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MichaelA's Shortform

Yeah, I think it’s very plausible that career RAs could yield meaningful productivity gains in organizations that differ structurally from “traditional” academic research groups, including, importantly, many EA research institutions. I think this depends a lot on the kinds of research that these organizations are conducting (in particular, the methods being employed and the intended audiences of published work), how the senior researchers’ jobs are designed, what the talent pipeline looks like, etc., but it’s certainly at least plausible that this could be the case.

On the parallels/overlap between what makes for a good RA and what makes for a good research manager, my view is actually probably weaker than I may have suggested in my initial comment. The reason why RAs are sometimes promoted into research management positions, as I understand it, is that effective research management is believed to require an understanding of what the research process, workflow, etc. look like in the relevant discipline and academic setting, and RAs are typically the only people without PhDs who have that context-specific understanding. Plus, they’ll also have relevant domain knowledge about the substance of the research, which is quite useful in a research manager, too. I think these are pretty much all of the reasons why RAs may make for good research managers. I don’t really think it’s a matter of skills or of mindset anywhere near as much as it’s about knowledge (both tacit and not). In fact, I think one difficulty with promoting RAs to research management roles is that often, being a successful RA seems to select for traits associated with not having good management skills (e.g., being happy spending one’s days reading academic papers alone with very limited opportunities for interpersonal contact). This is why I limited my original comment on this to RAs who can effectively manage people, who, as I suggested, I think are probably a small minority. Because good research managers are so rare, though, and because research is so management-constrained without them, if someone is such an RA and they have the opportunity, I would think that moving into research management could be quite an impactful path for them. 

MichaelA's Shortform

I actually think full-time RA roles are very commonly (probably more often than not?) publicly advertised. Some fields even have centralized job boards that aggregate RA roles across the discipline, and on top of that, there are a growing number of formalized predoctoral RA programs at major research universities in the U.S. I am actually currently working as an RA in an academic research group that has had roles posted on the 80,000 Hours job board. While I think it is common for students to approach professors in their academic program and request RA work, my sense is that non-students seeking full-time RA positions very rarely have success cold-emailing professors and asking if they need any help. Most professors do not have both ongoing need for an (additional) RA and the funding to hire one (whereas in the case of their own students, universities often have special funding set aside for students’ research training, and professors face an expectation that they help interested students to develop as researchers).

Separately, regarding the second bullet point, I think it is extremely common for even full-time RAs to only periodically be meaningfully useful and to spend the rest of their time working on relatively low-priority “back burner” projects. In general, my sense is that work for academic RAs often comes in waves; some weeks, your PI will hand you loads of things to do, and you’ll be working late, but some weeks, there will be very little for you to do at all. In many cases, I think RAs are hired at least to some extent for the value of having them effectively on call.

MichaelA's Shortform

For the last few years, I’ve been an RA in the general domain of ~economics at a major research university, and I think that while a lot of what you’re saying makes sense, it’s important to note that the quality of one’s experience as an RA will always depend to a very significant extent on one’s supervising researcher. In fact, I think this dependency might be just about the only thing every RA role has in common. Your data points/testimonials reasonably represent what it’s like to RA for a good supervisor, but bad supervisors abound (at least/especially in academia), and RAing for a bad supervisor can be positively nightmarish. Furthermore, it’s harder than you’d think to screen for this in advance of taking an RA job. I feel particularly lucky to be working for a great supervisor, but/because I am quite familiar with how much the alternative sucks.

On a separate note, regarding your comment about people potentially specializing in RAing as a career, I don’t really think this would yield much in the way of productivity gains relative to the current state of affairs in academia (where postdocs often already fill the role that I think you envision for career RAs). I do, however, think that it makes a lot of sense for some RAs to go into careers in research management. Though most RAs probably lack the requisite management aptitude, the ones who can effectively manage people, I think, can substantially increase the productivity of mid-to-large academic labs/research groups by working in management roles (I know J-PAL has employed former RAs in this capacity). A lot of academic research is severely management-constrained, in large part because management duties are often foisted upon PIs (and no one goes into academia because they want to be a manager, nor do PIs typically receive any management training, so the people responsible for management often enough lack both relevant interest and relevant skill). Moreover, productivity losses to bad management often go unrecognized because how well their research group is being managed is, like, literally at the very bottom of most PIs’ lists of things to think about (not just because they’re not interested in it, also because they’re often very busy and have many different things competing for their attention). Finally, one consequence of this is that bad RAs (at least in the social sciences) can unproductively consume a research group’s resources for extended periods of time without anyone taking much notice. On the other hand, even if the group tries to avoid this by employing a more active management approach, in that case a bad RA can meaningfully impede the group’s productivity by requiring more of their supervisor’s time to manage them than they save through their work. My sense is that fear of this situation pervades RA hiring processes in many corners of academia.

The despair of normative realism bot

This discussion reminds of a comment R.M. Hare made in his 1957 essay “Nothing Matters”:

Think of one world into whose fabric values are objectively built; and think of another in which those values have been annihilated. And remember that in both worlds the people in them go on being concerned about the same things - there is no difference in the 'subjective' concern which people have for things, only in their 'objective' value. Now I ask, What is the difference between the states of affairs in these two worlds? Can any other answer be given except 'None whatever'? How, therefore can we torment ourselves with doubts about which of them our own world resembles?

In another interesting parallel, in the same essay, Hare uses the term “play-acting” to refer to describe those who claim that nothing matters.

Donation multiplier

While not exactly the same, EA researchers are already doing something quite similar: https://givingmultiplier.org/.

Careers Questions Open Thread

That makes perfect sense! I agree that CE probably isn't the best fit for people most interested in doing EA work to mitigate existential risks. Feel free to shoot me a DM if you'd ever like to talk any of this through at greater length, but otherwise, it seems to me like you're approaching these decisions in a very sensible way.

Careers Questions Open Thread

Happy to help! Another thing that strikes me is that in my experience (which is in the U.S.), running an academic research team at a university (i.e., being the principal investigator on the team's grants) seems to have a lot in common with running a startup (you have a lot of autonomy/flexibility in how you spend your time; your efficacy is largely determined by how good you are at coordinating other people's efforts and setting their priorities for them; you spend a lot of time coordinating with external stakeholders and pitching your value-add; you have authority over your organization's general direction; etc.). This seems relevant because I think a lot of the top university economics research groups in the U.S. have a pretty substantial impact on policy (e.g., consider Opportunity Insights), and the same may well be true in the U.K. It seems to me that other avenues toward impacting policy (e.g., working in the government or for major, established advocacy organizations) are considerably less entrepreneurial in nature. Of course, you could also found your own advocacy organization to push for policy change, but 1) I think it's generally easier to get funding for research than for work along these lines (especially as a newcomer), in part because the advocacy space is already so crowded, and 2) founding an advocacy organization seems like the kind of thing one might do through Charity Entrepreneurship, which you seem less excited about. If you're mainly attracted to entrepreneurship by tight feedback loops, however, academia is probably the wrong way to go, as it definitely does not have those.

Careers Questions Open Thread

It sounds based on your description that a fairly straightforward step would be for you to try to set up calls with 1) someone on the Charity Entrepreneurship leadership team, and 2) some of the founders of their incubated charities. This would help you to evaluate whether it would be a good idea for you to apply to the CE program at some point, as well as to refine your sense of which aspects of entrepreneurship you’re particularly suited to (so that if entrepreneurship doesn’t work out—maybe you discover other aspects of it that seem less appealing—you’ll be able to look for the bits you care for in positions with more established organizations). If you came out of those calls convinced that you might want to apply to Charity Entrepreneurship down the road, it seems to me that a logical next step would be to start reading up on potential causes and interventions that you might want your charity to pursue. You could also, I’m sure, do volunteer work for existing, newly launched CE charities, where given that most of them only have two staff, you’d probably be given a fair amount of responsibility and would be able to develop useful insights into the entrepreneurial process. For you, the value of information from doing that seems like it might be quite high.

Careers Questions Open Thread

That seems like a sound line of reasoning to me — best of luck with the rest of your degree!

Careers Questions Open Thread

I think this is a really hard question, and the right answer to it likely depends to a very significant degree on precisely what you’re likely to want to do professionally in the near and medium-term. I recently graduated from a top U.S. university, and my sense is that the two most significant benefits I reaped from where I went to school were:

  1. Having that name brand on my resume definitely opened doors for me when applying for jobs during my senior year. I’m actually fairly confident that I would not have gotten my first job out of college had I gone to a less prestigious school, though I think this only really applies to positions at a fairly narrow set of financial services firms and consulting firms, as well as in certain corners of academic research.
  2. I think I personally benefited from a significant peer effect. My specific social circle pushed me to challenge myself academically more than I likely otherwise would have (in ways that probably hurt my GPA but served me well all things considered). That said, I know that the academic research on peer effects in education is mixed to say the least, so I’d be hesitant to extrapolate much from my own experience.

I’m not sure how to weigh the importance of the first of those considerations. On the one hand, your first job is just that: your first job. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything about where you’ll end up at age 35. On the other hand, I do feel like I have observed this phenomenon of smart people graduating from relatively unknown universities and really struggling to find interesting work during their first several years out of college and then eventually resigning themselves to getting a master’s degree from a more well-known school (sometimes in a field where the educational benefit of the degree is relatively low) just so that they can get in the door to interview for jobs in their field of choice. This obviously comes at a significant cost, both in terms of time and—often but not always—in terms of money. That said, in some fields, you just do need a master’s to get in the door for a lot of roles, no matter where you went to undergrad or what you did while you were there, and maybe that’s all that’s really behind this.

Another thing potentially worth noting is that, in my experience, it seems as if U.S. research universities are most usefully divisible into three categories with respect to their undergraduate job placement: universities that “high-prestige” employers are unlikely to have heard of, universities that “high-prestige” employers are likely to have heard of and have vaguely positive associations with, and finally, the set of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Stanford (these are distinguished not only by their name brands but also by the extent of their funding and support for undergraduate research and internships, the robustness of their undergraduate advising, and other more “experiential” factors). There are certainly exceptions to this breakdown (the financial services and consulting firms mentioned above definitely differentiate between Penn and Michigan), but by and large, my sense has been that controlling for “ability,” the difference in early-career outcomes between a Harvard graduate and a Penn graduate is significantly larger than the difference in early-career outcomes between a Penn graduate and a Michigan graduate (note: the specific schools chosen as examples within each cohort here are completely arbitrary). Accordingly, I don’t think that very many people generally have a strong professional reason to transfer from UCLA to Brown or from the University of Virginia to Dartmouth, etc. However, I buy that those at lesser-known schools may, in many circumstances, have a strong professional reason to transfer to their flagship state school.

Other good reasons to transfer, I think, include transferring for the purpose of getting to a particular city where you know you want to work when you graduate, with an eye toward spending a portion of the remainder of your time in college networking or interning in your field of choice. In particular, I think that if you want to work in U.S. (national) policy after graduation, transferring to a school in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area can be hugely beneficial. The same goes for financial services in the New York City Metropolitan Area, entertainment in Los Angeles, and (perhaps, though I am less sure about this) tech in the San Francisco Bay Area. In your case, it might be worthwhile to submit a transfer application to Georgetown with the aim of trying to forge some connections at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (or perhaps the Center for Global Health Science and Security if you are interested in biosecurity policy), both of which are housed there. One other very strong reason to transfer, it seems to me, would be if you wanted to work on AI, but your current school didn’t have a computer science department, like a local state school near where I grew up. I assume from your post that that isn’t your situation, though.

Finally, I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of mental health considerations, to the extent that those may be at all relevant to your choice. Mental health during college can have a huge impact on GPA, and while where you go to undergrad will only really be a factor in determining your grad school prospects for a relatively narrow set of programs (mainly, I think, via the way it affects the kinds of research jobs you can get during and post-college), GPA is a huge determinant of grad school admissions across basically every field, so that is important to bear in mind. The transfer experience, from what I have heard, is not always easy, especially, I imagine, in academic environments that are already very high-pressure.

If you’d like to talk through this at greater length, feel free to DM me. To the extent that my perspective might be useful, I’d be more than happy to offer it, and if you’d just like someone to bounce ideas off of, I’d be happy to fill that role, as well.

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