Guide for Conducting Career Consultation

by omernevo17 min read11th Mar 20201 comment

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This guide is based on our experience conducting career consultations in the EA Israel community over the past year and previous experience conducting career consultation in other contexts.

It is meant as a tool to help EAs who are conducting career consultation. It isn’t a definitive guide, or a set of hard rules, but a supporting document that might help you organize your thoughts, think of new considerations, and not miss important issues.

For feedback and contributions to this guide, thanks to:
Catherine Low, Eve McCormick, Gidon Kadosh, Huw Thomas, Michelle Hutchinson, Sebastian S. Sudergaard Schmidt, Sella Nevo, Vaidehi Agarwalla.
This document does not necessarily reflect their views. Any mistakes are my own.

You can find the most up to date version here (which may be updated to reflect lessons we learn in the future or feedback from more people).

For convenience, here is the version current to the time of this post:



Guide for Conducting Career Consultation

Introduction

Purpose of this guide

This is meant as a tool to help EAs who are conducting career consultation. This isn’t a definitive guide, or a set of hard rules, but a supporting document that might help you organize your thoughts, think of new considerations, and not miss important issues.

What is career consultation (aka Career 1-1)

A one on one discussion about an individual’s career path, possible options open to them, and information about EA movement career advice. Career consultations provide a dedicated space to help a person review their career options and dilemmas. Additionally, they are a good way to identify promising people to connect to other members of the community.

They differ from introductory EA 1-1s but share many of the same considerations. It could be helpful to read EAHub’s guide to introductory EA 1-1s here.

Assumptions of this guide

We are starting from the assumption that people doing EA career consultation have a relatively deep familiarity with EA concepts in general and 80,000 hours’ materials specifically. Therefore, this material is outside the scope of this guide. A list of suggested reading will be appended, though (to put it rather bluntly) if you need it - you might not be ready yet to give others EA career advice.

Who should conduct career consultation

There are a few characteristics that make people good candidate to conduct career consultation:

  • A thorough understanding of the relevant materials: EA cause areas and concepts, 80,000 hours’ key ideas, etc.
  • Good interpersonal and communication skills
  • Active membership in the EA community, including the ability to connect to other relevant members of the community.
  • General life \ career experience: Depending on culture, consultations usually go better if the person conducting them isn’t much less experienced in general than the advisee.

If you’re unsure whether you are ready to conduct career consultations, it’s a good idea to reach out to groups who have more experience (other local groups who do career consultation, CEA groups team, etc.). They can help you decide if there might be other career activities that are more suited to your situation.

Who is a good candidate to receive career consultation

When deciding whether to accept a candidate for consultation, you should consider how likely this consultation is to lead to meaningful positive outcomes (usually either through a change in career path leading to good outcomes or through more engagement of the advisee with the EA community). In trying to assess this, there are a few factors that should be considered:

  • Some existing familiarity with EA, or a willingness to read and prepare before the consultation.
  • Openness and willingness to change their mind and plans.
  • High potential for impact through their career (relevant skill set for high-impact career paths, exceptionally talented and motivated, etc.)
  • Potential interest in EA in general and not only in career advice.

It’s unlikely that a single candidate will score very highly on all these considerations, but even someone who’s promising on some of them could be a potentially valuable candidate.

General Principles in Career Advice

Tool-Driven rather than Answer-Driven

The advisee will have more information than you regarding their situation, even after talking for an hour. You shouldn’t feel like there’s an expectation for you to find “the answer” for them. They usually need help thinking through tough decisions or an intelligent sounding board.

Leveraged

You will likely talk for 60-120 minutes. Usually, a lot of the valuable things you can do will enable the advisee better spend time after the meeting. This may include further learning or thinking in ways or directions that they wouldn’t otherwise. Good examples of this are sending follow-up reading material, connecting them to relevant people, or setting a plan with actionable next steps that commit to.

Intellectually Honest

You should very clearly differentiate between facts you are relaying and your own opinions. You should be clear about how sure you are of different claims you are making. Specifically, you should be very clear about potential downsides in paths that you recommend taking. Keep in mind, this is one of the easiest ways to accidentally cause harm.

It’s important to be aware of your own biases: The desire to seem smart or knowledgeable, the bias towards your own experiences and values, or the bias to “make a difference” with this specific consultation which might push towards larger (and faster) changes than are appropriate. Specifically, you must be completely willing to say “I don’t know” about the very large set of things you don’t know.

This is particularly important because our certainty about career advice is generally very low.

More specifically, 80,000 Hours have drastically changed their recommendations in the past few years and agree that their recommendations should be viewed as nowhere close to an absolute truth (more on this here). It’s critical that people’s decisions will be best on what they believe is best and not merely on trust in advisers. This also has a large effect on the chance they will actually be motivated to pursue it and on the chances of being successful over the longer term.

Non-Confrontational

Presumably, most people who ask for career advice from the EA community have good basic motivations. This means that an effective goal for the consultation is to help them figure out what’s best for them. Usually, there’s no need for anything resembling confrontation, and being confrontational is usually counter-productive.

More specifically, it’s perfectly legitimate to have some non-altruistic motivations. Shockingly, most people aren’t perfect moral agents. Acknowledging that they’re coming from a place of altruism, among other things, allows you to have a more candid conversation about the entirety of their decision. This makes it more likely that any decisions you make together will be acted upon.

Our experience is that consultations that the advisee experienced as confrontational were also ineffective. Challenging their views, to an extent, can be useful but is also not always a net benefit. This requires paying attention to the needs and personality of the advisee in order to do well. It’s usually possible to raise positions that challenge someone’s views without expectation for them to agree or change their mind immediately, which tends to be more effective. It could look something like:

“I absolutely understand your view and they make sense. In fact, a lot of people in EA also share the view that <insert view here>. But naturally, this is a relatively complex issue with a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, in some cases…”.

This makes it less likely for them to immediately try and defend their view and more likely to internalize at least some of the doubts.

Value Oriented

The goal should always be to provide value to the advisee (which can be very different from talking about what you think is most important). Value usually comes in one of these forms (though this isn’t an exhaustive list):

  • Order: Taking confused thoughts and ideas and fitting them into a framework that makes it easier for the advisee to think through them.
  • New Information: Suggesting new ideas, information, options or directions that the advisee will want to follow up on later. A lot of people aren’t familiar with ideas that might seem basic to someone who’s thinking and reading about EA for a long time.

Types of new information (again, not an exhaustive list):

  • Relevant Principles: Career capital, earning to give, low-cost experiments to test personal fit to new fields, etc. For a list of principles that fit this description, see appendix A.
  • Ideas: Potential career paths they didn’t consider, considerations in making choices that they hadn’t looked at, etc.

It might be helpful to look at the 80k hours’ job board, GFI job board, EA work club job board, EA FB Job Board, and other job boards including ones relevant to your local community.

  • Experience and knowledge: How competitive some specific areas in academia can be, where specific experience can be useful, etc.
  • Potential Solutions to Specific Questions: Ways to get information about a specific career path, ways to find out about specific types of grants, etc.
  • (Gently) pointing out biases or misconceptions where they might be harmful.
  • Planning: Taking thoughts, opinions or ideas and formulating specific plans. This might be a plan on how to answer pertinent questions and get information, or a plan to optimize career seeking. It may be a very specific plan for the next few days or a general plan for multiple years.

Particularly, the “Ladder of Tests” concept (here) is very useful in planning.

  • Encouragement and Support: An often-underrated way to help people is to give encouragement and support. Especially for people whose usual social circles aren’t interested in EA or altruism in general, knowing that their decisions make sense to other people and they aren’t alone in their dilemmas can be incredibly helpful.
  • References:
    • Types of references:
      • Materials to read/watch/listen. These can be general advice\concepts or specific to their situation or dilemmas. See appendix A for some possible links.
      • People to talk to. These can be experts in a relevant area, organization that may be relevant to work at or consult with, or other people who have faced similar dilemmas or situations.
    • General principles in how to give references:
      • It’s best to give no more than 2-5 references. Even if you can think of many potentially relevant ones, pick the most important. Too many resources lower the chance that any of them will be followed up with.
      • Give context to why each reference is important. Call out the point in the conversation where it comes up and relate it to what specific gains will be made by this reference (“You said that the main question you’re still unsure about is what the day to day work in this field is like. I’d love to set up a meeting for you with X whose career went down this path. If you have questions like Y or Z, I’m sure they’ll be able to answer from experience”).

Consultation Process

This is a general description about what the process can look like. As always, this may vary greatly depending on context, your preferences, and specific circumstances.

1. Preparation

  • Information: Try and get as much information as you can about the needs of the advisee. Your ability to do this may differ depending on how they reached out for advice, but an email asking what their situation is and what sort of advice they’d like is usually very helpful in preparation if they haven’t filled out a comprehensive form.

Potentially useful information to ask in advance includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • Their CV
  • What paths \ plans \ options they’re currently considering
  • What are the most important factors in job satisfaction for them
  • What they think are the most important problems or cause areas and why
  • What are their key uncertainties or dilemmas
  • What they would describe as their best skills or what work they believe they would be best suited for
  • What they hope to understand or learn during the consultation

In general, any information received before the meeting is likely to make the meeting itself much more productive.

  • Research: Potentially read up on areas that the advisee is interested in and you’re not very familiar with or haven’t looked up recently. This may include:
    • Looking up specific career paths that might be relevant to their interests
    • Thinking of relevant EA people, orgs, companies, etc. that might be relevant to connect. It might be helpful to look at the 80k hours’ job board, GFI job board, EA work club job board and other job boards including ones relevant to your local community.
    • Reading up basic introductions to relevant fields \ areas that you aren’t familiar with.
    • Preparing key questions that you think would be important to answer (either before, during, or after the actual meeting).
  • Time & Place: Set up a time and place. Ideally, somewhere where you can have a quiet conversation. Usually 60-120 minutes should be a sufficient amount of time, though it’s good to have some buffer time before and after.

It should be noted that different people who have experience with career consultations have reported that they prefer wildly different meeting lengths (from 30 minutes to at least 2 hours and usually more). So it’s probably a good idea to try and figure out what works best for you.

  • Optional Miscellaneous Tasks: Other things you might want to do before meeting the advisee, depending on circumstances.
    • Sending reading materials to go over before the meeting. This may be useful to make the most of the time you have in the actual meeting.
    • Setting up a shared workspace (like a Google Doc) for questions and answers. This can help your initial preparation and have something to go over during the meeting. It can also be useful as documentation for the future.

An example for a template by EA Philadelphia: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XHtDBPqRsieHgnvWrysWsBsDvPB5bU4JIwsGSqmByyM/edit

    • Explicitly discussing their expectations from the consultation. At the very least, it might save you both some potentially wasted time if they signed up without understanding what this is.

2. Introduction

This should take about 5-10 minutes. The order of the items here doesn’t really matter, go with what works best for you.

  • Small-talk: Some small talk can be useful if the other person isn’t at ease or if you don’t feel comfortable diving right in, but usually shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. Usually asking how they got in touch or heard about EA in a friendly manner is a good way to start and gets you moving towards the purpose of the meeting.

This part is deceptively important. Building a rapport in this short amount of time will have a large impact on your ability to point out areas where the advisee might be mistaken or biased and raise potential disagreements.

  • Introduction: Introduce yourself briefly. It’s important to convey both what areas you have experience and knowledge in and also which relevant areas you’re less familiar with. This is especially useful if you do have experience in relevant technical fields, so the advisee knows what jargon or details you’re likely to understand.
  • Set expectations: This is important to do early. Most people don’t come in with a clear idea of what’s going to happen so this is both useful and reduces a lot of uncertainty (and sometimes nervousness) on their side.

Depending on your preference, you may ask them for their expectations before going into it. Mostly, if their expectations are very far from realistic, you might want to explain the reasoning more thoroughly.

The main points you should go over:

    • We won’t leave this conversation with a definitive answer or solution.
    • What you can expect: A sounding board for ideas, some advice on how to think about things, possible new ideas or directions, references to people worth talking to or materials worth reading.
    • The point is to help you. It’s completely fine not to follow through on everything, don’t feel pressured if you don’t agree with parts of what we talk about. Feel free to voice any concerns or disagreements and take time to think things over later.
    • Refer back specifically to what they had asked when requesting the consultation. Example: “You wrote that you felt confused about how to decide between two options. Unfortunately, I’m definitely not going to be able to give you a definitive answer. What we can do is figure out what the major considerations are, and what specific questions you’ll be able to answer over the next few weeks that would make the decision clearer.”
    • Scope: If it’s needed, explain what is the range of topics for which you feel comfortable \ qualified to give advice. This may be limited to only maximizing “doing good” rather than other potential goals, only some of the career paths that might be relevant, or possibly that your experience might be only partially relevant because you live in a different country or very different situation or context.

3. Investigation

Before giving anything resembling advice or even an opinion (regarding their specific dilemma), take time to investigate, ask questions and get as much information as possible. Actively stop your thought process from moving on from “I want to understand the situation better” to “I know what they should do”. This stage should never be less than 15-20 minutes and can often be much longer.

This serves 3 purposes:

  1. You’ll be better informed when actually advising, making it more likely your advice will be helpful.
  2. Deters you from getting locked into specific ideas, directions and thoughts that might turn out to be sub-optimal. It’s harder to change course once you start explaining why it’s the right course.
  3. It lets the advisee know that you genuinely care about their situation and want to find out what’s best for them specifically.

Occasionally, this might also be valuable in itself to the advisee as describing their situation and answering clarifying questions might help them gain clarity and spot areas of uncertainty.

Potential things you should be asking:

  • What is their history (work or otherwise)?

For important parts of their history: what they enjoyed \ didn’t enjoy? Did they learn specific things about their own fit to specific career paths from those experiences?

  • Do they have ideas about what they want to do moving forward? What were their thoughts \ process until now? What options have they looked into and to what extent?
  • Did they think specifically about what is important to them in their career \ giving choices? This may be anything from professional interests or geographic preferences (would they be willing to move to another country or city) to specific personal considerations (such as a need for flexible hours, or salary expectations).
  • How familiar are they with EA or 80,000 hours?

The most important thing here isn’t the starter questions listed above. It’s asking follow up questions that are relevant to both the current subject and the dilemmas we’ll want to discuss.

For example: If a person had a very bad experience during their masters degree studies (and academia isn’t completely off the table as an option), it would be important to understand why. The follow up questions and discussion to “What was so bad about the experience” should try to determine if these reasons are likely to persist anywhere in academia, specifically in their field, specifically in some labs \ departments but not others, or unlikely to be repeated in any case. Understanding this would be incredibly useful later on in the discussion. The answer “I felt like I was dealing with problems that are too abstract to be interesting”, for example, isn’t enough information to rule out any of these options as it depends heavily on what the person means by “too abstract”.

Finishing up the investigation stage

You should have a clear and specific idea about what progress can be made during this meeting:

  • Do they have a specific decision they need to make? When do they need to decide?
  • What are all of the options available? Are there options they haven’t thought of yet?
  • What are the main considerations that they are thinking of? Where do they currently stand?
  • It’s ok if they don’t know how to answer all of these questions. It might be that working towards a shared understanding of the options and their pros and cons is a valuable use of our time.
  • A helpful framework for this is 80,000 hours’ “How to Make Tough Career Decisions”. You should be able to tell which of the 8 steps they are currently stuck at and start from there.

If you don’t understand what progress you want to try and make during the meeting, keep asking relevant questions and investigating their situation.

4. Consultation

Even though the “investigation” part is over, you’re still not doing most of the talking. It’s still a conversation. Even after a long investigation, you have a small minority of the relevant information. You can now interweave ideas, thoughts, references to relevant materials and advice with more questions.

Always keep in mind the general principles at the start of this document.

Goal: Remember that the goal is to provide value to the advisee as was written earlier. Keep asking yourself if you’re hitting that target and if this time is valuable to them.

If needed, it can be a good idea to ask something like: “Do you feel like this current discussion about the relative importance of causes is valuable to you or should we get back to discussing the specific job offers you have?”

This sort of question can also be asked before diving into a specific topic: “It seems to me as if it'd be valuable to zoom in on XX. Do you think so as well or do you prefer moving on from this subject?"

Generic Advice: There is some general advice that can be useful for many people, such as reading 80k hours’ key ideas or guide. But for most people, by far the most important advice is based on the specifics of their circumstances, or on expertise in the field they're interested in. The benefit of fully understanding their needs, or connecting them to the more relevant people usually far outweighs the additional effort it requires.

Wrapping up: Near the end of the meeting, wrap up and figure out the next steps. It’s a good idea to go over the major things you discussed, what you (both) think was valuable and agree on actions they will take next.

It’s usually very helpful to ask the advisee about how viable the plan seems and what time-frame they feel is reasonable for it’s execution. The concreteness of the question can help people realize if there are issues and might help them follow through. This also might be useful during the conversation when discussing future plans. Another very useful question is “What is a plausible scenario where you wouldn’t follow through with the plan?”, which can raise potential risks or concerns and allow you to think through them.

These questions can also help decide on mechanisms to help the advisee follow through with the plan. Those may include setting up a calendar event (set it up immediately, not “later tonight”), scheduling a follow up meeting with goals to achieve before it, finding a commitment buddy (which may or may not be you).

By the time you both understand the plan and the mechanisms to follow up, you will probably have an explicit commitment to follow through. If not, it’s usually a good idea to ask for one.

Some people doing consulting like asking for feedback after the meeting is done. This is a great way for you to look for patterns in your performance and improve.

Optional: Further Engagement with the EA Community

Potentially let them know about the next local meetup of the EA community or how they could become more involved in other ways e.g. going to EAG or EAGx. This isn’t a good fit for everyone but many people who reach consultation might be interested and could become valuable members of the community.

5. Follow Up

Importance:

It’s extremely rare that people make large changes in their lives after a very successful two-hour meeting. Usually decisions like changing careers happen after a process that can take weeks, months or years. Specifically, time passing is sometimes necessary in order to process and come to terms with new ideas.

This means that following up and supporting their process is usually crucial in order to achieve actual results and make a difference.

Email Follow Up:

It’s very important to follow up later in a written format. It makes it much more likely that people will act on what you discussed. An email will generally have some of these sections:

  • First sentence introduction e.g. about enjoying talking to them.
  • A short summary of what you discussed.
  • Any action items going forward.
  • Links to materials you discussed, contact details or offers to intro to people you wish to put them in contact with.
  • Invitation to keep communicating and how you’d like them to do that.
  • Links to local Facebook Group and Newsletter.

Further Follow Up: It’s important to place a note to yourself to follow up again later to see if things are progressing as you planned and anticipated. Usually a month or two after the consultation is a good time to do it. You can also schedule an email to be sent at that time if you’re afraid of forgetting to come back to it.

Back-end Follow Up:

It’s important to have some documentation about career consultation. This is helpful in following up later (after potentially months or years have passed), in assessing how effective the consultation is, and in coordinating among different members of the community doing consultation (feel free to contact EA Israel about the way we do this).

Important specific questions:

  • How important is the process with this individual? Are they specifically talented? Are they open to specific paths that may be very high-value? Are they committed to the process?
  • Is this person open to becoming more active in the EA community, unrelated to the consultation process itself?
  • Is someone else in the community better suited to advising this individual than me? In many cases, after one meeting it becomes clear that someone else in the community could provide more value.

Appendix A: Suggested Reading

A non-comprehensive list of reading material relevant to career consultation. At the very least, it’s recommended to be familiar with most of the content so you can look up relevant pages for specific consultations.

The most important resources

A comprehensive guide on how to make career decisions. This will be relevant for the vast majority of career consultations.

This (long) page includes links to almost any relevant 80k hours material you may want. For anyone who wants to be doing career consultation, it’s probably a good idea to read this start to end and follow links wherever they are relevant or interesting.

This page includes the main areas of contribution through your career and a list of specific high-impact careers. You can follow through to read more in-depth about any specific career.

Basic Concepts

Specific Resources, Ideas, and Articles

Appendix B: Follow up Email Example

This is not meant as a shining example of a perfect email but a good example for people who feel clueless about how to write one.

Don’t worry about not having all the contextual details. This should be useful mainly to have an idea as to what these emails can look like.

Names and personal details have been redacted.

Context

Advisee came in to ask about a potential change in her field of study because she had become very worried about AI risk. Specifically, she had to fill in a few applications and make a decision about a program in the next 3-4 weeks and had questions about that. One of the important points in the conversation was that she should definitely still take the time to fill the applications and make the specific urgent decision right now. There would be time to look into other options over the next few months without closing any doors for now. Because of that - the email is clearly differentiated into things that might be worth looking into now, and things that are only relevant after the next few weeks.

Follow up Email

Hi, I really enjoyed talking with you, hope it was useful.

I’m attaching references to the things we talked about:

Things that are relevant for the next 3-4 weeks:

Summary of our plan:

  1. Looking into the specific potential “Excellent options” (including the mentor in Germany and [redacted] who might be worth talking to immediately).
  2. Looking for an option that would allow you to spend a year and six months while still accruing a decent amount of career capital so you are positioned well for a better doctorate option after that, when it’s more convenient for you.
  3. If none of these exist - make the decision if you’re comfortable with the default backup option of [redacted], as we discussed.

Reminder of the 2.5 considerations we talked about, to think about when making the decisions:

  • Your fit (both enjoyment and abilities)
  • Potential effect with the EA principles we discussed (impact, neglectedness…)
  • (half a consideration) Closeness to practicality \ how likely you are to make a difference

The event tonight:

[redacted - this was a link to an EA event that evening]

Relevant people:

[redacted] - You said you know him already. Let me know if you still want an intro.

[redacted] - We didn’t talk about him but I thought afterwards he might be relevant. He did some research on [redacted] and is also incredibly nice. Do you think he’s relevant to talk to? Do you want me to make the connection?

Things that are relevant only after the next few weeks:

FLI podcast: [redacted] - these are the specific episodes I mentioned that relate to our conversations.

We talked about building career capital, more about this:

https://concepts.effectivealtruism.org/concepts/career-capital/

We talked about a doctorate in computer science, here is 80k hours’ page on the subject:

https://80000hours.org/career-reviews/computer-science-phd/

They also have pages for other topics that might be interesting to browse.

Last thing - I’ll be waiting to get your initial answers to the questions I had about your “Masterplan to improve the world”. Take your time, but I’m curious to hear the answers… :-)

As I said before, feel absolutely free to reach out if you need or want to talk about these things.

Good luck!

Another Email Example (by EA London):

https://www.google.com/url?q=https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xqIelYNY_A2p9cpmecOlJPRBab_gcOQharV91S_Dbxc/edit&sa=D&ust=1581848587222000&usg=AFQjCNFSO2q03xMrM6XOle3q2giE3d3gWg

Acknowledgements

Author: Omer Nevo

For feedback and contributions to this guide, thanks to:

Catherine Low, Eve McCormick, Gidon Kadosh, Huw Thomas, Michelle Hutchinson, Sebastian S. Sudergaard Schmidt, Sella Nevo, Vaidehi Agarwalla.

This document does not necessarily reflect their views. Any mistakes are my own.

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1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:20 AM
New Comment

Strong upvote. I thought this was extremely well-written, and I agree wholeheartedly with all five of your general principles. I can easily imagine glancing through this post before my next career advice conversation, and I wish I'd had it for some past conversations on this topic.