A common request I get working at 80,000 Hours asks how people can contribute to effective altruist related research while students, or working in another career. I often find this hard to answer because I don't have an suitable project to hand.
All of the research groups have found that doing high quality work is more difficult than expected, and those people who just dabble rarely produce breakthroughs. This is because it's challenging work that doesn't suit everyone, and for people who it does suit, they get better as it the longer they spend on it.
What can even the cleverest short-term volunteer contribute to theoretical physics? Probably nothing.
However, this is not theoretical physics, and I think a wide range of people can make useful contributions by uncovering important information we are currently ignorant of.
What are some ways?
- Produce a shallow review of a career path few people are informed about, using the 80,000 Hours framework. We score career paths on the following criteria out of 5:
- Earning potential.
- Direct impact.
- Advocacy potential.
- Career capital (comprising skills, credentials, network, exit opportunities and character).
- Ease of competition.
- We then write up a profile with the following heading:
- What are the pros of this career?
- What are the cons of this career?
- Who would be best suited to it?
- What important things are we still uncertain about?
- You will probably need both online research and interviews with people taking that path. I made a list of resources we regularly consult.
- If you spend a few days looking into a career path you might want to take, using these criteria, you can probably produce a blog post other people will find useful, and that we could adapt into a profile on our website in future.
- Become highly informed about an approach for improving the world, or a problem people could work on, and assess it on the following criteria:
- Importance (how much good might be done solving the problem?)
- Neglectedness (who is already working on it, including indirectly, and how good are they; is there much left to do?)
- Tractability (how hard is the problem to solve; how expensive are the possible solutions; how likely are they to work; do we have suitable skills or could we develop them?)
- If you can combine the above into a meaningful cost-effectiveness estimate then go ahead, but if not, don't despair.
- Write up a summary of the above information with citations, comment on whether you think the topic deserves further research (i.e. could it be better than what some people are already doing), and what the key remaining questions are.
- Concrete numbers (even if estimates) are particularly useful inasmuch as any can be found.
- I would have suggested evaluating charities, except that this usually requires access to staff and sensitive information which they aren't willing to provide to anyone who asks.