Thoughts on being overqualified for EA positions

I sometimes hear of people not wanting to work for EA organizations out of a fear that they are “overqualified”. I believe the reasoning is something like:

  1. In the for-profit sector, projects with some characteristics (e.g. building a website with less than 100k pageviews/​day) are usually done by more junior people.

    1. This is presumably because it’s not cost-effective to hire more senior staff (i.e. the value senior staff add to the project is less than the extra cost of hiring them).

  2. Projects in EA organizations have these characteristics.

  3. Therefore, there is not enough benefit for it to be worth having senior people do these tasks in EA organizations over having junior people do them.

I think (3) is not justified for a few reasons.

The most important is that it equivocates between “an analogous profit maximizing entity might not hire a senior person” and “senior people don’t provide much benefit”. It’s basically always possible to do things faster/​cheaper/​with fewer errors/​with a better user experience/​etc. I don’t think it’s possible for any mortal to be “overqualified” in the sense of “could not perform the task better than someone who was less skilled,” for all but the most trivial of tasks.

Often, the reason it’s not profitable to hire more senior people is more about leverage than about their ability to perform better. E.g. maybe a senior software engineer makes any website they work on 10% better than a junior engineer would – they can make a small website 10% better just as easily as they can make a large website 10% better. But they will still only get hired to work on the large website because a 10% increase in a large website is a greater absolute return than a 10% increase in a small website.

Startups often have their early success boosted by “overqualified” founders doing all the work – customers are impressed that they get to speak to the brilliant founders instead of normal salespeople so they are more likely to purchase the product, bugs get fixed more quickly because there are extremely talented engineers working on fixing them, etc. It’s common for startups to hit problems once they grow and have “correctly qualified” people in their positions, because they no longer benefit from those advantages.

Smaller EA organizations are somewhat like these startups whose success can be boosted by “overqualified” employees.

A secondary reason is that the intuition that EA organizations are “small” seems to often be based on comparing inputs rather than outputs. It’s true that this forum is read by many fewer people than, say, view the home and garden section on, but I suspect that global welfare is more easily increased by improving this site than Amazon (both because there is lower hanging fruit, and because the value generated per viewer is higher).

Finally, something I underestimated before working at an EA organization is the extent to which the novelty of EA work meant that similar tasks are more challenging. I’ve created a software product used by most hospitals in the US, started a successful company, and am now managing one of the smallest teams I’ve ever managed, but am not at all finding it easy. Things like impact analysis have received ~0% as much focus from experts as for-profit analogs like fiscal accounting have, making it much more challenging to answer basic questions like “was our project successful?”

A better argument for believing that one is overqualified

Often when employers speak of someone as being “overqualified”, what they mean is “this person might get bored with the work or dissatisfied with the low pay and quit to work somewhere else.” Expecting to be bored with a job is a very good reason to not take it, but I would encourage people to ask prospective employers about this issue directly, instead of not applying or being worried about being “overqualified”.

80,000 Hours has written about how passions are more malleable than most people expect, but briefly I will say that working at EA organizations has provided me with a lot of value I did not get in the for-profit sector: e.g. my social network is well integrated with EA, so at social gatherings I regularly hear how projects I worked on help someone get a job or pass a law or something else that’s cool, which basically never happened when I was at a for-profit.

In CEA’s most recent hiring round, we offered candidates a “tour of duty” format, where they would join us for one or two years, after which we would support them transitioning to other employers. I’m not sure if we will do this in the future (it might have been more confusing than helpful), but I would encourage anyone who’s worried about being overqualified for some EA position to consider a “tour of duty” approach and join the EA organization for a year or two.

Charity work is valued at ~0 in many career paths, meaning that there is an opportunity cost from pursuing it but it’s not actively harmful. Exploring alternative career paths is valuable for your own planning, even ignoring the good you would do, and I expect that for many people the benefit of exploring additional paths outweighs the opportunity cost.

I’d like to thank Aaron Gertler, Julia Wise, and Michelle Hutchinson for reading a draft of this, and Michelle for suggesting I write about it.