Some promising career ideas beyond 80,000 Hours' priority pathspost by Ardenlk · 2020-06-26T10:34:11.912Z · EA · GW · 25 comments
Introduction Career ideas we're particularly excited about beyond our priority paths a historian focusing on large societal trends, inflection points, progress, or collapse a specialist on Russia or India an expert in AI hardware security a public intellectual careers that are promising from a longtermist perspective research manager or a PA for someone doing really valuable work an expert on formal verification your skills to meet a need in the effective altruism community entrepreneurship roles in leading AI labs or manage a long-term philanthropic fund a potentially pressing problem area None 25 comments
This is a sister post to "Problem areas beyond 80,000 Hours' current priorities" [EA · GW].
In this post, we list some more career options beyond our priority paths that seem promising to us for positively influencing the long-term future.
Some of these are likely to be written up as priority paths in the future, or wrapped into existing ones, but we haven't written full profiles for them yet—for example policy careers outside AI and biosecurity policy that seem promising from a longtermist perspective.
Others, like information security, we think might be as promising for many people as our priority paths, but because we haven't investigated them much we're still unsure.
Still others seem like they'll typically be less impactful than our priority paths for people who can succeed equally in either, but still seem high-impact to us and like they could be top options for a substantial number of people, depending on personal fit—for example research management.
Finally some—like becoming a public intellectual—clearly have the potential for a lot of impact, but we can't recommend them widely because they don't have the capacity to absorb a large number of people, are particularly risky, or both.
We compiled this list by asking 6 advisers about paths they think more people in the effective altruism community should explore, and which career ideas they think are currently undervalued—including by 80,000 Hours. In particular, we were looking for paths that seem like they may be promising from the perspective of positively shaping the long-term future, but which aren't already captured by aspects of our priority paths. If something was suggested twice and also met those criteria, we took that as a presumption in favor of including it. We then spent a little time looking into each one and put together a few thoughts and resources for those that seemed most promising. The result is the list below.
We'd be excited to see more of our readers explore these options, and plan on looking into them more ourselves.
Who is best suited to pursue these paths? Of course the answer is different for each one, but in general pursuing a career where less research has been done on how to have a large impact within it—especially if few of your colleagues will share your perspective on how to think about impact—may require you to think especially critically and creatively about how you can do an unusual amount of good in that career [EA · GW]. Ideal candidates, then, would be self-motivated, creative, and inclined to think rigorously and often about how they can steer toward the highest impact options for them—in addition to having strong personal fit for the work.
What are the pros and cons of each of these paths? Which are less promising than they might at first appear? What particular routes within each one are the most promising and which are the least? What especially promising high-impact career ideas is this list missing?
We're excited to read people's reactions in the comments. And we hope that for people who want to pursue paths outside those we talk most about, this list can give them some fruitful ideas to explore.
Career ideas we're particularly excited about beyond our priority paths
Become a historian focusing on large societal trends, inflection points, progress, or collapse
We think it could be high-impact to study subjects relevant to the long-term arc of history—e.g, economic, intellectual, or moral progress from a long-term perspective, the history of social movements or philanthropy, or the history of wellbeing. Better understanding long trends and key inflection points, such as the industrial revolution, may help us understand what could cause other important shifts in the future (see more promising topics [EA · GW]).
Our impression is that although many of these topics have received attention from historians and other academics (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), some are comparatively neglected, especially from a more quantitative or impact-focused perspective.
In general, there seem to be a number of gaps that skilled historians, anthropologists, or economic historians could help fill. Revealingly, the Open Philanthropy Project commissioned their own studies of the history and successes of philanthropy because they couldn’t find much existing literature that met their needs. Most existing research is not aimed at deriving action-relevant lessons.
However, this is a highly competitive path, which is not able to absorb many people. Although there may be some opportunities to do this kind of historical work in foundations, or to get it funded through private grants, pursuing this path would in most cases involve seeking an academic career. Academia generally has a shortage of positions, and especially in the humanities often doesn’t provide many backup options. It seems less risky to pursue historical research as an economist, since an economic PhD does give you other promising options.
How can you estimate your chance of success as a history academic? We haven't looked into the fields relevant to history in particular, but some of our discussion of parallel questions for philosophy academia or academia in general may be useful.
It may also be possible to pursue this kind of historical research in ‘non-traditional academia,’ such as at groups like the Future of Humanity Institute or Global Priorities Institute. Learn more about the Global Priorities Institute by listening to our podcast episode with Michelle Hutchinson.
Become a specialist on Russia or India
We’ve argued that because of China’s political, military, economic, and technological importance on the world stage, helping western organizations better understand and cooperate with Chinese actors might be highly impactful.
We think working with China represents a particularly promising path to impact. But a similar argument could be made for gaining expertise in other powerful nations, such as Russia or India.
This is likely to be a better option for you if you are from or have spent a substantial amount of time in these countries. There’s a real need for people with a deep understanding of their cultures and institutions, as well as fluency in the relevant languages (e.g. at the level where one might write a newspaper article about longtermism in Russian).
If you are not from one of these countries, one way to get started might be to pursue area or language studies in the relevant country (one source of support available for US students is the Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarship programme), perhaps alongside economics or international relations. You could also start by working in policy in your home country and slowly concentrate more and more on issues related to Russia or India, or try to work in philanthropy or directly on a top problem in one of these countries.
There are likely many different promising options in this area, both for long-term career plans and useful next steps. Though they would of course have to be adapted to the local context, some of the options laid out in our article on becoming a specialist in China could have promising parallels in other national contexts as well.
Become an expert in AI hardware
There is a commonsense argument that if AI is an especially important technology, and hardware is an important input in the development and deployment of AI, specialists who understand AI hardware will have opportunities for impact—even if we can't foresee exactly the form they will take.
Some ways hardware experts may be able to help positively shape the development of AI include:
- More accurately forecasting progress in the capabilities of AI systems, for which hardware is a key and relatively quantifiable input.
- Advising policymakers on hardware issues, such as export, import, and manufacturing policies for specialized chips. (Read a relevant issue brief from CSET.)
- Helping AI projects in making credible commitments by allowing them to verifiably demonstrate the computational resources they’re using.
- Helping advise and fulfill the hardware needs for safety-oriented AI labs.
These ideas are just examples of ways hardware specialists might be helpful. We haven't looked into this area very much, so we are pretty unsure about the merits of different approaches, which is why we've listed working in AI hardware here instead of as a part of the AI technical safety and policy priority paths.
We also haven't come across research laying out specific strategies in this area, so pursuing this path would likely mean both developing skills and experience in hardware and thinking creatively about opportunities to have an impact in the area. If you do take this path, we encourage you to think carefully through the implications of your plans, ideally in collaboration with strategy and policy experts also focused on creating safe and beneficial AI.
Researchers at the Open Philanthropy Project have argued [EA · GW] that better information security is likely to become increasingly important in the coming years. As powerful technologies like bioengineering and machine learning advance, improved security will likely be needed to protect these technologies from misuse, theft, or tampering. Moreover, the authors have found few security experts already in the field who focus on reducing catastrophic risks, and predict there will be high demand for them over the next 10 years.
In a recent podcast episode, Bruce Schneier also argued that applications of information security will become increasingly crucial, although he pushed back on the special importance of security for AI and biorisk in particular.
We would like to see more people investigating these issues and pursuing information security careers as a path to social impact. One option would be to try to work on security issues at a top AI lab, in which case the preparation might be similar to the preparation for AI safety work in general, but with a special focus on security. Another option would be to pursue a security career in government or a large tech company with the goal of eventually working on a project relevant to a particularly pressing area. In some cases we've heard it's possible for people who start as engineers to train in information security at large tech companies that have significant security needs.
Compensation is usually higher in the private sector. But if you want to work eventually on classified projects, it may be better to pursue a public sector career as it may better prepare you to eventually earn a high level of security clearance.
There are certifications for information security, but it may be better to get started by investigating on your own the details of the systems you want to protect, and/or participating in public 'capture the flag' cybersecurity competitions. At the undergraduate level, it seems particularly helpful for many careers in this area to study CS and statistics.
Information security isn't listed as a priority path because we haven't spent much time investigating how people working in the area can best succeed and have a big positive impact. Still, we think there are likely to be exciting opportunities in the area, and if you’re interested in pursuing this career path, or already have experience in information security, we'd be interested to talk to you. Fill out this form, and we will get in touch if we come across opportunities that seem like a good fit for you.
Become a public intellectual
Some people seem to have a very large positive impact by becoming public intellectuals and popularizing important ideas—often through writing books, giving talks or interviews, or writing blogs, columns, or open letters.
However, it’s probably even harder to become a successful and impactful public intellectual than a successful academic, since becoming a public intellectual often requires a degree of success within academia while also having excellent communication skills and spending significant time building a public profile. Thus this path seems to us to be especially competitive and a good fit for only a small number of people.
As with other advocacy efforts, it also seems relatively easy to accidentally do harm if you promote mistaken ideas, or even promote important ideas in a way that turns people off. (Read more about how to avoid accidentally doing harm.)
That said, this path seems like it could be extremely impactful for the right person. We think building awareness of certain global catastrophic risks, of the potential effects of our actions on the long-term future, or of effective altruism might be especially high value, as well as spreading positive values like concern for foreigners, nonhuman animals, future people, or others.
There are public intellectuals who are not academics—such as prominent bloggers, journalists and authors. However, academia seems unusually well-suited for becoming a public intellectual because academia requires you to become an expert in something and trains you to write (a lot), and the high standards of academia provide credibility for your opinions and work. For these reasons, if you are interested in pursuing this path, going into academia may be a good place to start.
Public intellectuals can come from a variety of disciplines—what they have in common is that they find ways to apply insights from their fields to issues that affect many people, and they communicate these insights effectively.
If you are an academic, experiment with spreading important ideas on a small scale through a blog, magazine, or podcast. If you share our priorities and are having some success with these experiments, we’d be especially interested in talking to you about your plans.
For the right person, becoming a journalist seems like it could be highly valuable for many of the same reasons being a public intellectual might be.
Good journalists keep the public informed and help positively shape public discourse by spreading accurate information on important topics. And although the news media tend to focus more on current events, journalists also often provide a platform for people and ideas that the public might not otherwise hear about.
However, this path is also very competitive, especially when it comes to the kinds of work that seem best for communicating important ideas (which are often complex), i.e., writing long-form articles or books, podcasts, and documentaries. And like being a public intellectual, it seems relatively easy to do make things worse as a journalist by directing people's attention in the wrong way, so this path may require especially good judgement about which projects to pursue and with what strategy. We therefore think journalism is likely to be a good fit for only a small number of people.
Policy careers that are promising from a longtermist perspective
There is likely a lot of policy work with the potential to positively affect the long run future that doesn’t fit into either of our priority paths of AI policy or biorisk policy.
We aren't sure what it might be best to ultimately aim for in policy outside these areas. But working in an area that is plausibly important for safeguarding the long-term future seems like a promising way of building knowledge and career capital so that you can judge later what policy interventions seem most promising for you to pursue.
Possible areas include:
- Finding ways to safeguard political systems against ‘authoritarian backsliding’, for instance by improving the security of voting processes.
- Promoting international cooperation and peace, which also makes civilization more robust.
- Working on policies to reduce extreme risks from climate change.
- Other ‘broad interventions’ for making governments generally better at navigating global challenges, e.g. promoting ‘approval voting’ (a form of voting reform).
- Interventions aimed at giving the interests of future generations greater representation, for example the introduction of the Wellbeing of Future Generations bill in the UK parliament. (Read some more preliminary ideas for institutional designs meant to take into account the interests of future generations. [EA · GW])
See our problem profiles page for more issues, some of which you might be able to help address through a policy-oriented career.
There is a spectrum of options for making progress on policy, ranging from research to work out which proposals make sense, to advocacy for specific proposals, to implementation. (See our write-up on government and policy careers for more on this topic.)
It seems likely to us that many lines of work within this broad area could be as impactful as our priority paths, but we haven't investigated enough to be confident about the most promising options or the best routes in. We hope to be able to provide more specific guidance in this area in the future.
Be research manager or a PA for someone doing really valuable work
Some people may be extraordinarily productive compared to the average. (Read about this phenomenon in research careers.). But these people often have to use much of their time on work that doesn’t take the best advantage of their skills, such as bureaucratic and administrative tasks. This may be especially true for people who work in university settings, as many researchers do, but it is also often true of entrepreneurs, politicians, writers, and public intellectuals.
Acting as a personal assistant can dramatically increase these peoples' impact. By supporting their day-to-day activities and freeing up more of their time for work that other people can’t do, you can act as a ‘multiplier’ on their productivity. We think a highly talented personal assistant can make someone 10% more productive, or perhaps more, which is like having a tenth (or more) as much impact as they would have. If you're working for someone doing really valuable work, that's a lot.
A related path is working in research management. Research managers help prioritize research projects within an institution and help coordinate research, fundraising, and communications to make the institution more impactful. Read more here. In general, being a PA or a research manager seems valuable for many of the same reasons working in operations management does—these coordinating and supporting roles are crucial for enabling researchers and others to have the biggest positive impact possible.
Become an expert on formal verification
'Proof assistants' are programs used to formally verify that computer systems have various properties—for example that they are secure against certain cyberattacks—and to help develop programs that are formally verifiable in this way.
Currently, proof assistants are not very highly developed, but the ability to create programs that can be formally verified to have important properties seems like it could be helpful for addressing a variety of issues, perhaps including AI safety and cybersecurity. So improving proof assistants seems like it could be very high-value.
For example, it might be possible to use proof assistants to help solve the AI ‘alignment problem’ by creating AI systems that we can prove have certain properties we think are required for the AI system to reliably do what we want it to do. Alternatively, we may be able to use proof assistants to generate programs that we need to solve some sub-part of the problem. (Read our career review of researching risks from AI)
We haven't looked into formal verification yet much, but both further research in this area as well as applying existing techniques to important issues seem potentially promising to us. You can enter this path by studying formal verification at the undergraduate or graduate level, or learning about it independently if you have a background in computer science. Jobs in this area exist both in industry and in academia.
Use your skills to meet a need in the effective altruism community
As a part of this community, we may have some bias here, but we think helping to build the community and make it more effective might be one way to do a lot of good. Moreover, unlike other paths on this list, it might be possible to do this part time while you also learn about other areas.
There are many ways of helping build and maintain the effective altruism community that don’t involve working within an effective altruism organisations, such as consulting for one of these organizations, providing legal advice, or helping effective altruist authors with book promotion.
Within this set of roles, we’d especially like to highlight organizing student and local effective altruism groups [? · GW]. Our experience suggests that these groups can be very useful resources for people to learn more about different global problems and connect with others who share their concerns (more resources for local groups).
We think these roles are good to pursue in particular if you are very familiar with the effective altruism community and you already have the relevant skills and are keen to bring them to bear in a more impactful way.
If you can find a way to address a key bottleneck to progress in a pressing problem area which hasn’t been tried or isn’t being covered by an effective organisation, starting one of your own can be extremely valuable.
That said, this path seems to us to be particularly high-risk, which is why we don't list it as a priority path. Most new organizations struggle, and non-profit entrepreneurship can often be even more difficult than for-profit entrepreneurship. Setting up a new organisation will also likely involve diverting resources from other organisations, which means it’s easier than it seems to set the area back. The risks are greater if you’re one of the first organizations in an area, as you could put off others from working on the issue, especially if you make poor progress (although this has to be balanced against the greater information value of exploring an uncharted area).
In general, we wouldn’t recommend that someone start off by aiming to set up a new organisation. Rather, we’d recommend starting by learning about and working within a pressing problem area, and then if through the course of that work you come across a gap, and that gap can’t be solved by an existing organisation, then consider founding a new one. Organisations developed more organically like this, and which are driven by the needs of a specific problem area, usually seem to be much more promising.
There is far more to say about the question of whether to start a new organisation, and how to compare different non-profit ideas and other alternatives. A great deal depends on the details of your situation, making it hard for us to give general advice on the topic.
If you think you may have found a gap for an organisation within one of our priority problem areas, or problem areas that seem promising that we haven’t investigated yet, then we’d be interested to speak to you.
Even if you don't have an idea right now, if you're interested in spearheading new projects focusing on improving the long-run future you might find it thought-provoking and helpful to fill out this survey for people interested in longtermist entrepreneurship, run by Jade Leung as part of a project supported by Open Philanthropy.
Non-technical roles in leading AI labs
Although we think technical AI safety research and AI policy are particularly impactful, we think having very talented people focused on safety and social impact at top AI labs may also be very valuable, even when they aren’t in technical or policy roles.
For example, you might be able to shift the culture around AI more toward safety and positive social impact by talking publicly about what your organization is doing to build safe and beneficial AI (example from DeepMind), helping recruit safety-minded researchers, designing internal processes to consider social impact issues more systematically in research, or helping different teams coordinate around safety-relevant projects.
We're not sure which roles are best, but in general ones involved in strategy, ethics, or communications seem promising. Or you can pursue a role that makes an AI lab's safety team more effective—like in operations or project management.
That said, it seems possible that some such roles could have a veneer of contributing to AI safety without doing much to head off bad outcomes. For this reason it seems particularly important here to continue to think critically and creatively [EA · GW] about what kinds of work in this area are useful.
Some roles in this space may also provide strong career capital for working in AI policy by putting you in a position to learn about the work these labs are doing, as well as the strategic landscape in AI.
Create or manage a long-term philanthropic fund
Some of the best opportunities for making a difference may lie far in the future. [EA · GW] In that case, investing resources now in order to have many more resources available at that future time might be extremely valuable.
However, right now we have no way of effectively and securely investing resources over such long time periods. In particular, there are few if any financial vehicles that can be reliably expected to persist for more than 100 years and stay committed to their intended use, while also earning good investment returns. Figuring out how to set up and manage such a fund seems to us like it might be very worthwhile.
Founders Pledge—an organization that encourages effective giving for entrepreneurs—is currently exploring this idea and is actively seeking input [EA · GW]. It seems likely that only a few people will be able to be involved in a project like this, as it's not clear there will be room for multiple funds or a large staff. But for the right person we think this could be a great opportunity. Especially if you have a background in finance or relevant areas of law, this might be a promising path for you to explore.
Explore a potentially pressing problem area
There are many neglected global problems that could turn out to be as or even more pressing than those we currently prioritise most highly. We’d be keen to see more people explore them by acquiring relevant training and a network of mentors, and getting to know the relevant fields.
If the problem area still seems potentially promising once you've built up a background, you could take on a project or try to build up the relevant fields, for instance by setting up a conference or newsletter to help people working in the area coordinate better.
If, after investigating, working on the issue doesn't seem particularly high impact, then you’ve helped to eliminate an option, saving others time.
In either case we'd be keen to see write-ups of these explorations, for instance on this forum.
We can't really recommend this as a priority path because it's so amorphous and uncertain. It also generally requires especially high degrees of entrepreneurialism and creativity [EA · GW], since you may get less support in your work, especially early on, and it’s challenging to think of new projects and research ideas that provide useful information about the promise of a less explored area. However, if you fit this profile (and especially if you have existing interest in and knowledge of the problem you want to explore), this path could be an excellent option for you.
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