if people have questions!

How I use my time (very rough estimates):

  • ~25% on writing and editing things for other people (emails CEA sends out, CEA's progress reports, Forum posts people send me for feedback, etc.)
  • ~25% on writing things I'll send out myself (the EA Newsletter, the EA Forum Digest, EA Forum Prize writeups, things I post on the Forum, occasional social media posts)
  • ~20% on emails and external meetings (tech support for the Forum, meeting with people outside CEA who want to talk to me about projects, commenting on internal docs, soliciting people to write Forum content or do AMAs,  etc.)
  • ~15% on planning + internal meetings (planning monthly sprints, meeting with my manager, meeting with developers, logging task completion, etc.)
  • ~15% on website writing (updates to CEA's website, updates for the Resources and Take Action pages of effectivealtruism.org, work on the EA Handbook, etc.)

Skills I've been building:

  • Moderately better "EA-style" writing (avoiding hyperbole, fact-checking more often, fairly representing different points of view)
  • Moderately better "meta-EA strategy" (having a sense for what the community needs, where our bottlenecks are, what pathways people take to get into EA, where our impact is coming from, etc.)
  • Slightly better project management (planning, testing, prioritization, etc.)
  • Slightly better "general editing" (I spend a huge amount of time doing this; I was already a good copyeditor and that hasn't really changed, but I've gotten better at communicating with different types of people — e.g. people who want a ton of feedback on everything vs. busy people who only want the essentials)

Mostly, my work feels like handling a constant stream of input/people wanting things, while trying to carve out time to work on larger projects + think about strategy. There are many small fires that demand focused attention, and I'm not as good as I want to be at pushing those aside to work on longer-term but more impactful things. I'm constantly beset by the thought that some "perfect version" of myself would have had enormously more impact during their tenure.

That said, I'm also constantly engaged with all the different streams of EA thought + action and get to talk to lots of different people about what they do. I get to spend a lot of time complimenting people's work and helping them feel a sense of belonging in a community I love. That sort of thing never gets old. And CEA is a terrifically supportive place to work; I genuinely like all of my coworkers (at least the ones I know well; being remote means I haven't gotten to know everyone yet).

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I really appreciate the level of transparency in this post! Thanks Aaron :)

Interesting - my work as a software engineer also feels like "a constant stream of input/people wanting things, while trying to carve out time to work on larger projects + think about strategy."

From what I've read of Cal Newport's blog, the single most impactful change we could make is to reconstruct our pattern of working so that people can focus. Most of his posts discuss that single big idea, but this is one metaphor to get started: On the Dynamo and Email - Study Hacks - Cal Newport.

It's not easy to change these patterns on an individual level, though.