There are many organizations which give career advice to effective altruists, such as 80,000 Hours and Animal Advocacy Careers. However, their advice can be intimidating for many people. 80,000 Hours in particular is targeting a relatively small elite: it’s primarily aimed at young people who attended Oxford, Cambridge, or Ivy League schools. Their advice can be difficult to follow for other people. In this post, I will try to give some general guidance for the average person.
Triple-check whether you can work in a high-priority career. It is easy to look at a list of careers you’d never be able to achieve and assume that working in high-priority fields is not for you. But some roles are available for people with more ordinary skillsets. Just like any other organization, nonprofits need accountants, HR, and personal assistants. Nonprofits also need fundraisers, which is a job you can enter if you have marketing or PR experience.
It’s really really hard to get a job at an official effective altruist organization. If you’re an average person, you’re likely to fail. You may want to think outside of the box. Is there some high-impact organization you could work for in a field important to you—perhaps in the fields of global poverty, climate change, US criminal justice, or animal advocacy? (Be sure to consider both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.) Is there some other way you could reorient your career to do more good in the world? For example, an effective altruist journalist might pitch more articles about global poverty or existential risk, while an effective altruist who works in the civil service might aim for working at the USDA to try to improve conditions for animals as best they can. You can also continue to browse the 80,000 Hours job board and throw in a long-shot application when you see something you’re qualified for.
One thing many people don’t consider: if you care about animal advocacy and grew up in a country without a strong animal advocacy movement, you are desperately needed to help found your local animal advocacy movement. Outsiders are likely to misunderstand the culture and make missteps that a homegrown advocate would avoid.
Avoid evil occupations. Some occupations make the world a worse place. Here is 80,000 Hours’ list of the worst jobs for people to work:
Marketing and R&D for gambling, smoking, alcohol, and other addictive industries.
Homeopathy and other fraudulent medical technologies.
Lobbying to get the government to enrich wealthy people at a significant cost to others (for example, lobbying for private prisons or higher tariffs on goods made by people in the developing world).
Borderline fraudulent lending or otherwise making a financial firm highly risky.
Fundraising for a charity that achieves nothing or does harm.
Tax minimization for the super rich.
But you know your field best. If you sit down and think about it honestly, do you think your job is doing good in the world—or at least leaves it the same way that you found it? If it isn’t, you should move into a different field. Sometimes this is relatively easy: if you fundraise for a charity that does harm, you can move to fundraising for an effective charity. Other times, it may be very difficult and require a complete change of field. Either way, it is worth doing.
Earn more money. The nice thing about money is that every dollar matters just as much no matter who it comes from. If a median household in the United States took the Giving What We Can pledge, they would donate enough to save nearly two lives every year!
Of course, one way to be able to donate more is to tighten your belt. But equally important is trying to earn more. You may want to consider retraining into a higher-earning career, perhaps going back to school. You don’t have to become a quant trader to increase your income! If you’re donating ten percent of your income, going from being a home health aide ($26,000/year) to a registered nurse ($77,000/year) means saving an additional life and a half—every year.
You should also practice salary negotiation. The half-hour you spend negotiating your salary may well be one of the most important half hours in your life as an altruist. I know that it can be terrifying, but—as strange as it might sound—having the courage to ask for a higher salary is heroic. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to save children’s lives.
Aim for career diversity. In general, try to work a job that lots of effective altruists are not working. (That is, consider not becoming a programmer.)
I think this is important for two reasons. First, sometimes professions turn out to be unexpectedly useful. Julia Wise was a social worker; currently, she uses her expertise to provide support for local effective altruist communities, including about sensitive issues like harassment. You probably don’t need hundreds of social workers in the EA community—it’s never going to become something 80,000 Hours recommends—but it’s important that we had one. Similarly, one of the most important jobs in animal advocacy right now is food science. If we want people to switch to eating substitutes for meat, we need to make them taste good. If you asked people in 1990, I don’t think anyone would go “man, the career you really need to go into is making food taste good. That is a really important and meaningful career that improves the world a lot.” But if there are effective altruist food scientists, not only can they do valuable work, they can mentor other effective altruists who want to join the field now that we know it’s important.
Second, a diverse effective altruist community offers lots of varied perspectives on issues. If everyone is working the same professions, it’s easy to become an intellectual monoculture. Working a different job will give you different experiences, which will give you different perspectives and approaches to important issues. A primary school teacher thinks about things differently than a truck driver; a manager, differently from a secretary. By including a diversity of occupations, we can enrich our conversations about important issues.
Try to help other effective altruists. Here’s where networking comes in handy! There are a lot of opportunities to help other effective altruists outside of your career—but they’re often only available if those effective altruists are your friends. I know someone who was furloughed from his job during the pandemic and moved in with friends to provide them childcare; the savings allowed the household to donate more, and not having the child in day care kept everyone safe from coronavirus. I know someone else who edits their friends’ effective altruist writing. A third person I know is a medical professional who helps their friends find doctors who know what they’re doing. You might be able to host parties where people can meet new friends or potential colleagues. You could perhaps provide a listening ear, support in a time of crisis, or outside advice which keeps someone from burning out. A strong, healthy community is an invaluable resource for people who want to do good, and it’s something many normal people can contribute to.
If you don’t have an effective altruist community in your area, one invaluable thing that normal people can do is start a local group. It can be as simple as meeting up at a restaurant to talk about effective altruism. The Center for Effective Altruism offers many resources for people who want to start local groups.
Question: You say "If a median household in the United States took the Giving What We Can pledge, they would donate enough to save nearly two lives every year!" and I'm just wondering what the math on that looked like?
In regards to AMF, it costs $2,300 to save a life. If median household income is $70,784 (as of 2021) and they took the pledge at 10%, they would donate $7,078, enough to save three lives by these numbers.
A small update, but a heartening one I think :)