Be Specific About Your Career

by Mark Xu2 min read24th Feb 20215 comments

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Career choice
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Alice is trying to maximize the impact of her career. She is deciding between biosecurity research and building the effective altruism community (meta-EA). As far as she can tell, her fit is about the same for both paths.

She attempts to decide between them by zooming out. What cause has a higher impact? Which one is more neglected? Which cause is more tractable?

These are all useful questions to ask. However, they are very abstract. There is another set of questions that Alice is likely to find very useful:

  • If I chose meta-EA as my career path, what, specifically, would I be doing?

    • At which organization would I work?
    • What would I do at that organization?
    • Would I plan events?
    • Which events?
    • What would the goals of those events be?
  • If I chose biosecurity, what, specifically, would I be doing?

    • Would I get a Ph.D.?
    • If so, where?
    • Who would be my advisor?
    • What would the topic of my thesis be?
    • What lines of research would I be pursuing?

It doesn't matter whether meta-EA is better than biosecurity research in general; what matters is whether biosecurity research is better than meta-EA for Alice. An analysis of Alice's individual impact screens off any analysis of average impact. (Of course, the impact of the specific things she would be doing is informed by an average impact analysis.)

Being specific about your career is very difficult. This is a feature. If you can't tell a plausible story for why the work you would do as a biosecurity researcher is impactful, you don't know enough about being a biosecurity researcher. One example of such a story is: "I would work at X research group studying ways to use lasers to neutralize viral pathogens, developing technology that would allow future pandemics to be quickly stamped out without waiting for the development of vaccines." If you can't construct a story of similar detail for yourself, you probably do not know what biosecurity researchers do.

I often see people think about their careers from the perspective of abstract cause prioritization. Besides such broad analysis, they should construct specific narratives linking potential career paths to impact. Jerry Cleaver: "What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It's overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball."

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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:48 PM
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Strongly endorsed, and I would go even further; a huge amount of job satisfaction is about what you do every hour, not what you do every week. If you like or dislike writing, or like meeting people, or like reading technical papers, pay attention to that - because spending lots of time doing something you dislike is painful even if you like the career in general. And this will guide a lot of more specific decisions - not just "should I work in Biorisk," but "should I take this specific class" or "will I enjoy this specific job."

I agree it's important to do both, and people often neglect to understand the day-to-day reality, and to zoom in on very concrete opportunities rather than think about broad paths.

You could see it as a form of near vs. far mode bias.

As somebody currently struggling to plan out my career path - 100%. Networking calls have been immensely helpful not for clarifying my cause priorities but rather, for gaining an understanding of the concrete skills + responsibilities that a role might involve.

Also, once you narrow down the specifics, uncertainty becomes much more manageable: if the role involves a lot of event planning, do you like event planning? If you don't know, then maybe you should identify a way to briefly trial that! Practical experience and reflection upon past experiences specifically  framed through a professional lens (which networking has also been helpful for) seem a little neglected amongst early career planners given their utility.

Finally, I love the note to link potential paths to impact. This is a good way of reconciling abstract cause prioritization with personal fit: do you see yourself burning out? How can you work towards the issue area given your unique position, even if that work doesn't seem to be a popular recommendation? I think EAs who are newer but very enthusiastic are prone to overly discount experimenting outside of the most well-known career paths.

You raised an important point that seems to me frequently overlooked.  This is also one of the reasons why giving career advice is hard - there is limited amount of advice that can be given generally and much of the work is hidden in going through the specific options the advisee has.

One thing that could take this even further is to address how these two - the general cause area and specific individual considerations - play together. Overlooking cause area considerations entirely would be wrong, obviously. 

The way I see it is that I should start with general considerations about cause areas and about my skills, which will help me discover where to start looking. Then I can start making the options more specific, starting with the most promising cause area where I have a chance to succeed. If I don't find anything promising, I can dig deeper or move to the second most promising area, etc.
One counterargument to this would be the risk that (if overemphasizing general considerations) I can get exhausted along the way and give up, while focusing more on what seems available and specific can help me find initial success earlier and motivate me to look further.

I wonder what are your thoughts on how the general and specific play together.

I think this is great advice for planning any career.  You can't know how big of an impact you'll have unless you know concretely what you'll be doing and how that will have an impact.

However, I think there is a danger in going too far in trying to understand - specifically  for careers which,  by the nature of the career,  you are bouncing around between different types of work.  In these more generalist careers, the exponential relative impact of certain individual opportunities might make exploring more opportunities/putting yourself in a position to explore more opportunities more valuable than understanding exactly what you will be doing.

Time boxing or holding yourself to talk to 'x' number of people about a given career seems like a simple solution to this.