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Epistemic status: Speculative opinion piece mostly based on anecdotal evidence from running workplace and professional groups (especially the EA Consulting Network) and hiring. We might be overestimating the value of leaves based on our small sample size, but thought it would be useful to share the idea, some sample case studies, and considerations on when not to take a leave of absence. 

Executive Summary

More professionals should consider taking a leave of absence - a paid or unpaid break from their day job. Leaves of absence provide space to reflect on life, recharge, explore EA, and evaluate high-impact career opportunities in a low-risk and intentional way. We know a few people who’ve found these breaks to be useful in their careers and think they could be useful for more people in similar situations. 

Call to action

  1. Consider taking a leave of absence yourself and take one if it’s the right fit for you
  2. Share this post with someone who should consider taking a leave of absence

 

                        

An impact-motivated person who spends time in San Francisco to upskill on AI, connect with the AI community and enjoy the city, courtesy of DALL-E 2. 

The problem - it’s hard to consider switching while you are working

Working in a job such as consulting, a tech start-up, or a policy role is excellent for gaining career capital and building aptitudes.

It could be the case that you should stick with that job for the long-term - perhaps you have the opportunity to influence policy or you have a lucrative path for earning-to-give. But it’s likely that at some point it will be your best option to switch to higher impact work.

However, there are key barriers that make it hard to switch careers while working:

  1. Barriers to considering the questions of “should I switch?” and “what should I switch to?”
    1. Not having the headspace, time, or support to consider your long-term career or cause prioritisation 
  2. Barriers to making the best decision
    1. Status quo bias towards the option you’re most familiar with as you have much more information on your current role than any other options. You may not even know what other options there might be, and may not be realising how valuable your skills could be in other roles
    2. Cultural influences from your colleague’s values and preferences (e.g. valuing job security, job legibility or prestige more and impact less)
  3. Barriers to making a switch
    1. Not having time to upskill in new areas, build your network or apply for jobs (especially EA jobs, which often involve work tests and trials) while you’re working full-time
    2. Personal and financial risk of quitting without a new role secured 

One solution - take a leave of absence

What is a leave of absence?

A leave of absence is any opportunity that frees up significant time from your day job like unpaid vacation, an educational leave, a secondment, an externship, a sabbatical etc.

Leaves are a great tool for overcoming the barriers to switching into higher impact work. They take you out of your day-to-day environment and can give you both the time and headspace to consider your career, make decisions, and switch if you want to. 

Many organisations offer paid or unpaid leaves of absence (e.g. Bain’s social impact “externships”, PwC’s unpaid leave, the UK civil service career breaks). But you may not have even realised it was an option for you.

If your organisation doesn’t have a formal leave policy, you might still want to have a conversation with your employer to see whether they’d be willing to give you several months off. If you’re considering quitting anyway, they might be open to letting you take some time away if the alternative would be you resigning immediately.

Some leaves of absence are unpaid and therefore require some savings or alternative income sources. If the financial cost is too high for you, you may be able to mitigate this at least partly (e.g. taking a short-term role, working part-time, or applying for a grant such as from the EA Infrastructure Fund or the Open Philanthropy career transitions grants)

Why take a leave of absence?

Taking leave is lower risk than quitting outright, as you still have a job to come back to afterwards, and it can be relatively easy to make happen both administratively and psychologically. 

If you think that there’s a chance that you could be doing something 10x more high impact with your career, it seems particularly valuable to spend a few months exploring if that’s the case.

On top of leaves being good for your career and impact, you might find it’s fun and healthy for your well-being too.

What to do on your leave of absence?

Here are some concrete things you could consider doing during your leave of absence:

Reasons not to take a leave of absence

There are some circumstances when this might not be the best option for you.

It might be better to stay in your current role:

  • If your time has unusually high opportunity costs and is likely best spent on what you are currently doing
    • We think the main way this post could cause accidental harm is by motivating people to take a leave of absence when they are in fact already in an excellent position.
  • If you cannot afford it (even after taking the mitigating measures noted above)
    • Not everyone is in the extremely privileged financial position to be able to even think about a leave of absence. Many leaves of absence are unpaid and therefore require some savings or alternative income sources. 
  • For other reasons, e.g., if you are currently in a psychologically unstable situation and need more consistency 

It might be better to pivot faster:

  • If you really don’t like your current job
    • If you definitely don’t want to go back to your current role, it may make sense to just quit outright.
  • If you’re close to landing a great role
    • If you think you can make a bigger leap without having to go via a half-way step then don’t hold yourself back.
  • If your employer doesn’t offer this option
    • In this case, you may want to use some of your paid time off as a mini-leave or perhaps quitting outright may make more sense.

Case studies 

We know a number of people who’ve found this useful (including ourselves!)

  • Federico Speziali took a couple of months leave from his job at a for-profit start-up to go through the Charity Entrepreneurship incubation program. At the end of the program, he quit his for-profit job and founded the charity High Impact Professionals.
  • Jona Glade (one of the authors of this post) was working at BCG as a consultant prior to taking an educational leave to get his PhD. Jona had intended to use the leave to upskill on AI but ultimately decided to deprioritize his PhD altogether. He instead spent his free time exploring career paths and decided to found cFactual, an EA strategy consultancy and think tank, which he believes to be the most impactful (in expectation) and fun career option for him. Had Jona not taken a leave, it seems likely that his journey would have been postponed by 6 months. 
  • Patrick Gruban intended to wait until he could sell his company before making a career change but eventually decided to scale back his current work in order to explore options in EA-aligned organisations. Patrick spent 5 months taking on consulting projects, applying for jobs, going to EA global conferences and networking. In the end, he was offered the position of co-director EA Germany. Interestingly, he never sold the company but rather kept it running with minimal personal involvement.
  • Sarah Pomeranz (one of the authors of this post) was happily working at Accenture Strategy when the opportunity arose to apply for Managing Director of the EA Consulting Network. Once offered the role, Sarah took a 12-month leave of absence from Accenture to assess her personal fit with the role, determine the impact of the project, and use the time to expand her own professional network. Working in the role gave her the confidence to know that there are nonprofit jobs that can be fast-paced and exciting all while having a much greater impact than her work in consulting. At the end of the leave, Sarah chose not to return to Accenture and has been running the EA Consulting Network full-time since.  
  • Simon Asbach took an educational leave from BCG to pursue a PhD in decision-making within the field of human-AI interaction. During his leave, and while working towards his PhD, Simon allocated a considerable amount of time to working in the EA space and exploring high-impact career opportunities. A few highlights include managing the global EA workplace group at BCG and serving as a strategy fellow at cFactual. As of September 2023, he is discussing job opportunities with 5 EA-aligned organisations. 
  • Toby Jolly took a year-long leave from the Civil Service to run Impactful Government Careers and in the end decided not to return to the UK Government. He then spent several months unemployed and used that time to organise some events in areas he was interested in and conduct a full career reviewwhich eventually led him to accept his current role as Events Director at Longview Philanthropy. He is very glad he took time off.

We’re excited to hear about other folks who have taken a leave of absence and the value it did (or did not) provide! Leave a comment below and we will add more examples as we learn about them. 

What to do next?

If this post resonates with you, we strongly encourage you to think about whether to take a leave of absence. It may be much easier, more common and more fun than you think and could be the difference of 10x your impact!

  1. Look into what leave options your organisation offers
    1. Find information internally on formal policies or schemes (e.g. on your employee intranet)
    2. Scope out the opportunity for an informal option by talking to current or former colleagues
    3. Talk to an EA professional group (e.g. EA Consultants Network) to find out more about what others have done in a similar position to you
  2. Make a call about whether this is the right option for you
    1. Brainstorm what you might do on your leave and consider how it might advance your long-term career
    2. Sign up for career advising (e.g. 80,000 hoursProbably GoodEA Consultants Network, SuccessIf) to talk this through with someone if needed
    3. Write up a document on whether to take a leave and share it with people you trust for their input
  3. Apply to make the leave happen!

If this post doesn’t apply to you, then consider recommending the idea to someone else, or even share the post with them - perhaps some of your colleagues or potential hires.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to everyone who shared their story and to @Habiba Banu  for reviewing this post! Also thanks to the Forum team for nudging us to finally prioritise this write-up to contribute to the Career Conversations Week, a couple of weeks later. Finally, we want to express our gratitude to everyone who thinks carefully about their career and supports others in doing so!
 

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:28 PM

As someone who recently did this myself I can highly recommend it! I also want to add that some people might be able to, and perhaps even benefit from, taking a "middle path" where they reduce their work hours. I did this which allowed me 1 day/week over a couple of months to try to make working directly on EA causes happen. It probably comes with reduced pay but does not require enough savings to carry you through unpaid leave. Moreover, you can do this right now even if you do not have enough savings for a continuous break.

Just wanted to echo this point about reducing work hours! In cases where this option is available + financially viable, I think it can be very worth considering. I did this a few years ago when I was in a non-impact-driven job, reducing my work schedule permanently from full-time to 4.5 days per week then later 3.5. I used the other time for small volunteering and consulting opportunities in EA (though finding them involved some luck), which I think really helped me towards eventually moving into a permanent direct work role later.

+1 part-timer here. I was very frustrated back then. Having learnt a lot of interesting ideas about using one’s career for social impact I felt that I do not have sufficient time to explore these ideas to the depth I wanted to. I wanted to head towards a transition but I felt that I got stuck. So earlier this year I told my employer that I’m thinking of quitting because of this (note that I’m in a furtunate position of having experience that is currently in high demand, so I could relatively easily find a job similar to my previous if needed). But they suggested that I could do part-time instead if I wanted to and I accepted their offer.

It did not just give me time to explore the research around high-impact careers but now also allows me to spend signifficant time on applications, work trials and volunteering projects for testing my fit and upskilling.

One thing that I’m still thinking about is that I was in a fortunate position of being able to afford this financially. It just does not feel right that I decided to “spend” these resorces (my time/the salary I did not earn) on this “project” without crosschecking with experts (e.g. grantmakers) that my “project” meets the bar of being an effective use of these resources. (Tried to summarize this here as my first forum post https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/4TiBZxD7NLsSTsHDn/career-investments-vs-giving-in-the-short-term)

One more benefit of reducing working time: You might be more likely to be able to return to work afterwards if you need to. By eg going from 5 days a week to 4, you are probably still involved in pretty much the same work and thus less likely to be replaced by someone else or something else that could make s return after a sabbatical problematic.

This post is much helpful  SarahPomeranz, Jona, Sanjana Kashyap, I'm on the verge of quitting my non-EA job. This has given me much clarity. 

This post is spot-on. After leading a tech-startup for 8 years I started my sabbatical in February of this year. Prior to this, I had started reading up on EA and once my sabbatical came around, I was able to rapidly dive in deep, further my thinking and build a network for myself.

Having time off to read, think, reflect and meet people was invaluable to this progress. I would never have been able to do so while working a full-time job.

Not only the time to work on figuring out how to do good, but also the free time to 'shut off' and allow your brain to connect the dots, and allow you to feel what's truly important to you.

My sabbatical ended with this post on LinkedIn about my new direction. Fortunately I still have a lot of free time now, but it's more aimed at finding impactful opportunities for myself to do a lot of good.

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/robkonterman_i-spent-the-past-7-months-figuring-out-activity-7110190879776104448-0qA0

I did this quite a few times throughout my career, my first sabbatical was after graduating and it got me moving into higher income country for a programming career. Soon after I joined a startup that is more mission driven and altruistic. Then I took another sabbatical as the startup was winding down and as I started reading about EA. I managed to convince my previous boss at the startup about EA too. I then joined another startup to rack up more savings and had another sabbatical where I was more determined to work at a highly impactful job. Seems like every sabbatical I took I get closer to EA ideas and ultimately stumbled upon a good fit at an effective giving org. I highly recommend people to take breaks/sabbaticals to help reorient yourself.

Love this! Seems like a great push (importantly, in a constructive and thoughtful way) for many that might otherwise feel frustrated with their current situation. Will definitely share this from time to time :))

Glad to hear it resonates @Henri Thunberg

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