Summary: Is being a grant-funded solo researcher compatible with any level of job security? How are grants taxed, and how do solo researchers handle healthcare, retirement savings, etc? For a movement obsessed with both grantmaking and career advice, there are surprisingly few answers online.
I was recently talking to a friend who was trying to hype me up on the idea that I should dream big, apply for an EA grant, and try to build a career as a full-time researcher/blogger/public-intellectual. This concept strikes me as somewhat insane, albeit enticing for many reasons. But I realized during the conversation that a lot of my hesitance was coming from the fact that I can’t picture what the life of a solo-researcher grant recipient is like. All you people getting grants from EA Funds, FTX, and so forth — how do you think about your long-term career plans? How do the basics of personal finance work when you’re not a traditional W-2 employee?
These questions might not matter to eager college graduates just out of school, who are happy to take a 1-year grant in order to work on developing their career. But if you are already mid-career, and value maintaining a stable living situation suitable for raising a family, are EA grants a viable option at all? (If not, that is okay, since there are many other ways to contribute — like donating cash to top charities, writing blog posts in your spare time, or getting hired into a traditional employer/employee relationship at an EA org. But I want to know whether or not my friend's advice is crazy.)
Here are some questions that came to mind as I tried to understand what life would be like in the EA grant-based ecosystem. I tried to look this stuff up on the Forum, but didn't find many answers -- there is plenty of 80K-style career advice, a lot of lists of funding opportunities, some descriptions of what the life of an independent researcher feels like day-to-day, and a bunch of "Effective Altruism Lifestyle" advice about how the philosophy of EA might influence stuff like parenting decisions. The closest thing I found to what I wanted was this comment thread wherein people debated the merits of long-term funding for independent researchers.
Questions about long-term career planning:
- What is the long-term picture here? Do some people intend to just keep getting grants forever, each year, for the rest of their career? Is the idea that the grants would come just from one organization, or that you would hop around continuously? (This seems to me like a scary situation with essentially zero job security, but maybe I’m wrong about this?)
- Which EA funders are even capable of potentially making a long-term funding commitment? (For instance, in the case of FTX Future Fund regrantors or Survival & Flourishing “S-process” participants, won’t the group of people making the grants be different every year?)
- If “grants forever” isn’t feasible, is everyone planning to use grants as temporary career-transition stepping-stones, eventually getting hired at a think-tank or something? (In this case, mid-career people who value stability should eschew grants and just apply for jobs at EA orgs. But jobs at organizations often have specific roles, structured research agendas, etc — this is different from the grantmaking world where people are pitching their own projects and composing their own independent research agendas. So jobs and grants don’t perfectly substitute. Should there be some Rethink-Priorities-esque organization that offers people “EA Tenure” to pursue more independent projects?)
- Some people might be able to develop their careers until they are profitable on their own by selling substack subscriptions or speaking at events or whatever. But this seems like a difficult goal that only a small percentage of people will be suited for; general-interest blogs can monetize in ways that detailed technical research can’t. Maybe there is some creative way that EA can support this kind of freelance work, and thus make it more feasible for a wider class of people? (Maybe a grantmaking organization could say something like, “Don’t bother trying to monetize your animal-welfare blog early on; we’ll pay you $1/month per newsletter subscription you get, up to 5000 subscribers.”)
- My impression is that entering academia is pretty hard to do from outside academia. (Eg, if you don’t have a PhD and your college major was in a totally unrelated field.) But some people have followed this path — Robin Hanson was a physics major, then a programmer at NASA and Lockheed Martin for nine years, before he became an economics professor. Is this something that mid-career people should consider at all?
- Or maybe people have yet different plans, or I’m somehow thinking about this whole issue in a totally-wrong way.
Questions about personal finances:
- If you get a $50K grant, is this better or worse on net than earning $50K of traditional W-2 employment income? How is the grant money taxed — the same as regular income, or as small-business self-employment income, or as something wild like gambling winnings, or what? (The question of how much of the grant money you will actually get, post-taxes, is an important consideration for folks who might already be taking a large pay cut to work in EA instead of in tech.)
- For tax efficiency, should grant recipients optimally incorporate themselves as an S-corporation, or a charitable foundation, or something else? Should they take their grant in small amounts spaced out year-by-year instead of all in the first year? Maybe there is some kind of incredible tax savings which makes the $50K of grant money much more appealing than $50K of income.
- How do EA freelance researchers deal with the things that are typically provided through the employer/employee relationship — things like healthcare, disability insurance, retirement savings accounts, and so forth? Maybe there are clever solutions here, but otherwise it seems like $50K of grant money is going to look a lot worse than $50K of income when you add in all the other benefits of employment.
I feel like there must be a bunch of other details and bits of life-advice that would help me imagine what the EA freelancer life is like, but which I don’t even know enough to ask about. Maybe there are important things to know about the literal process of talking to the grantmakers, transferring the money, writing up progress reports? Maybe the real problems aren't so much financial as social, and the title of this post should have been, "Grantees: what lies do you tell your relatives to stop them from nagging you about your unorthodox career decisions?"
People probably have helpful advice about how to stay productive, keep up social connections with other EAs, and stay on top of new developments in your field, when you are working independently. For instance, I feel like I would be interested to hear someone tell me, "These are some tips on how to deal with having kids and raising a family when you’re a freelance grant-funded longtermist researcher", but I have no idea what they would say next.