Advice for an Undergrad

by ZacharyRudolph 2 min read2nd Jul 201911 comments


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.