We need alternatives to Intro EA Fellowships

Thanks to Kuhan Jeyapragasan, Akash Wasil, Olivia Jimenez, and Lizka Vaintrob for helpful comments /​ conversations.

TLDR: I think group organizers have become anchored on the idea of Intro EA Fellowships as 8-week small-group things, which might actually be a sub-optimal way to introduce promising students to the EA world. We need new alternatives that are exciting, immersive, and enable EA-interested students to move as quickly as they’d like through the EA funnel.

The Intro EA Fellowship (also known as the Arete Fellowship) is a program where a small group of fellows and a facilitator meet multiple times to learn about some aspect of effective altruism. Stanford EA’s virtual Intro EA Fellowship was the first structured EA program I was part of and when I realized EA was a thriving community with real humans in it. I don’t think my experience is unique. In uni EA groups around the world, the Intro EA Fellowship is one of the core programs offered to students.

Some context on Intro EA Fellowships:

  • Fellowships are usually structured in cohorts of 2-5 fellows and a facilitator who meets weekly for 6-10 weeks.

  • Each week, fellows do some amount of readings and participate in a discussion with their cohort.

  • There are often also social activities that allow fellows to get to know each other better and cultivate friendships.

  • Uni group organizers often use Intro EA Fellowships as an early/​mid part of the funnel for highly-engaged EA students.

Intro EA Fellowships exist in so many places because they have some upsides, some of which I list below.

That said, I also think there are some strong downsides to the Intro EA Fellowship model as it currently exists. As a participant, I wasn’t particularly impressed by my Intro EA Fellowship experience—I’m not sure if my fellowship cohort actually finished (people got busy) and think there’s a chance I would’ve bounced off the EA community had I not attended a summer EA retreat for high school students a couple months later. Now, as I help organize Penn EA’s Intro Fellowship cohort, I’m noticing how my frustrations as an Intro Fellowship participant weren’t unique to me.

In this post, I share some of those frustrations (downsides to the Intro Fellowship as I see them). I try to steelman the argument for why Intro EA fellowships should exist. Finally, I introduce some Intro EA Fellowship alternatives that I’d be excited to see uni group organizers prototype. I’m personally planning to try some of these—if you’d like to coordinate, please reach out ashley11@wharton.upenn.edu!

Downsides of Intro Fellowships

Much of this is observed through my own experience being part of /​ facilitating fellowships. I also think Intro Fellowship experiences are highly variable depending on one’s cohort and facilitator, and I think there’s a good chance I’ve had a relatively worse Intro EA Fellowship experience than others:

  • The standard 8-week fellowship timeline is too slow for people who are really excited early on and want to move faster. In these scenarios, the fellowship might actually slow people down and cause their excitement to fade (an hour-long conversation and some readings each week is a pretty sluggish pace) -- worse case scenario, it might cause some promising people to lose interest.

    • I want to cultivate a fast-paced vibe among fellows, instead of a discussion-group like vibe. (To me “fast-paced,” when applied to something that seems interesting, cultivates genuine excitement and deep curiosity). For example, when I first found 80,000 Hours, I pulled an all-nighter reading it and was absolutely ecstatic that people had spent so much time thinking about triaging problems and how one can do the most good in the world. In my early EA days, I spent hours at a time diving into blogs and Twitter rabbitholes. I think moving quickly through EA content in the beginning helped me stay (and become even more) excited /​ curious about the EA world.

    • It seems that faster fellowships are good in general because it gets people producing value sooner. For example, I’m slightly confused on what to tell people who haven’t done the Intro Fellowship but want to help organize Penn EA. Most of these people are concurrently doing the fellowship, I’ve advised one person to skip the fellowship and do the readings at an accelerated pace on their own and talk to other organizers about it.

  • Some of the most promising people are missed and get stuck in worse Intro Fellowship cohorts. A popular strategy for slotting fellows into cohorts is to batch all the most promising people together. You can then match this cohort with the “best” facilitator, the promising people meet each other, and discussion quality is generally higher.

    • However, it can be hard to identify the most promising fellows from their applications and maybe one 30 min 1-on-1 interview. Sometimes people are slotted into the incorrect cohort and have to “stick it out” for the 8 week fellowship, which seems bad.

    • This wouldn’t be a problem if we had better ways of identifying who will be promising or if fellowship cohorts aren’t fixed the whole time.

  • It can be hard for both fellows and facilitators to commit to a recurring thing for 8 weeks. People have midterms, EAG sometimes happens, other things come up. My priors are that people are more likely to come to a single Fri-Sun retreat than something dragged out over multiple weeks.

    • Many of the highly intelligent /​ agentic fellows and facilitators are busy and probably least likely to make time to commit to an 8-week thing, especially when they don’t know the quality of the experience. On top of that, these people might also not have much availability, which leads to fellowship cohorts being reluctantly assigned by time instead of how promising people are.

  • One hour (maybe two) fellowship sessions isn’t long enough to get into “late night life-changing conversations” mode, which is important for big changes. I don’t think weekly fellowship readings and sessions are usually associated with the reference class of transformative experiences. I think immersive and experiential things (like physically going to a new place and participating in an overnight event) are more memorable and create space outside of one’s day-to-day to actually reflect on and play with what big changes might look like.

    • Perhaps well-run socials during Intro Fellowships can help fill the “late night life-changing conversations” gap.

    • I do think that doing the Intro Fellowship alongside coursework may mean less scope to dig deep into intellectually difficult topics, where this might come more naturally if folks were in a retreat-like setting.

  • Context is lost between fellowship sessions. I’ve noticed that sometimes we end a fellowship meeting on a high with concrete things to check out and follow up on. Then, a week goes by and people are bombarded with school and life. By the next fellowship meeting, people have lost the buildup and start back at ground zero. This is frustrating when we can’t jump right back in and spend some amount of time each session “warming up.”

    • I think some argument can be made that maybe this isn’t a bad thing and it’s good for fellows to have some sort of review /​ warm-up before each session. This could totally be a personal preference, but when I’ve tried to learn things in the past, intensive bootcamp style seemed to work better for me than a weekly 1-3 hour session.

Upsides of Intro Fellowships

The majority of uni EA groups are running Intro Fellowship cohorts right now, so there must be some reason for their existence. Trying to steelman the argument for Intro Fellowships here:

  • Intro EA Fellowships are easy for new uni groups to pick up and run with. The model has been tested many times and there’s a significant amount of infrastructure that has already been created (existing syllabi, facilitator training, discussion guides, etc. that can easily be customized).

    • I think this is an accidental upside and isn’t a good reason on its own—I think most Intro Fellowship alternatives can be made “easy to pick up” if people document and open-source the tools they used to organize them.

  • An 8-week fellowship offers students more time to reflect on content and make decisions about their careers. There are tons of big concepts and enough content in the Intro Fellowship that I think it could take months to fully explore and process the syllabus. It generally seems good for people to be engaging with EA content for a longer period of time (and people often want to do so) before making any big decisions about their future.

    • For one, big updates and life changes seem more reasonable when they happen over a longer timescale. I think my parents would be quite upset if I went to a three-day retreat and decided to change my career (I think I’d also be a bit suspicious—maybe I updated on information too quickly and didn’t utilize good epistemics)

    • When arguments aren’t all presented at once, fellows have more time to reflect, ruminate, process arguments, and talk to others about them. This might be conducive to people actually taking time to read more things and think through them, actually explore their confusions around key EA arguments, do their own cause prio, and generally do more original thinking.

  • An Intro Fellowship requires less time and up-front commitment than a retreat, an alternative I suggest below.

    • If you count the number of hours spent for a two day retreat, attendees would commit ~48 hours, with an extra ~30 for the organizers. For an 8-week fellowship with one hour-long session and two hours of reading/​week, fellows would commit ~24 hours and organizers ~8 (assuming they have done the readings already). Based on the number of hours, maybe some/​many people are more willing to do the 3 hour/​week thing rather than a retreat, but this seems unlikely to me. (Retreats seem more exciting, and time-bound things seem better than things that drag on for multiple weeks).

    • Another argument against retreats could be that for students in their first month or two of college, it might seem extreme to travel off-campus with a group of relative strangers for a long weekend, while joining a discussion group seems very normal.

  • Cohort-based things are conducive to people making friends and staying engaged for at least 8 weeks. It’s plausible that hanging out with the same group of people for 8 weeks allows people to bond and provides some sort of “peer-pressure” for students to continue showing up to EA things for at least 8 weeks, during which they could learn new things, change their minds, and update their education /​ career plans.

    • Furthermore, an 8-week time frame might also give fellows time to attend other events at their uni EA group. For example, students might attend some group dinners /​ socials and do 1-on-1s with organizer(s) while doing the Intro Fellowship, which could add depth to the experience.

  • Facilitating could be a good way to engage group members who are knowledgeable about EA and looking for ways to get involved. One of the biggest questions uni groups face is what Intro EA Fellowship graduates can do. An obvious option could be for them to help facilitate the next cohort of the Intro Fellowship. Depending on the person, this could be a good way for them to solidify concepts (teaching being an effective way to learn) while meeting new people in the uni group and dipping their toes into meta-EA work.

    • I think doing meta-EA is one of the most impactful things undergrads can do with their time. That said, I want doing meta stuff to be an intentional choice instead of the (only) default option. For certain people, I think doing meta-EA work could be strictly worse than doing other things in the EA world, especially if that person had well-developed cause-area specific /​ org-running aptitudes.

Alternatives to Intro EA Fellowships

I think most efforts to change the Intro EA Fellowship thus far have been small, like slightly editing the curriculum. I’d be excited about more uni EA groups testing alternative structures that might replace the Intro EA Fellowship entirely. I feel like myself (and maybe others) have been anchored on the fellowship cohort model and haven’t sufficiently explored other options.

Some options that I think could be high potential include:

Accelerated Fellowship Retreat

A 3-day overnight retreat (Fri-Sun) dedicated to reading and discussion. During this time frame, fellows would go through all the readings in the Intro Fellowship syllabus (which seems completely feasible in a 3-day time frame, given fellows are only expected to spend ~2 hours/​week on readings).

  • Goals of this retreat include:

    • Create faster on-ramps for EA-interested students to gain EA knowledge /​ context and start producing value earlier.

    • Maintain students’ interest and excitement when they first come across EA.

    • Establish the “late night convo” vibe which allows fellows to form deeper bonds with each other and enter deep /​ life-changing conversations.

  • Potential pitfalls of this model:

    • Fellows do the 4 day retreat and are super excited /​ learn a bunch. A couple days post-retreat, interest dies. Without accountability, fellows don’t go on to do anything useful.

      • To mitigate this, I’d strongly recommend running an accelerated fellowship retreat only if there are clear pathways for what fellows can plug into after the four days.

      • Some “post fellowship” projects that organizers might want to encourage include: organizing for their uni EA group, choosing to deep dive into x cause area and writing a series of EA Forum posts summarizing key takeaways, forming a reading group on y, etc. The key here is that fellows should be empowered to self-organize (maybe there’s a couple hours devoted to “making plans” at the end of the retreat).

    • Fellows speed through the readings /​ discussions, and don’t actually “get” any of it (don’t remember much, not enough time to process, don’t actually form their own opinions about ideas).

      • Maybe we are more selective with the reading list than the actual Intro Fellowship syllabus

      • Maybe at the retreat, fellows set goals for if /​ how they want to continue engaging with EA content. There could be a 1-on-1 scheduled two weeks after the retreat to check in on how fellows are doing and how they can be supported.

    • People get bored of readings /​ discussions, and the vibe at the retreat sucks. This could be mitigated by building in time for social events and other activities in the retreat agenda.

    • Certain fellows derail discussions because they just aren’t that interested (or are interested in their pet cause and are trying to get people to join it). In standard Intro Fellowships, these people naturally drop off, which is often a good thing because they’d lower average quality of discussion. “Dropping off” might be harder in an immersive retreat setting.

      • One way to mitigate this is to encourage folks to leave if they realize they don’t vibe with the retreat or find it valuable. Better screening of attendees beforehand on “openness to new ideas and changing their minds” might also be helpful.

  • This could also be a good opportunity to test various post-fellowship follow up strategies (doubly important for the accelerated model where post-fellowship drop-off is a concern, but would also be useful for standard Intro EA Fellowship models). Such follow up strategies could include doing one or more 1-on-1s or group meetings with fellows post-fellowship, giving mini-grants to fellows to work on their own EA-related projects, or even running another 3-day retreat 8 weeks after the accelerated fellowship weekend to check in on fellows’ progress and unblock people if they are facing certain challenges.

Self-Directed Fellowship

A “move at your own pace” model where fellows move through the weekly readings on their own or with partner(s), taking as much /​ little time as they need. Instead of being matched with cohorts of students, each facilitator “owns” a week, which would allow them to have deep knowledge of that week’s materials and refer people to other good resources. Ad-hoc fellowship meetings are scheduled for a week when there are fellows who’ve completed the required readings.

  • Benefits:

    • Fellows are supported to move and fast as they would like through EA content. Initial interest and excitement is sustained.

    • Fellows take responsibility for their own exploration of EA content, spending more /​ less time on the topics that pique their interest.

    • Fellows naturally form high quality connections with a large number of peers and facilitators, instead of a single cohort.

  • Pitfalls:

    • People are bad at self-directed learning and fall off the face of the earth after a couple weeks. It seems like EA /​ Intro Fellowships might select for people who can do self-directed learning through, although this seems harder to operationalize for busy college students with real competing deadlines. Accountability partners or a mid-point 1-on-1 check in with an organizer might help address this.

    • The most promising people might end up in some conversations with less promising people. I’m not too worried about this because cohorts aren’t static, and if someone finds another promising fellow they vibe with, the two can coordinate and complete readings at the same time.

    • Maybe people take unreasonably long to do the readings, causing the fellowship to drag on multiple months. Fellowship meetings end up being a series of 1-on-1s, which takes too much organizer time. This could be mitigated by providing a suggested timeline and giving fellows x weeks of wiggle room.

  • I heard that some groups in the UK ran an office hours version of the fellowship similar to this. In their model, fellows did the readings at their own pace and could drop into a facilitator’s office hours to discuss the readings if they wanted to. This seems somewhat similar to what I’ve described, but I’m not sure how it worked or whether people actually chose to drop in.

3-Week Fellowship Sprint

A 3-week version of the fellowship where the primary purpose is to identify who the most promising people are, then aggressively reach out to them through 1-on-1s, invite-only events, and connections to resources /​ opportunities /​ leaders in the EA community. It seems like the core purpose of fellowships are to 1) introduce students to core EA concepts and 2) allow group organizers to screen for the most promising fellows. I think the 8020 could be done in three weeks.

  • Benefits:

    • Identify the most promising people more quickly.

    • Invest more time and resources in the most promising people, which helps them stay excited and move through the EA funnel more quickly.

    • Logistically easier for both fellows and facilitators to commit to a 3-week sprint rather than an 8-week program.

    • “Sprint” carries a fast-paced, intensive vibe that is more reflective of the type of energy we want to cultivate in a fellowship cohort (nerdy, go-getter, truth-seeking, creative, fun).

  • Pitfalls:

    • Some promising people might be missed during this 3-week period and not be connected to resources /​ opportunities they need.

Activity-Based Intro Fellowship

A version of the fellowship that is more activity-focused. I think organizers are currently anchored on the idea of readings and discussions as the way to introduce new students to EA, even though it might not be the most effective learning style for fellows and might be boring /​ too similar to the traditional classroom setting.

  • Instead of every week being solely readings /​ discussions, there could be some smaller amount of readings (to establish common knowledge about the week’s theme) and projects like:

    • Come up with a 3-5 min lightning talk on something related to x (maybe the facilitator helps people coordinate to make sure there aren’t duplicated topics /​ everything is covered) and share with the cohort at this week’s meeting.

    • Identify a question related to x, research it for 1-2 hours, write a mock EA Forum post on what you’ve learned (you don’t have to post it, and in many cases it probably won’t be worth posting). You could do this with partner(s).

    • “Download” a person doing work related to x. (“Downloading” is a term I use that refers to internet stalking someone—Google them, read their blog, listen to their podcasts, figure out how [name] became who they are). Share the person you downloaded with another fellow or consider reaching out to that person for a 1-on-1.

  • Benefits:

    • Fellows are more excited and engaged by projects instead of readings.

    • Fellows are quickly immersed in the EA community and connected with meaningful short-term opportunities and EA leaders. Post-fellowship, people have what they need to continue exploring EA on their own, instead of being dependent on an organizer to hand-hold. (Kind of like the concept of giving a man a fish vs teaching them how to fish)

    • Fellows have ideas for things they might work on post-fellowship. A common question organizers have post-fellowships is: What are things that fellowship graduates can work on? I think the answer most people have settled on are entrepreneurial, short-term, internship-like projects (although it’s still unclear how this might be operationalized at scale). That said, I think making the fellowship itself activity-based and allowing people to experience things like posting on the EA Forum and reaching out to EA leaders during the fellowship makes it easier for people to come up with /​ act on these sorts of project ideas post-fellowship.

  • Pitfalls:

    • Fellows don’t have enough time to work on projects (e.g. drafting an EA Forum post might take more than a couple hours) and resent having to do so. This could be mitigated by ensuring projects are small /​ broken up into small enough pieces so they don’t overwhelm a fellow.

    • Fellows don’t have the skills needed to complete projects. For example, a fellow might lack general writing or research ability, which would make it difficult to do a majority of the projects.

    • Fellows feel like they aren’t learning anything from projects. This might be because EA concepts aren’t presented in a coherent-enough way (I’m envisioning there will be weekly themes and key concepts for the weeks, but no specific readings).

      • I’m not sure how to fix this, but would be curious to get fellows feedback on what felt boring /​ redundant /​ bad about the project, and if there are other project ideas they would find more valuable.

My Questions for You

I’ve been frustrated by Intro Fellowships (as they currently exist) for a while now, and would be really excited by more group organizers thinking about alternatives. Some things I’d like to know:

  • Has anyone run any of the experiments above before? I’d love to hear how it went.

  • What other ideas do you have for things that could replace Intro EA Fellowships?

  • Would anyone be interested in running one of these experiments above, or another experiment entirely? I’d love to connect and coordinate!

If you’re interested in chatting more about these things, please shoot me a message at ashley11@wharton.upenn.edu.