There is a re-occurring theme in EA organizations that one major bottleneck is senior researchers' time. They always face the trade-off between doing direct work or mentoring less senior people. I think this is a very important question and I'm very unsure what the right answer is.For the long-term growth of the community, it seems plausible that some senior people should primarily do mentoring. On the other hand, there are important questions that need to be addressed right now and the next pandemic or AI risk isn't going to wait until the EA community gets bigger. Thus, my questions are
a) Has anyone ever thought about this question in detail? 
b) What factors would such a decision depend on? Intuitively, the senior's ability to mentor and the urgency of the problem play a role but there is surely more.
c) Are there options to combine mentorship and direct work, i.e. can senior people reliably outsource simple tasks to their mentees?




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Good question! One consideration: in many cases, mentorship may not trade off directly against direct work. Many people report that there is a limited number of hours of research/writing/'deep work'/hard thinking that they can do in a day (people often say 2-5 hours);  but they can do other, not so focussed work on top of that. This is certainly the case for me! (Not that I'm a senior researcher). I suspect this is why in academia, it's customary for professors to both research and teach - they wouldn't spend all their time researching anyway. 

So, while it's certainly possible for mentorship responsibilities to be distracting and seriously trade off against research, I suspect that with the right balance, many researchers will be able to do research at their full capacity and also do a limited amount of mentorship. 

Right. There are definitely some helpful heuristics and analogies but I was wondering if anyone took a deep dive and looked at research or conducted their own experiments. Seems like a potentially pretty big question for EA orgs and if some strategies are 10% more effective than others (measured by output over time) it could make a big difference to the movement. 

Maybe Lynette Bye would be interested in doing this type of research (or has already started doing it)?

Not a complete answer, but some subquestions this question invokes for me:

 - How much difference does lack of mentorship have on junior researchers? Are they likely to quit EA research altogether and do something else, are they likely to take more years to reach same capability level, are they likely to simply fail to reach the same level of capability despite trying?

 - Split above question by more minimal mentorship and deeper mentorship. I have a feeling deeper mentoring relationships can be very valuable (I could be wrong).

 - Mentorship has compounding benefits for EA and this gives it priority to be done sooner rather than later. How compounding or "foundational" is the direct research work of the senior researcher? To make this more concrete, how much is lost if the senior researcher does their own research 10 years later (because they want to do mentoring first)?

If someone postpones work on directly reducing nuclear risk, the loss is 10 years of humanity's exposure to the nuclear risk delta caused by that research piece. Whereas if the senior researcher is working to create valuable new research agendas that can eventually absorb a large number of researchers, and they don't believe anyone else could create this agenda at around the same time, it seems important that this gets done sooner rather than later. Civilisational refuges seems like an example of such a work, so does some (not all) alignment research.

a) Has anyone ever thought about this question in detail? 

  • I haven't thought about this in detail but I have a weakly held view that senior people should do more mentoring
  • (without wanting to imply that I'm a "senior EA") I've thought about it / am generally inclined to think about it more carefully for me personally, I think last time I did I basically thought I'd like to do more mentoring and was bottlenecked on not having anyone to mentor (but not sure that I currently think I should do more mentoring)

b) What factors would such a decision depend on? Intuitively, the senior's ability to mentor and the urgency of the problem play a role but there is surely more. 

  • For myself I might try to do a fermi, maybe something like (just for illustration, extremely rough and not thought through, etc): career capital for me (maybe made concrete with "how many hours of productive time am I willing to sacrifice for the expected career capital") + career capital for mentee (maybe "by how many days do I accelerate their career progression x how much impact will they have compared to me") - time cost for me
  • I will say I think some people enjoy mentoring (and similar things) way more than others, and this probably matters a lot. Maybe in the above fermi you can apply a factor to the time cost to convert it from "actual clock time" to "counterfactual difference in time spent on other productive things" or whatever
  • Maybe another factor is how disruptive it is for you to add (say) another meeting per month to your diary. E.g. if you usually have around 2 meetings per week and otherwise can focus on research, maybe adding more meetings is very costly.

c) Are there options to combine mentorship and direct work, i.e. can senior people reliably outsource simple tasks to their mentees?

  • I think outsourcing simple tasks is surprisingly hard. But maybe a good version of this looks something like having an RA/PA (and maybe senior people should have more RAs/PAs).
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Meta-comment - this is a great question. Probably there are many similar questions about difficult prioritisation decisions that EAs normally try to solve individually (and which many, myself included, won't be very deliberate and systematic about). More discussions and estimates about such decisions could be helpful.

Agree. I guess most EA orgs have thought about this. Some superficially and some extensively. If someone who feels like they have a good grasp on these and other management/prioritization questions, writing a "Basic EA org handbook" could be pretty high impact. 

Something like "please don't repeat these rookie mistakes" would already save thousands of EA hours. 

Max Dalton (CEA) gave a talk about this at EAG London 2021 - help find your dream colleague, going through the pros and cons and giving some arguments for using some of your time for mentoring. 

thanks for the link!

This question is related to the question of how much effort effective altruism as a whole should put into movement growth relative to direct work. That question has been more discussed; e.g. see the Wiki entry and posts by Peter Hurford, Ben Todd, Owen Cotton-Barratt, and Nuño Sempere/Phil Trammell.

Like Stefan Shubert says, this is a great question!

It's brief, tightly written and high signal to noise, and has a lot of "object-level content"—like the tradeoffs between object level work and community growth, and the key value mentorship has.