The Peek behind the Curtain interview series includes interviews with eleven people I thought were particularly successful, relatable, or productive. We cover topics ranging from productivity to career exploration to self-care.
This forth post covers “If you could send a list back in time to your college freshman self, what would you tell them?” plus other reflections on career exploration and decisions.
What did you do to explore and test careers?
Try different types of work and get feedback
I got super lucky to be able to go work Open Phil and try a bunch of different— different topics for sure. I did some global health stuff, I did some AI stuff. But also trying lots of different tasks because I feel like sometimes we underemphasize those in career choice or something. There were “sit in a room by yourself and think about things” kind of tasks and there were “organize a one-week fellowship for college students” kind of tasks and there were “design this system to manage our grants” kind of tasks, and “go to a workshop on AI policy and try to meet the people there” type of task. They’re different ways to use your brain basically, more than being different topics.
I think it was very, very useful to be able to try different ones, to feel for myself what I enjoyed and what I felt like I was doing well, and also to have Open Phil's feedback culture and the high standards at Open Phil to get feedback that I had a pretty good amount of trust in, like, "Yes. Here, it seems like you're really killing it. Here, it seems like you're doing okay. Here, it seemed like this isn't a great fit for you." To have it being combined that external feedback with the internal picture that I got of myself was super, super useful.
Test a lot of options early on
I interned in media (a radio station and a television station), as well as a civil rights project helping immigrants with asylum cases. There's a lot of value in figuring out what you don't want early on and pivoting to something else.
Learning from these internships only took two or three months. Testing these things also beefs up your resume. I was also a volunteer coordinator at my university and an intern at a law firm’s trust for women in trade. I really thought I was going to want to do nonprofit work, so I tested out very different facets of it.
Within policy, the best thing to do is develop relationships and learn to ask the right questions. Now, I don't have time to intern at various places, but I can talk to someone in that industry.
Try doing independent work similar to the potential job
The time that I spent preparing for the particular opening was valuable for just being like, "Okay, yes, this is something that I can be pretty good at." I spent a month and a half just reading a bunch of deep RL papers and replicating some of them. That was a pretty good approximation of, certainly the interviews that I did at OpenAI and also to some extent the work.
You have more freedom to experiment than it feels like
I think often either you are constrained or you feel constrained in how freely you're able to just try different things. For example, in the half a year before I was graduating as I was applying to PhD programs, I was like, “It would be really darn useful to go try to get some ML research experience now. I should talk to some professors doing that at MIT and see if I can just start a little project.” I knew that this would have been nice, but I didn't feel like I had the time to do it. I felt like my research project and my thesis were behind.
In hindsight I totally should have done it anyway. I think my thesis was phenomenally unimportant and would have been fine. Anyway, I think I did have the freedom there, but I didn't realize it.
Try new experiences
I felt that looking at the career paths of academics around me, I wasn't confident that a lot of the work that was being done was necessarily useful, and that led me to try to do things a little bit differently. So actually, going to work at the World Bank was part of the data collection process in some sense for me to try to figure out, you know, where I can make the most difference.
I lucked into my career, but think newcomers could do better taking a more deliberate approach
I consider a lot of my career extremely serendipitous. Thanks to some weird case of causal arrows linking up, it's turned out pretty well.
I probably wouldn't recommend this as a strategy for other people. I think there's a lot of returns to reasoned deliberation here rather than following your heart or your interests.
I think some good forward planning is helpful. I think it's a little bit tricky in some areas, like bio where I think the typical career path for people who work in this area are people who started working in other disciplines and got interested in solving this mid-career and moved into it.
I think this implies there should be shortcuts to someone who wants to target this directly rather than spend two decades doing something else and move into it. It gives you some background knowledge but it just doesn't feel very efficient. However, it does mean there isn’t a very clear path of what you would do because no one else has done it that way before.
However, I think trying to do this is probably superior in most cases to being led by interests and exploring a lot of things. If one needs to do that, that's totally fine but I don't think it should be lionized as a virtue.
Try projects that use different types of skills
For a bunch of research projects at GovAI I was in a research management/lead role. For a couple of them, I wanted to try being the main author on a bunch of things, which was a pretty different mindset to be in. I basically found that in the process of trying to do that I was very impatient with the whole iteration process that is just definitely required to make a piece of research good. It wasn't the feedback that was the problem. I think it was just the time it took to integrate it, iterate on it, do it again and again and again to get it to a place where it was properly rigorous.
Then I was really slow, slower than I usually am at things because I wasn't feeling motivated to push it to that last mile. I eventually got it done, but it was just much harder and hard in the way that I didn't really want to lean into and get better at it.
If you could send a list back in time to your college freshman self, what general advice would you want to tell them?
Explore instead of exploit freshman year
Been a lot more willing to question my default plan. My default at the time wasn't even effective altruism. It was just: become a good software engineer working on some reasonably interesting problem somewhere. Freshman year of college, unsurprisingly, I discovered a bunch of things and my plans changed. I think I should have just been much more aware of how likely that was and focused more on exploring rather than just exploiting the things I was already good at.
When I was choosing my friends and my living groups, I hesitantly wish I had instead doubled down on finding really strong intellectual peers and made that more of a priority.
Another mistake I made was just focusing too much on classes. It's just such a salient thing to optimize for, but it didn't really matter that I had a good GPA, and most of the classes I took weren't really that important.
Try therapy early
Start therapy sooner. You never quite understand the paradigm shift that you'll take on once therapy helps put your quirks or things in perspective.
Study stem, try a lot of things, focus on the people
I think doing something at least moderately STEM-y is actually pretty valuable for a couple of reasons. For one reason is, I think it's pretty hard to learn STEM stuff on your own, compared to learning in a university setting. It's the best opportunity you have to catch up on foundational math stuff, and statistics, and that sort of thing. I think in my case, it served me actually pretty well. Even though I don't use physics, to have at least enough of a math background that if I need to learn about some technological area, I almost always feel comfortable with the math there.
I think it's pretty useful to learn little bits of lots of different things such that you can apply different frameworks. I think it is probably, in general, useful to have taken Econ 101. It's probably, in general, useful to have taken basic stats, probably in general useful to have some knowledge of something that happened in history. I think returns on having at least little bits of insight into different areas are pretty high intellectual is if you want to be doing some researchy stuff in the future.
Also, I think your cohort is just very important. I think a lot of what you actually spend your time thinking about, and the stuff you find out about that's cool and valuable and interesting will depend on who you hang out with. I think that was kind of significant in my case. I think that's probably generally true for people. Choose who you spend most your time with in college wisely.
Form hypotheses early about how to do good
I didn't spend a lot of time reading, reflecting, introspecting. I spent a lot more of my time, if not all of my time, just externally focused doing a bunch of things. I definitely think I could have traded off, I don't know, at least 20% of my time when I was doing a bunch of running organizations or doing campaigns or whatever for time when I was just in my own brain trying to understand my views and learning about how to develop views in a rigorous way.
I think if I did more of that or if I invested more in that, I probably could have just steered my career more intentionally towards things that I actually cared about earlier on. Maybe earlier on I would also have formed a stronger set of hypotheses about how I'd want to be able to contribute to doing good things and then being able to just be more systematic about the way I explored.
For a lot of my early career in college, I spent a lot of time doing basically the same thing where it was like different non-profits or different organizations or different campaigns, but I was basically doing the same thing. It wasn't progressing in some particular way. I felt like there was some wasted time there.
Unusually, do really well in courses
It's a pretty common belief with many EAs that you should just try min-maxing your courses. This is plausibly just correct for most people. I actually did benefit from being very, very good at courses. But also, I remember my courses. I infer that most people don't. Most people should probably min-max their courses.
How do you think your preferences -- which things feel hard versus easy or motivating -- have impacted the direction you've taken in your career?
It determined what types of work I was a good fit for
I think it's possible if I were the sort of person who is good at finishing things then I would be-- This is clearly an issue with research but it's almost a bit less of an issue with research than some areas. It's often not a huge deal if you're not doing something that's very scoopable, to just procrastinate something for six months and then put it out if you're a researcher. There's like a certain level of almost irresponsibility that's more viable in a research career than there is in certain other careers. Yes, maybe this is one contributing factor to me being a researcher, that I haven't very consciously thought about.
Less than just thinking about impact
Maybe to an extent. But I think it’s been a fairly small one. Although it's terribly cliché, I have -- at least as far as I can tell, unless there’s self-deception -- been prioritizing career choices based on global impact and doing the most good and stuff, with fairly little attention paid to whether I actually enjoy doing the work. That may have been fairly reckless, but I’ve never had a very crisp sense that there was something I really disliked doing, or at least, not in one of the candidate job options for me.
Super important to find work you’re motivated for
I think it's impacted it a ton. I think the most obvious way would be looking for types of work and types of careers that don't involve sitting in a room by myself thinking hard, but instead involve talking to people or writing shorter pieces explaining concepts for a new audience or something.
In general, I find it super motivating to be trying to connect two different groups in some way and help them understand each other or something. That could be used in a ton of different potential careers. In my case, that means trying to do some tech and security stuff. Tech and national security are two very different worlds that don't generally understand each other super well. Of the potential career paths or potential types of work that I thought might be high-impact, that seemed like one that was pretty well-suited to the kinds of things that I'm motivated to do.
I did things that felt like a good fit, but I had to explore to figure out what that was
I had had the self-identity as someone who was not very "people-ly," which meant I both felt that I was someone who found it tiring to spend too much time with people and also someone who didn't have very good people skills. Liking management did highlight this other side of things, which was that the thing I most like in a job is supporting someone and helping them debug that kind of one-on-one interaction. Learning that about myself probably influenced my thinking that maybe advising 80K would be the kind of thing I would like doing.
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