Keeping everyone motivated: a case for effective careers outside of the highest impact EA organizations

post by FJehn · 2019-08-22T06:43:06.142Z · EA · GW · 12 comments

When people enter the EA community, they find that there are two recommended ways to contribute in the long term: working directly on one of the most important cause areas or earning to give. The former definitely has a nicer ring to it. Trying to save the world yourself is a much more motivating story than giving someone else money to do it. In addition, 80k and other EA sources place much more emphasis on doing direct work nowadays. This implies that working directly is seen as more valuable and people should try to do this first and only consider earning to give if they are not able to secure a high impact job. Therefore, most people I met in the EA community want to dedicate their life to work on something important directly, rather than working just on whatever results in the largest amount of money.

However, being able to work on something important seems to be a bit harder than one would think. Especially if your life has some constraints, like not being able to move to another country or not having the opportunity to attend a top-tier university program. In addition, even if you attended a top university and can move around freely, you run into another problem: The number of high impact jobs with a direct connection to EA is limited. Many of those jobs are located in a small number of prestigious organizations and are often widely advertised through things like the 80k job board. This leads to a lot of people applying to those jobs and a highly competitive job market (see here for an example of a person applying to jobs in EA orgs and here for an example of how EA org recruitment works). Therefore, EA orgs can pick from a wide range of very successful, knowledgeable and hard working people. Obviously, this is a good thing. I want the best people to work on the hardest problems. However, everyone else, who does not get into EA orgs, is then left with a problem: How can I still contribute to EA in a meaningful way, even though I cannot get a job at those places which promise the biggest impact possible? Be it because of constraints or other factors.

In the light of this and my subjective empirical evidence, I think this might lead to some problems in the long run. If EA only has a convincing narrative for select few that get into EA orgs, everyone else will become more and more frustrated and might internally connect EA with failure and rejection, which in turn leads people to focus on other things than EA. What can we do about this?

One idea is to put a more positive spin on staying in the field you are already in and promoting EA ideas there. Many people in EA are currently students or doing a PhD. Often they have chosen the field they are working in, because it excites and motivates them. As there are not that many EAs overall, this places those persons in a unique spot. They have deep knowledge of a field and are driven by EA values. If they continue in their field or subfield, they might be the only person there operating under EA values. This means they could have high marginal value in steering the field in a more EA aligned direction, which is a difficult but potentially high value task, depending on the field. This might be especially valuable in academia, as it is often the birthplace for ideas that permeate society. For example, in a recent discussion I had about EA jobs a PhD student reported how he is trying to infuse lessons he learned from effective altruism into the academic discourse of his field. Contributions like this are currently completely overlooked in the EA job discourse, but they provide an opportunity for people not able or willing to get a job at an EA org to do some potentially high-impact work.

This also has some implications for local groups. Right now, it seems to me, their main goal is to recruit more high potentials into EA, to make it possible to get even better people to work on the hardest, most important problems. However, not even all high-potential people in EA are likely to find a high-impact job with a direct connection to EA. To keep these valuable people motivated and value aligned, we will have to invest in local groups to make them not only a short-term welcoming place but a long-term valuable addition to peoples lives. This is important, as value drift might lead a lot of people (empirical data on value drift) away from EA. The motivation and alignment will probably have to be maintained for decades, as people often create their most valuable contributions around their 40s (see for example Figure 4 in this paper) and lots of EAs today have yet to reach their 30s.

Therefore, we should consider adding a third option between earning to give and direkt work in the highest impact jobs with a direct connection to EA: Using local groups to keep people value aligned in the long term and allow them to change their own field in regard to EA values. To facilitate this, the second most important thing for local groups, after outreach to talented people, might simply be creating a nice and welcoming environment, where members want to come back to in regular intervals for years. The members of the local group can help each other to stay motivated and EA-aligned and also help to find creative ways they can have an impact in their specific fields. Well-run and well-coordinated local groups with deliberately curated activities and engaging events such as inspiring workshops and networking events would seem to be a great environment to accomplish this (one recent idea to implement something along these lines is the German Effective Altruism Network [EA · GW]).

Cases in which my view on this could be wrong:

Looking forward to learn how other people in the EA community view this.


Thanks to Nadia Mir-Montazeri, Alexander Herwix and Tom Voltz for critical feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

12 comments

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comment by brentonmayer (brentonmayer91) · 2019-08-24T14:08:45.998Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this post - I agree with your main point that there are many ways to contribute without working at organisations that explicitly identify with the effective altruism community, as would the rest of 80,000 Hours (where I work). In fact, I might go further in emphasising this.

The overwhelming majority of high impact roles in the world lie outside those organisations – with governments, foundations, intergovernmental agencies, large companies and, as you point out, academia. The majority of people interested in effective altruism should be taking roles in places like these, not EA orgs. Unfortunately, when we highlight specific roles there’s a bias towards opportunities we know about due to our involvement in the community, but where we’ve managed to correct for that (such as in the AI strategy and governance problem area of our job board) it’s clear that there are lots of valuable roles focusing on our top problems at a wide range of organisations.


______


I agree that when considering their future career path, people should think about what skills and expertise they already have(link, link.)That might mean - if you’re enjoying and succeeding in your current path - staying there and using that position to influence your field / company in a positive direction. Though it also might also mean thinking about how your skills might translate to other effective careers. For example, governments tend to be keen to hire people with science PhDs or tech skills, as shown by things like the AAAS fellowship and Tech Congress in the US. These don’t tend to feel like a natural step from a PhD, but being a scientific adviser in government seems plausibly pretty high leverage.

Since you mentioned academia, I thought readers might be interested in a few resources that might be useful for them if they’re looking to influence their academic field. There’s a Facebook group for EA academics to share what they’re working on and help each other. Luke Muehlhauser wrote an excellent report on cases where people successfully and unsuccessfully tried to deliberately build new fields. One case study that's particularly interestingly is that of neoliberal economics (written up compellingly by Kerry Vaughan [? · GW]), which is often held up as a great example of what can be achieved through careful work both within academia and with the people who disseminate ideas – journalists, authors, think tanks etc. Finally, there’s our career review.

comment by Darius_Meissner · 2019-08-22T17:25:24.237Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this up! I really appreciated how you describe the problem of the competitive hiring landscape within the EA community, and especially that you connected this to a potentially increased risk of value drift for community members who grow frustrated after not being hired by their preferred employers within the community. I agree that this presents a major challenge for the EA community as a whole and would like to see more proposed solutions.

Having said all that, I also have two quarrels with your proposed solutions:

First, the EAs in academia who are in the best positions to be able to 'steer their fields' in the future are probably the ones who need this type of advice the least, because they would seem to be in the best position to be hired within the EA community. Of course, if they are in such a special position within their academic field, it might be more impactful for them to stay in academia (depending on their field) regardless of whether they could get a job at an EA org.

Second, I have found it difficult to understand from your two points about local EA groups what you wish they would change about their strategy. You advise them to work on "creating a nice and welcoming environment, where members want to come back to in regular intervals for years". However this seems like standard local group advice to me that most (all?) local groups aspire to implement anyway. (Note that this advice anyway does not really apply to EA university groups which by their very nature mostly attract students on a fairly short-term basis (~ 1-3 years).

I would be interested in your specific recommendations for how local groups could achieve this goal of long-term member engagement. Thanks!

comment by alexherwix · 2019-08-23T10:02:06.791Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not the author but still tempted to reply as I was somewhat involved in the discussion leading to this post :)

Regarding your first point:

I somewhat disagree to your assessment of the situation. Most PhDs seem to don't even try to steer any stream but simply try to get through their studies. Imho there is no harm in trying to inject new thoughts and ideas through a paper here and there and hope for other researchers to pick up on it.

For example, I am by no means in a special position in my field but wrote a small workshop paper about what my field could learn from EA and have send that around quite heavily and now I am in a collaboration working to make it into a conference and then a journal paper. Time investment so far was maybe a week of fun work. Still I am by no means a sure hire at any of the top EA orgs and have trouble getting funding from anything EA related.

All in all, I think that trying to leverage what you already have and can influence is undervalued compared to trying to "hitchhike" impact (that's obviously "tongue-in-cheek"). A word one could use for this may be: micro-entrepreneurship.

Regarding your second point:

I guess you have a good point here, the post doesn't really add much in the role of concrete advice to local groups but I also think that it doesn't have to. Just highlighting that there is a connection between the role of local groups and what kind of careers we value is something which I haven't seen much discussion about.

As you highlight student groups are a specific form of a local group which is quite common but doesn't really respond to the needs outlined in the post. Thus, it would be interesting to start thinking about the systematic coordination of local groups in specific regions. Right now, it seems like groups are popping up and dwindeling along somewhat spontaneously. Some EA hotspots like Oxford, London, Boston, BayArea, etc. might be in a phase with more systematic networking and coordination going on but the vast majority of local groups is just starting to think about connecting and coordinating more systematically.

What I take away from this post is that this kind of regional coordination is important if we want to ensure motivation of EAs in the medium- and long-term. This perspective seems (at least based on personal experience) underdeveloped at the moment. Thus, I am quite happy about this post and your thoughtful engagement with it :)

comment by FJehn · 2019-08-23T10:30:58.824Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the feedback.

When I was talking about academia I wasn't imaging a student that is almost sure to steer a field, but more of a "regular" PhD student. For example I will be finishing a PhD in environmental science soonish. I think I am doing a good job there, but when I see who is applying for EA orgs it seems somewhat unlikely that I will get into one of the main EA orgs anytime soon (or ever^^). Therefore, trying to infuse EA ideas into the general discourse in my field might be one of the few things I can do while in academia.

Regarding what local groups could do, I am still a bit unsure what is the best approach (which is why I did not include it in the post). But a few ideas floating in my head are:

  • Creating more opportunities for people in local group become friends, as this ensures long time engagement:
    • Create additional events that are only meant for people to connect with each other
    • Push for more 1 on 1 talks in the group, so all people in the group know each other well
  • Using local groups as a support network:
    • Help each other finding meaningful jobs
    • Maybe even create something like a local group fund. So everyone in the group gives some money every month and when a member of the group needs financial leeway to create something EA related he/she can get money from that fund.
  • Creating a tighter network in your country:
    • Have more and longer coutry wide networking events
    • Basically all the things GEAN is trying to implement

Probably some of those ideas (or all?) are already included in the bigger EA groups. However, the smaller groups that I have met so far (in Germany) are not yet so sophisticated.




comment by Khorton · 2019-08-22T07:36:01.223Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that local groups can be very motivational. Obviously, the people who organise the local group are giving up a lot of their time. If someone had the choice between organising a local group or working at an EA organisation, how would you advise them?

comment by FJehn · 2019-08-22T12:57:18.639Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hard question, as it depends on a lot of parameters. For example:

  • What is the marginal value of the person getting into EA org in comparison to the person who would get the job otherwise? I can imagine it is not that big in some cases, as quite a lot of very professional people apply to EA orgs.
  • What is the marginal value of the person leading the group in the comparison to the person who would do it otherwise. Here I would argue that it might be much bigger, as I have the impression that local groups rise and fall with the person(s) who organize them. Often you have one (or a few) very active person(s), who do most of the work. Without them the group slowly dissolves.

It also depends on how big the possible impact of the group or the EA org is. However, if in doubt I would say that often the local group might a very good option, as it can easily act as a multiplier by enhancing the impact of other people in the local group.



comment by Risto_Uuk · 2019-08-23T13:56:49.687Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is slightly relevant, in a recent 80,000 Hours' blog post they suggest the following for people applying for EA jobs:

We generally encourage people to take an optimistic attitude to their job search and apply for roles they don’t expect to get. Four reasons for this are that, i) the upside of getting hired is typically many times larger than the cost of a job application process itself, ii) many people systematically underestimate themselves, iii) there’s a lot of randomness in these processes, which gives you a chance even if you’re not truly the top candidate, and iv) the best way to get good at job applications is to go through a lot of them.
comment by alexherwix · 2019-08-22T08:31:58.413Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Is this really a big question in real life? If you can get a prestigious job at an EA org that’s most likely the thing you will do as gives you more value (it pays a lot better and gives you more social status). On the other hand, working in a normal job and volunteering in a local group or full time community building are great options for people who don’t get (yet) to fill the select few positions (for whatever reason).

I think the post is just meant to broaden the horizon a little bit on what we consider as “impactful” or desirable positions in EA. Fact of the matter is that there seem to be more capable people out there than jobs at prestigious EA organizations and I don’t see this changing in the near term. Imho, we should dedicate at least a few minutes thinking about this situation :)

So thank you for the post! :)

comment by Khorton · 2019-08-22T12:16:36.184Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Most of the people I interact with in EA London already do this. They have a career and try to do good within it, they donate a bit, and they're involved with their local EA group. What you're saying doesn't seem new or controversial to me - I have trouble imagining that anyone would disagree with it.

comment by alexherwix · 2019-08-23T09:16:16.876Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I guess the position that this might be slightly controversial in the EA movement is based on the measures that are generally used to assess the quality of EA community building through EA grants. There is still a heavy emphasis on career plan changes [1] with a strong focus on the highest impact EA organizations.

While maybe nobody would generally disagree with the stated position, the systems in place seems to make it quite difficult to cater to these groups. At least based on personal experience and exchanges, CB grant recipients feel often somewhat constrained in what they think they can do. Moreover, again based on personal experience, it seems quite difficult to get funding for things that aim to tackle the outlined challenge directly.

1: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/RZrikMAuTwt4e9Fs4/ea-community-building-grants-update [EA · GW]

comment by Risto_Uuk · 2019-08-23T14:01:53.022Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It actually might be more complicated than what you say here, alexherwix [EA · GW]. If a research analyst role at the Open Philanthropy Project receives 800+ job applications, then you might reasonably think that it's better for you to continue building a local community even if you were a great candidate for that option.

In addition, for the reasons that you mention, every possible local community builder might be constantly looking for new job options in the EA community making someone who doesn't do that a highly promising candidate. Furthermore, being a community builder is actually a surprisingly difficult job.

Another consideration is that preparation and training for a specific job at an EA organization and gaining skills leading a local group might be quite different. It might suit you more to do tasks related to community building in a local context.

comment by alexherwix · 2019-08-23T19:11:23.134Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

yeah, you could make the argument that your counterfactual impact in local community building might be higher than working at EA org X... I didn't (mean to) propose anything to contradict that assessment and I agree given the right circumstances. I just meant to mention that people who could reasonably expect to work at EA org X will likely do so as it IS a more prestigious thing to do than community building at the moment and will likely continue to be in the near future. I don't necessarily like this situation, I am just calling out how I see it.

I very much agree that community building is a worthwhile opportunity (that's why I am engaging in it myself) and I never said it's easy... it is just less specialized than some other things one would consider to be high-value. I think that's what you allude to in your third paragraph.

To argue a little bit more FOR community building, I would propose it's a very useful general skill set to have for any job. It's a lot about project and people management which is quite useful regardless the specific field you want to get into. Thus, I would be quite happy to see a more systematic approach to and support of community building than we generally see at the moment (although that might just be biased and based on my personal experiences in Germany so far).