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.
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 as most people have several career changes in their life, 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.
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.
There are other reasons to focus recruitment on students and young professionals that I do buy.
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”