0. What is this?
This is a "write about your job" piece that has a secondary aim of giving potential hires a sense of what working at HLI as a researcher is like.
1. Who am I?
I quit an economics PhD programme at a state school in the USA to join the Happier Lives Institute (HLI) as a researcher a little more than two years ago. It was one of the better decisions of my life. After joining HLI, I gained much-needed research experience by working on important questions; I began to engage deeply with effective altruism (EA) and quelled the fear of not finding a way to positively impact the world.
I had a Master's degree before starting the PhD. But I’d rushed through both degrees in 3½ years. This left a blank space where practical research (or any work) experience would typically go. In my PhD, I had some vague hope of how I’d pivot my research into an EA-aligned area, but this was a hope, not a plan. I didn’t know how I’d do research that mattered.
Thankfully, HLI offered me an excellent opportunity to work on worthwhile topics. I escaped the PhD programme and my gnawing doubt by joining HLI as an empirical researcher (and their first employee!). If you’re concerned about your lack of elite pedigree (like I was), then trying to start at a young EA organisation seems like a plausible path towards acquiring a much-coveted EA job.
2. Why do I do this job?
I find it thrilling to work on the edge of a research field and potentially expand its borders. I love the intoxication of discovery, the flow of coding, and the challenge of designing a beautiful visualisation. But attempting pioneering research is tough. The fields I work in are riddled with methodological issues that have no established solutions. The way is undiscovered. The map is mostly blank.
Studying wellbeing feels like chasing the holy grail. Wellbeing is good, and if we can measure it better, we can do good better. Plus, I get a dopamine hit every time someone asks me what I do, and I get to say I’m a happiness researcher. Never mind that they almost inevitably ask about how one acquires personal happiness (which I think is common sense) when I’m in the business of global happiness.
HLI, even though it’s growing, is still small. That means I have a sizeable say in setting the research agenda. This makes me feel like I have skin in the game. It can be a lot of pressure, but it’s deeply fulfilling to feel like I’m doing the most good I can reasonably do.
3. Some details on how I divide my time
Below is a chart that shows how I split my time between distinct tasks in my role as a researcher. As you can see, I spend almost 70% of my time doing research. I think this means something organizationally is working.
Figure 1: The distribution of Joel’s time across tasks
About 75% of my research time is dedicated to my primary work of analysing the cost-effectiveness analyses (CEAs) of different interventions. I spend the rest doing general research tasks like reviewing studies or giving feedback on ideas.
For my work on CEAs, I spend about 50% of the time writing or refining R scripts, 35% writing and revising reports, 15% adding data to spreadsheets, and 5% searching for and reading studies.
Meetings and other tasks
The nature of my work varies throughout the year. Last summer, I spent a lower bound of 29 hours organising, hiring and managing HLI’s inaugural cohort of Summer Research Fellows. I was pretty involved in hiring the second HLI empirical researcher, the excellent Samuel Dupret. At the end of the calendar year/beginning of the new one, we typically spend more time reviewing and outlining our strategy. When reports are published, I spend some time replying to comments on EA Forum posts or Twitter and assisting in our messaging surrounding a report.
Most meetings are pretty helpful. I have one research, coaching, and full-team updates meeting in a typical week. For the research meeting, Sam and I update Michael (the founder and director) about the progress of our projects and discuss the next steps. Or I should say we present our problems (including many we didn’t know we had) to Michael, and he dispenses wisdom like bolts of lightning. Barry (of EA global organising fame) coaches Sam and me, which delights and motivates. The conversations on the update calls are often humorous – Michael missed his true calling as a comedian – and help me understand what’s going on with the rest of the organisation. Beyond these regular calls, Sam and I meet irregularly to discuss the research we are collaborating on together.
4. How is this job weird?
Doing research at an EA organisation comes with unique challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, you may be working on the cutting edge of a field, pursuing novel ideas beyond the boundaries of standard methodology. You’ll probably need to construct a raft of epistemic duct tape to traverse the sea of uncertainty. But you could be rewarded by the euphoric sense of revelation. Some of that sense may even be authentic; most of it will be fool’s gold.
You’ll be wrong often. Even when you’re not, people will imply you're an idiot on the internet. Well, most people will be supportive and kind, but that isn’t nearly as memorable. If you’re normal, you’ll be insecure, uncertain, indecisive, and full of doubt. When you swallow impostorism to ask some experts for advice on a tricky topic, they will mostly shrug and say they aren’t sure but good luck. If you’re like me, you’ll be hooked.
5. Potential downsides of the role
When I was the only empirical researcher at HLI (for the first year and a half), there wasn’t much technical guidance on how to do my research. It took time to familiarise myself with the relevant aspects of the philosophy of wellbeing, but that’s relatively easy when your boss is a philosopher. What took more time was to teach myself how to implement meta-analyses and cost-effectiveness analyses. I think I spent most of my first year learning the lay of the land. Reading papers and replicating research is time-consuming but necessary to learn things from scratch. If you’re new to a field of research, it may take you years to get into the groove.
Being the only empirical researcher meant I was responsible for producing a decent share of HLI’s output for the last year. Our capacity to fundraise plausibly depended on how well I did and how quickly I did it. This was a lot of pressure sometimes, and for half a year before we published our cash transfers to psychotherapy comparison, this stress lowered my happiness (from an average of 7.5/10 → 6/10).
It can be hard to balance your happiness when you believe that your work if you do it well, could maybe-possibly slightly tilt the direction of the rudder that steers the world.
In the Autumn, we hired another researcher, and things have been better since. Since then, we have also received enough funding to hire a senior researcher, which we are opening applications for next week. So while I expect to wrestle with a lot of uncertainty, it can work wonders to be part of a team you know has your back and will forgive you when you do a big dumb thing.
6. Benefits of the role
We’re a remote team. This is mostly awesome. My flexible schedule allows me to ride my bike to a coffee shop with a co-working space a few afternoons a week. Another thing I do pretty often is to work a heavier day and then leave work early the next day to go climbing or running. If I’ve done everything I can in a day, or am just feeling deeply unmotivated, most of the time, it’s okay to set the work aside until the fire rekindles.
The research I do also advances my prospects for an academic career, should I choose to go for one later. The PhD I quit was at a state school in the USA. Now I’m confident that I could get admitted to a better school because of my research and the people I’ve met. I’ve been able to be a visiting scholar at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and collaborate on two academic papers, even though that’s not the primary purpose of the work I do. One paper, co-authored with Caspar Kaiser and Anders Malthe Bach-Mortenson, both from Oxford, was published in Nature Human Behaviour. For the other paper, I was able to work with a researcher I admire, Johannes Haushofer (who EAs might know for his studies on GiveDirectly) and his co-authors.
I’ve also found plenty of opportunities to speak to people interested in effective altruism and wellbeing research. I find it particularly satisfying to try and help people who are figuring out what they’re doing next.
I count an excuse to travel as a benefit of working remotely for HLI. I’ve travelled to the UK (where most of the team is based) for a month each year. These have been memorable experiences. From these trips, I’ve made friendships I cherish. And finding a good friend is one of the most valuable things for my happiness.
7. Sales pitch
Does this sound like a good life? Not just a life lived well, but a life that does its best to balance impartial altruism and self-interested hedonism? If it does, then we may have an opportunity for you.
HLI is looking for seasoned hands to chart the territory of wellbeing. Next week, we’re opening our applications for a senior researcher, a grant strategist, and possibly an ops role. I’m also happy to talk about my work and provide any help I reasonably can (email: email@example.com)
Thanks for writing this! Your work sounds super interesting. You write, “ But you could be rewarded by the euphoric sense of revelation. Some of that sense may even be authentic; most of it will be fool’s gold.” What are some times you got that euphoric sense in your research for HLI?
I'll assume you're asking about the times in which something was truly revealed to me, and I wasn’t (as is commonly the case) just confused?
In that case, I’d say the top realizations are:
I’ll probably try and expand on these more in future posts.
Happy to talk more or arrange a call if you’d like!
Thank you for writing this Joel! I appreciate you sharing your experiences so I can understand better what it is like to work as an EA researcher. Every field of research I've engaged in has had its unique difficulties and challenges. I see that you are a quantitative researcher, but I am wondering whether you have integrated qualitative approaches into your research also? With a topic so subjective as happiness, it seems it could be helpful towards understanding your quantitative findings and in making projections?