Hide table of contents

Hi all,

The point of this post is, in short, to ask what advice the broader EA community would give to an undergrad at an “elite” college who is interested in doing Open Phil/GiveWell/Global priorities Institute type research. That is, what should they do in undergrad that would make them a more competitive candidate? (I am hoping both that the advice will be both personally useful as well as general enough for other EAs in similar circumstances to benefit from your thoughts as well.) I am on 80000 Hours wait list for coaching and have read many of their articles, but I am somewhat time constrained as I need to make registration decisions soon.

[meta note: I’m not sure I’m even the sort of person 80k is looking to coach. Their recent annual review seemed to emphasize people who “might have studied computer science at a global top 20 university” as their idea of a good coaching candidate.]

Specifically, I’m transferring this fall to Amherst College from Western Washington University and will spend at least two years there. This (aside from being tremendously personally exciting) opens up a number of possibilities that either weren’t previously available or seemingly weren’t worthwhile at a (middling) state school. Viz:

First, what major(s) would be most valuable for being competitive at doing, say, Open Phil style research?

I’ve practically already completed Western’s philosophy major, expect many of those credits to transfer, and figure two years is enough time to major in pretty much anything outside of the sciences or engineering. My current plan is to double major in Philosophy and Math (with an applied bent), but I think it’s prima facie plausible that my goals (and impact potential) would be better served by majoring in Statistics or CS or Econ or something else.

As well, are there other fields/specific classes you recommend taking outside of the majors? E.g. Evolution/behavioral ecology, game theory, intro CS classes.

Second, what (if anything) do you all recommend regarding movement building/EAism on campus, e.g. starting a student group, organizing campus events, evangelism?

The most comparatively valuable strategies seem like they lie in generally steering talented persons into priority paths (I imagine some sort of 80000 Hours-style coaching) and, given the student wealth demographics (NYT reported in 2017 that 4.4% of students came from a family in the top 0.1% of incomes), in evangelizing for earning to give/effective charities.

Third, would pursuing a Phd in economics or philosophy (or something else) be worthwhile/increase an applicant’s competitiveness w.r.t. Open Phil style-work?

I believe that, at least for myself, grad school (for a Phd) would only be worthwhile if I could get into a top 10 or so program. This didn’t seem particularly probable coming out of Western, but given Amherst’s grad school placement, it seems reasonable to update my confidence (I’m assuming a significant, if informal, alma mater weighting in admissions).

If a Phd isn’t worthwhile, are there any other graduate degree programs you’d recommend?

Fourth, do you all have any other thoughts/recommendations, e.g. particular internships or skills (perhaps like those listed here)?

Constraints and notes:

a. I’m older than the typical undergrad (enlisted in the Marine Corps infantry out of high school) and will be in my late 20s when I graduate from Amherst, so I’m (i) quite certain of my interests/personal fit now and (ii) averse to suggestions to build general human capital, i.e. I would prefer to work directly on the things I care about at this point.

This is also a concern for considering grad school. I think I would do it directly out of undergrad or not at all.

b. In the interest of disclosure: I am particularly compelled by the idea of working at Open Phil. I have reasons to think I have a strong personal fit for this sort of work which I can share if requested. But, suffice to say, I can rule out social biases since I didn’t even realize their positions were so competitive (much less in any way prestigious) until reading the recent discussions here about the difficulty in finding EA jobs.

c. I didn't find any other posts like this, but I'd be very interested in them if they exist.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Here's an article by 80,000 Hours literally titled "Advice for undergraduates". It does not answer all of your questions, but hopefully it helps a little bit.

On a related note, Cal Newport's 'How to Win at College' is great, though the advice might be quite similar to that of the 80k guide. I read Newport's book prior to transferring universities and I found it to be very useful.

Thank you, I've actually read that article before. I asked here because there seem to be all kinds of factors which would confound the usefulness of the advice there, e.g. it might be tailored to the average reader/their ideal reader, limitations on what they want to publically advise.

I figured responses here might be less fit to the curve and thus more useful since I'm not confident of being on that curve.

Don't put your hopes on working at any EA organization. Dream careers in any field are really hard to come by. Focus on finding meaningful work could be in industry or non profit. In terms of studying I like AI/statistics/CS. Evolution is much better than Economics, you can gain a lot by watching Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA)

Most importantly try to shed your deep rooted conditioning / biases. Humanity's worst trait is ingroup thinking Overcoming it is a challenge, but the rewards are great.

A couple of thoughts, which may or may not be redundant with 80K/other material you've seen:

  • 80,000 Hours has a very long wait list, but even if you never get coaching, it's clear from this post that you're thinking carefully about the future and have taken initiative to become more skilled -- those are both rare traits, and indicate a lot of promise for your future work!
  • Learning statistics/"how to read and evaluate papers that make quantitative claims" seems really valuable, much more so than learning facts about a particular subject area. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be researching actual subject areas, but the most important thing is getting good at the methodology of good thinking/research. Open Phil has a lot of research areas and will probably add more in the future, and their current research staff often move between different topics -- making specific subject-level expertise seem less useful, comparatively.
  • That said, there are certainly subjects that will predictably be useful to Open Phil for a long time to come (see this post for a promising example). But those subjects may not fit neatly into a single academic discipline, so general "thinking skills" still seem more promising to focus on.
  • Spend time reading good research; reading through the most recent collection of GiveWell Top Charity writeups and Open Phil's cause overviews will help you get a sense for common patterns of thought/analysis. Past that, try to learn about particular work these organizations have found valuable/reliable, and read that material too. Good research seems to involve a lot of small touches/habits that would be hard to communicate explicitly, but might be acquirable if you view enough examples.
  • If you're interested in movement-building, check out this page from CEA's groups team. It's hard to calculate the expected value of organization; it's highly dependent on the nature of the people you'd be organizing (that is, the number of potentially EA-aligned people you can reach at your campus) and your own talent as an organizer. But the main purpose should be to get more people involved in work/research; donations are valuable and important, but it's hard to get students to set up donation habits that persist, and donations from students are likely to be quite small in the grand scheme of EA funding.
    • Given that you're an older student and Amherst is a small campus, organizing seems like it might be tough to pull off. It's also possible that someone has tried to start an Amherst group before (if so, CEA's groups team would probably know about it -- consider contacting them). It can also be really difficult to organize a group on your own. Given your apparent passion for research, I'm tempted to recommend focusing on your own skill-building, but you should probably talk to someone from CEA to see what they think.


I work for CEA (not on the Groups team), but these views are my own.

[I] figure two years is enough time to major in pretty much anything outside of the sciences or engineering. My current plan is to double major in Philosophy and Math (with an applied bent)

Have you taken any Math classes before? Starting and finishing a Math major in 2 years sounds unrealistic to me.

I started quantitatively "upskilling" almost a year ago exactly after eschewing math classes for.. a while. I spent this past academic year taking the calc series. Now working through MITOpenCourseware's multivariable this summer to test out of it when I get to AC.

Contingent on testing out, it should only be two math classes/semester to meet the requirements.

I'm sure there was a 'What should I major in?' thread on Facebook, but I don't have time to find it now.

If you have a spare elective, I'd suggest taking a class in educational psychology. It'll help you learn how to learn (if you can apply what you learn about teenagers to yourself).

Do you recall which Facebook group/page? I searched the "Effective Altruism" group for keywords like major/college but didn't find anything.

Thanks for the class suggestion. I'll look into what they offer on that.

It is probably this career discussion one.

It might have been the career advice group, but I'm not sure.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities