What FHI’s Research Scholars Programme is like: views from scholars

FHI’s Research Scholars Programme (RSP) has now been running for just under two years, and we’re excited to have launched applications for a third cohort of research scholars.

In this post, I (RSP’s project manager) want to share some scholars’ responses to a series of prompts about RSP, in their own words. I’ve removed some prompts where there weren’t many responses or I didn’t think they’d be very helpful, and sometimes lightly edited the responses for clarity.

Each scholar’s experience of RSP is different, and this sample (~11 out of 19 scholars) probably isn’t representative; but I hope it will give an illustrative idea of what RSP can be like to those who are interested in the programme or considering applying.

Note that RSP is still a young programme, and we continue to make changes (that we hope are on-average improvements), so future experiences may differ.

Why did you want to do RSP in the first place?

“I wanted to figure out my career plans, work on my health, and see what kinds of research I was good at.”

“After having led the research wing of an EA organization, I wanted to transition to doing research myself, but wasn’t sure which area to focus on. I was hoping to explore different directions to make a more informed decision.”

“I had a fairly specific vision of what I wanted to work on, and thought I could teach myself the important necessary things from online resources and books. I liked that RSP seemed to provide a good environment for independent research and study.”

“I really liked the program description, and a large amount of research freedom and space to explore.”

What are you working on at the moment?

“I’m trying to clarify and evaluate claims that distributions of opportunities for altruistic impact are often heavy-tailed – i.e. roughly that the total impact from many different activities will be dominated by the few highest-impact ones.”

“I’m working on a few projects at the moment. One is on investigating potential effects from transformative narrow AI, one is on investigating atomically precise manufacturing, and one is on mapping out potential paths to transformative AI.”

“I’m working on several projects at the moment, one of which is on the effects current and advanced AI systems might have on human autonomy. In another project, I analyse the opportunities and challenges that might arise from introducing broader impact statement requirements for ML conference submissions.”

How do you spend most of your time?

“Most of my time is spent on the research projects that I am working on. In practice, this means that I spend a fair bit of time doing solo research and writing either at Oxford’s libraries or in the FHI office. I also spend time meeting with collaborators, other researchers, or people doing work that is relevant to my research. There is an active community of researchers willing to engage on new projects, so I find there is no shortage of people interested in workshopping ideas or collaborating.”

“It depends on the time of the academic year. I spend the majority of my time on research but there are times where other things, such as teaching, presenting, or consulting take up a whole bunch of my time.”

“This was actually quite varied during the program, where in some quarters I was every few weeks in the US, attending conferences and workshops and meeting many others working in the field, other times I was mainly walking in Christchurch meadows, thinking, drawing at whiteboards, and not talking to too many people”

What problems have you faced on RSP?

“[T]he freedom to largely do what you like is a strength, but the relative lack of structure can also be a challenge. Although the RSP leadership provides some support, to some extent it’s up to you to create the structure that works for you, in your work day, say.”

“I think I underestimated how challenging I’d find the lack of structure and need to ‘be my own manager’. I thought: “I have done self-directed research with barely any supervision before”, thinking e.g. of my master’s thesis in mathematics. However, in hindsight I didn’t sufficiently appreciate differences between RSP and my previous experiences that turned out to matter a lot for me psychologically: in maths I had accumulated years of experience and a community of peers that were helpful for me assessing my own work and choosing between research directions; while finding original insights was hard, it was at least possible to unambiguously decide on the validity of a proof; and often at least the high-level goals were supplied externally (e.g. for my thesis my supervisor indicated the theorem I was aiming to prove). By contrast, in RSP I was constantly facing a choice between employing any method from any discipline, often with little experience or guidance that would allow me to tell if I had, say, identified a good paper, whether I was making progress at a reasonable pace or should change my approach etc.”

“There’s relatively little oversight. This has obvious positives and negatives. Expect a fair amount of freedom, but little guidance or structure.”

“[I]t’s taken some experimentation to set up a management structure that works for me. Carving out space for your projects is also challenging when there are always interesting conversations, reading groups, docs that need feedback, etc.”

“I think my work is rather unusual for RSP. I’m not working on academic papers, but more a mix of writing code, writing blog posts, and organizing projects. My work is also a bit separate from much of the other work at FHI. That said, this is fairly unique work so I’m not sure what groups would be much closer.”

“I found it challenging at first to get a good sense of what type of research I wanted to do. I think this is normal when you enter a new field, but I can imagine that it is more stressful for some than others. While I got a fair amount of freedom regarding research, I sometimes felt there were too many other commitments during the week (talks, seminars, sessions,...) which especially in the first year had a negative effect on my productivity.”

What most surprised you about RSP?

“[I]n many cases, people are very open and honest about their motivations and mental states—this creates a culture that is very unlike anything I’ve experienced in the corporate world.”

Do you think RSP is a good place for you to be? How is it helping you if so?

“I think that some of the highest value things I’m getting out of RSP are exposure to new project ideas and new ways of thinking, and getting to add really great people to my network.”

“It’s been hugely valuable for me. A lot of that has been having space to do lots of personal growth—both in that there aren’t many constraints on how I spend my time, and in that [the programme organisers] were hugely supportive of this. My advisory board has also been really useful for guiding my personal growth, project choices, and longer-term planning.”

“Yes. There are two main ways RSP is helping me. The first is it enables me to work on my own research projects aimed at improving the future of civilization as much as I can. If I had to take a different position elsewhere, it is unlikely I’d be able to devote so much time to these. The second is the conversations within RSP and with others at FHI are helping me come up with ideas for projects and ways to improve the projects I’m working on.”

“[I]t provides the funding, flexibility, and university affiliation to enable me to very freely pursue the highest leverage opportunities I find.”

“RSP gave me the freedom to explore and get established in a new field through institutional, financial, and community support. It was the best career decision I could have made at the time.”

On RSP, what do you most miss about previous places of work or study?

“In previous roles, I have really enjoyed working towards a common goal in a closely knit team—this is something you’re not very likely to experience on RSP.”

“I also enjoyed working in larger teams. In addition, I find Oxford a bit isolating.”

“I enjoyed RSP and my colleagues, but at times would have liked to be in a more academically-oriented environment with more senior people that could have provided more subject specific guidance. As one of the only few philosophers, I sometimes felt a bit academically isolated.”

“As someone with a different specialization than the person above, I sometimes feel the same way. I’d expect this to be a pretty common experience for anyone who comes here hoping to dive deeply into a narrow subject area.”

What are you able to do on RSP that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise?

“RSP makes it much easier to be part of conversations within FHI. I’ve found these pretty interesting and useful.”

“I’ve […] gotten to invest in lots of useful growth—people have been really supportive of me taking time to improve my physical and mental health, to practice research skills, to try out mentorship, etc.”

“In 2018, I co-directed the [CEA] Summer Research Fellowship, a summer program for research visitors. On this and other occasions I’ve mentored junior researchers, which I enjoyed.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to get so much free headspace to think about interesting issues, to have such amazing lunch conversations, and to get involved in so many exciting projects. FHI is a vibrant place, and there is always something really interesting going on.

What do you like most about RSP?

“The sense of empowerment. It really feels like a program that’s intended to help me do the things that are best for me to do. That, and the community—it’s put me in touch with a dozen of my favorite people.”

“RSP is incredibly open-ended, which allows you to focus on the most important work and projects. This means that every project that I spend time working on is one to which I am personally committed and convinced of its potential for impact.”

“Through RSP – both directly indirectly – I’ve met many great people. Somewhat ironically, I feel like RSP has helped me much more with personal growth and ‘soft skills’ than with my career or altruistic impact.”

“The freedom to take your time to figure out what you want to do and then do it.”

“Definitely the near-total freedom.”

What do you least like about RSP?

“There are few incentives to interact with the world outside of FHI. If I look at e.g. the number of talks I gave, numbers of EAGs I attended etc., they all went down compared to a previous 2-year period of having worked at another EA organization. This suggests to me that one requirement for thriving at RSP is to have a strong innate drive to seek out such interactions.”

“RSP is a very young place, and I often felt a difference in both age and/​or research experience with some members in the cohort. The extremely consequentialist flavour of RSP also takes some time getting used to.”