Retrospective on thinking about my career for a year

Summary

  • I prob­a­bly spent be­tween 300 and 400 hours writ­ing & think­ing about my ca­reer, talk­ing to oth­ers, re­search­ing differ­ent op­tions & paths, and go­ing through ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cesses. I also did a three-month in­tern­ship.

  • Toward the end of the 12 months, I con­sid­ered two grad­u­ate pro­grams, two full-time op­por­tu­ni­ties, and start­ing my own or­ga­ni­za­tion. Ul­ti­mately, I de­cided to stay in my cur­rent job for the time be­ing (one job op­por­tu­nity is still pend­ing).

  • The les­sons I learned as a re­sult: start think­ing about your ca­reer early; think about your field/​cause first, your­self sec­ond; writ­ing things down was very helpful; hav­ing a habit of reg­u­larly think­ing about next steps was use­ful; pick a niche or un­der­val­ued area and be­come the most knowl­edge­able per­son in it; read books; check team pages; reach out to peo­ple who have worked at an or­ga­ni­za­tion you’re in­ter­ested in or are knowl­edge­able about the field in gen­eral; many of the best roles are not ad­ver­tised, or even if they are, you can only get them if you have the right con­nec­tions or visi­ble ex­per­tise; if you like the work of some­body or some or­ga­ni­za­tion, reach out and say that.

Introduction

I started think­ing about a ca­reer tran­si­tion about a year ago. I thought there might be bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties than my job at the time be­cause I wor­ried that my per­sonal fit was not ideal. In this post, I de­tail the pro­cess and les­sons from that year of think­ing and learn­ing about my ca­reer.

The les­sons I draw in this post are from n=1. What worked for me might not work for you and vice versa.

I was and still am in a very priv­ileged po­si­tion. I am rea­son­ably well-con­nected and, as far as I can tell, well-re­garded in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity. So peo­ple were per­haps more will­ing to help me out com­pared to oth­ers mak­ing the same re­quests. Dur­ing this pe­riod, I was work­ing at an or­ga­ni­za­tion that gave me sig­nifi­cant flex­i­bil­ity, which was a big as­set. In this re­gard, I was prob­a­bly still some­what bet­ter off than peo­ple who are in uni­ver­sity. Be­ing em­ployed also gave me a sense of ex­is­ten­tial se­cu­rity, which I would imag­ine makes this sort of ex­plo­ra­tion psy­cholog­i­cally sig­nifi­cantly eas­ier. Even if I didn’t find a differ­ent job, I could stay in my ex­ist­ing role, which I con­sid­ered to be already quite im­pact­ful.

What I did

I prob­a­bly spent be­tween 300 and 400 hours writ­ing & think­ing about my ca­reer, talk­ing to oth­ers, re­search­ing differ­ent op­tions & paths, and go­ing through ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cesses. That’s about 5.8h to 7.7h per week. On top of that, I spent three months work­ing full-time as an in­tern at a differ­ent or­ga­ni­za­tion. Dur­ing these twelve months, I did not re-ex­am­ine my fun­da­men­tal cause pri­ori­ti­za­tion.

Start. I started by writ­ing a stock­take of my situ­a­tion and ca­reer: why was I con­sid­er­ing leav­ing my cur­rent role, what ca­reer cap­i­tal did I have, where might my per­sonal fit be high­est. I then brain­stormed differ­ent op­tions that might be open to me and wrote down the pros and cons. I got feed­back on that doc­u­ment from a few trusted peo­ple in the com­mu­nity. As a re­sult, I de­cided to ex­plore one field in par­tic­u­lar. I also started a weekly prac­tice of writ­ing down ca­reer de­vel­op­ments and ask­ing my­self what the most im­por­tant thing was that I should fo­cus on for the next week.

Early ex­plo­ra­tion. I started work­ing on a re­search pro­ject on the side and pub­lished some of my ini­tial think­ing on the EA Fo­rum. I par­ti­ci­pated in two work­shops on re­lated top­ics and con­nected with many peo­ple through these events and other means. I had con­ver­sa­tions with a few of them. I ex­plored sev­eral col­lab­o­ra­tions with other or­ga­ni­za­tions, but none of them worked out for differ­ent rea­sons to do with them or me. I then ap­plied for an in­tern­ship and re­ceived an offer, which I ac­cepted.

In­tern­ship & ap­pli­ca­tions. I did the in­tern­ship, dur­ing which I learned more things and met more peo­ple. I read sev­eral books. I re­fined my think­ing on the field and my ca­reer plan. I asked for feed­back again and re­fined my plan again. Dur­ing the in­tern­ship, I also ap­plied for a few other op­por­tu­ni­ties (an in­tern­ship, two grad­u­ate pro­grams, and two full-time po­si­tions).

De­liber­a­tion & de­ci­sion. For the past few months, I mainly de­liber­ated be­tween the op­tions available to me. I got turned down for the in­tern­ship, and the pro­cess for one full-time po­si­tion dragged on be­cause of COVID. I shared more think­ing about my op­tions with peo­ple for feed­back. As a re­sult, I briefly con­sid­ered start­ing my own or­ga­ni­za­tion. Ul­ti­mately, I ended up turn­ing down all offers still available.

Outcome

So af­ter this year of ex­plo­ra­tion, I con­cluded that for the time be­ing, I would stay in the job I already had when I started. (Caveat: There is a small chance that a differ­ent op­por­tu­nity will still work out, which might lead me to re­con­sider.)

That be­ing said, I made this de­ci­sion with a much bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my al­ter­na­tives, how easy it would be for me to tran­si­tion into them, and how they would be bet­ter and how they would be worse than my cur­rent job. So I learned a lot in those twelve months. I ended up pub­lish­ing sev­eral posts on this fo­rum, and I have given ap­par­ently use­ful ad­vice to a few peo­ple. I learned more about my per­sonal fit for differ­ent roles and fields.

In some sense, I feel more se­curely com­mit­ted to my cur­rent job. I have more ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the pos­i­tive as­pects. I can bet­ter gauge the value that I con­tribute by do­ing it well com­pared to other op­tions. I know that I could pur­sue other op­tions if I wanted to – some­thing that I pre­vi­ously had not been viscer­ally aware of.

I met many kind and gen­er­ous peo­ple along the way. Th­ese con­nec­tions will also stay with me.

Over­all, I would say that the time in­vested was worth it, both in ex­pec­ta­tion and in hind­sight. I think that is be­cause I spent a sig­nifi­cant chunk of my time grap­pling with im­por­tant ques­tions in the field that also hap­pened to be rele­vant for my ca­reer choice. It’s not so clear to me that it would have been worth it oth­er­wise.

Some mis­cel­la­neous pieces of advice

Start think­ing about your ca­reer early. I wish I had in­vested more time ear­lier. Your op­por­tu­nity costs are much lower dur­ing uni­ver­sity, and your think­ing will pay off for more years. It’s also a great way to learn about the field and get to know peo­ple in it.

Think about your field/​cause first, your­self sec­ond. When talk­ing to other peo­ple about their ca­reers, I of­ten no­ticed that they had not asked some of the hard ques­tions about the field that I had been grap­pling with. I think this is of­ten a mis­take. I recom­mend that you try to build a model of how change hap­pens in your field or cause. Ap­proach your ca­reer like you would the found­ing of a non-profit (in some ways). What would suc­cess in this field or cause look like? What are the key bot­tle­necks? What’s ne­glected? What’s your the­ory of change? Other­wise, it’s easy to go for the ob­vi­ous or easy op­tions with­out con­sid­er­ing the more ne­glected or harder ones. You’re also less likely to use mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing to jus­tify the op­tion you pre­fer already.

Hav­ing such a model is not only use­ful for your ca­reer. In most jobs, “just do­ing the job” will rarely be what is most im­pact­ful from an EA-per­spec­tive. You will need to pull spe­cific lev­ers in spe­cific di­rec­tions to have as much im­pact as pos­si­ble. And of­ten there will be no­body tel­ling you what to do. Hav­ing such a model will make that eas­ier. (see this post and this post by Buck for some more de­tail)

Only af­ter you have thought about im­pact in your field in gen­eral, ask your­self how you fit best into the solu­tion to the prob­lem you want to work on. This sep­a­ra­tion will be hard to keep up and your think­ing about the field should be some­what in­formed by your situ­a­tion. Still, I would en­courage you not to zoom in on spe­cific paths, op­tions, or op­por­tu­ni­ties too early.

Writ­ing things down was very helpful. It forced me to ex­pose and clar­ify my think­ing. That’s when holes and gaps be­come ap­par­ent. I re­al­ized where I would have to do more re­search. It also made get­ting feed­back from oth­ers eas­ier. I could share a doc­u­ment and ask for their thoughts. They could give feed­back when it suited them and on the best ver­sion of my think­ing I could get on pa­per. It also made pub­lish­ing and shar­ing re­sources on the field and my think­ing much eas­ier. This al­lowed oth­ers to benefit and gen­er­ated some use­ful con­tacts. A few peo­ple reached out to me be­cause they had seen my work.

Hav­ing a habit of reg­u­larly think­ing about the next steps was use­ful. This way, I rarely left my eyes off the ball.

Pick a niche or un­der­val­ued area and be­come the most knowl­edge­able per­son in it. There is re­lated ad­vice by Holden Karnofsky to get to the “top of the pile.” In some (sub)ar­eas of effec­tive al­tru­ism, these piles are not yet very high. Even just writ­ing a few in­sight­ful posts on this fo­rum might be enough to be­come the per­son on that mat­ter and help other peo­ple make sense of it. This can also work out­side of the com­mu­nity but is sig­nifi­cantly harder. There is of­ten much more com­pe­ti­tion. The risky way to still pull it off is to bet on an un­der­val­ued area, com­mu­nity, or­ga­ni­za­tion, or per­son. Once the thing be­comes ap­pro­pri­ately val­ued, you will have already in­vested more than the peo­ple com­ing in. Alter­na­tively, you can jump on op­por­tu­ni­ties faster than any­body else. COVID-19 was such a case where sev­eral peo­ple could prob­a­bly skip a few rungs on their ca­reer lad­der. Luck­ily, stay­ing on top is much eas­ier than get­ting there due to the Matthew effect.

Read books. I was sur­prised by how much I could find out about differ­ent ca­reer paths by read­ing the right books, es­pe­cially in poli­tics and policy. How­ever, I would ex­pect this to be less ap­pli­ca­ble to other ca­reer paths.

Check team pages. You can check out the bios of peo­ple who already work at an or­ga­ni­za­tion you’re in­ter­ested in to find out about typ­i­cal ca­reer tra­jec­to­ries in the field and likely re­quire­ments for work­ing at that par­tic­u­lar or­ga­ni­za­tion. I did this in for a bunch of differ­ent paths I was con­sid­er­ing and found it in­for­ma­tive.

Reach out to peo­ple who have worked at an or­ga­ni­za­tion you’re in­ter­ested in or are knowl­edge­able about the field in gen­eral. It’s hard to get this in­side per­spec­tive any other way. Some­times I reached out to peo­ple I had met for a gen­eral con­ver­sa­tion about my ca­reer and some­times with spe­cific ques­tions about a par­tic­u­lar op­tion about which I thought they might have things to say. Both were helpful. For the grad­u­ate school op­tions, I searched LinkedIn for peo­ple who had done the same pro­gram and asked them a num­ber of ques­tions. Many peo­ple got back to me. (I did not ask for a call.)

Many of the best roles are not ad­ver­tised, or even if they are, you can only get them if you have the right con­nec­tions or visi­ble ex­per­tise. There were two roles for which I was only con­sid­ered be­cause peo­ple knew me and my skill set. So build­ing con­nec­tions is im­por­tant. I don’t like “net­work­ing” my­self, and it does not come nat­u­rally to me. I have found two ways that work for me (be­yond the net­work­ing I have to do as part of my job): (a) do­ing valuable and visi­ble work, e.g., post­ing on this fo­rum; (b) reach­ing out to peo­ple for ad­vice.

If you like the work of some­body or some or­ga­ni­za­tion, reach out and say that. I prob­a­bly missed out on an op­por­tu­nity be­cause I did not reach out to some­body who’s work I liked suffi­ciently early. In an­other case, con­nect­ing with an or­ga­ni­za­tion in this way led to sev­eral use­ful con­tacts. Ideally, you can say things about their work or the field that they find in­ter­est­ing.