This year, Positive Impact Society Erasmus (the EA student group at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands) experimented with a mandatory 4-week fellowship as an entry barrier to become a member at the association. In this post, I explain our reasoning and why I believe other student groups should consider experimenting with this format as well. If my claims are true, this will have big implications for how the majority of groups currently run their fellowships. In this post, I will go over the format of our fellowship, outcome measures, the context in which the fellowship was integrated, and benefits and downsides.
Let’s start with the overall conclusion: I believe that a 4-week mandatory fellowship format worked well for our group. I also think our group took adequate steps to minimize the concerns of doing a four-week fellowship rather than an eight week one. Overall, I would encourage more student groups to experiment with this format to see if it works for them. The groups will, however, have to evaluate for their group whether a slight reduction of the topics presented to fellows weighs up against the potential of more students joining the fellowship. Additionally, they would have to evaluate whether they have the resources to guide excited new members on an EA (organizing) journey after the fellowship.
Our fellowship format
Content of the fellowship
Positive Impact Society Erasmus organized a four week introductory fellowship in October 2021. For the fellowship, participants completed 1.5 hours of preparation weekly (videos, readings, exercises) and had a weekly 1.5 hours offline discussion meeting with a group of 3-5 fellows. This time commitment in a week was higher than a traditional eight week fellowship and allowed for more concepts to be covered in one week.
The different weeks of the fellowship looked as follows:
- Week 1: Introduction to EA. Concepts covered – cause prioritization, Scale -Neglectedness-Solvability framework, impartiality, cause neutrality.
- Week 2: Rationality. Concepts covered – forecasting, counterfactual reasoning, marginal reasoning, cognitive biases, fallacies, expected value, scope insensitivity.
- Week 3: Global Health and Wellbeing. Concepts covered: cost-effectiveness, cause area: global health and development, Givewell.
- Week 4: Longtermism & Existential Risk. Concepts covered – Longtermism, Existential Risk, AI safety, Pandemic Prevention, Nuclear Security, Run-away Climate Change.
After the initial fellowship round in October, we requested feedback from the participants. The participants indicated that they really liked the fellowship and that the length was good, but that they would have appreciated more information on how to apply EA to their life. Based on their suggestions, an additional optional week was added for further fellowship rounds. New fellowships groups can decide together whether to add the week.
- Week 5: EA in your life. Concepts covered: career, money, community, balancing different goals in your life.
The fellowship, facilitator guide and a journal can be found here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1L_zc90WRqksfRhOIVZcuyDuGWj2pljhY?usp=sharing
In our initial, marketed fellowship round, 49 students participated in the fellowship. Three students dropped out. Eventually, 32 out of 49 students joined PISE: 15 as a member and 17 as an active organizer (member that helps organize events in workgroups). Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in getting a large number of fellowship participants to fill in the end evaluation. Thus, we were unable to collect other outcome measures than engagement/organizing in the association or to evaluate whether students would have joined if the fellowship was 8 weeks long. From individual conversations with members, however, just 1 out of 5 I asked said they would have joined the eight week fellowship. Members did indicate that when they were at the end of the four week fellowship, they would have liked to continue. They proposed a format in which the association markets a four-week fellowship, but then provides the opportunity to continue for another four weeks after the third week of the fellowship. Groups would then be rearranged based on who wants to continue and students that signed up to become an active organizer could already start their onboarding. This is a structure we would like the next board of the association to experiment with.
Several other EA groups starting up in the Netherlands are now also using our four week fellowship to attract and educate their first members. I think a mandatory four week fellowship can be especially beneficial if a group is struggling with having many members that do not know the EA basics, as was the case for our association in year 1 . To give you an idea of whether such a fellowship would work for your group, it is important that I give you an idea of the climate in which the fellowship was implemented. To this aim, I outline the marketing we did for the fellowship and our membership structure.
Marketing of the fellowship
Marketing of the fellowship started at the beginning of the academic year. The fellowship and Introductory Events were marketed by (old and current) PISE members, at the association fair, on social media, in WhatsApp groups, and in lecture breaks. PISE organized several introduction events over the course of a month where it was explained what PISE stands for, an introduction to EA was given, people had the opportunity to socialize, and the fellowship was marketed. From analyzing our surveys we noticed that most fellowship participants first heard about the fellowship via the introductory events (19%), friends/a PISE member (39%), the association fair (10%), or lecture talks (12%). The remaining 20% found out about the fellowship via Whatsapp groups, Instagram, or Facebook.
After this initial fellowship round, active marketing for the introductory fellowship has stopped as we are running an eight-week career fellowship right now as a second recruitment round. However, we still get inquiries from people that want to join the introductory fellowship (mainly students who had heard about it from friends). These students are put on a waitlist and as soon as there are four interested people, a new fellowship round starts.
Halfway during the fellowship, marketing started for students to join PISE and acceptance was dependent on completion of the fellowship. Students that were part of PISE last year and had enough EA knowledge or students that had completed an introductory fellowship elsewhere were allowed to bypass the PISE fellowship requirement. Currently, students that want to join the organization have two options: (1) join as a member, or (2) join as an active organizer. Members are welcome to join all events of the association like book clubs, discussion evenings, and socials. (Individuals that are not a member can still join events, but based on their prior EA knowledge are usually only able to join our social events or introductory events.) Active organizers can, just like members, join all of the events, but also actively help to organize the events in a workgroup (in our association referred to as a “committee”) they join. For example, we have a career committee, bookclub committee, community committee, and an In Depth EA committee. The committees and members are overseen by a board of six people that lead some of the committees and take care of organizational tasks. This is a common organization structure in universities in the Netherlands.
Benefits we have noticed
- Sign-ups and completion rate. We have gotten a larger number of students to sign up for and complete this four-week fellowship format (49 of which three drop outs) than an optional eight-week fellowship in year one of the association (32 of which nine dropouts). For our current recruitment round, we are hosting an eight week career fellowship. This fellowship also got a lower sign-up rate (34 of which by now 3 dropouts) and we expect a significantly lower completion rate. Based on this, it seems like students are more likely to sign up for a four-week fellowship and are more likely to complete it. It is important to keep in mind that more effort was made in (offline) marketing in recruiting for our four week fellowship than our eight week career fellowship. This will probably also have played a role. However, from all participants of the four week fellowship I asked (including very engaged members), most admitted that there was a high likelihood that they would not have joined an eight-week course.
- Engagement. Members indicated that after four weeks they were very excited to get involved. This made it very easy for the board to funnel people into committees (workgroups) where they could start applying and thinking about the concepts in a real-life context. We, unfortunately, do not have data to compare this engagement to. However, from my personal experience doing EA fellowships, my enthusiasm usually peeks around 4 weeks and then slowly wades off when the weekly readings and meetings are starting to get repetitive.
Why I believe other student groups should consider this format
Why consider a 4 week program?
- Commitment. It can be hard for both student fellows and facilitators to commit to a recurring thing for 8 weeks, especially if they do not know they will like it. On top of that, students are usually very busy and an eight week period will cut through at least one, if not two exam periods. Psychologically speaking, I suspect that students will be more likely to skip one of eight sessions than one of four sessions as it seems like they will miss less. One missed session can, however, soon turn into more missed sessions and even lead to dropping out.
- Fast pace. A four week programme is more fast-paced and will allow students to get to the core EA ideas more quickly than a slower-paced eight week programme. With university students being used to fast-paced learning environments, I suspect that with a slower paced programme students might lose interest.
- Lower barrier. A four-week programme that is fast paced can be a more low-effort way for students to find out whether they like the core EA principles.
- Engagement in community. A four-week format allows the participants to get the core ideas sooner and allows them to start getting engaged in organizing or working on projects sooner.
Why should an introductory programme/workshop be mandatory for people new to EA?
- Event quality. Mandatory fellowships make sure everyone in a group has at least a basic understanding of the core concepts of EA. This allows for a higher quality of discussions and allows more exploration of in depth ideas. I suspect this will be especially relevant for groups starting up in places with a low number of existing EAs.
- Alignment. With a mandatory introduction programme, an organization can make sure all members actually have a good understanding of EA and do not have huge misconceptions about what EA is. This prevents problems later on if the members become involved in marketing or group organizing.
Potential pitfalls of this structure
- Less in-depth knowledge. An eight week fellowship allows students more time to reflect on topics as they have 8 weeks to think about them. Additionally, because more different topics are discussed in a meeting during a four week fellowship, less time might be available for the discussion of a particular topic, which might not allow for an in depth discussion. I have not myself experienced this in the fellowship sessions of my group, as the group became significantly better in identifying the topics about which they had disagreements or uncertainties and devoted attention to discussing those topics in depth. This might depend on the combination of fellows in a group however.
- Less overall knowledge. A few topics were removed from the “traditional” intro fellowship. After the fellowship, we tried to compensate for some of the removed topics by providing additional events on them for the people that decided to become a member, for example: a career workshop and an animal welfare discussion evening. However, not all members joined these events. I do think that as fellows have the regular meeting set in their calendar, they will be more likely to show up to a meeting rather than an event. So, eventually, around half of the fellows that signed up to become a member did not get the additional information about animal welfare and careers. The fellowship guide did provide extra readings on these topics at the end of the syllabus, but I am not convinced that a lot of fellows did actually read this additional information.
- A missed meeting has higher consequences. If a fellow misses a fellowship session in the 4-week format rather than the 8-week format, the fellow will miss more of the fellowship content because of the density of information. I would, however, say that if this is of concern one could provide make-up sessions or assignments that will allow the participant to catch up again.
- Not enough time for longtermism. A four week fellowship would likely only allow for one week related to longtermism and existential risk. This might not be sufficient for fellows to understand the rationale for longtermism completely. More longtermism focussed groups might want to add a 5th week about longtermism or provide more events outside the fellowship covering longtermism.
In conclusion, a four week fellowship format worked well for our group. I think our group took adequate steps to minimize the concerns of doing a four-week fellowship rather than an eight week one. Overall, I would encourage more student groups to experiment with this format to see if it works for them. The groups will, however, have to evaluate for their group whether a slight reduction in the topics presented to fellows weighs up against the potential of more students joining the fellowship. Additionally, they would have to evaluate whether they have the resources to guide the excited new members on an EA (organizing) journey. If there are, however, any potential downsides to a four week fellowship that I might have missed or arguments that you think don’t hold up, I would love to hear.
Our year 1 board highly encouraged members to follow the 8 week virtual introductory programme. However, most of the members last year did not sign up for the fellowship. This led to quite some members not understanding basic EA concepts like cost-effectiveness or AI alignment. The name of our organization and decreased information flow because of the online nature of the association’s first year could have played a role in this. The board tried to correct the lack of knowledge by hosting short bootcamps for new members, but this was ineffective. Because of this, the board of year 2 took a stricter approach and developed its own 4 week mandatory fellowship.
It is important to note that there are noticeable differences between the two years. For one, the fellowship our first year was not mandatory and was online. Our four week fellowship was offline and mandatory. Additionally, our four week fellowship was organized by PISE and allowed fellows to already bond with our association. The eight week fellowship in the first year was not organized by our organization.
This might not be a fair comparison in terms of sign-ups as the fellowships have a different focus: EA basics vs career planning. Additionally, the career fellowship is taking place in a busier time of the year than our intro fellowship did (halfway in the year versus the beginning of the year). However, as career planning is very popular among students, I think it is still interesting to see how there are less sign ups for this eight week fellowship than we got for our four week introductory fellowship.
We are using PISE's intro fellowship for EA Utrecht right now and as a facilitator I have no complaints so far! It seems likely to me that the shorter duration has indeed lead to more sign-ups, though we'd have to add a question about this on the feedback form to test this.
Regarding the compulsory nature of the fellowship to join the group, to what extent do you recommend this to new groups whose first priority probably is to find enough people that are interested in order to get the ball rolling? I imagine a solid chunk of people showing up to EA Utrecht's events right now would have left if the fellowship was compulsory to become a member.
In my experience the first year of PISE (when a fellowship was not mandatory) there were quite a few students in PISE that did not know the EA basics or that were not EA aligned. This lead to some difficulties in the organization of events in terms of the organizers being EA aligned and it made it difficult to determine how in-depth events could be. Therefore, I would still recommend a mandatory fellowship to starting groups (that have a member structure) in places where EA is not well known yet. I think I would prefer a situation of only having a few members that understand EA and are aligned above having a lot of members that do not understand EA well. However, I would start doing this as part of a recruitment round at the beginning of the year (not the end) when people still have the time. I do get that this might lead to potentially missing very promising members that just don't have the time. To mitigate this, I think you could tell people to contact you if a fellowship does not work for them but are really interested in joining. That way you could come to a solution together. For example, if someone is really motivated to research EA on their own or go through the fellowship manual in there own time, I think they could still join.
Additionally, students at PISE that could not join a fellowship, were not motivated to research EA on their own, and did not have EA knowledge already (and thus could not become a member) could still join events that do not require previous EA knowledge. This way they can still get more intro knowledge about EA which might motivate them to join a fellowship or research EA more in their own time. I don't think you should be exclusive to members in all events you organize. However, to guard event quality (if you start working with the same "committee" structure of most Dutch universities and not just have the board organize events) and stimulate knowledge gain of members, I do think "committee members" or members attending in-depth discussion evenings should have previous EA knowledge through a fellowship or there own research.
I hope that answers your question.
This sounds like a great way to help new members get a quick (and easy to manage) introduction to EA concepts ! It makes sense that there are multiple barriers to university students joining in for long-term commitments like the 8 week fellowship, as you outlined, and it seems like your group did a good job mitigating negative effects of a shorter program. In your third footnote you mentioned "the career fellowship is taking place in a busier time of the year than our intro fellowship did (halfway in the year versus the beginning of the year). However, as career planning is very popular among students, I think it is still interesting to see how there are less sign ups for this eight week fellowship than we got for our four week introductory fellowship." I definitely agree that career considerations are really on the minds of students, and I wondered if your university campus has a dedicated career center? Have you tried targeted advertising of the career fellowship through that venue, if it exists? That way you might pre-select for students with career questions or help career advisors at the university gain more awareness of EA options. This is just a quick thought, as you didn't explicitly mention this as a way your group advertised the career fellowship, though you may have already tried it.
Thank you for your suggestion! I think that would be a very good idea. We had tried reaching out to the career centre last year when we ran the fellowship, but were not able to advertise it there as our group is not recognized by the university yet (at our university a group has to exist three years and fulfill certain requirements in order to be recognized by our university). However, I will note this down for the board of next year to do after our group is recognized by the university.