[Question] 20,000/40,000 Hours- MidCareer Options

post by LHarrison · 2019-05-29T11:43:19.513Z · score: 23 (16 votes) · EA · GW · 9 comments

A question, framed by the concept of taking 80,000 Hours and splitting it up to recognize that not all people are at the start of their 80,000 Hours, but what are resources available to help people recognize personal strengths on their career path that should be considered when looking at steering their career in a more EA direction? The advice from 80,000 Hours on the topic is still a sketch and I was curious if there have been other articles touching on it more.

Imagine, for the sake of the question, someone who has already spent 70,000 Hours on solving a problem (pick your favorite one) and then either they themselves or society collectively has "solved" the problem. Without playing too much to the sunk cost fallacy, would it make sense that the most effective course of action for that individual (not the EA community as a whole) to be to stay the course, poke around the "solution," make sure it sticks, instead of going to something else?

This ties into the concept of career capital as a factor, but I find that there's not a lot of discussion of leveraging the career capital you already have, versus charting a course to build career capital (where most of the advice seems to be, like focusing on flexible career capital). A lot of the advice seems to be "Your situation may vary."

The discussion of comparative advantage by Benjamin Todd touches on this, but in a more thought experiment way to look at concepts to carry through to the real world in coordinating careers.

Is this just generally an area that hasn't been well developed?

9 comments

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comment by RyanCarey · 2019-05-30T16:43:39.155Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think the main answer is that advice for mid/late-career is harder to provide. But we can improvise by leveraging the existing research:

Could one land jobs at any of the positions on 80,000 Hours' jobs board?

Could you switch to working on a high-priority area in general?

What are the main skills gained from your career? Are these needed by any of the organizations on the jobs board? Are they needed for starting any new organizations?


comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2019-05-29T18:19:39.352Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Since I am both mid-career and EA, maybe I can say a little about this even if I can't give a full answer.

I was concerned about existential risk due to AI prior to the start of my career (heck, prior to going to college, and this was in 2000), but for a variety of reasons I failed to do much directly about this. I got distracted by life, had to get a job to deal with more pressing needs, and spent several years just trying to get along without putting much effort into AI safety.

Then a couple of years ago my life got better, I had more slack, and I used that slack to start working on AI safety as a "hobby". So far this has proven pretty successful: I've published some things, had many interesting conversations with people who are also doing direct work on AI safety (part or full time), and helped influence research directions and progress.

I don't know what this will turn into, but the hobby model is worth considering as a way to transition mid-career: get interested in and start working on something you care about, and eventually maybe transition to doing that work full time. Plus you'll be somewhat unique in that you'll be carrying forward all your existing career capital that others in your chosen space likely won't have.

The downside of this approach is that it requires you have enough time and energy to do it. To make progress here it may be necessary to take a less demanding job to creating that time and energy or give up other commitments.

Definitely interested to see what others suggest or have tried.

comment by LHarrison · 2019-05-30T12:40:25.465Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

This is similar to what I have been thinking, as I've had "Learn Mandarin" down as a goal for four years now. My idea being to do a "hobby" at first and then shift. But your point is you need the time and energy, and I've never been able to break out of my currently demanding job to start to pick it up.

I think this would suggest identifying concrete steps that can be taken as a "hobby" but produce something functional that can be signaled in the career marketplace. Certificates and the like.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-05-31T21:03:05.832Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

There are a lot of mid-career people who get advice on how to do more good in their careers, but that often happens in private, 1-on-1 conversations, as you might expect given the more personal/specific needs of this group. For example, the average attendee at EA Global has at least a couple of years of career experience, and there are a lot of opportunities to give/receive career advice at those conferences. There are also a lot of cases where people connect to experienced members of the EA community through their professional networks (a resource most 22-year-old 80,000 Hours readers won't have).

If you're reading this and plan to attend EA Global: San Francisco in a couple of weeks, there will be a meetup for professionals with a lot of career experience, so keep an eye out for that!

comment by Khorton · 2019-05-29T20:26:55.750Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I agree this is an understudied area, but I also think it will be harder to give generic care advice to people with wildly different experiences than to give generic career advice to 22-year-old Ivy League graduates. That said, I'd welcome any career advice you dig up for mid-career pivots!

comment by LHarrison · 2019-05-30T12:38:45.477Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Is it possible that the effort that would be necessary to give specific advice versus generic advice is not actually worth the effort? It's better to try to influence people at the start of their 80,000 hours, and once someone has invested a portion of their life (one third?) it's better to just flip them to earning to give and move on to the next 22 year old Ivy League graduate?

At the start, say someone with 79,000 hours to go, they are still essentially the same as the 22 year old Ivy League Graduate with 80,000 hours, so the advice is the same.

There's got to be a tipping point, which probably depends on if the person's first 10,000 or 20,000 hours built up flexible career capital or more specific. The person who became a pharmacist is more locked in than the person who got an MBA.

comment by Ramiro · 2019-05-30T21:14:21.972Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Me too. Perhaps we should create a mutual support group ourselves? The "mid-career You can Save"?

However, I'm not so sure about what you guys mean by "harder" in this context. Yes, it might be easier to spot some really promising 22-year-old Ivy League graduates and advise them, and, since they have so many options left, general advice might be good enough. But it doesn't seem so hard to nudge some mid-career professionals towards optimal options, precisely because there are less alternatives. And wouldn't it be more scalable? E.g. what's more likely, that we can advice the right young graduate to get a job in the government, or that we could talk to many potential candidates and convert at least one of them into EA goals?

comment by LHarrison · 2019-05-31T02:54:36.844Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I should say "scalable" not "harder." The issue is the advice to a promising young graduate can be rather generic and repeatable for each graduate, with some reference to if they majored in Mandarin or something. The advice for mid-career is going to be more personal, and so it's not scalable. But I'm sure if you sat down one on one you could do something positive.

The issue is one of transferring career capital. You could limit the pathways to the top tiers identified by EA efforts, but I would argue that if you consider career capital that may not be as transferable to the major efforts (let's say AI and its associated impacts) it's possible you would encourage the person to stick with a cause that would not be advisable to a new graduate. Or, if you only stick to the top EA tiers, it may be impossible to get from their current career to something relevant.

So let's say that AI, bioterrorism, nuclear security, and the tail end of climate change are big problem areas. And you have someone who has done a lot of work on clean water and hand washing campaigns in the developing world, is well networked, fluent in various languages, etc. They may be better positioned to shift into reducing smoking rates in the developed world, which is something I just pulled from the 80,000 hours website as an example, instead of trying to pick up something that's in the top tier. That's an example where you can connect someone to a lower EA priority where they may be well positioned to be especially effective.

If you have someone in a government job in, say, State or Defense, you can steer them towards clearly defined EA goals. And some other areas overlap, like Treasury has some counter-terrorism and sanctions enforcement that maybe gets you moving in a more EA direction. But I don't think EA is well prepared to offer advice for, just naming random Departments, someone in Agriculture, Transportation, Interior, or Education. That's an example where you would really need to understand the particulars of someone work and develop new research into areas that I haven't seen EA discuss as detailed.

comment by LHarrison · 2019-05-31T11:48:50.970Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I think one issue that this topic brings up is the relative question of importance of areas. In one scenario the importance of the main EA themes (AI, nuclear security, etc.) are so much greater than the second tier (smoking rates, trade reform, etc.), that even someone who is very closely adjacent to the second tier is better off to still push onward to the first tier. In other scenarios there are possible second tier problems that would be important.