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Summary

  • In this post, I hope to inspire other Effective Altruists to focus more on donation and commiserate with those who have been disappointed in their ability to get an altruistic job.
  • First, I argue that the impact of having a job that helps others is complicated. In this section, I discuss annual donation statistics of people in the Effective Altruism community donate, which I find quite low.
  • In the rest of the post, I describe my recent job search, my experience substituting at public schools, and my expenses.

Having a job that helps others might be overemphasized

  • Doing a job that helps others seems like a good thing to do. Weirdly, it's not as simple as that.
    • While some job vacancies last for years, other fields are very competitive and have many qualified applicants for most position listings.
      • In the latter case, if you take the job offer, you may think you are doing good in the world. But if you hadn't taken the job, there could be someone in your position doing nearly as good as you (or better, depending on if you were overstating your qualifications.) 
      • In animal welfare in particular, jobs get many applicants.
        • Lauren Mee, from Animal Advocacy Careers, on the podcast How I Learned to Love Shrimp: "...there's an interesting irony in the movement where there is actually a lot of people who are interested in working in the movement and not enough roles for all of those people."
    • There is some social pressure within and outside of the Effective Altruism community to have a meaningful job where you help others.
  • Although there is a lot of focus on impactful careers, Rethink Priorities' 2020 Effective Altruism survey found that around only 10% of non-student respondents worked at an Effective Altruism organization.
Source: Rethink Priorities' 2020 Effective Altruism Survey

Donations are an amazing opportunity, and I think they are underemphasized

  • I was confused to find that most people I talked to in Effective Altruism settings did not seem to be frugal or donate very much.
    • It seems that this is correct. In the 2020 Effective Altruism survey, among respondents who opted to share their donation amounts, donating $10,000 annually would place you within the top 10% of donors. The median for these respondents was close to $500 per year. (Mostly, they donate to global poverty.)
  • A lot of people in rich countries have flexibility in where their money goes. This money could be put toward their best bets of doing good in the world. 
    • Which is more likely to do good: going out to eat, or helping to fund an effective charity?
      • It seems to me that you would have to think that the most effective charities are not that effective or that your contributions would be too small to make an impact to choose the former.
        • To understand more about the effectiveness of charities, I would highly recommend talking to someone from the charity and asking your specific doubts. 
        • As for small contributions, I am not exactly sure how to think about them, and hope to write about this topic in the future. However, it seems to me that many charities make purchases in the thousands of dollars, which could be an achievable amount to donate over a year. For instance, Fish Welfare Initiative's 2024 budget includes numbers in the thousands.
  • I graduated in May of 2023 and have since been interested in an animal welfare job. 
    • I have applied to a handful of these positions, realizing over time that the applicant pools were larger than I thought; the researcher position at Animal Charity Evaluators had 375 applicants. 
  • After moving back to a more rural area to be around friends and family, I looked into businesses that match the donations of their employees. 
  • Along the way, I thought that substituting at the local public school districts might be a good option for making income as I waited for interviews and an offer
    • One of the nearby school districts had an incredible turn around, getting me in to do paperwork and fingerprinting the next week. 
    • There was no interview, no questions about my intentions, and no requirement of a teaching certificate. 
    • The morning of my paperwork completion at the office building, they checked the calendar to see when I could start subbing. 
    • I started the very same day, assisting with special education students at the middle school.
  • Although initially overwhelming, I find substituting to be a usually very nice experience. Most availabilities are to substitute for special education paraprofessional assistants, and the day usually involves working with a variety of students with varying levels of disability in different classrooms. 

I live frugally and donate

  • Substituting a full day in this school district pays $120 per day. 
  • With my lifestyle and privileges, it is very easy for me to survive without working everyday (which is not an option because some days there are no substitute availabilities.) 
    • Monthly, I pay around $550 for rent and utilities, $50 for food, and $100 for gas. I also spend around $30 on various dance events per month. My phone bill, health insurance, and car insurance are all paid by my family, to whom I also owe the honor of also having no student loans. 
    • I make a point to live very frugally. When making friends, I decline offers to go out to eat and suggest instead that we could cook together, go on a walk, or play Minecraft. (In my experience, Minecraft with friends is a very cost-effective intervention for human happiness.)
  • I currently donate around $300 per month, split between two animal charities.
  • It seems pretty obvious to me that I should aim to be frugal: would this dollar be better spent on me or on farmed animals? This is a high bar that I have gradually shifted my actions toward. 
    • It has also afforded me some more clarity on things that I really enjoy. 
      • When going swing dancing, I am often beaming the whole time and making friends I wouldn't have met otherwise. For me, a $15 dollar meal at a restaurant does not hold a candle to the joy of a $5 dance. 
  • Although I have a low cost of living that could easily be paid for by substituting, I have aimed for a full-time job with pay of around $20 per hour, which would allow me to donate around $30,000 per year.

I have been disappointed in my ability to find a job that would allow me to donate more

  • My job prospects have continued to whittle away at my hopes for donating $30,000/ year.
    • My first interview was for a job that would have paid well but that I feared would make me depressed. 
      • Because the job had a detailed list of vague duties, I asked them to clarify what I would spend most of my time doing. They informed me that I would be in a room, alone, typing written numbers and words onto a computer. After talking to friends and family who know my propensity for loneliness-induced depression, I told them I was no longer interested in the position. 
    • My next interview went very poorly. They expressed concerns that I may not be suited for the job because it required a strong work ethic and an ability to stay awake and motivated at odd hours. I had not expected this amount of negative interaction, as I was interviewing to be a custodian. 
      • I literally watched as one of the interviewers sitting close to me rated my responses on a scale of 1-5 (for your information, I got 2's and 3's).
    • Last week, I had an interview that truly warmed my heart. It was for a full-time position as a paraeducator at an elementary school for around $20 per hour. 
      • I had gained experience over my weeks of substituting, and they even expressed in the interview that multiple positions were available and had been for over a year. 
      • I asked them if they had any concerns about my ability to do the position, and none were voice. 
      • A week after, I got a call from one of my interviewers and was informed that I had not gotten the job, which made me very sad. 

It's okay

It can be really hard to get a job. It is not realistic that everyone in the Effective Altruism community could have a job related to these specific cause areas. Whether you're working directly on causes you care about or not, donating is better than many ways people use money. 

Some standards don't seem that high, like getting an animal-related job or one at Old Navy. When these seemingly modest goals are out of reach, all you can do is what you can. That is good enough for now.

Additional reading

Information relevant to these topics:

Expressions of similar ideas:


Thank you to Ren and Aengus for helping me refine this post.

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I’d be very surprised if you can’t get a job that pays much more than the sub teacher role- the gap between that and ~any EA org job is massive and inability to get the latter is only very weak evidence of inability to earn more.

Sorry if I missed this but this does depend a lot on location/willingness to move. The above assumes If you’re in the US and willing to move cities.

Also, living frugally to donate more is of course very virtuous if you take your salary to be a given, but from an altruistic perspective, insofar as they trade off, it’s probably much better to spend effort on finding a way to earn more.

This is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine but this could look like “found a startup with a 5% chance of earning $10M” in addition to or instead of searching for higher salaried roles

I agree! I think if I moved I'd have better luck.

I admire your drive to help others!
I do think early in my life I underweighted shopping around because I was so focused on frugality (and it's easy to be discouraged when job searches take a long time). Best wishes as you explore the options.

Thanks for writing this, Elijah. I agree that it’s really difficult to get an “EA job” (it took me five years). I wish this felt more normalized, and that there was better scoped advice on what EA jobseekers should do. I wrote about this last year and included a section on ways to contribute directly to EA projects even without an EA job. I'd also recommend Aaron Gertler's post on recovering from EA job rejection, probably my favorite ever EA Forum post.

On Aaron Bergman's comment about finding a higher paying role, certain tipped positions can be surprisingly lucrative and require very little training. Dealing poker pays $40-60/hour (tips + min wage) in the Seattle area, and I’ve heard that some high stakes baccarat dealing jobs in the greater Seattle area pay $200-400k/year (also tips + min wage) for 40 hour weeks. I imagine bartending jobs at pricey/busy bars would be a similar story, as would waiting tables at expensive restaurants (perhaps an upscale vegetarian/vegan spot).

You may find that substitute teaching and working special education students is more fulfilling than these types of jobs; I think it was a great decision to withdraw your application from a job that may have triggered loneliness-induced depression. You shouldn’t feel compelled to take a job you’ll dislike in order to give more, but hopefully there are small steps you can take to grow your lifetime impact without sacrificing your happiness. Some ideas could be:

  • Looking at higher education, certifications, coding bootcamps, training programs or apprenticeships to have a better shot at more lucrative or impactful work.
    • It may be tough to afford the fees or time off work right now. If so, consider investing in yourself by saving up some money you would have donated. In expectation, you’ll be able to help more animals in the long run by doing so.   
       
  • Reaching out to Probably Good or 80,000 hours for careers advising. It’s completely OK if this doesn’t lead to a career call, it's still a good idea to apply in expectation.
     
  • Talking to friends and family who have jobs or connections to jobs you would be interested in and seeing what they’d recommend.

You might set a goal of making a little progress each month, be that applying to a few jobs, asking for advice from other EAs, or getting closer to a new skill or credential, as an intermediate step to growing the impact you'll be able to have five years from now. If you want someone to spitball with to kick things off, I'm happy to be that person https://calendly.com/sam-anschell/30min

Careers are long, and the impact one can have at the beginning of their career is usually a rounding error compared to what they can do later in their career anyway. I hope you remain ambitious about the difference you can make for animals, and proud of the good you've already done :)

Thank you lots! I like the tipped jobs idea, too!

Thank you all for the kind comments! I probably should have included an update, as I wrote the majority of this piece a while ago. In August I will be starting as a Master's student in the Barrett Lab, working on farmed insect welfare, which is very exciting!

I found your section on frugality and donating very inspiring, and I hope you appreciate how impressive it is!

only 10% of non-student respondents worked at an Effective Altruism organization...

Donations are an amazing opportunity, and I think they are underemphasized

 

Our 2022 survey offers further illustration of this. Only 10% of respondents have earning to give as their career plan. And that masks a stark divide between highly engaged EAs, for whom less than 6% plan to pursue earning-to-give, compared to closer to 16% of less engaged EAs.

Thank you for sharing your story! I am working already for 5/6 years after graduating. Now I am getting more and more into EA and tried to find a meaningful job. It turns out that changing into a really meaningful position in another company is really hard.. Maybe comparable to your situation. As I have a specific experience now and most meaningful companies are having specific requirements of experiences (of course different than the ones I have) I got rejected in the first round some times already. So, rather than changing the job, I try to work on my bosses now so that I can deal with impactful things.

The donation is at least something that is giving me the feeling of having an impact.

When reading your text I remembered the career capital chapter in the 80,000hours book. Maybe that helps you to value also smaller impact now. As we have 80,000hours you don’t have to have the extraordinary impact now and live a perfect frugal live as in later stages of your career you will have a much higher impact. And knowing that you are preparing for that might get you through this situation in a better mood?

All the best!!

Is harder to find an EA job if you are from LATAM? Considering there are more opportunities for the USA and Europe in EA.

I'm starting my search as a Project Management Professional in EA Jobs. 

I try it!

Thank you for this inspiring post!
I really admire your dedication and consistency with estimating the value an expense brings you against what that same amount could do for animal advocacy.

I'd like to share a few of my perspectives, since I actually had very different takeaways from some of the information you provide:

> Having a job that helps others might be overemphasized

I'm not very active in the community, but my impression is that when I was first introduced to EA, donating effectively was the main thing the movement was known for. So it might be that the focus on either of the 2 main ideas (having an effective job and donating effectively) just shifts continuously. 

> Although there is a lot of focus on impactful careers, Rethink Priorities' 2020 Effective Altruism survey found that around only 10% of non-student respondents worked at an Effective Altruism organization.

I believe only looking at respondents who work at an EA organization does not give you the full picture. If you look into the other categories, the motivation for people to pursue those careers is probably also to have an impactful career (e.g., Academia, Government, Think tanks / lobbying / advocacy, Work at a non-profit (not an EA organization). Those responses together add up to more than 45% of non-student respondents.

In my opinion, there are also some careers that do not get a lot of attention from EA (possibly because they don't fit the target audience or the requirement for neglectedness as well as the cause-area-specific ones do). 
One of those careers is working in education (there might be a substantial amount of confirmation bias here, since this is the path I am currently pursuing). My rationale here is that if as a (substitute) teacher you succeed in inspiring at least 2 students to eventually have an effective career in animal advocacy (or any other cause area or donate effectively), you possibly already had a bigger impact then you could have had in your entire (hypothetical other effective) career yourself.

Finally, it often seems like dichotomy to either have a meaningless but well-paying career or to have an impactful low-paying career, but I don't believe it always is. I would be very curious to read research about whether it is more effective to focus more on one of those goals instead of optimizing for a combination of the two.

I guess what I am trying to say is, if you have found a fulfilling job that allows you to have some positive impact while still earning enough to donate effectively through being frugal, that sounds like a sustainably effective position to be in.
Thank you for sharing!

Executive summary: The post discusses the challenges of finding meaningful employment in the Effective Altruism (EA) community and the importance of donations, arguing that donations are often underemphasized compared to impactful careers.

Key points:

  1. There is social pressure within the EA community to have a meaningful job that helps others, but the reality is that only around 10% of non-student respondents in the 2020 EA survey worked at an EA organization.
  2. The author found that the applicant pools for animal welfare jobs were larger than expected, with the researcher position at Animal Charity Evaluators receiving 375 applicants.
  3. The author decided to pursue a job as a substitute teacher, which allows them to live frugally and donate around $300 per month to animal charities, despite not finding their desired animal welfare job.
  4. The author argues that donations are an "amazing opportunity" and are often underemphasized compared to impactful careers, with the median donation among respondents in the 2020 EA survey being close to $500 per year.
  5. The author's attempts to find a job that would allow them to donate $30,000 per year have been disappointing, as they have faced challenges in the job market, including a negative interview experience for a custodian position.
  6. The author concludes that it is important to be realistic about the difficulty of finding a job in the EA community and that donating is better than many other ways people use their money, even if it doesn't meet the author's initial goal.

 

 

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