My experience on a summer research programme

by Jsevillamol 2mo22nd Sep 20196 min read6 comments

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Earlier this year I successfully applied to a summer research programme. This program is a chance for young scholars to work on research projects related to long termism.

In this post, I will explain my experience so far with the program, from the application process to my daily life and the output I produced. My goal is to give an insider's view of my experience and to encourage the reader to apply to similar programs.

Important caveat: from what I have been told, this year’s program has been quite different from last year’s, and it might be significantly different from next year’s depending on who is running it. So do not extrapolate too much on my experience to imagine how other programs will be like.

Key points

  • The application consists of writing a research proposal, and a short interview. You can get lots of information on your personal fit to research just by applying.
  • The program is quite self-directed, with lots of freedom to pursue the topics you want to research and learn about.
  • The research institution I visited is outstanding, with a very strong and deliberate research culture.
  • The main benefits I got out of this program are better understanding of my personal fit to research, entry-level experience as a researcher, a writing portfolio, a research network and an improved career plan.
  • As general advice, if you are early in your career or pivoting into a new job you should strongly consider spending a week searching and applying for internships, fellowships and workshops.

The application process

I applied to this program earlier this year as I was about to finish my Bachelor studies on Mathematics and Computer Science.

The application was fairly straightforward. They asked me for my CV and a research proposal. Writing the research proposal can be a little daunting if you do not have previous experience coming up with your own research ideas. If you are now in that position, I wrote a blogpost explaining my own process.

The research proposal is non-commital, and you may choose to work on something else if you are accepted in the program. If you are considering a career in research, going through the exercise of writing your own proposal can teach you a lot about your personal fit.

The applicants who passed the initial filter were invited to a 20-minute interview. My impression is that the goal was trying to get a sense of how aligned were the participants with EA intentions, how the applicants approached self-directed research and whether they would fit into the culture of the programme.

The rest of the fellows that were accepted came from many different backgrounds, including students of Biology, International Relations, Politics, Philosophy and Economics and generalist researchers working on biology and nuclear risks.

The program

The two main support structures provided by the program are individual mentors and the weekly check-in, where all fellows checkpoint what we are working on and we take turns to give short presentations on our research so far.

Furthermore, we have some activities scheduled and prompts for socializing in the fellows' calendar. Plus we have access to internal seminars and workshops. We also are encouraged to come up and organize our own research and learning activities with and for other fellows. I took this chance to organize a research prioritization workshop.

As an addition to the above, I personally agreed with my mentor to have 10 minute daily check-ins. This is a great opportunity to ask him for some light advice and make a declaration of intentions for the day.

All in all, this program is quite self-directed. Most people spend their first weeks selecting a research project and do a deep dive on it. The choice of the research project had no major restrictions, although we could request feedback from our mentors.

The office is shared between multiple EA orgs and soon will be sharing with others, and is a thriving environment for intellectual exercise. The operations people work really hard to make the environment feel productive and welcoming, and you can find at any time other researchers to talk to with similar interests, eager to help the Summer Fellows with their research and provide career advice.

I took great advantage of the office’s Slack workspace, which I used to ask research questions and circulate drafts among other fellows and researchers for feedback.

I also benefited a lot from being able to book rooms full of whiteboards to set up deconfusing sessions with other fellows and researchers.

The program outcomes

Here are the main research outputs I have produced over the fellowship:

My approach is probably a bit unusual among the summer fellows, as I chose to focus on many research leads at the same time and producing very polished but also short articles, while the others made deep dives into particular topics. Not all fellows ended up producing written output, instead focusing on early exploration of novel research directions.

Some other activities I engaged in during the fellowship are:

  • I wrote a new version of my personal career plan, which then led me to apply to 7 different grant programs and jobs, which ultimately resulted in the aforementioned grant by EAF.
  • I organized a daily forecasting training exercise within the organisation using a forecasting platform Ozzie Gooen is developing.
  • I reviewed and gave feedback on Jah Ying’s work on the EA Development Framework and Vladimir Mikulik’s work on mesa optimizers.
  • I boggled with some ideas that I ultimately decided not to pursue, like an exploration of the math behind fat tail distributions, a report applying the EA Development Framework to Spain, a survey of research impact beyond technology development and an exploration of the simulation hypothesis using UDASSA.
  • I participated in several internal seminars, like Owen Cotton-Barratt’s Writing Workshop, presentations of the research from other fellows, a workshop on Independent Research by other summer fellow, etc.
  • I participated and organized some social activities for people in the office. The Nerf gunfight was definitely a highlight :)

In terms of intangibles, I believe I have gained the following:

  • A better understanding of my personal fit to research. These kinds of programs are a great way of finding out whether you actually enjoy the day to day of a researcher - long enough that you get to really immerse yourself, but short enough that the stakes are not that high if it does not work out for you.
  • A big level up to my researcher skills. I feel like I have shifted from the mindset of “being in love with the idea of being a researcher” to “being in love with research”. I feel like I have a much better sense of what research looks like in the day to day, I have set up lots of habits to streamline and improve my research and I have started developing my own research taste and style.
  • A network of researchers with aligned tastes that I will be able to reach out to for feedback and professional opportunities.
  • Some valuable lessons on how to interact with people in a focused research environment, and a better understanding of how these places work internally.
  • A much better sense of where I am in my career and where I am headed.

During the fellowship, I was also given space to pursue some side projects. I believe I would have done this even if I had not participated in the program, but I appreciate that I was able to make this compatible with my research during the fellowship, and I received some feedback and help on them from people within the office.

  • I mentored some EA Spain people on their projects and applications.
  • I have been directly collaborating with some early stage projects in EA Spain.

Overall, I am quite happy with how the fellowship went and what I was able to accomplish.

Similar programs you may want to look into

If all the above sounds appealing to you, I want to encourage you to apply to similar programs.

Some ideas of programs you may want to look into:

If you have further recommendations for others, please add them in a comment!

A word of warning: demand for these programs is relatively high, and it can be quite frustrating to get rejected over and over. I do still think applying is a good investment of your time.

This is because 1) in the process of applying you will learn a lot about your personal fit and 2) you might apply to a program and get redirected to a different one that matches your situation better. For example, I was recommended to apply to this program after I got rejected from a similar one.

Conclusions

It cannot be overemphasized how valuable these kinds of opportunities are.

If you are now early in your career (or if you are pivoting into a new job), I want to encourage you to apply to as many places as you can, even if you think you might be underqualified. It may take you many rejections, but persistence can pay off in the long run, and you will learn more about your fit and what you actually want to do in the process.

The program I was on, in particular, is an excellent environment for conducting research in various areas of strategic interest for long termist perspectives, from foundational decision making and Artificial Intelligence to nuclear risk and neuroscience.


This post was written by Jaime Sevilla. I’d like to thank Max Daniel, Habiba Islam, Rose Hadshar and Pablo Melchor for their feedback and help editing this article.

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