Retrospective on thinking about my career for a year

by careersthrowaway6 min read18th Jul 20204 comments

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Summary

  • I probably spent between 300 and 400 hours writing & thinking about my career, talking to others, researching different options & paths, and going through application processes. I also did a three-month internship.
  • Toward the end of the 12 months, I considered two graduate programs, two full-time opportunities, and starting my own organization. Ultimately, I decided to stay in my current job for the time being (one job opportunity is still pending).
  • The lessons I learned as a result: start thinking about your career early; think about your field/cause first, yourself second; writing things down was very helpful; having a habit of regularly thinking about next steps was useful; pick a niche or undervalued area and become the most knowledgeable person in it; read books; check team pages; reach out to people who have worked at an organization you’re interested in or are knowledgeable about the field in general; many of the best roles are not advertised, or even if they are, you can only get them if you have the right connections or visible expertise; if you like the work of somebody or some organization, reach out and say that.

Introduction

I started thinking about a career transition about a year ago. I thought there might be better opportunities than my job at the time because I worried that my personal fit was not ideal. In this post, I detail the process and lessons from that year of thinking and learning about my career.

The lessons I draw in this post are from n=1. What worked for me might not work for you and vice versa.

I was and still am in a very privileged position. I am reasonably well-connected and, as far as I can tell, well-regarded in the effective altruism community. So people were perhaps more willing to help me out compared to others making the same requests. During this period, I was working at an organization that gave me significant flexibility, which was a big asset. In this regard, I was probably still somewhat better off than people who are in university. Being employed also gave me a sense of existential security, which I would imagine makes this sort of exploration psychologically significantly easier. Even if I didn’t find a different job, I could stay in my existing role, which I considered to be already quite impactful.

What I did

I probably spent between 300 and 400 hours writing & thinking about my career, talking to others, researching different options & paths, and going through application processes. That’s about 5.8h to 7.7h per week. On top of that, I spent three months working full-time as an intern at a different organization. During these twelve months, I did not re-examine my fundamental cause prioritization.

Start. I started by writing a stocktake of my situation and career: why was I considering leaving my current role, what career capital did I have, where might my personal fit be highest. I then brainstormed different options that might be open to me and wrote down the pros and cons. I got feedback on that document from a few trusted people in the community. As a result, I decided to explore one field in particular. I also started a weekly practice of writing down career developments and asking myself what the most important thing was that I should focus on for the next week.

Early exploration. I started working on a research project on the side and published some of my initial thinking on the EA Forum. I participated in two workshops on related topics and connected with many people through these events and other means. I had conversations with a few of them. I explored several collaborations with other organizations, but none of them worked out for different reasons to do with them or me. I then applied for an internship and received an offer, which I accepted.

Internship & applications. I did the internship, during which I learned more things and met more people. I read several books. I refined my thinking on the field and my career plan. I asked for feedback again and refined my plan again. During the internship, I also applied for a few other opportunities (an internship, two graduate programs, and two full-time positions).

Deliberation & decision. For the past few months, I mainly deliberated between the options available to me. I got turned down for the internship, and the process for one full-time position dragged on because of COVID. I shared more thinking about my options with people for feedback. As a result, I briefly considered starting my own organization. Ultimately, I ended up turning down all offers still available.

Outcome

So after this year of exploration, I concluded that for the time being, I would stay in the job I already had when I started. (Caveat: There is a small chance that a different opportunity will still work out, which might lead me to reconsider.)

That being said, I made this decision with a much better appreciation for my alternatives, how easy it would be for me to transition into them, and how they would be better and how they would be worse than my current job. So I learned a lot in those twelve months. I ended up publishing several posts on this forum, and I have given apparently useful advice to a few people. I learned more about my personal fit for different roles and fields.

In some sense, I feel more securely committed to my current job. I have more appreciation for the positive aspects. I can better gauge the value that I contribute by doing it well compared to other options. I know that I could pursue other options if I wanted to – something that I previously had not been viscerally aware of.

I met many kind and generous people along the way. These connections will also stay with me.

Overall, I would say that the time invested was worth it, both in expectation and in hindsight. I think that is because I spent a significant chunk of my time grappling with important questions in the field that also happened to be relevant for my career choice. It’s not so clear to me that it would have been worth it otherwise.

Some miscellaneous pieces of advice

Start thinking about your career early. I wish I had invested more time earlier. Your opportunity costs are much lower during university, and your thinking will pay off for more years. It’s also a great way to learn about the field and get to know people in it.

Think about your field/cause first, yourself second. When talking to other people about their careers, I often noticed that they had not asked some of the hard questions about the field that I had been grappling with. I think this is often a mistake. I recommend that you try to build a model of how change happens in your field or cause. Approach your career like you would the founding of a non-profit (in some ways). What would success in this field or cause look like? What are the key bottlenecks? What’s neglected? What’s your theory of change? Otherwise, it’s easy to go for the obvious or easy options without considering the more neglected or harder ones. You’re also less likely to use motivated reasoning to justify the option you prefer already.

Having such a model is not only useful for your career. In most jobs, “just doing the job” will rarely be what is most impactful from an EA-perspective. You will need to pull specific levers in specific directions to have as much impact as possible. And often there will be nobody telling you what to do. Having such a model will make that easier. (see this post and this post by Buck for some more detail)

Only after you have thought about impact in your field in general, ask yourself how you fit best into the solution to the problem you want to work on. This separation will be hard to keep up and your thinking about the field should be somewhat informed by your situation. Still, I would encourage you not to zoom in on specific paths, options, or opportunities too early.

Writing things down was very helpful. It forced me to expose and clarify my thinking. That’s when holes and gaps become apparent. I realized where I would have to do more research. It also made getting feedback from others easier. I could share a document and ask for their thoughts. They could give feedback when it suited them and on the best version of my thinking I could get on paper. It also made publishing and sharing resources on the field and my thinking much easier. This allowed others to benefit and generated some useful contacts. A few people reached out to me because they had seen my work.

Having a habit of regularly thinking about the next steps was useful. This way, I rarely left my eyes off the ball.

Pick a niche or undervalued area and become the most knowledgeable person in it. There is related advice by Holden Karnofsky to get to the “top of the pile.” In some (sub)areas of effective altruism, these piles are not yet very high. Even just writing a few insightful posts on this forum might be enough to become the person on that matter and help other people make sense of it. This can also work outside of the community but is significantly harder. There is often much more competition. The risky way to still pull it off is to bet on an undervalued area, community, organization, or person. Once the thing becomes appropriately valued, you will have already invested more than the people coming in. Alternatively, you can jump on opportunities faster than anybody else. COVID-19 was such a case where several people could probably skip a few rungs on their career ladder. Luckily, staying on top is much easier than getting there due to the Matthew effect.

Read books. I was surprised by how much I could find out about different career paths by reading the right books, especially in politics and policy. However, I would expect this to be less applicable to other career paths.

Check team pages. You can check out the bios of people who already work at an organization you’re interested in to find out about typical career trajectories in the field and likely requirements for working at that particular organization. I did this in for a bunch of different paths I was considering and found it informative.

Reach out to people who have worked at an organization you’re interested in or are knowledgeable about the field in general. It’s hard to get this inside perspective any other way. Sometimes I reached out to people I had met for a general conversation about my career and sometimes with specific questions about a particular option about which I thought they might have things to say. Both were helpful. For the graduate school options, I searched LinkedIn for people who had done the same program and asked them a number of questions. Many people got back to me. (I did not ask for a call.)

Many of the best roles are not advertised, or even if they are, you can only get them if you have the right connections or visible expertise. There were two roles for which I was only considered because people knew me and my skill set. So building connections is important. I don’t like “networking” myself, and it does not come naturally to me. I have found two ways that work for me (beyond the networking I have to do as part of my job): (a) doing valuable and visible work, e.g., posting on this forum; (b) reaching out to people for advice.

If you like the work of somebody or some organization, reach out and say that. I probably missed out on an opportunity because I did not reach out to somebody who’s work I liked sufficiently early. In another case, connecting with an organization in this way led to several useful contacts. Ideally, you can say things about their work or the field that they find interesting.

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