Cross-posted from my blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts or additional brainstorming of interesting careers!
The standard way of thinking about using one’s career for effective altruism focuses a lot on narrowing down what fields you’re interested in. For instance, 80,000 Hours has a list of just four “top careers” and ten or so other second- or third-tier options.
Thinking about specific fields is important, because some fields do contain more high-impact opportunities than others. But another important piece is the variation you’ll see in the best opportunities available within each field. Factors of personal fit also mean that some people might not be well-suited to a lot of the current “EA-approved” careers.
Because of this, I think it would be interesting to see some wider-ranging career thinking, considering more possible fields and more different types of skillsets. So I’ve made a list of as many jobs as I could think of that sound potentially interesting from an EA perspective.
I don’t think all of these jobs necessarily contain high-impact opportunities, and probably most high-impact opportunities lie outside the fields on this list—my only goal is to help get people started thinking more broadly and creatively about their altruistic impact.
Thanks to Ruthie for suggesting many of these and reading a draft of this post.
- Interesting skillsets
- Influencing money
- Influencing politics
- Influencing people
- Generic leverage
- Generally solid jobs
Lots of jobs seem worth exploring purely because they build interesting skills that are very different from the current demographics of the EA movement. This has a ton of benefits: it makes the movement more robust, adds diversity of thought and of capability, and set a good role model for prospective new aspiring EAs who aren’t cut from the software-engineer/philosopher cloth. (Many of these apply to some extent to jobs in other categories as well, but especially strongly to jobs in this category.)
At tech companies, product managers are responsible for coordinating engineering efforts on a product—making sure that the engineers respond to what users want, that they work on important features, that everyone is properly coordinated, etc. It’s not necessarily a technical position, and it involves a lot of interesting work.
The fact that I currently have any authority on the subject of organizing EA events should be enough to justify the inclusion of this skillset.
A good recruiter’s job is basically to build strong networks of awesome people. Given the current insularity and mediocre networking abilities of the EA movement (and most groups of people in general), it seems like an incredibly underrated skillset.
One of the biggest cheap wins that Harvard Effective Altruism ever got was when I read something Nick Beckstead wrote about doing sales and invented a new Giving Game pitch based on it. You can read about it here—it practically quadrupled the number of email-list signups we got. The point is, HEA members had trouble even with basic sales moves like “don’t be super awkward about it,” and upping our game there was incredibly helpful.
I know of one marketer who hangs around the EA movement. He has one of the more interesting EA blogs. He probably has a lot of other interesting things to say, but I don’t really know because I have no idea how marketing works. I feel like this is probably true of a lot of this post’s audience.
As a promoter, you basically get paid to make places look like attractive places to be. That seems like a pretty useful/generally cool skill. For instance, the guy who runs charity: water was originally a club promoter.
It’s pretty obvious that jobs where one can influence a lot of money have the potential to do a lot of good.
A lot of venture capital seems to be deployed towards pretty dumb things and in a pretty dumb way. If you can shift some capital towards investments that are more likely to have a good impact on the world, you could potentially be responsible for a huge amount of impact. A thought leader in venture capital could do even more good by influencing what kind of companies people start even without investing in them.
I haven’t worked very closely with VCs, so I’m not sure how easy it is to become influential in the field—my impression is that since it’s prestigious there are a lot of associates who basically don’t have any input on investment decisions and just do a lot of grunt work. So it may be hard to break in. That said, it seems worth thinking about.
A GiveWell conversation had this to observe about NIH grants:
Grant reviewers at NIH tend to fund similar projects year after year, and NIH’s grant system is often biased toward those researchers who have become savvy about applying for funding through NIH. Moreover, since 1991, NIH’s grant applications no longer require information about researchers’ existing resources. Previously, it was possible to evaluate researchers’ productivity as a factor of their funding, but now the researchers with the most existing funding appear to be the most productive and so are more likely to receive additional funding. A better mechanism is needed to remove biases in the grant system and reduce the size of some grants. A start has been made: a few NIH agencies, such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), require an extra review when researchers being recommended for more funding already receive more than $1M a year from NIH.
Wealth management seems to have a similar problem to venture capital where a lot of the money is pretty dumb. (I’m basing this on what I hear from Theorem’s sales team talking to wealth managers.)
The bad news is that this means that being smart probably isn’t a big competitive edge. The good news is that if you do manage to compete successfully on whatever dimensions wealth managers compete on (connections? fancy clothes?), you can probably do much more interesting things with the money than other people do.
Public policy is also a subject of some EA exploration, but I think people aren’t aware of many careers outside elected party politics which made it onto 80k’s website. But policy is another great tool of leverage. This area seems under-explored compared to influencing money, probably again due to demographics of the EA movement.
The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway.
Sign me up!
Elected party politics is one way to get a lot of leverage, but non-elected officials also have considerable power to do altruistic good. This seems especially important in light of the huge problems with regulatory capture in many agencies; it seems likely that you could do a lot of good simply by being a regulator who is more resistant to capture than most.
Lots of think tanks publish research that ends up being used in policy reform. My impression from this GiveWell conversation with Steve Teles is that think tanks’ research on any particular problem may be very effectiveness-driven, they don’t often explicitly seek out high-leverage areas to do research in, so some EA-style priority-setting could be quite influential.
People are another leverage point that seems relatively neglected by the current EA movement compared to money or even policy influence. Here are some ideas in that department.
Mainstream career advising
I think that 80,000 Hours wants to get their career counselors into colleges at some point, but you don’t have to wait for them to do this! Most colleges already have career-advising offices that might benefit from the EA perspective. (Caveat: I’m not sure how much they give students substantial career advice compared to, e.g., resume proofreading; you’d obviously want to look for positions that would be heavy on the former and light on the latter.)
My impression is that many people get interested in the effective altruism movement for similar reasons that people look for life coaching (wanting a sense of purpose/goals/motivation). So as a life coach you might have the chance to pique a lot of people’s interest in effective altruism.
I suspect this is underrated right now because the EA community is fairly atheist-heavy, but Harvard Effective Altruism has always gotten a great response to EA ideas from religious service groups. Even for atheists you could become a pseudo-religious leader like Greg Epstein. Again, this is a natural place that could benefit from the EA perspective since people are already looking for ways to improve the world.
Not very many teachers end up being huge influences on their students down the road, but the ones that do seem to influence lots of their students very strongly. Being this kind of teacher could result in a lot of kids being more interested in improving the world than they otherwise would be.
Running a summer camp (or other extracurricular)
When I was young I was pretty strongly influenced by the summer camps I went to. This seems a lot like teaching, except lower-commitment and with more influence relative to the amount of time you spend doing it.
There are a number of examples here already: Peter Singer, Larissa MacFarquhar, Will MacAskill, Scott Alexander. Obviously it’s very tough to be as influential as these folks, but the payoff is enormous. I know plenty of people who have gotten interested in effective altruism through essays like Scott’s Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others…. In fact, I even know of a few people who got interested through my own blog—so there may be good payoffs from writing even as a side thing and even if you’re nowhere near the level of Scott Alexander.
There are a bunch of other things I thought of that give you a lot of altruistic leverage without fitting into one of the above categories. So, rounding out the list:
It’s been estimated that American entrepreneurs capture on the order of 1% of the value they create. In the developing world, a dollar of social value is worth about 100 times as much as in the US (for instance, in the developing world a good program can achieve $5,000 per life saved, whereas in the US $500,000 per life saved would be extraordinary). A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on these ratios suggests that a startup in the US would have to be worth about 50 times as much to have the same impact as one in the developing world. This calculation is obviously not definitive, but it’s suggestive that the idea of developing-world entrepreneurship has potential.
I stole this one wholesale from Bayes Impact. Basically, it seems like there are a lot of places where data science has the potential to do a lot of good but those improvements are hard to capture (government and healthcare leap out). Hence a motivated altruist could make a lot of improvements.
Consulting for nonprofits
GiveWell has observed that many nonprofits don’t keep careful enough track of the results of their programs to even know how well they’re doing. And even for charities that do collect data, they can interpret the results in a bogus way. Even if a charity’s intervention isn’t effective enough to compete with GiveWell’s top charities, if you can make it more effective you can do a lot of good, especially if the charity is large.
Technology in academia
Hat tip to Dario Amodei for this one. My impression from talking to academics in e.g. biology is that this area is seriously under-resourced. Lots of research is held back by shoddy software but there aren’t many people with the skills to fix it, and it’s not sexy enough to attract the attention of many funders.
Generally solid jobs
There are a number of jobs that aren’t as “sexy” as typical EA picks (that is, they’re not incredibly strong on any one dimension), but are generally solid, pay fairly well, aren’t super competitive or difficult to break into, and have fairly robust demand.
I’m going off of fairly weak impressions when I list these, so I’m just going to list them instead of writing paragraphs. But I think this category is worthy of a lot more consideration than it gets right now.
- Physical therapy
- Elder care
- Skilled trades
- Actuarial science
I think it's worth considering avoiding jobs/careers that are somewhat likely to be automated in the near future. Pharmacy and accounting seem like they probably fall into this category. Most jobs in transportation will probably be gone in the next two decades.
Medical science liaison, as a high-paid career. It's like a higher-end drug rep, typically requires a PhD. Good fallback for someone getting a PhD in something biomedical-related. Glassdoor estimates the average salary as $140K. (This is particularly striking given that other salaries seem to be lowballed on Glassdoor. Computer engineer is $71K, for example.)
It seems to be fairly easy to move back and forth between being an MSL and doing other jobs in the biotech/pharma industries.
What would a developing world start-up look like?
A couple examples I've run across: DataWind (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DataWind), which is now at a more mature stage. Went to a talk by one of the founders recently. They made a really cheap tablet and internet services that work over 2G, which opens up the market of large sections of India currently without internet access. I think they could end up being quite successful.
A early stage example is EyeCheck (http://www.eyechecksolutions.com/), started by a couple of engineers out of undergrad. They're developing a tool to improve diagnosis of vision problems to increase efficiency of providing glasses (think they're starting working with NGOs running vision camps).
Are you trying to imagine like a silicon valley of the developing world?
This actually isn't a bad idea, something like the IT industry in India. Dani Rodrik keeps making the point that the labor force in many developing nations is making the transition directly from low productivity agriculture jobs to low productivity service jobs without going through high productivity manufacturing jobs that have traditionally led to the formation of a middle class. Some way to get people trained for high productivity service jobs, like in IT, could be really helpful for economic development, although there is probably a massive educational gulf to cover. The power grid would need some work to build a steady IT industry, too.
Rodrik's talk on this and some of his writings (1) are the most informative I have seen in a while.
Why would a country invest in lower-productivity industries? If a country is moving to low productivity service jobs it's probably because high productivity jobs are not available.
It's not that a country is investing in low productivity industries, this is just what is naturally happening. Poor people from the countryside are moving to cities for a marginally better life, but they're selling trinkets on the street when in the past they may have been manufacturing the trinkets. The point is to figure out how to encourage high productivity jobs, not just observe that they're unavailable.
My argument is that this is not really an accurate description. The difference between selling trinkets and manufacturing jobs is that the latter requires a large amount of upfront capital investment. If people are not doing this, we need to work out why and address it. Once it is viable, capital is naturally invested where its marginal product is highest, which in turn increases the marginal product of its compliments, like labour. As the wage rate is equal to the marginal productivity of labour, this ultimately increases the wage rate.
I think the main challenge is finding out how to make investments viable, which is really hard for a number of reasons that are often grouped into the term "poor business environment". It seems like the debate centers around whether anything can be done to improve the business environment, or if we're better off treating the symptoms of poverty while economies sort themselves out.
What you describe above would happen in an efficient market, but stock markets barely exist in most sub-saharan countries so I think most SSA economies are operating far from efficiently. It seems like private equity deals, or doing due diligence for PE deals could have a big impact. Most private equity in SSA is growth equity rather than leveraged buyouts, and the counterfactual is probably some other risky investment that might not have as much development impact. This is an understudied area, but I'm excited to see the results of this research from IPA.
One example is Segovia.
If you're looking for cool socially-oriented for-profits in the developing world, maybe we could open up the question to the FB group.
I know someone who would be interested in looking through a list of organizations like this right now (hoping to find places to work).
Not necessarily -- just want to know more about what for-profit ventures in the developing world are like. Mobile phones seem to have done well.
Perhaps Ben meant social entrepreneurship, which is often geared towards the developing world? Forbes 30 under 30 has some ideas for what those projects can be. If you don't like those, I recommend filtering through the Ashoka fellows. The most recent Ashoka fellow started a foundation/for-profit combo called Soronko Solutions, which teaches kids programming and sells tech solutions to startups.
In general, if you're going to run a normal for-profit business in the developing world that sells products or provides a service, you're probably not going to make very much money. Money goes further in the developing world because you don't make as much.
If you want to help other people, the logic is to register as a non-profit and get some of those philanthropy dollars. Many non-profits work to cultivate entrepreneurship, with a few approaches:
What Givewell calls economic empowerment, e.g. providing capital, skills training, mentorship, government advocacy, etc. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor has a long list of entrepreneurship indicators, and could be a starting point to inspire work in under-addressed areas.
Social franchising, whether it is re-selling micro irrigation systems or opening rural health stores.
For-profit / Non-profit hybrids like the Ashoka example mentioned above.
I've probably done a terrible job of introducing the topic, but I'm going to cut myself off before the rest of my day disappears.
Nice post and thanks for the shout out to my blog but for the record, I'm not "a marketer" by any means. I just took an interest in marketing and related fields while researching my thesis paper. I actually do production office work in film.
Re: random solid jobs.
Being a dentist is much better than being a doctor according to this guy; ctrl-f "dentist" for commentary.
Indeed.com has a cool salary estimator tool; here is an example usage examining specialties within software development, but it can also easily be used to compare occupations.
There are lots of threads on the internet about this, e.g. this one and this one and this one.
My general impression is that certain blue collar occupations like cop, prison warden, plumber, welder, oil rig worker, etc. can be lucrative if you're operating in the right area. (Cops/prison wardens in areas with solvent governments have pensions that can be factored in.)
I heard somewhere that government jobs typically hire based on an aptitude test rather than degrees, and economist Steven Landsburg thinks that they pay more on average.
This is cool Ben, thanks for doing this! I agree with the general idea that personal fit is very important and we should be open to considering a wide range of careers.
I do think this slightly misrepresents 80k though. You say they only have a list of four top careers, but in fact what they have is four careers they consider "very promising, but highly competitive and with low chance of success", and ten more careers they consider promising. I think 80k also talk about most of the careers you list - if not all the specific sub-categories. And the 80k website actually actively advises against narrowing down based on what you're interested in, and emphasises the importance of personal fit.
Most of what I said was not attempting to represent 80k at all, though--it was largely based on how I observed real EAs making career decisions, which somehow often got framed as "tech vs. trading" (possibly vs. academia) despite 80k's excellent advice!
The sentence that you picked out did end "...and ten or so other second- or third-tier options", which was my understanding of how that list was organized--perhaps the headings were different the last time I read it or something. At any rate, three of the second four are dominated in the sub-rankings by one of the first four, so I think it's fair to call them "second-tier" based on that, even if the headings don't make it explicit.
(Edited for grammar)
Yeah, fair - the way I read it at the beginning sounded more like the whole thing was talking about 80k than perhaps it was. Anyway, just wanted to make clear that I think 80k very much agrees with most (if not all) or what you're saying here :)
Just adding a few more clarifications of our views here:
I really like the idea of having a list of promising careers we haven't investigated yet that includes a couple of sentences of explanation, like you've done here, so I'll probably add a page like that in the next iteration of the site. Thanks for suggesting it.
You're also right that if you want to coordinate with the EA community, then there's extra value from doing stuff that other EAs aren't doing. We don't include that in our guide, however, because the guide isn't aimed only at EAs. I think this is an important consideration that's often neglected though, so I'm really pleased to see it being discussed here.
Basically jobs that pay very well but have less intellectual prerequisites than most EA jobs. They are not glamorous but I think they are unfairly overlooked for this reason.
I think the only concern with these would be the recent oil price moves - WTI has probably now fallen far enough to significantly dis-incent US capacity expansion.
My worry with these is that they're high paying right now, but the skills are quite narrow, so aren't robustly high paying in the future. e.g. Truck drivers could get automated; oil & gas industry jobs are vulnerable to the oil price going down.
Status also matters for your career capital and general influence, so I think that's a real concern too, rather than just an bad reason these careers get overlooked.
Some trades like plumbing have had high wages for a while, and could be a good fit for some people. Income would probably be the only good outcome though.
Thanks for the post but the thing is its is just spitballing.. I don't see that these lists (including what i have seen from 80,000) offer much guidance to people beyond: "be very competent and get a good job and you will have potential to leverage that"
We've started to make more and more comparisons at 80,000 Hours e.g. we recommend consulting, tech ent and quant trading, but not investment banking, law or medicine, although these are all in the category of "generally good competitive jobs". I hope for many more comparisons like this when we've prepared more career profiles.
We've also found that people find lists like these very useful in our coaching. There are often options that people have overlooked but might actually be promising, or there were aware of but weren't aware of the arguments in favor of them being high-impact.
Shoutout for considering Australia, assuming this advice still currently holds.
This has been a bit hit and miss, and I don't hear so many people recommending it anymore.
A key thing is that the work-holiday visa is only good for a year and you can't work a job more than six months, so if you find something that's great you need to be looking again very soon.
Yes. Louie just finished at miri in the last few months but is still working in the bay area
I've been meaning to contact 80,000 Hours with a suggestion they look at (and hopefully write something about) Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) as a viable career option. I have first-hand experience and can thus share a bit from my point of view.
Basics. MLM is a different way for companies to sell their product: rather than having stores display their products on their shelves, they ship directly to customers. Customers who tell others about the product can receive money from the company as a "thank you" for word-of-mouth advertising.
Income. My parents have been in an MLM company for about 8 years. They have reached an income of about $80,000/year. A person they directly know in the company has received over $500,000/year. Others within this company make several $million per year. While these results are not common, they are not impossible. This makes MLM potentially one of the highest-paid careers for those who want to Earn to Give (E2G).
Influence. A second component of an MLM career is that you end up talking to hundreds of people, many of whom regard you as someone who helps them with their business. Many of these people become close friends. This means that an MLM career could provide the ability to influence others. For example you could encourage everyone who also becomes financially successful thanks to your invitation and help, to give 10% of their income to charity.
Freedom. This type of work allows for a very flexible schedule and often a lot of free time. My parents have taken many month-long vacations with no drop in their monthly income. Residual income is one of the most alluring aspects of MLM.
Harm. On the harm side, not all MLM companies provide good products. If you are able to find a good company (I firmly believe my parents have), you could also be encouraging people to use products that are healthier for them, or provide benefits over the conventional ones. This would not be a misalignment with your values.
All these factors make me think MLM is a career path that should be at least considered within the EA community. I look forward to your replies.
How do you address the criticism that MLM schemes are essentially pyramid schemes, that rely on constantly recruiting more gullible people to sign up?
There are many things to say about it. Pyramid schemes are illegal in the US. And it all depends on the business plan (compensation plan) the company offers. Some companies will allow you to earn a decent income if you just get people to buy products. If the products are good, I see no harm.
There is a harm if you lie and promise people riches (that seems unethical); there is harm if you let people believe they will become rich (lie by omission is still a lie in my 'book'). There is harm if you lie about the products. The last harm seem identical to one present if you just become a car salesman (or any kind of salesman).