[Link] 80,000 Hours Nov 2020 annual review

by Benjamin_Todd4 min read15th May 20215 comments

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80,000 HoursOrg update
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We’ve released our 2020 annual review. The full document is available as a google doc, and we've copied the summary below.[1]

Progress in 2020

80,000 Hours provides research and support to help people switch into careers that effectively tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Our goal for 2020 was to continue all our programmes (key ideas and other web content, podcast, job board, advising, and headhunting) with the aim of growing the number of plan changes we cause.

We also aimed to grow team capacity at a moderate rate (+2.5 FTE as well as onboarding Habiba), so that we’re working towards our longer-term vision, but going slowly enough that we can continue to focus on improving our programmes, resolving key uncertainties, and preserving culture.

I thought we made good progress on continued delivery (e.g. released 64% more content with +30% inputs & fixed some gaps in key ideas), though we missed our target for the number of advising calls.

On plan change impact, we tracked 11 net[2] new ‘top plan changes’ and 188 ‘criteria-based plan changes’.

My best guess at the ratio of plan changes to full-time equivalents (FTE) for 2018–2019 went down 20% from what I estimated last year, though my estimate for 2016–2017 went up. I became more confident that 80,000 Hours is useful to the most promising new longtermist EAs. Otherwise, I didn’t make significant updates about our cost effectiveness.

We don’t think we produced as many plan changes in 2018 or 2019 as we did in 2017, which is disappointing, especially given our higher budget. We’re unsure why 2017 was such a great year, though our leading hypothesis is that the dramatically growing reach from 2015–2017 enabled us to reach a new audience, creating a one-off boost from low-hanging fruit.

Going forward, we expect to be able to maintain the ratio of FTE to plan changes at roughly the level we were at in 2018–2019, or moderately lower, and so the total number of plan changes should grow at (or slightly slower than) growth in FTE inputs. We think it would be well worth continuing to expand our programmes at this level of cost effectiveness.

We missed our target to increase staff capacity by 2.5 FTE, only increasing by about 1 FTE net, which seems like one of our bigger mistakes from this year. However, the quality of recent hires seems high and above expectations.

Plans for the future

I think each of our programmes is working on its own terms, has an intuitive case for why it should exist within the ecosystem, and seems to generate a reasonable number of plan changes.

Two years ago, I felt more uncertain about cost effectiveness and was more inclined to think we should focus on improving the programmes. My views feel more stable now, in part because we’ve improved our impact evaluation in response to critical feedback from 2018, clarified our views on the one-on-one programmes, and taken steps to limit negative side effects of our work. So, I think it makes sense to shift our focus toward growing the programmes’ impact.

Below I propose a two-year growth plan in which we aim to add 4.5 FTE in 2021, and 7.5 in 2022, though we plan to fundraise for 3.75 and 6.5, as we expect to hire no more than that many over the next two years in practice.

To enable this growth, we’ve consolidated the org structure so that I manage (i) Arden Koehler as head of web (ii) Niel Bowerman as director of one-on-one (iii) Brenton Mayer as director of internal systems and (iv) Howie Lempel as chief of staff (who is managing Rob Wiblin as head of the podcast).

As part of this, we have also merged advising and headhunting into a single one-on-one team. This was because the programmes had started to significantly overlap and this structure is clearer. We have also appointed Peter McIntyre to a new role as head of growth-marketing. See more on the structure and changes.

Our focus in 2021 will be to continue to deliver and grow the annual impact of our existing programmes (website, podcast, job board, one-on-one) — according to the priorities in updates by programme — while hiring towards the two-year target expanded organisational structure.

We would like to fundraise $1.73m in commitments to donate within the next two years. This would cover the hiring mentioned above, and would mean that we wouldn’t need to fundraise again until December 2022.

We expect to hit this target based on fundraising we’ve already done and from donors we’re currently in touch with, so are not actively fundraising for additional donations from the public at this time.

Read the full review to see more details on the above.

Also see our appendices for further information.

You can find our previous evaluations here and mistakes page.


  1. A private version of this review was originally shared with a couple of our biggest donors in November 2020. We’re releasing this public version of the review in May 2021. We’ve edited it to remove confidential information, add some updates on our fundraising, and add some additional context to make it more legible to the public. This means that some of the data and some of the descriptions of our plans are several months out of date as of the time of public release. For the most part, however, we’ve left the substance the same. ↩︎

  2. We added 12 new top plan changes and removed 1, due to re-evaluating it and determining that we no longer believe that it meets the criteria. ↩︎

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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:23 PM
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I've heard that in the past 80k has sometimes reached out to employees at EA organizations asking if they'd like to leave and work for 80k, including in instances in which those organizations felt that it would be highly costly to lose that employee.

I now see that Habiba has joined 80k, and I had previously heard that it was a major win for FHI when she was able to get her role at Oxford. Was it costly to FHI for her to leave, and if so, how do you balance poaching employees for 80k with trying to help and fill those same roles at those organizations?

Hi anon, Michelle here. I work for 80k. I think 80k probably shouldn’t have a discussion about the career decisions of a particular staff member on the Forum, but I’m happy to share some thoughts on this general issue. 

First off, I hate that our hiring sometimes makes things difficult for others, when we’re all aiming at the same thing and the stakes are so high. As you point out, this is an especially tricky issue for 80k because people are in the habit of listening to our career advice and because our whole mission is to fill roles at other organisations.

I’ll try to address a few different things your question might be gesturing at.

One issue is the fact that hiring an employee away from a high-impact org is in some ways a step away from our mission. The way I think about this is similar to how I think about 80k hiring somebody who doesn’t work at an EA org but is considering other high impact offers in addition to 80k’s. When a potential hire is considering their impact, they have to compare the value of filling a high-impact role themselves against the value of the roles they could cause to be filled while working at 80k. Someone considering leaving another EA org for 80k is in a similar position, just with the added transition cost from leaving their current role.

Another issue is that when we reach out to people, they might be influenced by the fact that we’re a career advising organisation and people are used to relying on our advice. They may interpret our interest in hiring them as us expressing a well-researched view that their impact would be higher working for us. I'd hate for this to happen and we’ve had many internal discussions about how to reduce its likelihood. Many staff try to frequently flag their own bias and uncertainty about the best option, avoid comparing the impact of working at 80k to their current or prospective job (especially if the potential hire hasn’t explicitly asked for this), and to be explicit about when we’re recruiting v. giving career advice. 

Lastly, there’s a question about whether EA orgs more generally should not reach out to potential hires who are already working at high impact organisations.

My views on this have a lot to do with my own experience working at EA orgs.

While most of 80k’s employees did not previously work at other EA organisations, I’m one of the exceptions. Before 80k I spent ~6 years working for Giving What We Can and the Global Priorities Institute. While I was working at GPI, 80k asked me whether I knew any good candidates for an advising position, and I asked if I could apply. The job has been an incredible fit for me. While I don’t regret the previous jobs I’ve had, I think it’s a shame nobody ever suggested that I become an advisor at 80k earlier on. I think I can do more good in this role than in my last one because it’s so much better suited to me. 

My experience makes me feel fairly strongly that people at EA orgs should periodically consider different options. If orgs who’d like to hire someone never reach out, that person will never learn what those options are. It’s in that spirit that I offered Habiba a role.  

Greater transparency in the community about the job opportunities people have will allow people to find jobs which suit them better and they enjoy more. Deciding to leave your role at an EA org because you think a different role would have more impact or because you’d be happier elsewhere can be a really difficult decision. But I think it should be the employee’s decision and we shouldn’t have a norm that prevents them from finding out they even had the option. I do think that organisational stability is really important, but I think we should probably trust staff at EA orgs to incorporate this into their decision making.

I think its perfectly fine for EA orgs to be in competition for talent, if anything it's a good thing.

It should not be 80k's job to decide the counterfactuals from poaching great people from other organizations. That should be solely the job of the people they poach.

Presumably the people they hire do a thorough evaluation of the harm they'll cause by leaving their former organization and the good they'll do by joining a new one. If the calculation doesn't look net positive they are not going to do it.

[Own views etc.]

I'm unsure why this got downvoted, but I strongly agree with the sentiment in the parent. Although I understand the impulse of "We're all roughly on the same team here, so we can try and sculpt something better than the typically competitive/adversarial relationships between firms, or employers and employees", I think this is apt to mislead one into ideas which are typically economically short-sighted, often morally objectionable, and occasionally legally dubious. 

In the extreme case, it's obviously unacceptable for Org X to not hire candidate A (their best applicant), because they believe its better they stay at Org Y. Not only (per the parent) that A is probably a better judge of where they are best placed,[1] but Org X screws over not only itself (they now appoint someone they think are not quite as good) and A themselves (who doesn't get the job they want), for the benefit of Org Y. 

These sort of oligosponic machinations are at best a breach of various fiduciary duties (e.g. Org X to their donors to use their money to get the best staff rather than opaque de facto transfer contributions of labour to another organisation), and at least colourably illegal in many jurisdictions due to labour law around anti-trust, non-discrimination, etc. (see)

Similar sentiments apply to less extreme examples, such as 'not proactively 'poaching'' (the linked case above was about alleged "no cold call" agreements). The typical story for why these practices are disliked is a mix of econ efficiency arguments (e.g. labour market liquidity, competition over conditions is a mechanism for higher performing staff to match into higher performing orgs) and worker welfare ones (e.g. the net result typically disadvantages workers by suppressing their pay, conditions, and reducing their ability to change to roles they prefer).

I think these rationales apply roughly as well to EA-land as anywhere else-land. Orgs should accept that staff may occasionally leave to other orgs for a variety of reasons. If they find that they consistently  lose out for familiar reasons, they should either get better or accept the consequences for remaining worse.


[1]: Although, for the avoidance of doubt, I think it is wholly acceptable for people to switch EA jobs for wholly 'non-EA' reasons - e.g. "Yeah, I expect I'd do less good at Org X than Org Y, but Org X will pay me 20% more and I want a higher standard of living." Moral sainthood is scarce as well as precious. It is unrealistic that all candidates are saintly in this sense, and mutual pretence to the contrary unhelpful.

If anything, 'no poaching' (etc.) practices are even worse in these cases than the more saintly 'moving so I can do even more good!' rationale. In the latter case, Orgs are merely being immodest in presuming to know better than applicants what their best opportunity to contribute is; in the former, Orgs conspire to make their employees' lives worse than they could otherwise be.

I'm trying to make a rough estimate for the value of doing local career advice (and writing this while I think it through).

The leading metric used by 80k is DIPY (Discounted, Impact-adjusted Peak Years). This table estimates how many DIPYs per employee working on advising (not necessarily people doing the advising, measured as FTE: Full-Time Employee equivalent for a year). 

One DIPY is roughly the (time discounted) value we expect someone to produce each year during the most productive few decades (the ‘peak’) of their career if they’re about as promising as someone taking an effective altruist approach to improving the world who is currently in a position such as: 

  • a postdoc focused on a top problem area at a top 30 world university, 
  • one of the 20 most important operations roles in our top problem areas, 
  • an ML PhD at a top 3 university with the aim of working on AI Safety or policy.

The results of 80k's career advice per year are:

  • 2017: 10.5 DIPY/FTE
  • 2018: 3.6    DIPY/FTE
  • 2019: 4.0    DIPY/FTE

(2016 has 41.5 DIPY/FTE! But they only write 0.2 FTE for that year, compared to 2.5-3 on later years while they had about 100 advise calls rather than about 250 in later years). 

2017 is addressed as an interesting anomaly, with possible explanations given here. They write

Our guesses as to why:

  1. Web engagement hours in 2017 were 6x higher than in 2015, which may have let us reach a new audience and uncover low-hanging fruit.
  2. Peter McIntyre (predominant 2017 advisor) might be unusually effective.
  3. In 2017, advising was more forceful in encouraging AI safety work, which might have driven more plan changes. The downside is that we probably pushed some people too hard, as reported in our 2018 annual review.
  4. We wrote the career guide and some of our most popular articles in 2015–2016 but didn’t generate large amounts of traffic until 2017. 2017 website plan changes therefore likely relied particularly heavily on work from earlier years. 
  5. The apparent pattern could also be partly due to errors in our estimates.

These numbers are good, but not astoundingly good, so in total it makes sense to me even if less than I'd hope for. Anything greater than 1 DIPY/FTE should be considered a success if 80k employees are valued at 1 DIPY/year (although both Michelle and Habiba are potentially valued more than that). 

So now we need to understand how local career advice compares to 80k's. 

From this section of the report:

The aim of the one-on-one team is to:

  1. Identify the most promising new readers who haven’t yet engaged in person.
  2. Activate them by providing — over the course of 1–2 calls and follow-up emails — (i) introductions to people and jobs, (ii) encouragement (e.g. making it clear that EA has a place for them, or that they have a good career plan), and (iii) basic checks on their plan (e.g. adding options, recommending further reading).

...

We analysed recent plan changes and concluded that the top three value adds are (in order): (i) introductions to people and jobs, (ii) encouragement (as defined above), and (iii) basic checks on their plan and information (as defined above).

[Ben/Michelle, is that analysis available?]

Let's see how these three metrics make sense for local groups. I expect introductions to be of much lower value (as the available network is likely much smaller), encouragement to potentially be of about an equal value (this can, and should, be practiced and done well), and basic checks to be somewhat less (as this demands skill and a good framework - this probably varies a lot between groups). Also, I expect 80k to appear to the advisees as higher status compared to local groups, which probably gives more weight to their advice.

First, this is prescriptive for local groups. They should 

  1. Make effort to expand their network. 
  2. Make more effort into making introductions. Even if the advisor is not familiar with anyone relevant, they should help promising people with reaching out to people in the broad EA network (cold emails or sending a direct message on EAHub should work well most of the time).
  3. Become more familiar with top local job opportunities.
  4. Be more encouraging, and practice doing it well. 
  5. Recommend them to also apply for 80k coaching (or AAC / Effective Thesis).

Also, I recommend this guide for conducting career consultation.

Furthermore, in Appendix A 80k offers two "alternative visions of advising":

EA welcoming committee

  • Minimal selection and prep, and speak to a larger number of people
  • Focus on being encouraging and welcoming; de-emphasise providing specific advice

EA mentoring

  • Work with a smaller number of people but have lots of meetings until they’re fully up-to-speed with EA.

For local groups it might make sense to focus on the first when doing career advice. I think it could be harder to recognize the most promising people and target them, and it requires more EA-expertise to do mentoring. More importantly, I think that local groups in general should be welcoming and less elitist, and giving career advice services is a great way to do that (and signal the relevant audience). That said, I do think that doing "EA mentoring" is very important, and in fact we are also doing something similar in EA Israel and it seems to be successful, I just recommend that in addition to the career advice.

Secondly, this makes me expect that overall the career consultation services done locally can perform quite well compared to 80k. Say, have 2-10 times less value with most of the loss from a poor network. However, I also expect local groups to have much more overhead because they aren't as skilled and have poorer infrastructure. Say, they take a lot of time to prepare and write a followup email / 1-1 sessions take longer to be fruitful / more time spent building network to make introductions. So all in all I guess something like 4-30 times less effective.

However, the people that apply for local career consultation are of different demography. They are probably less promising than people who get advised by 80k (at least within longtermism) and might be more closely related to people in the local group (which could help with setting long-term accountability but might have some complicated dynamics). 

I think that this probably lowers the total efficiency substantially (say 2-3 times, but could be much more). So in total, I guess local career advice to be about 10-100 times less effective compared to 80k coaching. This is highly uncertain. I'd like to know a lot more about 80k's process and the analysis of how different factors contribute to its success (and how dependant that is on the advisor). Also, there might be more important indicators of success, like potentially: involvement with the local group / EA community or having a better understanding of EA and feelings toward it.

If that's the case, that still feels like a good use of the local group resources. I expect most people to have a hard time doing work that's 10-100 times as good as Michelle and Habiba can do. Also, giving career advice for some (most?) people is a highly rewarding experience by itself and could be a valuable learning experience for people early on in their careers. At least for me, (and at least at this time in my life where I'm recovering from burnout), it seems to take less energy than doing other work.