Thanks to Kuhan Jeyapragasan, Akash Wasil, Olivia Jimenez, and Lizka Vaintrob for helpful comments / conversations. 

TLDR: I think group organizers have become anchored on the idea of Intro EA Fellowships as 8-week small-group things, which might actually be a sub-optimal way to introduce promising students to the EA world. We need new alternatives that are exciting, immersive, and enable EA-interested students to move as quickly as they’d like through the EA funnel.  

The Intro EA Fellowship (also known as the Arete Fellowship) is a program where a small group of fellows and a facilitator meet multiple times to learn about some aspect of effective altruism. Stanford EA’s virtual Intro EA Fellowship was the first structured EA program I was part of and when I realized EA was a thriving community with real humans in it. I don’t think my experience is unique. In uni EA groups around the world, the Intro EA Fellowship is one of the core programs offered to students. 

Some context on Intro EA Fellowships: 

  • Fellowships are usually structured in cohorts of 2-5 fellows and a facilitator who meets weekly for 6-10 weeks.
  • Each week, fellows do some amount of readings and participate in a discussion with their cohort.
  • There are often also social activities that allow fellows to get to know each other better and cultivate friendships.
  • Uni group organizers often use Intro EA Fellowships as an early/mid part of the funnel for highly-engaged EA students.

Intro EA Fellowships exist in so many places because they have some upsides, some of which I list below. 

That said, I also think there are some strong downsides to the Intro EA Fellowship model as it currently exists. As a participant, I wasn’t particularly impressed by my Intro EA Fellowship experience -- I’m not sure if my fellowship cohort actually finished (people got busy) and think there’s a chance I would’ve bounced off the EA community had I not attended a summer EA retreat for high school students a couple months later. Now, as I help organize Penn EA’s Intro Fellowship cohort, I’m noticing how my frustrations as an Intro Fellowship participant weren’t unique to me. 

In this post, I share some of those frustrations (downsides to the Intro Fellowship as I see them). I try to steelman the argument for why Intro EA fellowships should exist. Finally, I introduce some Intro EA Fellowship alternatives that I'd be excited to see uni group organizers prototype. I’m personally planning to try some of these -- if you’d like to coordinate, please reach out ashley11@wharton.upenn.edu

Downsides of Intro Fellowships 

Much of this is observed through my own experience being part of / facilitating fellowships. I also think Intro Fellowship experiences are highly variable depending on one’s cohort and facilitator, and I think there’s a good chance I’ve had a relatively worse Intro EA Fellowship experience than others:

  • The standard 8-week fellowship timeline is too slow for people who are really excited early on and want to move faster. In these scenarios, the fellowship might actually slow people down and cause their excitement to fade (an hour-long conversation and some readings each week is a pretty sluggish pace) -- worse case scenario, it might cause some promising people to lose interest.
    • I want to cultivate a fast-paced vibe among fellows, instead of a discussion-group like vibe. (To me “fast-paced,” when applied to something that seems interesting, cultivates genuine excitement and deep curiosity). For example, when I first found 80,000 Hours, I pulled an all-nighter reading it and was absolutely ecstatic that people had spent so much time thinking about triaging problems and how one can do the most good in the world. In my early EA days, I spent hours at a time diving into blogs and Twitter rabbitholes. I think moving quickly through EA content in the beginning helped me stay (and become even more) excited / curious about the EA world.
    • It seems that faster fellowships are good in general because it gets people producing value sooner. For example, I’m slightly confused on what to tell people who haven’t done the Intro Fellowship but want to help organize Penn EA. Most of these people are concurrently doing the fellowship, I’ve advised one person to skip the fellowship and do the readings at an accelerated pace on their own and talk to other organizers about it.
  • Some of the most promising people are missed and get stuck in worse Intro Fellowship cohorts. A popular strategy for slotting fellows into cohorts is to batch all the most promising people together. You can then match this cohort with the “best” facilitator, the promising people meet each other, and discussion quality is generally higher.
    • However, it can be hard to identify the most promising fellows from their applications and maybe one 30 min 1-on-1 interview. Sometimes people are slotted into the incorrect cohort and have to “stick it out” for the 8 week fellowship, which seems bad.
    • This wouldn’t be a problem if we had better ways of identifying who will be promising or if fellowship cohorts aren’t fixed the whole time.
  • It can be hard for both fellows and facilitators to commit to a recurring thing for 8 weeks. People have midterms, EAG sometimes happens, other things come up. My priors are that people are more likely to come to a single Fri-Sun retreat than something dragged out over multiple weeks.
    • Many of the highly intelligent / agentic fellows and facilitators are busy and probably least likely to make time to commit to an 8-week thing, especially when they don’t know the quality of the experience. On top of that, these people might also not have much availability, which leads to fellowship cohorts being reluctantly assigned by time instead of how promising people are.
  • One hour (maybe two) fellowship sessions isn’t long enough to get into “late night life-changing conversations” mode, which is important for big changes. I don’t think weekly fellowship readings and sessions are usually associated with the reference class of transformative experiences. I think immersive and experiential things (like physically going to a new place and participating in an overnight event) are more memorable and create space outside of one’s day-to-day to actually reflect on and play with what big changes might look like.
    • Perhaps well-run socials during Intro Fellowships can help fill the “late night life-changing conversations” gap.
    • I do think that doing the Intro Fellowship alongside coursework may mean less scope to dig deep into intellectually difficult topics, where this might come more naturally if folks were in a retreat-like setting.
  • Context is lost between fellowship sessions. I’ve noticed that sometimes we end a fellowship meeting on a high with concrete things to check out and follow up on. Then, a week goes by and people are bombarded with school and life. By the next fellowship meeting, people have lost the buildup and start back at ground zero. This is frustrating when we can’t jump right back in and spend some amount of time each session “warming up.”
    • I think some argument can be made that maybe this isn’t a bad thing and it’s good for fellows to have some sort of review / warm-up before each session. This could totally be a personal preference, but when I’ve tried to learn things in the past, intensive bootcamp style seemed to work better for me than a weekly 1-3 hour session.

Upsides of Intro Fellowships 

The majority of uni EA groups are running Intro Fellowship cohorts right now, so there must be some reason for their existence. Trying to steelman the argument for Intro Fellowships here:

  • Intro EA Fellowships are easy for new uni groups to pick up and run with. The model has been tested many times and there’s a significant amount of infrastructure that has already been created (existing syllabi, facilitator training, discussion guides, etc. that can easily be customized).
    • I think this is an accidental upside and isn’t a good reason on its own -- I think most Intro Fellowship alternatives can be made “easy to pick up” if people document and open-source the tools they used to organize them.
  • An 8-week fellowship offers students more time to reflect on content and make decisions about their careers. There are tons of big concepts and enough content in the Intro Fellowship that I think it could take months to fully explore and process the syllabus. It generally seems good for people to be engaging with EA content for a longer period of time (and people often want to do so) before making any big decisions about their future.
    • For one, big updates and life changes seem more reasonable when they happen over a longer timescale. I think my parents would be quite upset if I went to a three-day retreat and decided to change my career (I think I’d also be a bit suspicious -- maybe I updated on information too quickly and didn’t utilize good epistemics)
    • When arguments aren’t all presented at once, fellows have more time to reflect, ruminate, process arguments, and talk to others about them. This might be conducive to people actually taking time to read more things and think through them, actually explore their confusions around key EA arguments, do their own cause prio, and generally do more original thinking.
  • An Intro Fellowship requires less time and up-front commitment than a retreat, an alternative I suggest below.
    • If you count the number of hours spent for a two day retreat, attendees would commit ~48 hours, with an extra ~30 for the organizers. For an 8-week fellowship with one hour-long session and two hours of reading/week, fellows would commit ~24 hours and organizers ~8 (assuming they have done the readings already). Based on the number of hours, maybe some/many people are more willing to do the 3 hour/week thing rather than a retreat, but this seems unlikely to me. (Retreats seem more exciting, and time-bound things seem better than things that drag on for multiple weeks).
    • Another argument against retreats could be that for students in their first month or two of college, it might seem extreme to travel off-campus with a group of relative strangers for a long weekend, while joining a discussion group seems very normal.
  • Cohort-based things are conducive to people making friends and staying engaged for at least 8 weeks. It’s plausible that hanging out with the same group of people for 8 weeks allows people to bond and provides some sort of “peer-pressure” for students to continue showing up to EA things for at least 8 weeks, during which they could learn new things, change their minds, and update their education / career plans.
    • Furthermore, an 8-week time frame might also give fellows time to attend other events at their uni EA group. For example, students might attend some group dinners / socials and do 1-on-1s with organizer(s) while doing the Intro Fellowship, which could add depth to the experience.
  • Facilitating could be a good way to engage group members who are knowledgeable about EA and looking for ways to get involved. One of the biggest questions uni groups face is what Intro EA Fellowship graduates can do. An obvious option could be for them to help facilitate the next cohort of the Intro Fellowship. Depending on the person, this could be a good way for them to solidify concepts (teaching being an effective way to learn) while meeting new people in the uni group and dipping their toes into meta-EA work.
    • I think doing meta-EA is one of the most impactful things undergrads can do with their time. That said, I want doing meta stuff to be an intentional choice instead of the (only) default option. For certain people, I think doing meta-EA work could be strictly worse than doing other things in the EA world, especially if that person had well-developed cause-area specific / org-running aptitudes.

Alternatives to Intro EA Fellowships

I think most efforts to change the Intro EA Fellowship thus far have been small, like slightly editing the curriculum. I’d be excited about more uni EA groups testing alternative structures that might replace the Intro EA Fellowship entirely. I feel like myself (and maybe others) have been anchored on the fellowship cohort model and haven’t sufficiently explored other options. 

Some options that I think could be high potential include:

Accelerated Fellowship Retreat 

A 3-day overnight retreat (Fri-Sun) dedicated to reading and discussion. During this time frame, fellows would go through all the readings in the Intro Fellowship syllabus (which seems completely feasible in a 3-day time frame, given fellows are only expected to spend ~2 hours/week on readings). 

  • Goals of this retreat include:
    • Create faster on-ramps for EA-interested students to gain EA knowledge / context and start producing value earlier.
    • Maintain students’ interest and excitement when they first come across EA.
    • Establish the “late night convo” vibe which allows fellows to form deeper bonds with each other and enter deep / life-changing conversations.
  • Potential pitfalls of this model:
    • Fellows do the 4 day retreat and are super excited / learn a bunch. A couple days post-retreat, interest dies. Without accountability, fellows don’t go on to do anything useful.
      • To mitigate this, I’d strongly recommend running an accelerated fellowship retreat only if there are clear pathways for what fellows can plug into after the four days.
      • Some “post fellowship” projects that organizers might want to encourage include: organizing for their uni EA group, choosing to deep dive into x cause area and writing a series of EA Forum posts summarizing key takeaways, forming a reading group on y, etc. The key here is that fellows should be empowered to self-organize (maybe there’s a couple hours devoted to “making plans” at the end of the retreat).
    • Fellows speed through the readings / discussions, and don’t actually “get” any of it (don’t remember much, not enough time to process, don’t actually form their own opinions about ideas).
      • Maybe we are more selective with the reading list than the actual Intro Fellowship syllabus
      • Maybe at the retreat, fellows set goals for if / how they want to continue engaging with EA content. There could be a 1-on-1 scheduled two weeks after the retreat to check in on how fellows are doing and how they can be supported.
    • People get bored of readings / discussions, and the vibe at the retreat sucks. This could be mitigated by building in time for social events and other activities in the retreat agenda.
    • Certain fellows derail discussions because they just aren't that interested (or are interested in their pet cause and are trying to get people to join it). In standard Intro Fellowships, these people naturally drop off, which is often a good thing because they’d lower average quality of discussion. “Dropping off” might be harder in an immersive retreat setting.
      • One way to mitigate this is to encourage folks to leave if they realize they don’t vibe with the retreat or find it valuable. Better screening of attendees beforehand on “openness to new ideas and changing their minds” might also be helpful.
  • This could also be a good opportunity to test various post-fellowship follow up strategies (doubly important for the accelerated model where post-fellowship drop-off is a concern, but would also be useful for standard Intro EA Fellowship models). Such follow up strategies could include doing one or more 1-on-1s or group meetings with fellows post-fellowship, giving mini-grants to fellows to work on their own EA-related projects, or even running another 3-day retreat 8 weeks after the accelerated fellowship weekend to check in on fellows’ progress and unblock people if they are facing certain challenges.

Self-Directed Fellowship

A “move at your own pace” model where fellows move through the weekly readings on their own or with partner(s), taking as much / little time as they need. Instead of being matched with cohorts of students, each facilitator “owns” a week, which would allow them to have deep knowledge of that week’s materials and refer people to other good resources. Ad-hoc fellowship meetings are scheduled for a week when there are fellows who’ve completed the required readings. 

  • Benefits:
    • Fellows are supported to move and fast as they would like through EA content. Initial interest and excitement is sustained.
    • Fellows take responsibility for their own exploration of EA content, spending more / less time on the topics that pique their interest.
    • Fellows naturally form high quality connections with a large number of peers and facilitators, instead of a single cohort.
  • Pitfalls:
    • People are bad at self-directed learning and fall off the face of the earth after a couple weeks. It seems like EA / Intro Fellowships might select for people who can do self-directed learning through, although this seems harder to operationalize for busy college students with real competing deadlines. Accountability partners or a mid-point 1-on-1 check in with an organizer might help address this.
    • The most promising people might end up in some conversations with less promising people. I’m not too worried about this because cohorts aren’t static, and if someone finds another promising fellow they vibe with, the two can coordinate and complete readings at the same time.
    • Maybe people take unreasonably long to do the readings, causing the fellowship to drag on multiple months. Fellowship meetings end up being a series of 1-on-1s, which takes too much organizer time. This could be mitigated by providing a suggested timeline and giving fellows x weeks of wiggle room.
  • I heard that some groups in the UK ran an office hours version of the fellowship similar to this. In their model, fellows did the readings at their own pace and could drop into a facilitator’s office hours to discuss the readings if they wanted to. This seems somewhat similar to what I've described, but I'm not sure how it worked or whether people actually chose to drop in.

3-Week Fellowship Sprint

A 3-week version of the fellowship where the primary purpose is to identify who the most promising people are, then aggressively reach out to them through 1-on-1s, invite-only events, and connections to resources / opportunities / leaders in the EA community. It seems like the core purpose of fellowships are to 1) introduce students to core EA concepts and 2) allow group organizers to screen for the most promising fellows. I think the 80/20 could be done in three weeks.

  • Benefits:
    • Identify the most promising people more quickly.
    • Invest more time and resources in the most promising people, which helps them stay excited and move through the EA funnel more quickly.
    • Logistically easier for both fellows and facilitators to commit to a 3-week sprint rather than an 8-week program.
    • “Sprint” carries a fast-paced, intensive vibe that is more reflective of the type of energy we want to cultivate in a fellowship cohort (nerdy, go-getter, truth-seeking, creative, fun).
  • Pitfalls:
    • Some promising people might be missed during this 3-week period and not be connected to resources / opportunities they need.

Activity-Based Intro Fellowship

A version of the fellowship that is more activity-focused. I think organizers are currently anchored on the idea of readings and discussions as the way to introduce new students to EA, even though it might not be the most effective learning style for fellows and might be boring / too similar to the traditional classroom setting. 

  • Instead of every week being solely readings / discussions, there could be some smaller amount of readings (to establish common knowledge about the week’s theme) and projects like:
    • Come up with a 3-5 min lightning talk on something related to x (maybe the facilitator helps people coordinate to make sure there aren’t duplicated topics / everything is covered) and share with the cohort at this week’s meeting.
    • Identify a question related to x, research it for 1-2 hours, write a mock EA Forum post on what you’ve learned (you don't have to post it, and in many cases it probably won't be worth posting). You could do this with partner(s).
    • “Download” a person doing work related to x. (“Downloading” is a term I use that refers to internet stalking someone -- Google them, read their blog, listen to their podcasts, figure out how [name] became who they are). Share the person you downloaded with another fellow or consider reaching out to that person for a 1-on-1.
  • Benefits:
    • Fellows are more excited and engaged by projects instead of readings.
    • Fellows are quickly immersed in the EA community and connected with meaningful short-term opportunities and EA leaders. Post-fellowship, people have what they need to continue exploring EA on their own, instead of being dependent on an organizer to hand-hold. (Kind of like the concept of giving a man a fish vs teaching them how to fish)
    • Fellows have ideas for things they might work on post-fellowship. A common question organizers have post-fellowships is: What are things that fellowship graduates can work on? I think the answer most people have settled on are entrepreneurial, short-term, internship-like projects (although it’s still unclear how this might be operationalized at scale). That said, I think making the fellowship itself activity-based and allowing people to experience things like posting on the EA Forum and reaching out to EA leaders during the fellowship makes it easier for people to come up with / act on these sorts of project ideas post-fellowship.
  • Pitfalls:
    • Fellows don’t have enough time to work on projects (e.g. drafting an EA Forum post might take more than a couple hours) and resent having to do so. This could be mitigated by ensuring projects are small / broken up into small enough pieces so they don’t overwhelm a fellow.
    • Fellows don’t have the skills needed to complete projects. For example, a fellow might lack general writing or research ability, which would make it difficult to do a majority of the projects.
    • Fellows feel like they aren’t learning anything from projects. This might be because EA concepts aren’t presented in a coherent-enough way (I’m envisioning there will be weekly themes and key concepts for the weeks, but no specific readings).
      • I’m not sure how to fix this, but would be curious to get fellows feedback on what felt boring / redundant / bad about the project, and if there are other project ideas they would find more valuable.

My Questions for You

I’ve been frustrated by Intro Fellowships (as they currently exist) for a while now, and would be really excited by more group organizers thinking about alternatives. Some things I’d like to know:

  • Has anyone run any of the experiments above before? I’d love to hear how it went.
  • What other ideas do you have for things that could replace Intro EA Fellowships?
  • Would anyone be interested in running one of these experiments above, or another experiment entirely? I’d love to connect and coordinate!

If you’re interested in chatting more about these things, please shoot me a message at ashley11@wharton.upenn.edu

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As an aside, I think good community is about providing people with repeated low stakes chances at engagement. "You don't want to come on the intro fellowship? No? That's okay, we'll run past eachother again"

My question would be, how do EA orgs at unis run events such that by the end of 3rd year, most students who would want to be involved are and few students who don't are hurt or turned off. I think these should be regular (someone might have a possible interaction every couple of weeks) and low friction (it takes 5 seconds to engage).

Some thoughts might be:

  • EA discussion night, which anyone can bring people to
  • 4 week courses run twice a year
  • Low friction friendship matchmaking
  • EA mentoring
  • Ways to hear about EA socials
  • increasing the findability of this forum/EA twitter/ EA reddit
  • low friction way to get hold of EA books

Just to give some colour, I was a Christian at uni and Churches/Christian Union in various guises ran a lot of events. Some were less effective than others, but still, note the opportunities:

  • Church services
  • Bible studies ~10 ppl
  • College bible studies
  • Socials
  • 3 person friendship groups
  • Text a toastie - where you could ask a question and get a free toasties
  • 2 mission weeks a year
  • Giving drinks/sweets to people going clubbing
  • Giving tea and coffee to random people
  • One-off worship nights
  • Gave everyone hoodies (feeling familiar :P?)
  • Alpha courses (the Christian precursor to the intro fellowship)

I think that the Christian Union sometimes got people's backs up, but it was more or less impossible for someone not to have had the opportunity to hear. If the tone could be set right, and the best options chosen, I think this is a good model.

Really like the point of it being good for the to be a lot going on at once. Days of cause-area specific talks and videos and binging, months of weekly discussion groups, small group dinners to talk about the ideas and uncertainties, things going on at different places and rhythms all the time.

One quick comment is that people who are more self-motivated can easily progress via reading books, online content, podcasts etc. - and they don't need a fellowship at all.

Besides reading material, the main extra thing they need are ways to meet suitable people in the community – after they have some connections they'll talk about it the ideas naturally with those connections.

To get these people, you mainly need to:

1. Reach them with something interesting

2. Get them subscribed to something (e.g. newsletter, social media), so you can periodically remind them about it

3. Introduce them to some ways to learn more

4. Make some one-on-one introductions, or send them to EAG, or local group socials.

I suspect there are a bunch more ways we could be doing the above, which will, if done well, find new people more cheaply than fellowships - especially the most talented and proactive people.

Thanks Ben! Agreed that readings / connections are some of the most important things needed to capture the most talented and proactive people. That said, it seems like even the most “self-motivated” people get distracted in the college environment, where there are so many competing things to learn and student groups to be part of. As a result, I think slightly more structure is needed to get these people:

  • For #2, instead of just getting folks subscribed to a newsletter, I like the idea of informal group chats and Discords that hold self-motivated people in asynchronous discussion spaces as they explore on their own. 
  • For #4, I think these could be bucketed into “opportunities” and expanded a lot more (1-on-1s with EA leaders/professionals, invitations to retreats/EAG, invite-only socials, internship/fellowship opportunities, etc).

Would love to see what a top of funnel program actually designed for the most talented and proactive students looks like though.

The subscription seems like a really exciting point here, since the tabling post made me think that it's possible to get lots of people on your mailing list. Maybe putting all those people in a Facebook group or discord and seeing if that can be made consistently active, which gives low-cost ways to discuss that can also be scaled up to channels to talk about more in depth stuff, allows people who can't make it to the meetings to come, is an easy way of disseminating resources, etc.

Thanks! I'm sympathetic to the broad idea here, but the pitfalls you point out seem pretty significant (maybe less so for the 3-week version, but that one also seems most similar to the current structure).

My main hesitation with activity-based fellowships is that intro fellowships are already pretty light on content (as you point out, they could fit in a busy weekend), so I suspect that cutting content even more would mean leaving even more massive gaps in participants' knowledge of EA. (Right now, content is roughly an intro to core EA mindsets and an intro to the main cause areas--what can be cut?) Then, I'd worry that by default we'd get a bunch of people doing vaguely EA-related projects, mostly dropping off after a bit (since doing independent projects is hard for many people), and not having read much EA-specific content. E.g. maybe someone will look into how to efficiently prevent floods in wealthy countries and just read about that for a few weeks.

That said, it seems like you're right that we probably could and should do much better than the status quo. To vaguely gesture toward potential ideas:

  • Most of my worries about alternatives 1-3 come from the intuition that students will get busy with and prioritize classes, so maybe there's room for more of these accelerated programs to take place over times when students don't have classes? (Although then it's also harder to do in-person interaction.) Or maybe setting it up as a (paid?) larger time commitment (maybe framed as an "internship" or something?) would make students more willing to make and stick to that commitment?
  • Maybe there's things we can add to the current intro fellowship, to keep the current baselines of accountability and content but add more optional ways for people to quickly dive in? (E.g. more social events, more opportunities to start organizing, more workshops, etc.)

I'd also be very curious to hear more details about your own (or others') experience with the fellowship! E.g. which of the limitations of the fellowship felt most salient for you?

TLDR: I agree that content is important, but I don't think the current version of the fellowship does a good job emphasizing the right kind of content. I would like to see more on epistemics/principles and less on specific cause areas. Also the activities can be more relevant.

Longer version: I share some of your worries, Mauricio. I think the fellowship (at least, the version that Penn EA does) currently has three kinds of content:

  • Readings about principles and ways of seeing the world (e.g., counterfactualism, effectiveness mindset, expanding one's moral circle)
  • Readings about content and specific information about cause areas (e.g., arguments for global health and development, animal welfare, longtermism, etc.)
  • Exercises in which people reflect on reading topics (e.g., estimating your future income and the impact you could make with it, sending a letter to a version of yourself from the 1840s and trying to convince them to expand their moral circle)

I think we could cut several of the readings about content and cause areas and replace them with more readings/activities about epistemics and "ways of seeing the world." Based on my experience as a facilitator, I think the readings on principles/epistemics are usually much more valuable than the readings on cause areas. Also, if you get people fired up about the underlying ideas/principles, I think they're inclined to read a bit about specific cause areas on their own. And I also worry a bit about the perception that EA is defined by a core set of cause areas (as opposed to being defined by a core set of principles, which then leads people to some cause areas but there is a lot of disagreement here and we should be open to changing cause areas over time etc etc.)

 I also think the exercises in the fellowship could be revamped to be a bit more relevant and applied (e.g., more focus on career planning, independent research skills, redteaming EA research reports or project proposals, developing agency, and converting beliefs into actions). 

Examples of new exercises: "take 1 hour to research a topic you're interested in and write a 5-min summary" or "spend 15 minutes brainstorming people who you could talk to in order to address key uncertainties. Then, spend 15 minutes reaching out to them." (Note: Brainstormed these in 5 mins. These are meant to be illustrative rather than polished).

Thanks!

Sorry, I'm a bit confused about how this relates to my response. It sounds like this is an argument for changing the distribution of content within the current fellowship structure, while my response was meant to be about which changes to the fellowship structure we should make. (Maybe this is meant to address my question about "what [content] can be cut?" to implement an activities-based fellowship? But that doesn't seem like what you have in mind either, since unlike in the activities-based fellowship you seem to be suggesting that we keep the total amount of readings roughly constant.) So I'll interpret your comment as an independent case for changing the fellowship content, holding structure constant (rather than as a case for some of the alternative structures proposed in the original post)--let me know if I've misunderstood!

I'd mostly be on board with shifting to more materials that convey core principles/mindsets, if we had promising guesses about how to implement this. My main hesitation: (1) I don't yet know of additional content that would do this well, and--in the absence of that opportunity cost--(2) the object-level content seems pretty good.

Do you have specific ideas for epistemics/mindset content in mind? I share your interest in adding more such content, but specifically in epistemics I've had trouble finding satisfactory content. These are the challenges I've come across:

  • Academic sources that cover epistemics tend to be super long and dry for our target audience
  • LessWrong Sequences content is spread out among a bunch of small posts that very much build on one another, so one-off readings will often transmit little knowledge
  • Clearer Thinking doesn't seem to have that much epistemics-focused content, and its most relevant content is often relatively niche and long
  • ACX/SSC is very long/tangential, is more controversial, and doesn't have that much epistemics-focused content
  • HPMOR / other online fiction is hard to heavily emphasize if we're trying to signal professionalism/legitimacy
  • There's good one-off content on a few things, e.g. Bayes' Theorem and cognitive biases, but I'm skeptical that these are valuable enough readings to be worth the opportunity cost (skeptical about reading about Bayes' Theorem because people already roughly apply it intuitively/roughly, while applying it explicitly/precisely is usually intractable; skeptical about cognitive biases readings because the literature suggests we can't do that much about them).

With mindset/motivational content, we've added all the best stuff I'm aware of--curious what else we can add!

I also think the object-level content about cause areas is fairly valuable:

  • Main EA cause areas are (by design) very unconventional/neglected. So I worry that people might never come across strong arguments for each--or bother to engage with them--if these aren't put in front of them. Or they might want to engage with the strong versions of these arguments but not know where to find them (sure, they're somewhere in the EA-sphere, but how will new people know where?)
  • I'm a bit skeptical of the very sharp distinction between mindsets and cause areas--cause areas provide (a) examples of mindsets/principles (e.g. looking for large-scale problems) being applied, and (b) opportunities to apply mindsets/principles (e.g. "Here are two compelling causes--which should we prioritize? What does this mean for your career?")

(I also agree the exercises aren't great, although my sense was that most fellows and facilitators mostly ignore them, so for us they don't currently seem to be a big part of the fellowship.)

Whoops-- definitely meant my comment as a response to "what content can be cut?" And the section about activities was meant to show how some of the activities in the current fellowship are insufficient (in my view) & offer some suggestions for other kinds of activities.

Regardless of whether we shift to a radically new model, or we try to revamp the existing structure, I think it'll be useful to dissect the current fellowship to see what content we most want to keep/remove.

Will try to respond to the rest at some point soon, but just wanted to clarify!

Ah got it - thanks!

Thanks Mauricio! I agree that some of the pitfalls for the alternatives, specifically challenges with accountability (more things being self-directed) and content (shorter timescales affording less time to consume content), seem significant. That said, I’m optimistic that there are ways to mitigate those challenges through program design.

I think we agree that increasing accountability and quality content in Intro Fellowship-like things seems like a good idea. To me, the “current baselines of accountability and content” in the Intro Fellowship are not what we should be striving for and adding more of what already exists might not be the best strategy? (note: I think the worry about students getting busy and prioritizing classes is already an existing problem in Intro Fellowships). The Intro Fellowship misses out on other ways accountability can be increased, some of which I’ve listed below (I liked your ideas around maybe making fellowships prestigious and offering stipends and included them). I also think there are ways to structure content where fellows spend less time reading, but still cover all the core material. 

Accountability can come from:

  • Weekly meetings with facilitator and cohort of peers
  • Being in-person (at a retreat)
  • Project deliverables
  • 1-on-1s 
  • Stipends 
  • Making program more prestigious
  • Mentors / EA professionals

Content: I think more is not always better, and agree with Akash that the Intro Fellowship isn’t sufficiently selective with content / selects for the wrong content. To me, most Intro syllabuses seem unwieldy -- ex, there are so many “recommended readings” and exercises which I’ve noticed fellows rarely do. Your concern that fellows might not do enough reading to gain a basic understanding of EA principles / cause areas is very valid. The general idea behind the strategies I share below that might mitigate this is that a more effective way of learning might be for someone to summarize things / identify key ideas for you:

  • Facilitator synthesizing the readings (maybe through a 15 min presentation) 
  • Facilitator reviewing / approving fellows’ projects to ensure they are sufficiently relevant, there could even be a pre-created list of projects fellows might choose from
  • A distilled memo session for the week (I honestly think someone could create a 1-3 page memo for each of the weeks in the Intro Fellowship that communicates the important info people should remember)
  • Identifying key concepts in a given week, and giving each fellow the responsibility to dive deeply into one of the concepts and share learning with their peers 
  • Cutting out misc readings and exercises that most people already ignore, so folks can focus on what’s important

Re: my own experience, the limitations that felt most salient as a fellow was getting stuck in a Fellowship cohort I wasn’t very impressed by, and as a facilitator is committing to a recurring thing for 8 weeks. While circulating drafts of this post, various people felt very strongly about different downsides though, so I’m not sure if there’s one downside that emerges as the biggest limitation. 

Thanks!

Yup, to be clear I didn't mean to suggest "more of the same," although you're right that my examples near the end may have been overly anchored to the events fellowships currently have.

a more effective way of learning might be for someone to summarize things / identify key ideas for you

Hm, maybe. One hypothesis is that people tend to understand and remember ideas much better if they engage with them for longer amounts of time. If true, I think this would mean more (good) content is better. This seems likely to me because:

  • It seems much more common for people to have big life/worldview changes from books than from talks or articles.
  • Collections of somewhat detailed readings let people check links, see responses to a wide range of counterarguments, look things up if they're missing context, and more generally get a more thorough version of an argument.
  • A bunch of core motivations for EA and its cause areas are potentially paradigm-shifting, so they seem especially hard for people to quickly slot into their existing worldviews.
  • More time spent on an idea --> more attention spent on it, more chances to make downstream updates
  • Much of the K-college educational system seems built on this assumption (which is definitely not rock-solid evidence, but it's some evidence)
  • The spacing effect is a thing (unless that too has failed to replicate?)

So I'm skeptical that people can "really get" ideas like "we're always in triage," or "maybe animals matter," or "maybe we should think a lot about the future" from just brief summaries. (Brief summaries accompanied by things that motivate people to look into things more deeply on their own seem great, if we can pull that off.)

So I'm still hesitant about replacing content with projects. Still excited about:

  • Content + additional ways to dive in
  • Or replacing some content with other activities that encourage deep engagement (e.g. certain retreats) if we can figure out good follow-up

(I'm also not sure about the self-directed fellowship format--we could mitigate the relevant downsides by adding accountability measures, but doesn't that largely bring it back to being a not-so-self-directed fellowship? We could also do more individualized accountability like 1-on-1's, but that's significantly more costly.)

TL;DR: I resonated with quite a few of your points as one of UChicago EA's main organizers, and I agree that the IF is not currently the optimal model for introducing University students to EA. I think one conservative trial to run would be to replace the last few weeks of the IF with a retreat and/or workshop.  More generally, I think a careers-first approach could be more optimal.


Thank you for this post, particularly since many groups seem to have committed to the fellowship model in recent years! While I think the fellowship model is an improvement upon the older model of weekly discussions/presentations, my experience running UChicago EA's Intro Fellowship definitely overlaps with some of the downsides mentioned here.

Specifically, I agree with these downsides:

  • the 8-week fellowship feeling 'slow'
    • I'm not sure it's necessary to do sprints of deep engagement (e.g., pulling all-nighters), but I do think a feeling energized and agentic is important - and not optimally-served by the IF's monotonous structure
    • Anecdotally, I've had fellows tell me that they wanted to apply EA principles around week 5 - and even express confusion/difficulty in 'pitching' UChicago EA (e.g., "what do we do as students interested in EA?")
  • lack of "late night life-changing conversations"
    • although I've been consistently impressed with the quality and nuance of my fellows' discussions, it's not comparable to the kind of conversations I had while I was living at a dorm on-campus. Those may not have been life-changing but they were extremely effective at creating bonds, and were also quite thought-provoking. My dorm also has a reputation for producing very committed students (e.g., people whose social circles largely consist of the dorm's residents), which seems relevant to the goals of EA CBs
    • Furthermore, these really need to happen in a casual setting. I don't think these discussions are equivalent to the kind of discussions that happen during an IF. I think these long, casual conversations are better for cultivating community (and potentially community norms) than for transferring EA knowledge - although I'm not very certain about this.
    • edit: Per Chana's comment, a potential solution would be to pair un/structured engagement together, like following a discussion up with meals. But I am not super excited about this under an IF model because the unstructured engagement seems too variable (unreliable) here.

I agree less with these downsides:

  • commitment issues
    • There are certainly issues with showing up for every session but I don't think it is overly problematic to skip 1-3 sessions, which has been the maximum I've experienced in-person. Additionally, this might serve as a proxy for long-term engagement, allowing organizers to better filter for potential HEA
  • context being lost
    • not only has this not been my experience but I also think it's important to account for when trying to figure out who is most promising, because post-college life is just as (if not moreso) hectic. If we are trying to predict who will sustain EA engagement long-term, surely we should try to assess them in contexts that are more similar to post-college life?
    • Of course, that doesn't mean that it's optimal to *introduce* new members in such an environment. I'm simply making the case that, at some point, it might be helpful to be able to filter out people who do not stay engaged week after week.

I somewhat disagree with the following upsides of an IF: 

  • the IF prepares fellows to "make decisions about their careers"
    • I wholly agree that it is extremely important for fellows to first be exposed to the fundamentals of EA, and that it would be odd for fellows to change career plans after a retreat (though this is ironic, given I did this).
    • However, I don't think the IF prepares them well for the act of career planning (or, possibly, any other implementation step). Though the last two weeks encourage fellows to start thinking about their careers, I feel like it's a large jump for them to start applying EA principles without doing any sort of career planning preparation or even having a 1:1 about their thoughts.
  • A retreat being more of a time commitment
    • I actually think we're in agreement here, but you put this as an upside of IFs. : ) Regardless of the *number* of hours, a *weekend* feels like much less commitment than a quarter/semester-long commitment. I definitely agree that it would be harder to market though (see below).

I haven't been running UChicago EA for long so I'm not sure what retention from our IF is like, but as far as I can tell,

  • ~2  out of ~15 fellows from our last year engaged with us this year (but last year was highly abnormal given that we ran the IF virtually, and only ~2 fellows went to more than 2 sessions)
  • - 1/2 of HEA alumni, as identified by CEA, were part of leadership (and so it is unclear if the IF was what sustained their engagement)

Based on personal experience from CEA's US Uni Organizer retreat this August, I was initially most excited by the idea of a fellowship retreat. This seems more likely to create social bonds than fellowship discussion, too, which could be more efficient since the current norm is to separate un/structured programming (e.g., fellowship discussions and mealtime socials).

  • However, I am concerned about marketing this. It's hard enough to market the Intro Fellowship - it's not common programming among UChicago student groups - and I think it would be even more strange for us to advertise a retreat (not to mention that both requiring people to pay for it and saying it is fully covered seem odd).
    • To successfully market it, I imagine you'd need to first create a community through weekly programming that serves the purpose of identifying the most promising members (similar to the aim of the 3-week fellowship sprint here).
    • I think this could be mitigated by framing the student group as career-focused. So you could say, "on this retreat, we will teach you how to find the most impactful career," which sounds less weird to me than, "we will discuss how to do the most good."
  • I am also concerned about the social dynamics. If the retreat happens early on, then there would be very little vetting and unlike with CEA retreats, it's uncertain that they are all EA-aligned. UChicago EA has previously had an issue with one member previously experiencing harrassment by another (which happened prior to either of them becoming interested in UChiEA, but still was a barrier for the former member). There are clear guard-rails against this that we have since implemented, i.e. asking members if there is anyone they would NOT want to be with, but I still would be concerned about throwing together a potentially diverse or incompatible group.
  • I am also concerned, but less so, about retention. I can't imagine running a retreat without follow-up programming, and I would be excited to launch a workshop series (e.g., career planning, along with all the great ideas you suggest) afterwards.

Overall, these seem like pretty large barriers to running a retreat early on. I think you would want to first build a community and be able to target this opportunity to the most promising members.

I am much less excited about a self-directed fellowship and activity-based IF. The latter sounds exciting in theory, but if I think about it, it would just feel too much like homework! I don't think people would be committed without first understanding the basics of EA (and this is important for them, too, to see if they even want to stay engaged).

As another alternative, I would be very excited to truncate our Intro Fellowship (our syllabus is based on the Virtual Programs & Swarthmore's) by replacing the last three more 'practical' weeks with a workshop - either similar to the activity-based IF suggested here, or planning a project that usually would occur post-fellowship (e.g., cause research). Perhaps this could even include a kick-off retreat, followed up by 1:1s/office hours/weekly working hours.

edit: Per Anjay F's comment, I would similarly be excited to combine an IF with workshops, e.g. by alternating weeks.  

I also think, more broadly, that student groups might want to prioritize career planning in their messaging. This helps put things in perspective and is incredibly attractive to most university students, who typically have no idea what they want to do but feel pressure to figure that out.

I've run fellowship groups and agree with some of this:

  • groups where discussions are slow or fraught
  • people who "get it" but have nowhere to go
  • At about week 5 it feels like the content will either be too restrictive or utterly irrelevant

To add to this, for me the best thing is to have friends. I might suggest a 3 weeks friendship where you choose triplets afterwards, maybe being matched with a current EA. 

Another structure I've been considering is converting the fellowship into a class. (At CMU student-taught classes are part of the culture and pretty common.) But I'm less excited about this than the idea I outlined in my other comment.

We've also been toying around with this idea in Helsinki University and Aalto University, haven't done anything concrete yet though.

Two months ago our group ran a 4-week fellowship! We plan on writing a longer forum post about it soon, but here are some main takeaways:

  • I think our approach combined some of the suggestions you do: our fellowship was a 4-week sprint, we offered extra events during and after the program and went on a retreat right after the groups finished their fellowship
  • There's no AB test on this, but our intuition is that people were more comfortable with committing to a 4 week rather than an 8 week program
  • We heightened the workload a bit, from ~2.5 hours to ~4 hours per week (1.5 hour sessions, 2.5 hours of preparation). This allowed us to still cover the majority of the content of a regular fellowship
  • With a shorter fellowship it becomes even more important to plan it right, so that fellows don't miss half the sessions (due to exams for example)

 

In general, thanks for writing this important post! I think I would even extend your points to a general call for group organizers to be more innovative in their approaches to group organizing. Curious what you think of this :)

Thanks Joris! It sounds like your 4-week fellowship sprint went well. Would be excited to see a longer forum post on this and look at pre/post fellowship survey results (if they are available!)

I’d agree with this maybe extending to “a general call for group organizers to be more innovative in their approaches to group organizing.”  I think a lot of effort has been put into making plug-and-play resources to run uni groups (which can be useful in certain situations!), but generally think established groups / experienced organizers have on-the-ground knowledge about stakeholders that the people creating plug-and-play resources often don’t. Group organizers should trust themselves more to notice problems and take actions to address them!

Thanks for writing this, Ashley! I really think this is important. 

An idea I had is to have a series of weekend workshops that combine the content from the readings with exercises and opportunities for discussion. Maybe this could be split into three parts (ex: I. The EA Mindset II. Longtermism III. EA in the world/Putting it into Practice)

If a workshop was hosted each weekend, this might give students the ability to attend when they are available and at their own pace. It also could allow for deeper engagement by having a full day of thinking about these topics. There could also be additional opportunities like an optional discussion group for each topic in the following week after a workshop and a social event in the evening of the workshop day. 

Thanks Anjay! I think this idea seems promising and definitely worth trying. Some potential pitfalls I’d probably want to design around:

  • Students find it difficult to commit to a thing for three consecutive weekends. (not sure how to fix this)
  • Students are super hyped during the 3-week period, and quickly lose interest after workshops end. Helping students set post-workshop goals / commitments, connecting them to peers and mentors for follow-up 1-on-1s, plugging them into projects, etc. could address this.
  • Students forget what happens in between the weeks. I think your idea of mid-week discussions and socials could be helpful here, as was Chana's suggestion for a “crash course” review.

I had this idea too but worried that you'd need to have gone to previous ones to engage in the later ones. Maybe there's an optional crash course intro in each one? (Doesn't make me super excited, but maybe)

Ooh I like this a lot! Almost like blending the IF discussion with workshops. I'm going to edit my long comment to include this as an alternative about which I'm excited.

One hour (maybe two) fellowship sessions isn’t long enough to get into “late night life-changing conversations” mode, which is important for big changes.

 

This to me is the main downside. 

I got introduced to EA over a 3 week in-person summer program, and my experience is that 2~4 week in person intensive programs have a good track record in getting people excited and engaged. Off the top of my head 1 out of 3 participants in the camps ive been involved in became counterfactually engaged, 1 out of three was engaged but would be anyway and 1 out of three bounced off and didn't stay engaged.

Late night conversations and a great vibe was a big part of why I stayed engaged, and matches my intuitions of what works best to help people grow and connect.

I would be interested on having more data about 6 month after retention for the Intro EA Fellowships, both for the whole group and for the subgroups that are considered "more promising".

Agree with value of late night conversations. Can discussions be held later, and over dinner, with an easy way to transition into just talking?

I agree that this would help address some of the downsides of an IF. I have heard that pairing programming together (e.g., a fellowship discussion followed by a mealtime social) would be optimal and based on my personal experience with student communities outside of EA, that rings true.

Unfortunately, I have yet to implement that in UChicago EA, but I would be interested to see if that improves engagement among IF fellows!

One concern I have would be that these socials wouldn't be mandatory, and so you may be selecting out promising EAs who just haven't built enough rapport yet. It would be great to be able to combine deep un/structured engagement in a 'mandatory' setting.

True - I wonder if two things that might address that are

  1. Explicitly inviting people (especially those who may not be as connected) to the social and having organizers be warm and attentive (in general I find that explicit encouragement / invitation is quite powerful!)
  2. Ending the mandatory session with either something fun and social, or deep and personal/reflective (appropriate to context and the conversation that's just happened), which could both transition it to social and be engineered to help the intellectual notes be integrated into one's worldview.

Thanks for sharing this, Chana! In the initial draft post, I had included some smaller changes to the Intro Fellowship, one of which was to host all sessions as dinner parties in an effort to draw out these late-night convos -- so I’m really excited this is something you’re thinking about. +1 on both of your interventions above. 

I’d also add that I think there are two types of 1-on-1s I do with fellows: the first is the classic career 1-on-1 where I try to connect people with useful resources / opportunities to speed them along in their EA journey. The second is just to get to know them as a human being, knowing that if I build personal rapport, they will likely stick around the EA community and be exposed to even more things. I think more organizers should generally try the second type of 1-on-1 more! (sometimes I tell the fellow we have two options and ask them what they would find most useful use of their time)

I suspect that for all the but the most gung-ho people, the second should come before the first, or take up the first half of the meeting. I remember doing community building for the Jewish community in college and people started to find some of the overweening helpfulness off-putting. (But organizers may just be better at it than I was)

Would love to hear about this 3 week program! From my skim (will read properly soon), that is the alternative I am most excited about. For example, my shift from planning a career in communications to community building is almost entirely attributable to a 3-day retreat I went on.

Retreats are awesome!

It was the MIRI Summer Fellows in 2015. For full disclosure it was not about EA, and I came off it being turned off by EA aesthetics. But it was where I first heard about the movement, and it was crucial for my involvement in the long term.

Ah, interesting! Two questions:

  • Why did you end up being turned off by EA?
  • How did it end up being crucial for your long-term engagement?

Why did you end up being turned off by EA?

 

It's hard to pinpoint but I think it's somehting along the lines of a) the messaging didn't match my perceived self-image ("I am not an altruist"), b) they seemed weirdly fanatical ("donating 10% of my money seems crazy weird") and c) I was not impressed with the people I interacted with (concretely the people from eg the rationality community seemed comparatively more thoughful and to be working on cooler things).

I am unsure of whether I would have changed my mind had I interacted more with the community at that time - I think the quality of discussion has improved a lot since then.
 


> How did it end up being crucial for your long-term engagement?

After the MIRI Summer Fellows I started organizing a community in Spain (primarily about rationality, though some of the other people involved were self-identifying Effective Altruists and we also organized events about that. I also participated in several more Rationality and Effective Altruism events.

I kept talking to Effective Altruists regularly, and eventually became convinced that they were working on cool things and that it was a community I wanted to be a part of.

Some other thoughts:

  • The Arete fellowship is good
  • In general I would like to see iteration around standard practices
  • The fellowship coordinator role seems like a lot of work and I reckon should be paid.

Hey Ashley, I'm glad someone else is thinking about this too. Here at CMU I've been thinking about this too, particularly because CMU students are so busy. I think we miss people who would otherwise be engaged because of the current structure of the intro fellowship.

What I've been thinking about is running something like an 'EA Expo Day' in the beginning of the semester. It would be a full day with talks and workshops with plenty of capacity. At the same time it would be early in the semester before students get busy. I have a hunch that more people would attend an Expo Day like this than complete the fellowship.

I'm also thinking about ways of making the fellowship more decentralized and fluid, and I intend to experiment with this next semester.

I'd love to coordinate with you on this if you want to do something together within PA!

I like the expo idea a lot; as I was reading I was thinking of whether there could be a retreat that doesn't involve going anywhere, a full Saturday or Sunday of talks, reading, researching, games, watching videos, having 1-1s, that people can drop into and out of.

That said, I'm not sure I'd trust that anyone who just did one if those was really well acquainted with the ideas or way of thinking.

That said, I'm not sure I'd trust that anyone who just did one if those was really well acquainted with the ideas or way of thinking.

Yeah I would probably have more experienced community builders fly in to help out.

Sorry, I meant that if that was the only thing someone had done, it wouldn't have been enough engagement for me to trust they had a good foundation.

I organise EA Warwick and we've had decent success so far with concepts workshops as an alternative to fellowships. They're much less of a time commitment for people, and after the concepts workshop people seem to basically bought into EA and want to get involved more heavily. We've only done 3 this term so far, so definitely we don't know how this will turn out. 

I’ve advised one person to skip the fellowship and do the readings at an accelerated pace on their own and talk to other organizers about it.

This seems like good advice. In general I think fellowship curricula are pretty great resources regardless of whether you're actually doing the fellowship or not, so one low-effort change could just be to tell people "you can do this fellowship, or if you're really excited about spending much more time on this, you can just speedrun all the readings".

In fact, maybe the best option is for those people to do both. E.g. do all the readings up front, but still have ongoing fellowship sessions over the next 8 weeks to have higher-fidelity communication/make sure they have interpreted the readings in the right way/answer relevant questions.

(epistemic status: not strong opinions, since I don't have much context on student EA groups right now)
 

This is interesting! I would be curious to try having one 'accelerated' group that operates on a faster timeline - but I imagine this would require more coordination/commitment from organizers (e.g., really frequent 1:1s to engage them and check understanding).

I like that idea too! Maybe could start after a few weeks to gauge interest?

Just wanted to mention that if you were planning on standardizing an accelerated fellowship retreat, it seems definitely worth reaching out to CFAR folks (as mentioned), since they spent a lot of time testing models, including for post-workshop engagement, afaik! Happy to provide names / introductions if desired.

FWIW, based on some of my experiences both inside and outside of EA, I quite strongly agree with your analysis. (But several caveats, e.g., ~all of my experience is from outside the US. I'd also potentially change my mind a lot if I saw outcome statistics from previous fellowships based on sound metrics - i.e., ones that get at more than "number of people who completed a fellowship" and shed light on how this affected the participants.)

I'd love to see more experiments with the kind of alternative models you're proposing (but haven't thought particularly hard about whether these in particular are the best experiments one could try).

 I'd be very happy to give feedback on plans if that is ever helpful.

Thanks for posting this! One worry I have, particularly relevant to a Project Based Fellowship, is that it would not involve sufficiently learning key ideas. Mauricio discussed this, but I think there's even more to it than is obvious. In this critique of EA (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/CZmkPvzkMdQJxXy54/another-critique-of-effective-altruism), it is brought up that we frequently "Over-focus on “tried and true” and “default” options, which may both reduce actual impact and decrease exploration of new potentially high-value opportunities." The less content presented in a fellowship, the more likely we are to go down that route, I think; EA is really really complex, and one thing I like about the Intro Fellowship is that you can end it thinking "I have the basics, but there is so much more to know," and I worry with a shorter fellowship participants may not realize how little they've scratched the surface. They may come to identify EA with just RCT-backed global poverty related work; it almost feels better if people think of EA as global poverty + animal welfare + AI + longtermism + pandemics and climate change – even though this is cause areas and not principles. Anecdotally, I've found that many folks just learning about EA are turned off by what feels like armchair cause prio that is too theoretical; giving them specific causes makes more sense for many folks, and if you give them enough causes, they will internalize that EA is actually about the principles which lead to such diversity in causes.

While I share your worry of EA becoming defined by cause areas than principles, it feels much more likely that we would get a situation like Mauricio mentioned of "vaguely EA-related project ideas" and people who walk away from the fellowship without actually understanding EA very well. On this note, conversations with students not involved in EA often go like so: Them: "What does your club do?" Me: "We discuss way of improving the world most effectively and prepare students to do something really valuable with their lives" Them: "do you do anything besides talking?!" Me: "Do career workshops count?..."

At least at the Claremont Colleges, students are really excited about actually doing stuff. And this can be difficult to reconcile with EA. This semester, we decided to do Effectively Altruistic projects limited into the scope of our school (e.g., what can we do to improve student wellness the most? Decrease the school's carbon footprint? etc.). We've been working on Cause Prioritization for this, narrowing down a large list into a small one. And we're going to have small groups of students tackle these projects in the spring. Will follow up with forum posts afterward to report on how it went.

However, I don't think doing this alone is a good idea; it doesn't actually give folks a sense of what EA is all about unless they already had good background knowledge. So, this Winter Break, we're doing a bunch of programming that we are pushing super hard. Mainly, taking the 8 week Intro Fellowship and squishing it into 3.5-4 weeks; this is the main program we want people to do. The idea is, folks learn about EA ideas during break when they're not stressed about class, then we come back to school and the post-fellowship engagement is Project Based Fellowship (I expect for most people this will be good), and Career Planning. I'm optimistic about this plan for a bunch of reasons, and it potentially presents one solution to the problem.

Pros of doing this: students don't have fellowship overlapping with school, fairly intense and fast which has the benefits you discuss, keep students connected to one another and mentally engaged during break (very good in my opinion/experience cuz I get lonely and lazy).

This is similar to the 3 week fellowship sprint you suggest, except that I do not think of this as at all about identifying promising fellows. I need to write up my thoughts on this more thoroughly in a shortform post, but pretty much I think the content of the Intro Fellowship would be useful to like 50-80% of students, even if only 20% continue engaging with EA afterward. EA has really good ideas that are useful to almost everybody, and the emphasis on highly promising people seems elitist and holds us back from impacting more students in a smaller way.

Thanks for this! Tangent:

students are really excited about actually doing stuff. And this can be difficult to reconcile with EA. This semester, we decided to do Effectively Altruistic projects limited into the scope of our school (e.g., what can we do to improve student wellness the most? Decrease the school's carbon footprint? etc.).

Hm, I'm kind of nervous about the norms an EA group might set by limiting its projects' ambitions to its local community. Like, we know a dollar or an hour of work can do way more good if it's aimed at helping people in extreme poverty than US college students... what group norms might we be setting if our projects' scope overlooks this?

At the same time, I think you're spot on in seeing that many students want to do projects, and I really appreciate your work toward offering something to these students. As a tweak on the approach you discuss, what are your intuitions about having group members do projects with global scope? I know there's a bunch of EA undergrads who are working on projects like doing research on EA causes, or running classes on AI safety or alternative proteins, or compiling relevant internship opportunities, or running training programs that help prepare people to tackle global issues, or running global EA outreach programs. This makes me optimistic that global-scope projects:

  • Are feasible (since they're being done)
  • Are enough to excite the students who want to get to doing stuff
  • And have a decent amount of direct impact, while reinforcing core EA mindsets

Good points. We should have explained what our approach is in a separate post that we could link to; because I didn't explain it too well in my comment. We are trying to frame the project like so: This is not the end goal. It is practice at what this process looks like, it is a way to improve our community in a small but meaningful way. Put another way, the primary goals are skill building and building our club's reputation on campus. Another goal is to just try more stuff to help meta-EA-community building; even though we have a ton of resources on community building, we don't (seem) to have all that many trials or examples of groups doing weird stuff and seeing what happens.

Some of the projects we are considering are related to global problems (e.g., carbon labeling on food in dining hall). I like the project ideas you suggest and we will consider them.

One reason we're focusing on local is that the "international charity is colonialism" sentiment is really strong here. I think it would be really bad for the club if we got strongly associated with that sentiment. Attempting to dispel this idea is also on my to-do list, but low.

Another point of note is that some of what the EA community does is only good in expectation. For instance, decreasing extinction risk by 0.5% per century is considered a huge gain for most EAs. But imagine tabling at a club fair and saying "Oh what did we actually accomplish last year? We trained up students to spend their careers working on AI safety in the hopes of decreasing the chance of humanity ending from robots by 0.02%". Working on low probability, high impact causes and interventions is super important, but I think it makes for crappy advertising because most people don't think about the world in Expected Value.

Side point to the side point: I agree that a dollar would go much further in terms of extreme poverty than college students, but I'm less sure about an hour of time. I am in this college community; I know what its needs are. I would spend 5 minutes of the hour figuring out what needs to be done and the rest of the time actually helping folks. If I spent an hour on global poverty, it's unclear I would actually "do" anything. I would spend most the time either researching or explaining to my community why it is morally acceptable to do international charity work at all. But, again, we are considering some relevant projects.

Thanks for the thoughtful response! I think you're right that EA projects being legibly good to people unsympathetic with the community is tough.

It is practice at what this process looks like, it is a way to improve our community in a small but meaningful way

I like the first part; I'm still a bit nervous about the second part? Like, isn't one of the core insights of EA that "we can and should do much better than 'small but meaningful'"?

And I guess even with the first part (local projects as practice), advice I've heard about practice in many other contexts (e.g. practicing skills for school, or musical instruments, or sports, or teaching computers to solve problems by trial and error) is that practice is most useful when it's as close as possible to the real thing. So maybe we can give group members even better practice by encouraging them to practice unbounded prioritization/projects?

I think it makes for crappy advertising because most people don't think about the world in Expected Value

There's a tricky question here about who the target audience of our advertising is. I think you're right that working on mainstream/visible problems is good for appealing to the average college student. But, anecdotally, it seems like a big chunk (most?) of the value EA groups can provide comes from:

  • Taking people who are already into weird EA stuff and connecting them with one another
  • And taking people who are unusually open/receptive to weird EA stuff and connecting them with the more experienced EAs

And there seems to be a tradeoff where branding/style that strongly appeals to the average student might be a turnoff for the above audiences. The above audiences are of course much smaller in number, but I suspect they make up for it by being much more likely to--given the right environment--get very into this stuff and have tons of impact. Personally, I think there's a good chance I wouldn't have gotten very involved with my local group (which I'm guessing would have significantly decreased my future impact, although I wouldn't have known it) if it hadn't been clear to me that they were serious about this stuff.

I agree that a dollar would go much further in terms of extreme poverty than college students, but I'm less sure about an hour of time

That's fair. I guess we could say one could always spend that hour making extra money to give away, although that's kind of a copout (and doesn't address the optics issue).

(As a side note which isn't very decision-relevant / probably preaching to the choir, it really annoys me that some people think the anti-colonialist move is to let poor foreign kids die of malaria.)

Lastly, two other tactics for advertising/optics that I'm optimistic about:

  • With things like AI safety, I think you're right that most of the actual good done is just in expectation and won't be clear for a while. But I'm not sure it's only good in expectation--I'm optimistic that there's lots of potential for longtermist work to have good, higher-probability spillover effects in the near term. For example, even if work on AI interpretability doesn't help avoid AI deception, it may be more clearly a step toward mitigating algorithmic bias. Or even if work on truthful AI also doesn't help avoid AI deception, maybe it can help mitigate the misuse of AI to create misinformation. I imagine there's similar nice spillovers in biosecurity. Emphasizing such benefits / potential applications might be enough to appeal to risk-averse, scope-insensitive audiences.
  • I'm also optimistic that these mainstream audiences would see tangible "intermediate steps" toward impact as progress, even if they hadn't clearly paid out yet. E.g. I suspect "we ran a class on alternative protein, and it got 100+ students, and this is important for addressing sustainability and zoonotic disease and animal abuse" will sound like concrete, tangible impact to the not-so-analytical audiences we're talking about, even though its impact remains to be seen.

Again, thank you for some amazing thoughts. I'll only respond to one piece:

\begin{quotation}But, anecdotally, it seems like a big chunk (most?) of the value EA groups can provide comes from:

  • Taking people who are already into weird EA stuff and connecting them with one another
  • And taking people who are unusually open/receptive to weird EA stuff and connecting them with the more experienced EAs \end{quotation}

I obviously can't disagree with your anecdotal experience, but I think what you're talking about here is closely related to what I see as one of EA's biggest flaws: lack of diversity. I'm not convinced that weird people know how to do good better than anybody else, but by not creating a way for other people to be involved in this awesome movement, we lose the value they would create for us and the value we would create for them. There also seems to be a suspicious correlation between these kind of "receptive to EA ideas" people and white men, which appears worrisome. That is, even if our goal is to target marketing to weird EAs or receptive to EA-s, it seems like the way we're doing that might have some bias that has led our community to disproportionately white and male relative to most general populations.

On that note, I think learning about EA has made my life significantly better, and I think this will be the case for many other people. I think everybody who does an Intro Fellowship (and isn't familiar with EA) learns something that could be useful to their life – even if they don't join the community for become more involved. I don't want to miss out on these people, even if it's a more efficient allocation of time/resources to only focus on people we expect will become highly engaged.

Shortform post coming soon about this 'projects idea' where I'll lay out the pros and cons.

Good points! Agree that reaching out beyond overrepresented EA demographics is important--I'm also optimistic that this can be done without turning off people who really jive with EA mindsets. (I wish I could offer more than anecdotes, but I think over half of the members of my local group who are just getting involved and seem most enthusiastic about EA stuff are women or POC.)

I'm not convinced that weird people know how to do good better than anybody else

I also wouldn't make that claim about "weird people" in general. Still, I think it's pretty straightforward that people who are unusual along certain traits know how to do good better than others, e.g. people who are unusually concerned with doing good well will probably do good better than people who don't care that much.

I don't want to miss out on these people, even if it's a more efficient allocation of time/resources to only focus on people we expect will become highly engaged.

Man, I don't know, I really buy that we're always in triage, and that unfortunately choosing a less altruistically efficient allocation of resources just amounts to letting more bad things happen. I agree it's a shame if some well-off people don't get the nice personal enrichment of an EA fellowship--but it seems so much worse if, like, more kids die because we couldn't face hard decisions and focus our resources on what would help the most.

Edit: on rereading I realize I may have interpreted your comment too literally--sorry if I misunderstood. Maybe your point about efficient allocation was that some forms of meta-EA might naively look like efficient allocation of resources without being all that efficient (because of e.g. missing out on benefits of diversity), so less naive efficiency-seeking may be warranted? I'm sympathetic to that.

Tangent/caveat to my point about practice: Actually, it seems like in the examples I mentioned, practicing on easier versions of a problem first is often very helpful for being able to do good practice on equivalents of the real thing (e.g. musical scale drills, sport drills, this). I wonder what this means for EA groups.

(On the other hand, I'm not sure this is a very useful set of analogies--maybe the more important thing for people who are just getting into EA is for them to get interested in core EA mindsets/practices, rather than skilled in them, which the "practice" examples emphasize. And making someone do scale/sports drills probably isn't the best way to get them interested in something.)

I think I strongly agree with the value of learning about at least the core arguments for a bunch of different causes. Taking seriously that some people are devoting their whole lives to making the future go better, or worrying about lie detection, or pandemics that have never happened, or digital people, or animals that seem to most people nonsentient really pushes your mind in a particular way, and in some ways, the weirder the better, at least for the purpose of really expanding what people think of when they think of "doing good"

Having a structured set of resources that people could engage with on breaks seems really valuable. It could let highly engaged participants who want to go faster do the "Thanksgiving Break" bingeread, or the "One/two week break" set of readings, or so on, with all of those having activities/interactive elements of that seems valuable. Is this something you're thinking of writing up?

Yes. Will do an end of the year assessment of what worked and what didn't. Focus will likely be on Winter Break Programming and Project Fellowships.

My intro to EA was a 6-week series of workshops on how to evaluate charities if you're motivated by equality and justice.

That sounds awesome. Do you have any resources from this (e.g., slides or a link)?

I don't sorry! It was organized by weeatquince

Thanks for writing this, I think it's great you're thinking about alternatives!

The way I learned about EA was just by spending too much time on the forum and with the 80k podcast.

Then, I once attended one session of a fellowship and was a little underwhelmed. I remember the question "so can anybody name the definition of an existential risk according to Toby Ord" after we had been asked to read about exactly that — this just seemed like a waste of time. But to be fair, I was also much more familiar with EA at that point than an average fellow. It's very possible that other people had a better experience in the same session.

But I definitely agree there's room for experimentation and probably improvement!

I actually think the question about the definition of existential risk is useful, in order to make sure that everyone understands it correctly and doesn't think it means "risk that humanity goes extinct". If you've spent a lot of time learning about EA already, I don't think you would find much novel information from the Intro EA Fellowship, and I think that's fine.

I agree it's fine if fellowships aren't interesting to already-engaged EAs and I also see why the question is asked --- I don't even have a strong view on whether it's a bad idea to ask it.

I do think though that the fellowship would have been boring to me at times, even if I had known much less about EA. But maybe I'm just not the type of person who likes to learn stuff in groups and I was never part of the target audience.

  1. Based on this post, conversations with students, and the comments, seems like it might be worth community organizers' time to brainstorm project ideas (as separate from activity ideas within the fellowship) that would be learning opportunities but actually valuable uses of people's time. If someone thinks this has already been well done, or really tried such that we should update that there aren't so many, I'd love to be linked to it.

1a. Categories I've heard of /thought of /mentioned in this comments section are:

  • low intensity but valuable, like communication projects (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/53Wcw73rav4rkQ4WM/ea-communication-project-ideas)
  • summarizing / explaining / making cross-media versions of readings (Michael Aird has argued for things like this): can create things that if good, are valuable for other people who want to understand those readings, and in doing the summarization will hopefully learn the ideas more deeply
  • research: there are many lists of open questions and problems, and then the bottlenecks are probably mentors and research skill, but if there's low hanging fruit, or this and previous category can be combined into a literature review, that seems good
  1. Activities and making things more interactive seems great, I'll try to put together a short form soon with some ideas

3a. I wonder if letting highly engaged people go faster is actually easily fixable given how much podcast and other content there is. If someone's excited after the first meeting or two, they can just listen to 80ks intro series or any that look interesting, without going ahead in the fellowship. Is the problem that then they'd be too well informed?

3b. To akash's point below, anyone especially interested in EA content who would benefit from epistemics reading should maybe just read the sequences/scout mindset (there are now 2/6 small, aesthetically nice books of sequence essays, the first one is here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Map-Territory-Rationality-AI-Zombies/dp/1939311233/ref=asc_df_1939311233/?tag=googshopuk-21&linkCode=df0&hvadid=310805555931&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=5539477848737037867&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=m&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=1006976&hvtargid=pla-594520181470&psc=1&th=1&psc=1) and push them to incorporate those ideas into the fellowship.

An alternative, to some of the mentioned points, could be this https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/SsBgdFJz8w7QMyL38/ea-online-learning-buddy-platform although it is originally thought for In-Depth Virtual Program

Suggestion: copy what Complexity Weekend does. It works really well!

Thanks for writing this post! I especially like the concrete alternatives with thoughtful upsides/downsides. As some others have said, I’d guess some of the downsides to the alternatives are quite significant, but would still love to see trials and to chat to anyone who runs trials.
 

A potentially useful alternative approach (especially for larger groups who can run multiple programs) is to have several alternative intro funnels at once. I.e. run the IF but also have a clear alternative for keen people with more background knowledge or who can quickly get background knowledge on their own, e.g. a retreat, a workshop or shorter version of the fellowship, mentorship, or something else. Organisers could scout for keen people both outside of the fellowship and in the first weeks. This might help preserve the benefits of the IF for those who need the accountability/long-term commitment, while allowing people who find it frustrating to skip through. A key uncertainty is how easy it is to identify keen people. If it’s difficult, it might be worth just running the program that benefits keen people the most (though I’m unsure about that).

This is great! I agree we need more experimentation beyond long intro 'fellowships'. I like all 4 of your suggested alternatives and hope you and others try them out and share your learnings.