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This is my first proper post on the forum and is more of an opinion piece than one supported by plenty of hard evidence, though I have tried to reference where possible. I will explain how it’s taken me until the age of 30 to land my first vaguely EA-aligned, post-graduate studies job, but why that’s not necessarily a bad thing. EA is a predominantly young community, and it’s fair to say that there are many very talented people who have accomplished a lot in the first few years of their careers – which is great. But I hope by writing this it will allay the fears of anyone else who has had an experience more like mine - feeling lost for a while, making several career and/or further study twists and turns (I’m reluctant to call them “mistakes” – more on that later). 


Why I think this is important

I wanted to write this post as I feel there is an awful amount of pressure to get things “right” in your career from a young age, and if you don’t, you can feel like a failure as early as your mid-twenties (at least, that’s how I felt). From a young age, my self-worth was tied to whether I achieved top grades at school so I could get into a good university, where I was then expected to obtain at least a 2:1 degree and then some kind of prestigious graduate job. As one of my very smart friends from school remarked to me some years ago, who was also finding it difficult to land a job they enjoyed - “we were good at school, but not very good at the next bit”. For some, passing exams might be the easy part, but finding your feet in the wide world of work isn’t something you can revise for, but can only test out repeatedly. I would hate to think that people may feel demotivated or give up on an impactful career, if they think they are not experienced enough or that it’s “too late”, when they may still have plenty of time or more skills than they give themselves credit for.


Career longtermism

While I know “80,000 hours” is an approximation, nowadays we’re living and working for longer than 40 years on average. At least in the UK, while it was common until recently to retire around age 60, most younger people now will probably only be able to receive the state pension from age 68 – and this may go up again in the decades ahead. Age 60 versus 68 might not sound like a huge difference, but combined with the growth of flexible working and learning, including part-time online courses, it is easier for people to change careers or “job-hop” throughout their adult life than it used to be. To take a crude example, in the past I’d have probably considered age 50 to be “too late” to do a degree with a view to changing career; while now, there could be 15+ years of that new career left after graduating, making it a lot more worthwhile. As 80K have said, many jobs now weren’t around 10 years ago, so we can’t imagine the types of jobs that will be required in the future – meaning we’re very likely to need to change/adapt careers and upskill over the years anyway (without wanting to digress regarding chat-GPT etc., but it is a valid concern too).

Given all this, I think we can allow ourselves a lot more time to make those career twists and turns we might otherwise fear, particularly early on in our careers. We should be trying out multiple things, and not being afraid to get it wrong the first time (or even the second). While needing some good “generalists” has been noted in EA, for example, people who have an excellent operations mindset, the potential advantages of being a generalist in a world of specialists should be further emphasised[1]. The book “Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world” by David Epstein provides various examples and is something I’d recommend to anyone for whom any of this post rings true. In the popular Diary of a CEO podcast, a couple of quotes that stood out to me from recent episodes include these by Robert Greene (23 March 2023, ~1h 21m): 


Steven Bartlett: If there’s a 23-year-old who’s listening who is an apprentice at a florist, and they’re being offered 5 different jobs, which one should they be looking at?

Robert Greene: That’s a very easy question to answer. You want to look for the job that offers you the most opportunities of learning. If you’re going to go to a florist where there’s only one other person there, like an entrepreneur who’s started it, and you’re going to be their right hand man/woman, and the pay is going to be half of what you could get at this very fancy… department store where they pay you triple, take the job which pays one third where you’re going to learn the most – you’re going to learn about the business, you’re going to learn from the ground up, and there’s going to be a level of excitement where we might not survive the next few months, we’ve got to work hard, we’ve got to be motivated… A lot of people when they’re 23, they grab the job with the biggest paycheck, and that’s a mistake – if you go to a large firm… you don’t have as much responsibility, you have to deal with all the political games… you’re not developing skills as much”


and by Barbara Corcoran (Moment 102, 24 March 2023):

Steven Bartlett: You had some 22, 23 jobs before starting your own business. Everything from being a receptionist, to being a waitress and everything in between. We often look back at those jobs… some people might think they’re a waste of time… what’s your view – what role did that play in your overall success?

Barbara Corcoran: I think whether you have a menial job or an important job it’s what you’re learning. There wasn’t a job where I didn’t learn a lot. For me, I would take any job not based on pay but what could I learn? – because that made you more valuable… I never thought it made you more valuable to be paid more, but hey, I haven’t done this before, let’s see what this is about? And you learn skills. I think I learned more through my waitressing jobs… about people… than building my business.


My career (or lack of) so far

When I first heard about EA and 80K, it was at a time of my life where I was really struggling with what to do. Aged 23, I had embarked on a PhD which I was both not ready for[2] and didn’t align well with my skills or interests. After a few months I felt mentally burnt out, was about to see a therapist for my anxiety, and decided to drop out and work in hospitality for a while - which ended up being just under a year. Most people would probably see this as a terrible use of my time, and it was arguably something I was (very) over-qualified for – without wishing to sound dismissive of such essential jobs. But I look back on that time far more fondly than I do the unsuccessful PhD, and I believe I learned far more from it (in agreement with Barbara Corcoran). I learned to not be impressed by ostentatious displays of wealth and how poorly some people manage their money (both common where I worked), how to deal with awkward drunk customers, and how to work with colleagues with very different backgrounds and interests to mine – as well as important soft skills like receptionist duties, dealing with cash and providing good customer service. After having my confidence knocked from my previous academic experience, it taught me that I could stand up to people and speak my own mind again. While I still have a lot to improve on, I don’t think I would deliver presentations or express myself in meetings as well as I do if I hadn’t had this experience. 

Once I had gained as much as I could from my hospitality job and felt I had taken enough of a step back, I had the confidence to dip my toe back in the academic pond, and applied for PhD positions I was more qualified for and interested in, and that would provide some broader experience outside of the PhD itself. I was fortunate to be accepted for a position where I would spend some time abroad in industry, and during the programme I also did an internship in a public sector body. I now know that PhDs are a pretty slow way of gaining career capital (as mentioned in e.g. here), and particularly given that I’m now moving away from academia I wouldn’t necessarily do it again, or I’d certainly do things differently if I did. My PhD ended up being very self-guided, which wasn’t helped by the COVID-19 pandemic pausing practical activities and face-to-face meetings for a long period. I’m yet to do my viva, and I hold a lot of concerns about it as I applied many self-taught statistical methods. Despite the confidence I gained from my previous experiences, I wasn’t as persistent as I should have been about asking for more guidance from experts in the field. This is the biggest takeaway that I’ll take forward to my new job in policy, which I’m looking forward to starting in a couple of weeks. Despite the not-so-positives, I was able to get through the PhD (to date) feeling generally positive and confident in my abilities overall, and I know I wouldn’t have got the job offer I received without both the experience I gained during my PhD and the maturity that came with the passing of time[2].



If I had to provide one takeaway from this post and my experiences, it would be - don’t be so hard on yourself. Some people need more time, more life experience and to make more career twists and turns (not mistakes) until they find what they want to do and/or do something more impactful. Unless you are very unfortunate, the likelihood is that you’ll have the opportunity for a long and hopefully successful career, provided you maintain some motivation to make a difference one day. You might just have to be a bit patient first.

One counter-argument I anticipate is “isn’t it a better use of your time to do a “menial” job while you’re young, e.g. on the side of university studies?”. I’ve worked part-time jobs across retail and other sectors from age 19, and while there is value in doing this, it’s different if it becomes your sole source of income and the one thing that’s keeping you busy. When I was 19, I viewed my part-time jobs just as a way to support my living as a student, and to save up for a Master’s degree, not as a learning opportunity in and of themselves. As I mention in the footnote, this may not apply to people who are more mature from a younger age, and perhaps learn more quickly.


  1. ^

    This is not to rebuff specialists. Specialists are incredibly valuable and as I struggle to complete my PhD I have increasing admiration for those who can stick at a tough problem and develop niche skills in something specialist – particularly if those skills are particularly rare and valuable, from growing things in a lab to advanced coding abilities. I just know that my working preferences and personality don’t align so well with these specialist fields.

  2. ^

    Something that I believe is not mentioned (much?) in career advice but which I’d argue is very important is one’s degree of maturity when contemplating certain career paths i.e. if you’re ready to stick at a certain path for an extended period of time. Some people may be ready to go straight into an impactful role after university, or enrol on a 3-year graduate scheme or PhD, and that’s great! But I wasn’t one of those people. Even though I knew that working in hospitality for a while wasn’t an impactful thing to do, it was what I needed at the time, and I wouldn’t have had the mental capacity or maturity at that time to embark on a “serious” career. If I had forced myself to do something more strenuous when I was already feeling stressed out, I think I’d have taken even longer to recover, which would have delayed my career further. This doesn’t mean people like me won’t ever be ready for an impactful job – they may just take a bit more time. That’s why I’ve written this article!





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I think that when discussing career longtermism we should keep the possibility of short AGI timelines in consideration (or the possibility of some non-AI related existential catastrophe occuring in the short-term). By the time we transition from learning and building career capital to trying to impact the world, it might be too late to make a difference. Maybe an existential catastrophe has already occurred or AGI was successful and so outclasses us that all of that time building career capital was wasted.

For example, I am in my first year of an economics PhD. Social impact through academia is very slow. I worry that before I am able to create any impact through my research it might be too late. I chose this path because I believe it will give me valuable and broadly robust skills that I could apply to creating impactful research. But now I wonder if I should have pursued a more direct and urgent way of contributing to the long-term future.

Many EAs, like me, have chosen paths in academia, which has a particularly long impact trajectory and thus is more prone to short timelines.

PS: I recently switched to the Microsoft Edge web browser and was intrigued to see if the Bing AI could help me write this comment. The final product is a heavily edited version of the final output it gave after multiple prompt attempts. Was it faster/better than just writing the entire comment myself? Probably not.

Thanks for your comment, and that's a fair point/critique - I agree about impact through academia being slow. However, at this stage it's pretty difficult to plan for what jobs you should be training for if AI replaces your current role, so it still makes sense to do something that broadly expands your career capital as you state, whether this is a PhD or something else. I would have thought the likelihood of an X-risk happening within the time you do your PhD is probably quite small, but I'll leave the quantification to the experts! AI is probably least likely to impact some more practical and non-academic roles so this could be an argument for gaining career capital outside of the knowledge sector (e.g. see this Times article: bit.ly/3M8Utpr). I didn't know the Bing AI had been rolled out yet - I'll have to give that a try and I'm curious how it will develop over time, and how quickly - and whether it will make my new job quicker and/or ultimately replace me or some of the workforce.

My argument doesn't hang on whether an X-risk occurs during my PhD. If AGI is 10 years away, it's questionable whether investing half of that remaining time into completing a PhD is optimal.

Damn, I forgot it was April Fool's day. This is not a joke post, in case anyone was unsure(!)

I'm glad you shared your experience and started this discussion, and I'm also very amused you landed on a very April Fool's title for this!

I was going for catchy but clearly in the wrong way (and with poor timing) !

Good to read this.

I am 32 and had a slow career start. I did a master's degree in a field I was not a fit for. It was was a struggle at times, but ok enough to continue, but it went painfully wrong near the end. I left university unprepared, unemployed, with no plan, almost zero work experience, and feeling worthless as sh*t. I knew about EA and 80k, but that did not help. In fact, EA made it worse.

And I was so happy to take on a temporary job at a printer manufacturer in a small town far away from my social circle. At uni, I sometimes felt that I learned too slow and wasn't worth other people's time. This was not the case here. On the contrary, they were friendly, patient, and talked in clear language (or dialect). I could ask dumb questions there - but did not need to. I was productive on day 3. I felt I could contribute something to my team.

Career capital from this job: zero. Unless getting back my self-worth is 'career capital'.

It would take me another 7(!) years to find another job that I am truly happy about (though I had many positive experiences on the way), though the impact is mediocre. I still have a long way to go. All I can do is to keep trying and learning, and maybe, with a lot of luck, do something good for the world before AI takes over.

I wish I could believe in career longtermism. AI timelines are probably too short. It's just that career progress is slow, at least for some people.

Thanks for your comment and sharing your story. I understand what you mean about EA making you feel worse - making your comparison group extremely smart people can further diminish confidence in one's abilities.

I would say getting your self-worth back is definitely career capital, or can be viewed as something that will make you much more effective in the long term compared with if you'd stayed in the mental state you felt prior to this job. Your temporary job will have been a lot more 'useful' than mine was (trust me on this) and it doesn't mean it was devoid of developing your soft skills and confidence.

I'm glad you've found a job you're now happy with. My new job will probably have minimal impact too for the first few years while I train and am a more junior member of staff. But try to retain some optimism - assuming you're not much older than I am, even if AI takes over there will be some way to have impact - I very much hope! Like with action to target climate change, feeling all is doom can equal inaction.

A friend recently reminded me that it's possible (but not certain) that some humans have an impact on the world even after AI takeover. If true, careers can be long.