Open thread: Get/give feedback on career plans

by MichaelA2 min read12th Feb 202119 comments

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Requests (Open)Career Choice
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Near the end of their article on How to plan your career, 80,000 Hours write:

Often what the people we advise find most helpful [after having completed most of the recommended career planning process] is to show their plan to others — other people can help spot assumptions you’re making that may seem obvious to you but really aren’t.

One exercise is to make a copy of your worksheet and send it to a couple of friends or advisors for comments.

More recently, Ben Todd of 80,000 Hours made a Careers Questions Open Thread, writing:

Many people in EA aren’t able to get as much career advice as they’d like, while at the same time, hundreds of EAs are happy to provide informal advice and mentoring within their career area.

Much of what we do in our one-on-one advice at 80,000 Hours is try to connect these two groups, but we’re not able to cover a significant number of people. At the same time, spaces like the EA careers discussion FB group don’t seem to have taken off as a place where people get concrete advice.

As an experiment, I thought we could try having an open career questions thread on the Forum.

So I'm setting up this open thread as a somewhat similar experiment:

  1. If you've written something up about your career plan and would be keen for feedback from members of the EA community, please feel encouraged to comment here with a link to what you've written, or just a way to contact you if you'd prefer to share the link via private message or email.
    • It'd probably be best to also say a few words/sentences about the sort of pathways you're considering, the sort of people who you'd most like feedback from, or similar.
    • Your writeup could be of any length, level of polish, and format, from very rough notes to a fully filled-in version of the 80,000 Hours career planning worksheet.
  2. If you'd be happy to provide feedback on other people's career plans, please feel encouraged to leave a comment saying so (and ideally also saying something about your areas of interest or expertise), and/or to look at other people's comments requesting feedback.
  3. Also consider both requesting and providing feedback!

Also feel free to propose instead using voice messages or video calls to explain your career plan, get feedback, or give feedback, if you'd find that easier or preferable.

It's totally ok if your plan or write-up is very rough, if you're relatively new to EA, if you care a lot about things other than impartial altruism, if you're not sure how useful your feedback to others would be, etc. 

To get things going, I commit to reading and providing some feedback on at least 2 pages' worth of the documents from each of the first 5 people who comment to request feedback. (I might end up providing more feedback than that; I'll just see how long this takes me.)

In a comment below, I'll add some additional, less important info on why I'm making this thread and how I suggest people use it.

Finally, as Ben Todd notes in Careers Questions Open Thread:

Just please bear in mind this will all be public on the internet for the long term. Don’t post things you wouldn’t want future employers to see, unless using an anonymous account. Even being frank about the pros and cons of different jobs can easily look bad.

(So you could consider doing things like sharing a link to a google doc that people have to request access to before seeing, or just saying the doc exists and asking people to send a message in order to be sent a copy/link.)

Please note that I'm not in any way affiliated with 80,000 Hours; the reason I quote them a lot is just that I like their work.

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19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:39 AM
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Thanks for making this thread—I was waiting for something like this! I'm not sure if the advice I'm looking for is on career planning in the usual sense, but your many reassurances have convinced me to give it a go anyway :)

My story begins a few months ago, when I realized I had never actually read 80,000 Hours’ top recommended career paths, and a few of them were things I didn’t know about that would be good fits for me. Doh! That discovery sent me into career crisis spiral of doom.

The good news is that I have high-impact career paths available to me—I’m a computer science student, this is well-trodden ground—in AI safety research and earning to give as a software engineer.

I know what I need to do. The bad news is I’m intensely doubting my ability to do it.

When I think about the researchers and engineers I know who’ve succeeded a step above where I am, I’m doubtful that I can measure up to their intelligence; but I’m even more concerned that they seem to be more interested and motivated than I am. I feel viscerally excited about the goals of EA, but I can’t often transfer that into excitement for writing code or reading a textbook. And in the absence of excitement, I’m not sure I have the focus or perseverance that I’d need to either do meaningful research or succeed at the highest impact paths in earning to give.

Part of me thinks: I am not yet a god. Am I creating needless guilt for myself? Am I making a futile effort to force myself into doing something I will never care much about and so will never be good at? I do seem to be below-average at forcing myself to do things I don’t want to do. And, aside from its other good effects, being interested in your work sure is good for productivity—maybe I should just focus on trying to find work I can be more excited about?

Those are the thoughts that make it very difficult for me to take the concrete career steps that are staring me in the face.

Another part of me says:  The reality of work is that it's not something you do because it’s exciting, it’s something you do because it’s useful—surely everyone feels that way. And what better option do I have? The thing I am naturally excited to work on is usually art, and the paths I see to doing good in art are pretty shaky.

Every resource I’ve looked at—including the 80,000 Hours worksheet, on which I just yesterday threw in the towel—seems to be aimed at helping me identify high-impact career paths. I guess I'm looking for some sort of reassurance or accountability, and I feel like I’m stumbling in the dark. I was sad to see that EA Oxford’s career advising is temporarily closed, my own school’s is not yet open, and 80k’s career advising is quite selective and not aimed at students.

If anyone feels like they have some advice to share, or maybe is in a similar situation, I'd love to hear from you! Would be happy to share more details by PM.

You might be interested in the lottery of fascinations.

For what it's worth, I was barely able to do CS homework, but worked pretty successfully as a programmer for about a decade and still occasionally code for fun. Some (all?) universities have a remarkable ability to make the most interesting subjects monotonous, and I would be cautious in going from "I don't want to read a CS textbook" to "CS is not for me". (If you are directly reading AI safety research, and you have enough of the background to understand it yet still are bored by it, that seems like a stronger signal to me.)

Thanks! I hadn't read that post, and it's definitely related to what I'm thinking about.

I don't have any real experience with AI research, so I won't claim to know how interesting I would find that in particular. The thing that concerns me most is that as a kid I really enjoyed programming—and reading programming books—in a way I don't anymore, even when I do it for fun.

I have a tough time getting immersed in it now. It's hard to tell whether that's from my interests shifting elsewhere, or me accumulating more responsibilities/worries/stressors, or if it's just novelty wearing off.

Thanks for commenting! That seems like an interesting question/predicament, and well-worth reaching out for people's advice about. 

I'll send you a PM to see if I'd have more useful things to say if given more context. But first I'll share a few very tentative, low-effort-from-me thoughts/links that might be useful in situations somewhat similar to this one. And I'll do so publicly in case that's helpful for other people too. But these are not confident recommendations, since I haven't been in precisely that situation and don't know your full context. (Also, no need to respond here unless you want to; you can also respond via PM.)

And hopefully some other people can jump in with advice as well, here or in PMs.

With those caveats in mind...

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It sounds to me like maybe there are two angles from which this situation could be tackled:

  1. (How) Can you increase your ability/tendency to be motivated about and focused on the things you think it might in theory be highest impact for you to do?
    • With the key issue being motivation and focus on a very practical level and relatively short time-scales, rather than something like higher-level goals.
  2. What career paths should you pursue, given your hypotheses about what you'll be motivated about and focused on?

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On Q1, some things that come to mind are:

  • You could schedule a free call with Lynette Bye, who runs EA Coaching
    • I haven't used this service myself, nor interacted with Lynette much, but it looks like various EAs have found her services valuable.
    • My impression is that she especially focuses on productivity, but sees things like motivation and focus as part of / related to that.
  • You could read relevant-seeming posts from Lynette
    • I'm not sure how much reading posts would help by itself, but I'd guess it'd help with similar things for some people, and it could be a quite low-effort thing to try
  • You could read LessWrong posts on akrasia
    • I'm not sure this is exactly the right concept for what you're talking about, but it seems somewhat related
  • You could read 80k's All the evidence-based advice we found on how to be more successful in any job
    • I think this has relevant stuff, though I haven't read it since early 2019 so I can't remember for sure
  • I'd normally suggest the Replacing Guilt blog post series as an option as well (mainly because some people I know found it useful, rather than because of my own views on it). But it sounds like you've read that already.

I think each of these things would be essentially just starting points, rather than full solutions in themselves; I'm pointing you to them in hopes that one of them can point you to further relevant and useful things.

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On Q2, some thoughts that come to mind are:

  • "being interested in your work sure is good for productivity" seems very true to me
    • Relatedly, I'd be cautious with thoughts like "The reality of work is that it's not something you do because it’s exciting, it’s something you do because it’s useful—surely everyone feels that way."
      • I'd guess that (i) almost everyone does feel that way sometimes, but (ii) probably a lot of the particularly productive people will fairly often not feel like they're "working" or having to "push themselves" when doing their job.
  • As such, I think it's probably indeed wise to really think about what work you can be excited about, on a day to day level, a lot of the time (though it won't be all of the time).
  • But I don't think that that by itself strongly pushes in favour of doing what you currently expect you'd be most excited about, or strongly pushes against doing the two paths you currently expect you wouldn't be excited about on a day-to-day-level. This is for three reasons:
    • Have you actually tried out what day to day life would be like in the two career paths you mention? It is plausible you actually would like that, even if you don't currently imagine you would, or even if you don't like the day to day life of the sort of preliminary or training activities (like relevant college courses)?
      • Maybe there are relatively low-effort ways to test out how much you'd like doing the tasks involved in actually having those jobs?
    • Maybe there are other career paths that would be highly impactful and that you would become excited about on a day to day level, but that you haven't considered much or haven't tried out?
    • Maybe there'd be some way you could make one of the highly impactful paths more motivating to you than it'd be by default?
      • E.g., maybe there's a way to tweak the exact nature of the role, or combine it with some side activity, such that it's more appealing?
      • E.g., maybe if you get better at a particular skill, that part of the role will suddenly flow easily, and that'll make the day-to-day less aversive?
      • (Again, I should know that I have very little context on you or your situation, so these are just quick thoughts.)
  • (But all that said, for all I know, it definitely is possible that the best career path for you - from both a personal and impact perspective - would be a path that's quite related to the things you currently expect to be most motivated by.)
  • (My thinking here is informed by 80k's 2014/2017 article on personal fit.)

Thanks, Michael! It's taken me a while to respond to this because I'm still going through all the links you sent. I’m glad to have so many reading directions to explore. One thing that’s stood out to me so far is the section on mental health in 80K’s "All the evidence-based advice we found on how to be more successful in any job," which motivated me to rethink how much time and energy I should invest in that area.

As I mentioned in another comment, I think I have a good idea of the day-to-day of software engineering. Research not so much, and I do hope to get some experience in that direction soon. I’ll also be thinking about your other suggestions about exploring other career paths and adapting the paths I’m on.

I recently made a very hard decision, having drawn it out far too long and become really anxious and low about the whole thing in the end. I think I did a few things wrong, so would be happy to speak to anyone having a hard time weighing between really good but hard to compare options. Also, this may not be a great idea, but I think it might be nice to speak to someone I don't know to get an outside view on whether I made a good call, since I'm still in a weird / unresolved place about it. If anyone is up for chatting, I can share the doc I made detailing the two options and my thought process. Cheers!

Hey Fin, thanks for offering to speak to other people in that situation!

And feel free to send me a message sharing that doc if you'd be interested in chatting about your decision/situation/thought process with me. (But I do know you a little bit, so I'll leave it to you to decide whether I'd count as outside-view-y enough.) 

I'd be happy to talk to people about their plans! 

I think I am most likely to be able to help:

  •  Someone who just needs a sympathetic ear or someone to bounce ideas off.
  •  Someone interested in teaching/education, especially in how to talk to young people about EA (and much more importantly how not to.
  •  Someone fairly new who wants help getting a broader sense of the movement (I'm not an expert in any particular area, but I have a decently strong understanding of pretty much all of the major cause areas).

Thanks for doing this, especially since my last comment on the 80K open thread went unanswered (no shade though! I think I wasn't specific enough, which I'll try to do here). In that comment, I expressed a lot of uncertainty around: How good do I have to be at academic research, in order to do a PhD for policy? Since then, through informational interviews, I've gotten the picture that merely satisficing at academic research should be enough, but I shouldn't treat it as a trivial constraint—doing good science is still hard, and at the end of the day, technology policy still requires some amount of expertise. I'd still appreciate thoughts on this question though, if you have some!

In addition to that question, I've begun to develop a new question: What should I do if none of my top options work out (if I fail or decide that neither academia nor policy are for me?) Throughout university and my career (I do part-time curriculum writing for an education startup), I've consistently gotten the feedback that I have a knack for teaching: for explaining concepts intuitively for others,  for scaffolding ideas so that they make sense to others, and anticipating common learning obstacles. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be an EA-aligned career path in which these skills would be directly relevant. 80K recommends against teaching, and I mostly agree with their assessment. Are there any EA opportunities in which the skills I've listed above would be relevant?

I find your second paragraph relatable. 

I was in my first year of teaching, as part of the Teach For Australia program, when I learned about EA in late 2018. And I think I actually learned of EA specifically because I was worried about whether my job was as impactful as I'd expected, and I went to that 80k article for reassurance (since I half-remembered a different 80k article I'd been shared and skimmed the previous year that sounded more positive about teaching). I was initially inclined to disagree with the article, but its arguments did seem reasonable, so I read a bunch more and then got really sold on EA. 

The problem is that there doesn't seem to be an EA-aligned career path in which these skills would be directly relevant. [...] Are there any EA opportunities in which the skills I've listed above would be relevant?

I think there are. Michelle Hutchinson describes some relevant potential opportunities here. And on that article, I made the following comment, which also seems relevant here:

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Regarding influencing future decision-makers

[Michelle writes:]

Something which would make that most likely to happen is having EA ideas discussed in courses in all top universities. That led me to wonder whether we’re currently neglecting supporting and encouraging lecturers to do that.

Both of those claims match my independent impression

On the first claim: This post using neoliberalism as a case study seems relevant (I highlight that mainly for readers, not as new evidence, as I imagine that article probably already influenced [Michelle's] thinking here). 

On the second claim: When I was a high school teacher and first learned of EA, two of the main next career steps I initially considered were:

  • Try to write a sort of EA textbook
  • Try to become a university lecturer who doesn't do much research, and basically just takes on lots of teaching duties
    • My thinking was that:
      • I'd seen various people argue that it's a shame that so many world-class researchers have to spend much of their time teaching when that wasn't their comparative advantage (and in some cases they were outright bad at it)
      • And I'd also heard various people argue that a major point of leverage over future leaders may be influencing what ideas students at top unis are exposed to
      • So it seemed like it might be worth considering trying to find a way to specialise in taking teaching load off top researchers' plates while also influencing future generations of leaders
    • I didn't actually look into whether jobs along those lines exist. I considered that maybe, even if they don't exist, one could be entrepreneurial and convince a uni to create one, or adapt another role into that.
      • Though an obstacle would probably be the rigidity of many universities.

I ultimately decided on other paths, partly due to reading more of 80k's articles. And I do think the decisions I made make more sense for me. But reading this post has reminded me of those ideas and updated me towards thinking it could be worth some people considering the second one in particular.

Supporting teaching of effective altruism at universities

I feel quite good about the ideas in this section [of Michelle's post] - I'd definitely be excited for one or more things along those lines to be done one or more people who are good fits for that.

Some of those activities sound like they might be sort-of similar to some of the roles people involved in other EA education efforts (e.g., Students for High-Impact Charity, SPARC) and Effective Thesis have played. So maybe it'd be valuable to talk to such people, learn about their experiences and their perspectives on these ideas, etc.

[End of quoted comment.]

Another relevant recent post is Important Between-Cause Considerations: things every EA should know about. For example, the author writes: 

Furthermore, I think that the EA community needs to do more to ensure that EAs can easily become acquainted with [important between-cause considerations (IBCs)], by producing a greater quantity of educational content that could appeal to a wider range of people. This could include short(ish) videos, online courses, or simplified write-ups. An EA movement where most EAs have at least a high-level understanding of all known IBCs should be a movement where people are more aligned to the highest value cause areas (whatever these might be), and ultimately a movement that does more good.

[...] In light of this these are my proposed next steps:

[...] Do a stock take of all the resources that are currently available to learn about the IBCs
Identify where further content might be useful to inform a wider range of people of the IBCs, and determine what type of content this should be
Potentially collaborate with others to produce this content and disseminate to the EA community (I am very aware of the danger of doing harm at this stage and would mitigate this risk or may not engage in this stage myself if necessary)

If you are significantly worried that your top options might not work out, or just significantly interested in exploring options that make more use of your teaching-ish skillset, it may well be worth reaching out the post's author, Jack Malde.

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Another person it could be worth talking to is alexrjl. Alex did the Teach First program (source) but now does a range of things related to forecasting and EA-aligned research, including making a series of videos to help people understand and get better at forecasting. (I don't know Alex personally and haven't watched those videos myself.)

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Disclaimer: I expect more could be said on this topic, perhaps especially by people who know more about your full set of interests, skills, and plans. These comments are just a relatively quick response. I also haven't tailored my comment to the fact you have skills and interest in AI and policy.

Hey PolicyPhDPoser! Unfortunately, I don't think I'd have much in the way of valuable direct responses to the questions in your first paragraph and your comment on the 80k open thread. But it sounds like you've been talking to a range of people who'd know more about that, which is great! 

One other thing I'd add is that you might find other good people to talk to in EA London's Community Directory, which is "a list of people based near London who are interested in effective altruism and would be happy for you to reach out to them to ask questions or arrange a 1-1." I think it includes several people who've focused on things like civil service careers, tech policy, and AI.

(I'll address your other questions in a separate comment.)

The bottom line: after filling out the 80,000 hours' career plan worksheet and putting lots of time into it, section 7.1.2 recommends feedback. Send a personal message if there is any interest! Also, it would be a good idea to swap if there are any other career plan worksheets out there that need review.

I've sent you a message :)

(Though I'd still encourage other readers to offer feedback if they have the time, given that (a) I might only have time for a relatively shallow look, and (b) in any case it's often useful to get multiple different perspectives.)

And thanks for offering to swap and give feedback on other people's worksheets. I think it'd be great if that was something that could just regularly happen with pairs of EAs (i.e., that whenever someone fills out such a worksheet, there's somewhere they can go to request/offer to swap and both give and get feedback).

The promised additional, less important info on why I'm making this thread and how I suggest people use it

(I'll split this info into different replies to this one comment.)

I highly recommend the post Asking for advice; I think people who want to get feedback on their career plans via this thread could gain by reading that. I also recommend the post Giving and receiving advice

Here's more of what the particularly relevant section of 80,000 Hours' article on How to plan your career says:

Try to get feedback from people who understand your aim to have an impact, and can be supportive while they challenge your thinking. A ‘career-planning partner’ can be great if you can find someone to trade career plans with — you can critique each other’s plans and help each other generate more options, plus provide moral support. Our advisors may be able to help too.

How do you reach out to people? It depends on your relationship — but if the person is someone you don’t know as well or with whom you have a more formal relationship, these tips may be helpful. In these cases, it’s better to send one or two specific questions rather than your whole plan.

It can often be easier to reach out to people if you’re both part of a community focused on making a positive difference, because then they know helping you will help them further your shared goals.

If you get some negative feedback, don’t respond hastily. If your plan is unconventional — which is likely if you’re targeting something neglected — probably not everyone is going to agree with it. Try to understand the reasons behind their negative reaction, and decide whether to adjust. If the reasons are unclear, perhaps wait to see if others have a similar reaction or if it’s an isolated example.

On a similar note, I think it'd be really cool if this open thread led to people finding "career-planning partners". (See also Rob Wiblin's comments about how having a line manager can be surprisingly beneficial, and how it may be possible to capture a lot of those benefits by just having pairs of junior people who want more line management act as each other's line managers.)

I expect a lot of people would benefit from going through 80,000 Hours career planning article and/or the accompanying worksheet. 

I think this applies especially to people who haven't yet spent a huge amount of time on career planning or reading articles from 80,000 Hours. But I worked through the article and worksheet recently and found it helpful, despite already having spent a lot of time on career planning, as well as having (I think) read almost all of 80,000 Hours main articles and many of the more blog-post-y ones too.

The trigger for me to make this open thread post was this comment thread. As I wrote there:

Your comment makes me think that something that might be really easy and really valuable is to just have an online space where people are encouraged to share docs outlining their career ideas, plans, and uncertainties [...], in order to get feedback and advice.[1]

Obviously people can already take the initiative to do that in ad hoc ways, either in public spaces (like you've done) or via reaching out to specific people. And that's already useful. But I expect a lot of people who could benefit from this sort of thing would be too shy to do that, or just not think to do it, or be held back by not having enough of a network of relevant people.

Four options come to mind for how to do this:

Does anyone have thoughts on which of these options might be best? Maybe as a first step someone should just make an open thread and see how it goes?

[...]

[1] This also reminds me of Rob Wiblin's comments about how having a line manager can be surprisingly beneficial, and how it may be possible to capture a lot of those benefits by just having pairs of junior people who want more line management act as each other's line managers.

Michelle Hutchinson replied:

This sounds great to me! I'd be tempted to try out things in existing infrastructure first, like trying it out in the careers discussion fbook group, or the open thread you mentioned.

Other options that come to mind:

  • Look at the EA London community directory for people who would likely have relevant comments on your plan and reach out to them. This seems like it might be more likely to get a reply than a general call, and the person might have more relevant comments than a random person would. But they would likely have less time because they're not selected by being keen to look over a career plan.
  • Finding an accountability partner eg through the EA life coaching exchange Facebook group and looking through each other's.
  • Talking to other EAs at your local meet up about looking through your plan, or if there isn't a group in your area joining EA Anywhere

I've been surprised how much people's preferences on how to give comments on career plans differs. For example, I find it takes me ages to read through a plan so I end up putting it off for ages. Whereas I really like talking to people, so I'm much happier to chat to someone for half an hour. By contrast a friend of mine finds answering questions on the spot really stressful, so far prefers reading over things. So it seems worth giving people an option about whether to read through something (and if so how much) or whether to chat.

In the longer run, I think it would be cool to have a facebook group or slack for EA job seekers to keep each other motivated and accountable, because it's so hard to apply for jobs and deal with the uncertainty. That might also be a good place for people sharing and commenting on career plans.

And the user gkaufman27@gmail.com suggested a Discord server.

I like all of Michelle's suggestions. And Discord sounds like it could work too, though I haven't tried the platform at all myself. I think it's very possible that one of these ideas other than an EA Forum open thread would be better, or should be used as well. But I figured I may as well experiment with this open thread first.

EA Global Reconnect will probably have a slack/discord. That might be a convenient place to try out chat format