Towards Better EA Career Advice

by lexande21st Nov 201840 comments


Criticism (EA Orgs)Career Choice

Making thoughtful and informed career choices in order to have a more positive impact on the world is a core part of the practice of Effective Altruism. New and existing EAs are usually directed to the 80,000 Hours website for career advice, but it has a number of issues and gaps that make it poorly-suited for this purpose in many or most cases.

1) Most people starting careers suffer from extremely poor and and incomplete information about the necessary and sufficient conditions for getting various jobs. This seems to me to be the most important source of inefficiency/market failure in the labor market and suboptimal (both altruistically and selfishly) career choices generally. I’ve seen many people follow the careers of their friends/family, or stay in academia long after it makes sense, not because of their preferences or incentives but because these are the only paths where the necessary and sufficient conditions to get jobs are legible to them (and they were unwilling to personally accept the costs and risks of attempting career paths they have no idea of the feasibility of). I hoped 80,000 Hours would fill this gap and give risk-averse people more options (and enable risk-neutral people to evaluate the feasibility of more options more quickly); I believe that this is a core part of the value a career-advice website can provide. But, while their career reviews provide an “ease of competition” rating on a 1-5 scale, there’s no explanation how they arrive at these ratings or what a given rating means concretely, and what information they provide on standards and expectations in different fields is frustratingly vague.

2) Given the difficulty of competition in the careers most often recommended to EAs, the vast majority of people following EA advice will ultimately end up following their “backup” plans, and a good backup plan is absolutely necessary for most of them to be comfortable taking the kind of risks the highest-expected-impact paths require. Further, while the very highest-impact careers are by nature likely to be unique and anti-inductive, and thus difficult to give general advice on, it should be much more feasible to give generalizable advice about backup plans that large numbers of people can reliably follow. Yet, while 80,000 Hours occasionally mentions in passing the value of having a backup plan, their website contains almost no concrete advice or recommendations about what such a plan might entail or how to make one. If anything their emphasis on sui-generis career paths where a detailed roadmap is necessarily impossible has increased over time.

3) Even when 80,000 Hours has written about a topic, their website is often unhelpful for people trying to learn about it. Somebody coming to the front page might start by reading the “Career Guide”, where in the section on career capital they would read that the most impactful years of one’s life are probably one’s 40s, and that in the meantime it’s important to build up broad flexible skills since the most important opportunities and cause areas will likely be unpredictably different in the future. However, buried in the 2017 Annual Report where a new reader is unlikely to find it is a more recent discussion reaching the exact opposite conclusion, that one should focus exclusively on narrow career capital that can apply directly to the things that seem most important right now. (It’s fair enough if 80k have changed their minds on this point, but in that case they should modify or remove the first page to reflect this, and not try to blame the reader for “misunderstanding”.) Other widely-linked parts of the website seem neglected or broken entirely; for example no matter what answers I put into the career quiz it tells me to become a policy-focused civil servant in the British government (having neglected to ask whether I’m British). And even when fully up-to-date and endorsed, pages almost never explicitly specify their intended audience, which creates additional opportunities for people to wind up getting inconsistent or counterproductive advice (e.g. advice intended for someone with much more or less human/social/career/financial capital than they have).

4) Many of my friends report that reading 80,000 Hours’ site usually makes them feel demoralized, alienated, and hopeless. I’m not sure how to address this problem, and it’s likely impossible to eliminate entirely, but it seems unwise to ignore it completely. I think there is reason to hope that addressing the above three issues would at least decrease the prevalence and intensity of such reactions.

It is unclear to me whether these issues are best addressed through additions and changes to the existing 80,000 Hours site or through a new site with differently-focused EA career advice. Either way addressing them well will take substantial effort, but I believe it’s a worthwhile project. In the meantime, particularly in light of points 3 and 4 I think EAs should perhaps be more cautious about promoting 80,000 Hours as a source of general career advice for newcomers.