(On Aaron Gertler's suggestion, I am sharing something that I originally wrote on my Facebook page. Perhaps it might inspire some people to pick up one or two of their crazier ideas and actually do something about them - perhaps, like I did, by applying to some grant or position that they think they for sure won't get.)

I recently received a substantial grant from the Centre for Effective Altruism's Long Term Future Fund. One thing I learned from that process was: sometimes wacky crazy ideas, where I think, "that'll never really work!" - actually do work.

Three months ago I wasn't even *thinking* about the possibility of doing a PhD - I simply didn't have any time to do the PhD outside of work, and I couldn't afford to significantly lower my income so I could take off time from work to go back to school. Then one day - I don't remember what triggered this - I had a crazy thought. I knew that some effective altruist organizations had occasionally funded people to do PhDs related to AI safety. So I thought, "look, I do AI safety research, what if I asked them if instead of funding my PhD directly, they could instead replace half my current income, thereby allowing me to drop down to 20 hrs/wk at work and spend the other 20 hours working on a PhD?"

I didn't really think there was any serious chance this would work. It's an unusual grant request, it would cost them a lot of money, and I mean, seriously, who am I to think I'm worth all that money from their perspective? But on a whim I sent off an email to the Long Term Future Fund explaining my idea.

Two months and several conversations later, they told me they decided to approve the grant.

I'm still surprised, honestly. Extremely grateful, but still surprised.

Anyway, yeah, sometimes crazy ideas are worth at least shooting off an email - you never know, maybe a few months later you'll be doing something you only dreamed of doing before.

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Congrats!

I think part of this is about EAs recalibrating what is "crazy" within the community. In general, I think the right assumption is that if you want $ to do basically anything, there's a good chance (honestly >50%) you can get it.

Thanks for writing this-- I was interested! 

Just for ease of access (because I went looking for more information myself), you can find more info on the Long Term Future Fund and the application at this link (this also includes other funds), and there's an AMA with the Long Term Future Fund team here (the AMA is closed but has a ton of comments). 

Congratulations, Aryeh! 

Look forward to following your work.

How did you get your employer to approve "half time for half pay"?

Part-time work is an option at my workplace. Less than half-time loses benefits though, which is why I didn't want to drop down to lower than 50%.

Congratulations, this is really great to hear, and seems like a fantastic opportunity!

Out of interest, what was the sequence of events, did you already have a PhD program lined up when you applied for funding? Or are you going to apply for one now that you have the funding? Also had you already discussed this with your current employer before applying for funding?

I only ask because I have been considering attempting to do something similar!

  1. I did not have an advisor when I sent the original email, but I did have what amounted to a standing offer from my undergrad ML professor that if I ever wanted to do a PhD he would take me as a grad student. I spent a good amount of time over the past three months deciding whether I should take him up on that or if I should apply elsewhere. I ended up taking him up on the offer.

  2. I did not discuss it with my employer before sending the original email. It did take some work to get it through bureaucratic red tape though (conflict of interest check, etc.).

Very useful to know, thanks for the context!