Michelle_Hutchinson

I work as an Advisor for 80,000 Hours, before which I worked at the Global Priorities Institute and ran Giving What We Can.

Michelle_Hutchinson's Comments

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

I think he donated £25 for that year, but I'm not sure how he picked that number and I have to admit I haven't been very systematic since then. I think the following year I donated £100 to ACE, then missed a year, then for 2 years did 10% of my annual donations to the animal welfare EA fund (I'm a member of Giving What We Can, so that's 1% of my salary).

I'm not sure I have a reasoned case for donating to animal welfare charities as offsets, since the animals that are helped are different to those I harm and consequentially it would surely be best to make all my donations to the organisation I think will help sentient beings most. But it seems pretty good to remember that I think it's important and impactful to help various groups to whom I don't give the lions share of my donations, and it seems plausibly good to show to others that I care about them by doing something concrete. With those considerations in mind it simply seems important for the donation to be an amount that feels non-negligible to me and others, rather than an amount exactly equal to the harm I'm doing. (That may simply be a rationalisation though, because I would rather not know exactly how much harm I'm causing and it would be a hassle to figure it out.)

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA
Do you actually use the A/B/Z career planning tool described here? Is that out of date? Do you think that's a very good way to plan your career, or might you suggest others?

We still endorse the general gist of 'come up with an A/B/Z plan', but no longer use that specific tool. Our more up to date framework is here.

I think the idea of doing an A/B/Z plan is a really good one. My impression is that because applying for jobs is so aversive, people often minimise the number of things they apply for both by not aiming as high as they could and by not considering what they would do if things really went worse than they're expecting. Hiring processes seem to contain quite a lot of randomness, and even when they don't are hard to predict from the outset. That means it seems worth both shooting for things that you have only a small chance of getting but would be excellent if you do get them, and worth making sure you know what your back up would be if things go much worse than you expect.

One thing to say about these is that people sometimes read 'plan A' as 'the role I most want' and 'plan B' as 'another role, which is easier to get'. In fact, 'plan A' is intended to be some type of role - for example, going to grad school - so would itself involve applying to a whole range of specific options of differing levels of competitiveness.

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA
"Can you say more about the relative value with advising of you being "a sounding board" and "helping people think through a fundamentally difficult and personal decision", compared to you "hav[ing] a bunch of information [advisees] don't"?
My underlying question is whether I (and other EAs) should spend much more time concretely planning my career than I am. (See here for my background thoughts.) If advising is valuable because it forces people to sit down and seriously plan their careers, then people could get the same value by planning on their own time. On the other hand, if the value of advising is something unique to 80k - information, insights, abilities, connections - then people probably can't replicate the success of advising alone.
In general, do you think most EAs aren't spending enough time on concrete career planning? In your opinion, how much of the benefit of advising could be achieved by someone independent of 80k by seriously researching and planning for a day?"

As much as possible, we try to write up or discuss on the podcast information which we think would help people with career decisions, so in a way you might expect that the vast majority of the benefit of advising should be coming from things like being a sounding board. It is of course hard to find specifically the information that applies to you amongst all the information available, so that's something I'd expect to be able to continue to help with. And people often have specific gaps in their knowledge where they haven't come across some specific concept / possible role yet. But overall I do think it's the case that a lot of the benefit is coming from people taking the time to sit down and think seriously about their career in a way they might not have otherwise. Some evidence for this is the fact that people fairly often report that simply filling in the preparation document for the call is useful for them. (It asks: what options are you considering and why; what kinds of roles are you most suited for; what are your key uncertainties)

I very much agree with the comment you linked to, and I'm really glad to hear you're thinking of turning it into a top level post. I guess I don't know how much time most EAs spend planning their career, but I would expect that for most people they could get a lot of benefit by doing more of it. Thinking through what the best types or roles apply for would be, researching specific roles and then applying to competitive things you think you only have a small chance of getting are all really aversive. Standard careers advice doesn't tend to give a terribly helpful framework for doing these in a way that will be most impactful. So I think there are good reasons why almost all of us put too little time into this, and why having specific time allotted to it and a person to talk it through with would be helpful. I definitely think people can put themselves in a good position to make these decisions though. This article gives an outline of the process people could follow to make a career decision. Once you have some of these thoughts written down, getting a friend to give comments on it and discuss it through with you seems useful. They might also be able to be an accountability buddy, to help you apply widely even when that feels frustrating and time consuming. For many people this can get quite a bit of the benefit of our advising. That's particularly true of those who have already read widely about EA topics and know others in the community. Having done this before doing advising with us is also really helpful because it means we can tell better which people we'll be most useful for, and with them focus on the the parts that we can add that the person couldn't as easily do themselves (like more in depth information, or making introductions).

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

I'm afraid it's not out yet. It will come out in the new year, likely when I'm back at work.

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

> Which individual parts of advising do you think are the most and least valuable? You listed these components above, which are most critical?

From the advising sessions I've done, the cases where I've been able to add most value seem to be the ones where I knew about some specific organisation / role / project that the person wasn't aware of and would be a good fit for, which I could tell them about and encourage them to apply for. I actually think this is rather unfortunate, because I'd like EAs to be exploring broadly and getting involved in many different sectors and organisations. For this reason, I think the work Maria is doing on expanding our job board is really important - it means being able to discuss concretely roles at many different foundations, specific roles to get research assistant experience etc.

From looking through past cases where people made large impactful plan changes based on talking to the team a couple of things seemed to come out as particularly significant: recommending particular resources and providing encouragement. (Note that the number of plan changes I was looking over here wasn't super long - it was only the ones that were most significant, and for which we had enough information that I could put together a pretty comprehensive story of what caused them to change their plans.) 'Encouragement' sometimes here meant providing an outside view that the person's plan seemed sensible and plausibly impactful despite being non traditional, and sometimes meant making clear that the person was very welcome in the EA community and that it was worth their applying to various specific opportunities even though they might feel that they were underqualified. Another which seemed useful was making introductions, though that is less dependable, because while there are usually useful resources to point a person to on whatever they'd be interested to know more about, it's more hit and miss whether we happen to know someone it would be sensible for them to be introduced to.

It's a bit more difficult to say which things are least valuable - there are various things which came up in fewer cases of people making impactful career changes, but I didn't notice ones where I thought it would be very useful to people and then they never came up as useful. All the others I mentioned came up sometimes but not frequently as being useful. I think discussing cause prioritisation might be something that is less useful than I would have intuitively thought, where my guess at why is that it requires a lot of thought, not just a couple of minutes conversation.

For some components it seems particularly tough to figure out whether or not they're useful - in the case of helping someone to form a concrete plan, or simply getting the person to think seriously about their long term career, it's really hard to figure out whether the session made any difference or whether they would have done that themselves anyway. It seems pretty likely the person themselves doesn't know the answer to this counterfactual.

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

You might be interested in this section though, which says how many plan changes were rated 10 in previous years, but have subsequently been downgraded.

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

I would expect not, since it would be hard to give much information which isn't identifiable to individuals. The longer term follow up is factored into our overall impact numbers though, so in that sense it is.

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

I think a key piece of advice I'd have is to think of what you're doing more as sound boarding rather than as trying to convey information. People asking for careers advice are often pretty keen to get 'answers', and tend to assume that others have a bunch of information they don't. I often feel I fall into this trap, of thinking that others must know the answer to 'how impactful is x', when usually they have little more information than me. So I think it's important to push back on the idea that we can give people answers to what role will be most impactful for them, and make clear that what we're doing is helping them think through a fundamentally difficult and personal decision. I think reading articles like our one on making tough careers decisions might be helpful for doing that. I think the community as a whole will do better if we try to get lots of people working on the hard problem of what's most impactful, than if we expect to get answers from just a few people and then try to propagate them (also because doing the latter means the information is likely to get distorted if people aren't thinking it through for themselves).

I'd also try to be well versed in what resources there are around on different causes, career paths, jobs etc. You're usually only talking to someone for an hour, but if you can use that hour to suggest a bunch of articles/books/podcasts/videos to them, they might end up spending many hours on those.

Coordination amongst local communities seems like it's really valuable - particularly if you can find other local groups that are particularly similar to yours, or have also experienced some particular problem that you're currently having. There's an EA groups slack, with a career planning 1-on-1s channel, which seems very useful for getting people working together. This seems all the more valuable for new local group leaders getting up to speed.

Unfortunately we don't have capacity to write a guide on this, or to train people on how to do it. We might in the future, but unfortunately it won't be soon. My impression is that the Oxford local group has written a brief guide on it which they're considering sharing with others.

I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

I'm not exactly sure of the extent to which I'm risk averse. I don't tend to have super strong views about the kinds of advice I'm giving people, which means that usually I feel able to give my actual view along with how uncertain I am about it. That has the advantage that I can usually be totally open and candid, though the disadvantage that it's obviously a bit less useful to get an answer along the lines of 'here's a reason to think A is higher impact, here's a reason B is higher impact, on balance I might go for B, but I think there's a strong case for each...' than 'B seems much better'. I also tend to be naturally risk averse, which means that my natural inclination is to suggest people go for the safer of different routes. Eg I'm very hesitant to suggest someone drop out of a degree, and hesitant to recommend someone quitting a job to take time to study or similar, rather than only quitting when they have another lined up. (I'm decidedly more on the risk averse end of the spectrum than some of my colleagues, for example)

There are probably a few cases where I feel the need be extra risk averse though:

  • In cases where someone would go into debt in order to pursue some course of action, I feel very hesitant to advise them doing that (particularly if they themselves are clearly worried about it). I find this a difficult trade off to make, because particularly for undergraduate it seems really important to me to go to a top university, and I'd definitely expect people to be able to pay off debt they go into in order to go those. But at the same time, I'd never want to push someone into taking on more debt than they're comfortable with.
  • I worry about cases where a particular role seems like it might be very stressful, and even possibly lead to burn out. It's really hard to know for a specific person whether a role will be stressful for them, even if there's reason to think it would be for some people. It feels emotionally much worse to me to have nudged someone towards a role that ends up being very stressful for them than to have nudged them away from a role that turns out to work really well for them. Some part of that seems right in expected value terms - leading someone to burn out is likely much worse for them than their alternative job, while it's likely there's only so much better the role would be for them than the alternative. But I also think as an adviser I have some extra duty of care to make sure I don't give advice that leads to harm.
  • Not quite to do with 'risk aversion' but related is that I don't always push people as hard on their values as I might naturally. People don't typically expect when going into a careers advising session that they'll end up talking much about what their values are and what they care most about, but that's critical for determining what the most impactful role by their lights is. For that reason, I usually start advising sessions with a discussion of values - what causes they care most about and why. That mostly involves me trying to work out what a person's values are, rather than trying to change them. Since my PhD is in philosophy, my natural inclination would be to be a bit more opinionated than that. In particular, when someone says that they don't care at all about people who aren't alive yet, I'd usually be interested in pushing more on that (since that was the topic of my thesis). For example, by discussing hypotheticals like 'if we shouldn't care about those as yet unborn, does that mean I shouldn't donate to AMF if it will take a while for a malaria net to be bought with the money, and so it will save the life of a baby who isn't born yet'. But these are huge questions which people need to read about and think through over a long period of time, rather than trying to argue through in 10 minutes of a 40 minute call.
I'm Michelle Hutchinson, head of advising at 80,000 Hours, AMA

One thing that's making my work less valuable is how well the EA community is growing - the fact that for a lot of the kinds of information I might give people, many people are already coming across it from other means! (Which is why we tend to talk to people who have had less contact with the EA community so far.)

More seriously: I think the two main things that feel most limiting are information and time/capacity (which also interrelate, because if we had more time we could gather more information). On the former, I both mean that I feel limited by not knowing as much as I'd like to about specifically what parts of advising are the most useful for people and that I'd like to know more about different careers - their impact, how to get into them etc. One specific thing I'd like to know more about is concrete organisations and roles that seem really high impact, because it's so much more actionable for a person to have specific things suggested that they could apply for than to discuss how they could go out and research the organisations in a particular sector. I think this is one of the reasons that effective altruists tend to talk as if working for organisations that identify as effective altruist is the best thing to aim for - these orgs are few in number and therefore easily identifiable, whereas (for example) the UK government is huge and there are lots of choices to make about departments you might work for and specific types of roles to apply to.

With regard to time, I would appreciate more time to be able to talk to more people, to be able to talk to people for longer, and to be able to work on a greater number of projects - for example working with local groups on their giving careers advice. This object level work also trades off against spending time on building up the capacity of the team so that in future we'll have more time for object level work (and of course against improving my advice in other ways, such as learning more!).

In terms of which of these limiting factors seem best to work on: For now, I'm keen not to decrease the cost-effectiveness of advising, which means likely not spending more time per person we talk to (for example). I'm aware that I could always learn more in order to finesse the advice I give, so while I want to continue working on this, I try to prioritise what seems most important to learn about. On balance, the most limiting thing after having time to do work (since I'm on maternity leave) probably seems to me to be having an accurate enough understanding of what parts of advising are most valuable to scale the team up further (for example, knowing whether we should be hiring specialist advisers in specific areas, or more generalists). I'll be trying to work more on that in the new year when I'm back to work (along with getting through our waitlist).

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