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I’m Catherine, and I'm one of the Community Liaisons working in CEA’s Community Health and Special Projects Team. This is a personal post about my career. 

I’m somewhat to the right of the main age peak of the EA community😬 .So I’ve had a lot of time to make mistakes sub-optimal choices in my career. It has been a long and odd road from my childhood/teenage dream jobs (train driver, Department of Conservation ranger, vet and then physicist) to where I am now.

Train I planned to drive. Endangered parrot I planned to help make less endangered.

Before I got into EA

Fluke 1: Born into immense privilege by global standards (and reasonable privilege by rich country standards)

Mistake 1:  Not doing something with that privilege. I wish someone (maybe me?) sat me down and said (maybe a more polite version of)“You know which part of the bell curve you’re on. Try doing something more useful for the world!”

At school and university I was mostly just driven by curiosity about the world (plus avoiding situations where I would screw up important things). That led me to study physics and a smattering of philosophy in undergraduate, and then started a PhD in theoretical physics.  I conveniently chose a subject area that meant few people would read my work, and the impact on the world would be ~zero (in my mind this was a feature, not a bug). 

Good call 1: I talked to other students in the research group before choosing a PhD supervisor

This led me to have an unusually attentive and supportive team.  I think this made a HUGE difference in my enjoyment and productivity during that time. It still wasn’t incredibly enjoyable and productive, but I was much better off than most PhD students.  

Mistake 2: Mistaking my interest in the ideas with interest in the day to day work

I’m very extroverted – and I knew that before starting the PhD. Theoretical physics research is very solitary – which I also knew. Did I think that through? Turns out no.

Mistake 3: Not giving up sooner 

I was pretty sure research wasn’t for me after 1.5 years. I should have stopped then. 

The obvious signs happened at the end of each holiday:

The whole department: “Oh man, the undergrads are coming back, I’m so annoyed I have to teach, I wish I could just keep doing my research” 
Me: “Oh thank Christ! The undergraduates are coming back! I’ll get to talk to people, and have some escape from the interminable research” 

I could have even written up a Master's thesis at that stage so I didn't even need to go home with nothing to show. But I was stubborn and spent another 2 years finishing my PhD. 

Mistake 4: Not exploring more options (even though they were scary)

I went straight into teacher training. It was hard at first, but overall a pretty good fit for me. But I wish I explored other paths too.

Good Call 2: Got really good at a valuable(ish) thing, and then used that as leverage to branch out a little

I spent 11 years teaching. At first I worked hard on my regular teaching job and got good at it. Then that led me to be able to do lots of extra things; writing resources and assessments, then leading teams of writers and assessors, running science camps, getting involved in physics competitions, and consulting with government authorities. I became one of the go-to people in my little field – a moderately big fish in a teency pond. This was great for giving me more confidence and gave me more of a sense of my varied skills. 

After learning about EA

EA sparked a big change in how I thought about my career (and my life more generally). 

Good call 3: I didn’t let my age put me off changing careers 

In EA there is so much focus on students and young professionals - one of the reasons is because if we influence a young person to pursue a high impact career path, they will have many years of high impact work ahead of them. But I roughly reject that reason[1] as most people have several career changes in their life[2], and my best guess was that the expected length of my next career would be similar (if not longer) than the expected length of a 20 year old undergraduate student’s first career. 

I continue to worry a bit about a bias against older people in our community. 

Good call 4: I reliably did stuff that seemed to need doing, even if they were boring, low status, or unpaid. I tried to be of service to others. 

I generally didn’t do this to advance my career (at least not consciously) but it was helpful in my career. My ability to do this was due to Fluke 1!

I internalised moral responsibility when I got into EA. I was very influenced by some earlier EAs like Julia and Jeff - who gave up significant resources to make a big difference with not a lot of encouragement from the world. And I too gave up a lot of free time (and some money) to EA causes. 

It was hard but good.  A bonus was that (slowly) more people trusted me and were keen to work with me.

Sometimes I’ve thought “oh these young EA whippersnappers, expecting so much! They don’t know how good they got it. Back in the old days we used to <insert financial or personal sacrifice> and didn't expect anything back”. I don’t endorse this thought, but it crossed my mind quite regularly through the time of (apparent) plenty in the EA movement, and occasionally the thought still pops up. 
 

Mistake 5: Thought too narrowly about my absolute advantage and didn't consider where my largest impact was. 

My best guess at my absolute advantage in the world was designing and delivering physics education. I therefore figured that designing and delivering EA education might be what I should do in the EA world. But I was most likely wrong. 

In retrospect I think it would have been higher impact for me to have had a different approach: To identify really impactful projects/orgs/people that I think are doing exceptional work, and see if/how I could help with them, rather than narrowly thinking about my obvious skills and current roles (this post articulates this thought well).

I did a lot of voluntary work. I volunteered for Students for High-Impact Charity for about 1.5 years.  I co-founded a national and city EA group, helped run an EAGx, co-set up and did the admin for a donation funnelling charity, and gave a LOT of introductory EA workshops and talks. During this time I dropped from full time to part time teaching to do more volunteer work.

This was mostly great. I enjoyed teaching people about EA, and I had satisfaction from seeing EA Aotearoa New Zealand grow. 

Interestingly, what I guess was the counterfactually highest impact thing during this time (bringing Kiwi EAs together at retreats) didn’t leverage my most obvious skills.

Shady spot for lunch at an EA Aotearoa New Zealand retreat

Good Call 5: I took a scary step - quitting my secure job without another guaranteed paid opportunity lined up (but with runway and a plan Z). 

After I quit my secure job, we secured enough funding to pay me (for 1.5 years) to work on Students for High Impact Charity full time. It was great not to have split focus between paid work and volunteer work. I taught (usually very fun) or facilitated the teaching of (a little less fun) a bunch of students, mostly in NZ, Canada and the UK.

Mistake 6: Not giving up sooner (again)

But Students for High-Impact Charity eventually shut up shop - it had little impact as far as I could tell. I should have come to that conclusion much earlier than I did. At the time I was keen to pivot the program to try something different, but we didn’t have the funding (and current-Catherine probably wouldn’t have funded a pivoted version either). 

Mistake 7: Over updating on a few rejections

After stopping Students for High Impact Charity, I fell into some part time work for other projects of Rethink Charity (mostly the EA Hub, working on resources for EA groups), but that was always only going to be temporary.

I applied for a couple of grants to get paid for various EA projects that I had been doing as a volunteer, and I applied for two animal advocacy roles. But I wasn’t successful. This felt pretty shit. I had worked really hard, but I felt “EA” wasn't “supporting me”. I think this was a really unfair characterisation, but it is what it felt like at the time. Then I worried I just wasn’t very useful or worthy. 

I still kept doing voluntary work, including continuing to work on my EA groups and helping to start Magnify Mentoring.  

In retrospect it is crazy that I updated so much on only four rejections! Many people go for tons of roles before being successful or changing their plans. I'm a bit annoyed with myself that I was so dejected based on very little information. 

Fluke 2: Stumbling into a role at the Groups team at CEA

I asked the Groups team if they were interested in funding me to keep working on resources for EA groups. But they instead decided to offer me a half time contracting position, in part because they heard I had been helpful to many people going through their EA journeys. Within weeks that became a full time contract, and later an employee role. 

Good call 6 (the best call): Doing what people I trusted thought would be most valuable

At one point the Community Health team at CEA was very low in capacity, so I was asked to help out for a bit. It was difficult. It felt important. I felt underprepared. After a time, two of the people whose judgments I trust the most (the previously mentioned Julia Wise, and the team lead Nicole Ross) asked me to come full time onto the team. So I did. 

I was careful in making my decision; weighing up all the considerations I could think of, getting advice from friends and colleagues, attempting to do all the expected value calculations and counterfactual reasoning. But in the end the clincher was that two people that I thought very highly of thought it was the right call. This sounds too defer-y but I think it made sense. I had spent enough time witnessing Julia and Nicole thinking and getting things done (live or through reading their work) to have a good sense of their judgement, they were sufficiently aware of my skills to know how I could bring value, and most importantly, they gave me the confidence and support to do hard things that I would not have previously dared to do.  

 

  1. ^

    There are other reasons to focus recruitment on students and young professionals that I do buy. 

  2. ^

    Random quick googling gave me a variety of probably untrustworthy websites with claims that I’m sceptical of and didn’t check like “most people will have 12 jobs during their lives”. “As people get older they change jobs less and less”. “The average person will change careers 5-7 times during their working life

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Hi Catherine! Great writeup, I really liked it :) I especially liked "Good call 4: I reliably did stuff that seemed to need doing, even if they were boring, low status, or unpaid. I tried to be of service to others." It reminds me of Miranda's essay The Importance of Sidekicks, which resonated with me more than the usual hero narratives I hear bandied about.

Also:

I was very influenced by some earlier EAs like Julia and Jeff - who gave up significant resources to make a big difference with not a lot of encouragement from the world.

Julia and Jeff's story was personally inspirational to me as well. I kept going back to the anecdotes in Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar in the chapter profiling Julia, Jeff and the early EA movement; they were powerfully moving. 

Thanks for writing this Catherine! I am glad that things are going so well now. You are finally getting the recognition and responsibilities that you have long deserved. 
 

I had worked really hard, but I felt “EA” wasn't “supporting me”. I think this was a really unfair characterisation, but it is what it felt like at the time. Then I worried I just wasn’t very useful or worthy... In retrospect it is crazy that I updated so much on only four rejections! Many people go for tons of roles before being successful or changing their plans. I'm a bit annoyed with myself that I was so dejected based on very little information. 


I disagree here. I think your reaction was normal and reasonable. I don't think the community valued or supported you enough for a long time! I was/am pretty annoyed about your experiences. 

I think that the EA community has a big problem in failing to i) search for those who are being quietly selfless and super impactful like you were, ii) help them to sustain and scale their impacts and iii) appropriately value good community building and less 'showy' work. 

It is probably not as bad as it used to be, but there are probably still opportunities for improvements.

Love this, thanks Catherine! Great way of structuring a career story for being useful to the audience btw, might copy it at some point.

Thank you so much Catherine! Very inspiring post. I appreciate the details of how you were feeling at each point in time, and how you now feel looking back.

I know you say you don't really endorse this thought: "oh these young EA whippersnappers, expecting so much! They don’t know how good they got it...". 

But at least in my case, I have noticed recently that I have been <inserting financial or personal sacrifice> and expecting something back in return. So you sharing your instinctive reaction was exactly what I needed to hear to remind me there are other (often better) ways to think about sacrifice.

Sacrifice is an interesting concept. In my background of Christianity it is the topic of endless debate. Sometimes people obviously sacrifice for a cause (martin Luther king, Nelson Mandela). But if someone like usI just gives up potential money and comfort but gain peace, satisfaction and deep meaning in our life, canwe really don't that as sacrifice or should we just call it good life decisions?

There are definitely different levels of sacrifice. I certainly wouldn't compare any sacrifice I've made to what Mandela, or King, or Jesus did.

But I don't think sacrifice is an inappropriate word in this context. We say that athletes make sacrifices to achieve their goals - in terms of time, physical pain, dietary restrictions, giving up socialization to get enough sleep. I think the sorts of tradeoffs an EA might be confronted with are comparable to that notion of sacrifice - giving up certain luxuries to donate more, or working on an important project for two hours on a weeknight when you'd rather watch a movie. For both the athlete and the EA, in the end they get more satisfaction for doing the disciplined thing. They think their goal is worth sacrificing for.

But maybe you're hinting that a lot of us need to emphasize more the "peace, satisfaction, and deep meaning" when talking about why we do what we do. I do agree with that. Less "woe is me" and more "look how rich my life is because I'm working on something I think is important."

I don't think that's incompatible with the idea of sacrifice - maybe just a matter of giving the right emphasis in the right context.

(the above sounds a bit sanctimonious haha - I'm really not that sacrificing a person, and I'm talking more about the ideals I strive for than what I actually achieve)

I loved this story and the way you told it. You took some risks and learned from setbacks and ultimately got to a point in your career where, I believe, many people would like to be. As a middle aged person with a non-linear career (I started my working life in debt collection - shhhh!) it gives me hope that I can start a new chapter even if it doesn't look like a traditional "job." Thanks for sharing.

In retrospect it is crazy that I updated so much on only four rejections!

Does giving up after two rejections make me twice as crazy?

(I love the "mistake" vs. "fluke" distinction, and wish I'd thought to use it in my own essay.)

This is very inspirational, thank you Catherine! I keep coming back to the question of whether it's worth it to try and capitalize on one's obvious skills (e.g. you as a physicist). At what point does one tell themself "To hell with what I spent many years learning about and let's do this other thing I'm great at"? I found Nate Soares's "Be a new homunculus" very useful to think about this question, though I seem unable to resolve myself to give those skills up. At what point it's not worth it to explore where those could be uniquely useful (and it would be a waste to give it up) anymore?

Is there something you would have told your younger self to convince you to take that path sooner?

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Catherine! I found this super helpful!

Thanks for writing this up, Catherine! Career paths always seem to straight forward in hindsight and I enjoyed getting a bit more context on your path.

As always, thank you for all you do and I'm so grateful we have you in the community!

"oh these young EA whippersnappers, expecting so much!" is exactly how I feel sometimes! Thank you so much for writing this post, its brilliant (Read also as 'you' are brilliant) :)