This post is mainly targeted at EAs in the early stages of their career, such as those in university.
In my experience, many aspiring EAs don’t start career planning until fairly late in their undergraduate degree, and many don’t start until they’ve completely finished their studies. Despite the obvious claim that procrastination is to be avoided, I think there are some other, more subtle reasons why people should start career planning as early as possible. A lot of first and second year undergraduates feel like their graduation is far away and that they can worry about their career later — but I think that there are a lot of big wins people can capture early on. Additionally, these first and second year undergraduates likely don’t have many friends who are thinking about their career so early on, and so career planning may not even be on their radar (even if they are involved in EA). Anecdotally, I started thinking about my career fairly early on, at roughly 16, and I think this helped me greatly (though I was not familiar with EA at this age, and was not optimizing for doing good at this time).
1. Can’t get a job without experience; can’t get experience without a job
N.B. I think this point mostly applies to those who expect to be competing with less altruistic applicants for positions (i.e., roles in government or industry, but not roles at EA organizations).
It can be quite hard to get good jobs or internships without prior experience, even if they are entry level roles. This itself can make experience hard to get in the first place — a classic paradox. This can leave you trapped in less interesting or valuable roles for quite a while, and could perhaps weaken your entire career's trajectory. By the time you’re close to graduating, employers may expect you to have a fair bit of work experience, and if you don’t have work experience, you’ll be competing against other graduates who do. For a lot of roles, such as those in government, you may also be competing with people who are more traditionally prestige or status focused than the typical do-gooder, and may have been amassing experience for several years. Because of this, it can be helpful to start looking for roles or opportunities when you’re younger, when employers will not have such high expectations, and the competition will be weaker.
If you gather experience early on in your career, then the momentum from this can keep you going. For example, if you spend a week shadowing an electrical engineer when you’re 16, you’ll be one of the only people with any meaningful experience when you apply for an internship at a robotics firm two years later, and so will be more likely to get the role. Then, when you’re applying for full-time jobs in your final year of university, you’ll be able to compete for more elusive roles. It seems plausible that this momentum may continue indefinitely.
In most cases, you won’t have a good idea at age 16 of what you want to do long term, so it’ll be hard to build any specific, relevant experience for your eventual career at this time. However, it’s still a good time to build your credentials and networks, as well as explore your options more generally.
2. University is a good time to get experience
Continuing on from point 1, university is a good time to gain experience and test out different options. You can do a summer research project in your professor’s lab, you can help organize an EAGx conference, and so on. Most people have more flexibility in university than when they graduate. Depending on where you’re studying, you may be able to try out classes or attend various introductory lectures in different subjects to test your interest in them — and I think a lot of undergraduates underestimate how hard it can be to do this once you’ve graduated. In theory you can take an economics class online once you’ve graduated, but in practice, I think it can be hard for many people to motivate themselves to do this.
Additionally, if you’re at a university with an EA group, then this is a great time to learn more about EA and cause-prioritization, which is especially important when trying to do good with your career. In my experience as an EA group organizer, it was often quite refreshing to come across aspiring EAs in their first or second year than those in their third or fourth — because they had so much more time to relax, learn about EA, and explore different paths before graduating. Students towards the end of their studies were often already deciding between specific options, or otherwise felt more stressed and time-pressured.
3. Your final year can be intense
For students in the UK (and I assume other countries), a lot of your workload and important exams are in your final year, making this a sub-optimal time to start thinking about employment. Additionally, a lot of your classmates will likely be stressed about employment at this time, so if you’ve already made career plans you’ll be at a strategic advantage should your exams be graded on a curve.
Another point is that a lot of employers make graduate job offers to people who do internships with them in their penultimate year of university, and a lot of the time these are easier to get than just applying for said job outright. (In a lot of cases there are fewer internship roles on offer, but proportionally fewer people apply — and many employers hand out job offers to >90% of their intern cohort.) Note that this mostly applies to earning-to-give roles, such as those in finance or consulting.
4. Graduate pressure
Many in the EA community have recommended that people take some time after they’ve graduated to work on career planning. In most cases, it’s better to spend some time planning and then pick a good career path than to more quickly pick an okay one, and it can be hard to go back to career planning once you’re in a full-time role.
Despite this, I claim that there’s actually a fair amount of social pressure for graduates to land a job quickly after graduating (from family, friends, and oneself) in addition to the financial pressures. I think this leads many graduates to apply more liberally for jobs, hoping to just land something somewhere. Then, as discussed above, this can leave people “stuck”, as it’s hard to find time for career planning once already employed full-time. Additionally, as discussed in point 2, one of the most important aspects of career planning for aspiring EAs is to learn about EA and cause-prioritization, and I think it can be hard to convince one’s parents, for example, that watching EA talks on YouTube is a good substitute to applying for jobs.
Thanks to Darius Meissner for his helpful comments.
Since college I've updated away from the importance of planning out my career, and toward the importance of finding a thing that deeply excites me.
In particular, I've noticed that when I have jobs that seem good on paper (e.g. from an EA perspective) but I'm not excited about the day-to-day work of them, I tend to underperform. On the other hand, when I find something that really nerdsnipes me, not only do I tend to use it to do my job better, but I also tend to find an even better job next (with bigger EA impact, even if that application was not initially obvious).
Now obviously, trying to look ahead and plan out a path is a great thing to do. I would expect it to be especially valuable for folks who already know what they want to do ("I love machine learning and I want to make sure the technology is used for good!") and for folks whose chosen career paths are well worn ("I want to be a policy maker.").
Unfortunately, I think that overemphasizing career planning can actually undermine the search for excitement. If I believe success comes to a large extent from careful long term planning, then I'm going to be less open to noticing what I like and what I don't like; less willing to admit that I should abandon the path I've been following for 5 years.
That's why I worry that reading this post in college may actually have done me in particular more harm than good—by helping me put even more moral pressure on myself to get it right, and quick! I suspect that there are a lot of factors here that vary from person to person—perhaps it suited me better to jump industries multiple times than it would have for those more naturally suited to a technical specialty.
Perhaps the version of the above advice I would have benefited from hearing in college is closer to, "Keep noticing what excites you and find ways to do more of that. Don't hesitate to update or abandon your plans—your failures will not matter very much but your successes can take you places you hadn't even imagined. Build your momentum before worrying too much about steering. Seek joy, discover your power."
You don't have to know what you're going to do in 40 years, but it's a very good idea to try different internships or summer jobs and make a plan for what kinds of jobs you'll apply for after uni and how to be a competitive applicant.
I think this is broadly fair, and perhaps a reframing of “think more actively about your interests” would be better than just “think more actively about your career” for many readers.
That said, I think for a lot of people, what they’re immediately excited about doesn’t line up well with what might be good for their career, especially if they’re trying to do good. I worry that “keep noticing what excites you and find ways to do more of that” would lead some people down career paths with little impact, whilst also making it hard to transition to high impact roles in the future. I also suspect that many people’s passions are more flexible than they might expect, and that without careful planning, they may narrow down their options unnecessarily.
Thanks for sharing your perspective. FWIW, it somewhat resonates with me, even though I said I think I'd have benefitted from hearing about the orthodox EA perspective on career planning much earlier.
I think the two things are consistent roughly because in my specific case I think most of the benefits would have come from "becoming more agenty" in a quite generic sense as well as correcting some misconceptions I used to have (e.g. roughly "only people who care about getting rich or success by conventional standards think about their 'careers', I just want to do maths").
Strongly agree with your points, although I also don't think they're mutually exclusive to the content of this post.
I think some of the most value I got out of university (and high school, to be honest) was the ability to try out a bunch of things at once with relative ease. I have a lot of interests that change and come and go rather quickly, and in the university setting, it was strangely easy to get involved in whatever new thing that caught my attention, whether via a course, a club, meetings with a professor, an internship, a volunteer opportunity, etc. (Though I attended a small liberal arts college, which might have made this process easier.) I learned a lot about what I like, what I don't like, what I'm good at and what I suck at a lot more quickly than I think I could outside of university, and I think a lot of this became valuable data for deciding on a career, in addition to opening doors to opportunities.
I think a common mistake I see in university students is thinking "I just want to focus on school" for their first three years, trying to secure an internship during the summer of their junior year, and then hoping that's sufficient to get them a job. I don't think this is a great idea. At the same time, I think narrowly focusing on identifying and pursuing a high-income, stable career path (or whatever one's ideal career plan looks like) carries a lot of risk of burnout, poor performance, and misery if you're unlucky enough to get it wrong. I think I see more students err in the former direction that the latter though, although I imagine EA students probably have a higher tendency to over-optimize their career path.
I guess I somewhat lucked out in that a) my courseload was light enough that it allowed me to get very involved outside of class, and b) a lot of the things I was excited about were also employable skills. I guess if this isn't the case for someone, the "seek joy" and "plan your career" might come more into conflict, but that wasn't my experience.
Applying this logic one stage earlier in the process, one of the key things for EAs who are 15/16/17 to do, in terms of career planning, is to work very hard to try to get into a prestigious University (ie Oxbridge in the UK, Ivy League in the US). Doing so will:
It's a peculiarity of the UK education system that in many respects, your *mock A-levels* are plausibly the most high-stakes exams you will ever take, because they influence whether you will get an offer of a place at a top University. Your decisions at age 16/17 can have very profound effects on the rest of your career, and from a lifetime perspective, it's rational to 'frontload' a bunch of effort, focus, and willpower to try to get into a top University.
(It's important to add, of course, that you can enjoy massive impact and success without getting in to one of the most prestigious Universities.)
Thanks for this post! I think I would really have benefited from hearing something like this while I was at school / university. There were pretty long holidays during university which I didn't really use productively. In particular, I think I would have benefited from:
This is very thoughtful, and I would completely echo the argument that in school/university time has a much lower "shadow price" than post-university time does. To extend the argument, in a U.S. context, I wish that I had taken the AP Economics exam in high school to allow me to take one more higher-level economics class in university. One conversation we watched recently is this interview with author David Epstein of "Range." His discussion of people who are happier/more successful in their career by cycling through more career alternatives earlier in their lives (excerpt below) could be good food for thoughts for those reading this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd6QQBP3rO8
Dark horses were on the hunt for match quality. “They never look around and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to fall behind, these people started earlier and have more than me at a younger age,’” Ogas told me. “They focused on, ‘Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.’” Each dark horse had a novel journey, but a common strategy. “Short-term planning,” Ogas told me. “They all practice it, not long-term planning.” Even people who look like consummate long-term visionaries from afar usually looked like short-term planners up close.
I think that's a good point worth highlighting.
As one data point, I first heard of EA only toward the end of my master's degree. Before, I had a fairly different mindset regarding my career. It seems extremely obvious to me that it would have been very beneficial if I had heard of EA, and in particular 80K's career advice, years earlier.
(Even though it might not be that obvious from the outside, e.g. I started an "EA job" immediately after I finished my master's.)