A guide to improving your odds at getting a job in EA

by Joey7 min read19th Mar 20195 comments

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How to get a job at an EA organization

A lot of people want a job at an EA organization but it can be a frustrating and difficult process. This is in part due to harder to change factors, such as very high numbers of applicants applying for the jobs, but I think it's also in part due to candidates maximizing factors differently than what organizations are looking for. This post, similarly to my previously written post on how to get a cause area into EA, is a guide to help people who want to get a job within an EA organization. Therefore, it echoes some points that have been made in other posts or comments before. Of course, every EA organization will have different specific hiring criteria, but I do think there are some general trends that, if focused on, would help candidates get more EA jobs (and spend less time applying for ones that are not a good fit). The information comes from speaking to EA organization staff in hiring positions and candidates who have gotten job offers at multiple EA organizations (~6 EA different organizations). I am not saying these should be the necessary steps or the hiring criteria the EA movement should apply. Rather, I am just trying to inform people as to how it currently works from an insider’s perspective. All of these steps take time, are not necessarily possible for everyone, and having these factors down does not guarantee a job. Nor does  having them mean you will definitely not get a job - they just help to improve your odds overall.

This post also focuses on things that are more specific to EA as opposed to more general advice that would apply to any job.

Principles

  1. Prove you work ability in the most similar context possible.
  2. Know the organization, its area, and your possible role within in it.
  3. Apply for the jobs you think are the most impactful.
  4. Know how to do any kind of work to a high standard.
  5. Be prepared to make compromises.

Prove you work ability in the most similar context possible

I think this is a huge factor in many hiring processes. EA jobs, unlike many other jobs, do not compare very well to other kinds of work experience, and do not tie into any specific academic degree. However, this does not mean that you cannot prove your work ability the same way you would through your work experience for any other job. There are a few different ways for proving this that ordinarily seem to work.

Internships

Many EAs are hired out of internships (both paid and unpaid). You might have 10 years of experience in other nonprofits and a PhD from Harvard, and would never need an internship in a different field, but in the EA field an internship is a great way to start to prove you are great at work and it sets a much lower bar to hiring. I often see candidates who are extremely impressive apply for internships and have offered jobs directly after the internship to interns who have demonstrated a high level of work ability. An internship also gives you a much better sense of whether this sort of work is the work you want to do in the long term and if it feels like a good fit to you personally.

Volunteering

Not everyone has the time for a full time internship, but volunteering is another big factor that can put you on an organization’s radar. Personally, my first two EA job offers came from volunteering. If you volunteer, you can show you ability to work in a role very similar to what many jobs are actually like, but in a more limited context in terms of hours. Many organizations, both normal nonprofits and EA organisations, become more excited to hire someone after they do some high quality volunteer work. If you are the best volunteer an organization has had this year, it will often result in a job offer. Volunteering and internships can also help your odds with EA organizations other than the one you are volunteering at. Although it is still best to volunteer/intern for the organizations you are most excited to work for, as it will count for the most with the organization you are working with.

Independent research

There is a lot of useful work that can be done outside of specific EA organizations. Sometimes, the hiring staff at an EA organization will know of someone because of a post they made on the EA forum or due to a presentation they gave at an EA conference. If you want an operations job and you wrote a blog post about the comparison of top online operational resource courses  then you are a person EA organisations are interested in talking to. Independent research can work much like a portfolio does in that it gives a sense of both your work ability and the way you communicate. Even if you took 6 months to write up a research post part-time, it will still show off a lot about the kind of work you might be able to do when hired full-time. Writing an impressive EA forum post is a good way to start and gives a hiring team a lot of information that a cover-letter, resume or interview would not provide.

Related jobs adjacent to the direct EA movement

Have you worked for an organization that stands relatively close to the EA movement? For example, you may have worked for an ACE-recommended charity before applying for a position at ACE. Or you could have worked on innovation for poverty action before applying for a research organization. Related experience outside the EA movement, particularly if there is concrete work you can showcase based on it,will carry a lot more weight than strong grades or non-related work experience. A decent heuristic to follow might be that any job posted on the EA facebook jobs board would be a step towards more “direct” and solely EA-focused work.

Other

Have you been to a Charity Entrepreneurship or CFAR workshop? Have you done a fellowship at any of the organizations that offer it? All of these options are more like examples rather than an exhaustive list of how to prove your work ability.

Know the organization, its area, and your role within in it

For many EA jobs and for an extremely high percentage of meta-EA organizations you need to know a lot about both the EA movement, the specific organization you are comparing it to, and about your role within it.

EA movement

The EA movement is a large space and it takes a lot of time to get a sense of it all by reading the EA forum, newsletter, and the various blogs of related organizations. Very few people who have only read Doing Good Better and seen the EA TED talks are hired by meta-EA organizations. The bar regarding knowledge about EA is just set a lot higher. A decent heuristic for knowing whether you are well-informed is whether you can write up the EA wikipedia page (from a knowledge perspective, not from a writing ability perspective). For an organization that is focused on a specific cause area, you will just need to focus your own attention also on that area, but for cross-cutting and meta-organizations you will often need to have a sense of each of their priority cause areas. During our interviews, we explicitly ask about cause selection and why applicants are prioritizing that cause area. Having a strong answer to these questions demonstrates that you are well-informed about Effective Altruism, and that is truly a must for many roles.

The EA organization

How does this EA organization fit into the EA movement? What does it do well and what does it not do so well? What are the three organizations most like it and how does this organization differ from them? What cause area does this organization think is the most important?

All of these are questions that strong applicants have a sense of and weaker ones do not. It's not expected that an applicant will know the internal workings of an organization, but anything that is out there publicly, such as an organization’s blog, some candidates will know well and others will have looked at only briefly. This is not to say that you need to have read every post ever produced by every EA organization, but for the ones you are applying for I would generally suggest reading and understanding their most recent 5 pieces of public content at minimum. Knowing the organization will also give you a sense of what they care about and are looking for. Do they do extremely deep research into a small number of topics? Or are they broader and work across a lot of areas, putting out less polished ideas earlier? What the organization does will give you a sense of what it’s looking for and if you are a good fit for it.

Know your role

Even more specifically, know your role! If you're applying for an operations role, what country is that charity registered in? If you are applying for a social media role, what does the charity’s current social media profile look like? What would be your plan if you were hired for this role? Of course, without insider information your plan will not necessarily be optimal (in fact, it is almost guaranteed it will not be, so don’t get attached to it), but knowing how you would hit the ground running is a huge benefit and will help an organization see how you could contribute right away.

Apply for the jobs you think are most impactful

Few organizations are interested in being someone's second choice. I generally recommend applying for three EA organizations that you think are of the highest impact. Pick the three jobs you would be genuinely most excited about. This will allow you to get a deeper understanding of those three organizations specifically and allows you to focus your time and attention on building towards these sorts of jobs. Organizations do not generally have a strict policy on this but they do generally need you to be quite excited about their work and have stronger understanding of their area than would be possible to do with 20 different organizations. The successful candidates I spoke to often applied for a single job at the organization they were most excited about.  

Know how to do work to a high standard

Task management

Most organizations are looking for someone who can put out work fast and at high level. Have you mastered a task management system? Do you have a consistent process for getting work done? Organizations will teach and refine these techniques, but the jobs are often too competitive for someone who has never considered how to break down tasks into manageable parts and they will have a tough time competing with someone who has an advanced and practiced method.

Management overhead

A resource a lot of EA organizations struggle with is management time, so a big question arises regarding how good are you at getting tasks done to a high quality independent of heavy management. How many times a week do you need to meet with a manager to get your work done? Once a week or 5 times a week? How often do you get stuck on tasks and need someone to help you come up with a solution? If a candidate could be an employee who can do great work with minimal management, the decision to hire them becomes a lot easier, even with a stretched management team.

Be prepared to make compromises

This final point might be the most important one while being one of the least talked about ones. With competitive jobs it will very often will require compromises. How important is an EA job vs other factors you are looking for in a job? Would you prefer to work from a specific city rather than move? That is going to greatly limit your job options, and that is fine if that is the trade-off you are making, but it’s good to know what will be the result. You might have to choose if you want a prestigious job at a normal organization or an entry level one at an EA organization. Or you might need to make a trade-off on the exact role you get (tip: tons of EAs want to be a highly paid prestigious researcher at an organization with a great work-life balance). Broadly speaking, if you want an EA job, it is likely you are going to have to make some other trade-offs to make that job happen, and while the specific trade-off will depend on the job, for most of them there still will be one or more.

Summary

These 5 principles will not guarantee you an EA job, nor do they perfectly reflect every (or even any) specific EA organization. Going through this list like a checklist misses the spirit of it. It’s not so much a list of questions that needs to be memorized as rather a number of questions a strong applicant could answer well to. It also aims to give a broad sense of what kind of activities to spend time on. It is always also worth noting what is not mentioned here and how much time you are spending on those sorts of things.

I also think that even with this advice being followed perfectly there will be cases where a lot of time will be spent on a disappointing outcome, as is true in many competitive job fields. However, at least this outline can help give a soft sense of what areas might be looked at during an application process that is more unique to Effective Altruism.

Principles

  1. Prove you work ability in the most similar context possible.
  2. Know the organization, its area, and your possible role within in it.
  3. Apply for the jobs you think are the most impactful.
  4. Know how to do any kind of work to a high standard.
  5. Be prepared to make compromises.

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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:39 PM
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This list seems roughly reasonable. What most stands out to me is that your suggestions are extremely time consuming, especially in aggregate. The hours applicants to jobs at EA organisations spend on timed work tests and honing their CVs pale in comparison.

I also think your suggestions are applicable to some other fields which might be of interest to people who are trying to have a high impact. It is not unusual for desirable roles in e.g. international development to require hundreds to thousands of hours of investment.

However, if people are investing those thousands of hours into learning about EA, they will not spend them investing in international development or nuclear security.

While people following your suggestions might benefit individually, as a movement we and the world might be worse off.

When I was writing this, I was mostly comparing it to other highly time consuming activism (e.g. many people are getting a degree hoping it will help them acquire an EA job). In terms of being the optimal thing for EA organizations to look for, I do not really have a view on that. I was more so hoping to level the understanding between people who have a pretty good sense that this sort of information is what you need, and people who might think that this would be worth far less than, say, a degree from a prestigious university.

EA jobs, unlike many other jobs, do not compare very well to other kinds of work experience,

I'm pretty sceptical of this claim (not just made here, but also made in many other posts). I think this might be true for some roles like the Research Analyst positions at the Open Philanthropy Project which combine academic research with grantmaking which is unusual in the wider job market.

But I don't see why e.g. operations at an average EA organisation would not compare well to other kinds of work experience in operations. I'm happy to hear counterarguments to this.

The underlying crux here might be that I'm generally wary of any claims of 'EA exceptionalism'.

I agree with Denise's concerns about the time involved in following these suggestions, but I also think there are good lessons worth pointing out here. Some notes:

  • Consider that "EA organization" refers to a very small group of nonprofits, which collectively hire... 50 people each year? Remove GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project (which have their own detailed guidelines on what they look for in applicants), and I'd guess that the number drops by half or more. Many of the positions recommended by 80,000 Hours require deep expertise in a particular topic; research and volunteering can help, but questions of general EA knowledge/experience aren't likely to be as important. If you want to work on AI alignment, focus on reading CHAI's bibliography rather than, say, the EA Forum.
  • As far as volunteering, research, and other projects go, quality > quantity. Years of reading casually about EA and posting on social media don't hurt, but these factors aren't nearly as important as a work reference who raves about your skills as a volunteer, or a Forum post that makes a strong contribution to the area you want to work on.
If you want an operations job and you wrote a blog post about the comparison of top online operational resource courses, then you are a person EA organisations are interested in talking to.

This only holds true if the post was useful, helping EA orgs solve a problem they had or getting strong positive feedback from people who used it to select a course. There's a lot of writing in the EA blogosphere; much of it is great, but some posts just never find an audience. Again, quality > quantity; better to spend a lot of time figuring out which post idea is likely to have the most impact, then working on the best version you can produce, than to publish a lot of posts you didn't have the time to think about as carefully.

(This doesn't mean that the Forum itself doesn't encourage unpolished work -- we're happy to see your ideas! -- but that the writing most likely to demonstrate your practical skills is writing that you've polished.)

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As an aside: I'm not a career coach by any means, but I've worked in EA operations and EA content, and I've talked to a lot of different organizations about what they look for in applicants. If you have particular questions about applying to an org in/adjacent to EA, you're welcome to comment here or email me (though it's possible that my advice will consist of "ask these questions to the organization" or "read this article they wrote about what they want").

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I work for CEA, but these views are my own.

Thanks for all these useful tips Joey. Something I wanted to disagree with you on - the idea that it’s best only to apply for a couple of organisations / jobs. In my experience, most organisations aren’t put off by an applicant also looking into working at a broad range of other places. That makes sense to me for a couple of reasons: there are a huge number of very high impact roles out there and it’s really tough to tell which are the very most high impact; and as an individual it’s hard to know which job you’re going to be best suited for and so it makes sense to apply broadly.

I think the idea that it’s sensible to apply broadly both holds in the sense of applying for many different roles at EA organisations, but also in the sense of applying for jobs outside of EA organisations. There are ultimately very few jobs at EA organisations, so it’s unlikely anyone should be exclusively applying for those.