In Charlie's cool post about the practical details of getting into alignment work, he notes the very strong correlation between leading alignment research and having a PhD. Sometimes this is naked credentialism (Deepmind, Google Brain), but not always.
Charlie mentions "research taste" as a leading hypothesis for why a PhD is good. Let research taste := "figure out what problem you should try tackling next, explain why that decision makes sense, and repeat this process until you can do it yourself"
This is the main reason I'm in grad school: to get taste through active inference and hundreds of labelled good research decisions. (Also for the optionality and freedom and invites to things.)
But does a PhD improve your taste? Seems clear that it depends entirely on the taste and availability of your advisor. Conditioned on that it seems pretty safe (70%?); unconditioned, it seems way less likely (20%?).
Is this enough for us to bet thousands of years of people's careers on?
Metascience doesn't seem to have gotten around to asking if the central mechanism of the field is any good. Here's one fun methods paper. The obvious thing to do: do it ourselves! Find a lot of people teetering on the edge of accepting offers to grad school and ask them if they want to be randomised! (This design would probably pass an IRB review, because Education Is Good, but morally speaking I'm not sure it should.) This is slow and daft and I challenge you to think of something better, preferably existing evidence.
"The BIG PROBLEM with PhDs (at least in my opinion) is that you can learn most of these skills in other settings as well but with less suffering." Could you elaborate on the suffering part?