Towards Better EA Career Advice

Mak­ing thought­ful and in­formed ca­reer choices in or­der to have a more pos­i­tive im­pact on the world is a core part of the prac­tice of Effec­tive Altru­ism. New and ex­ist­ing EAs are usu­ally di­rected to the 80,000 Hours web­site for ca­reer ad­vice, but it has a num­ber of is­sues and gaps that make it poorly-suited for this pur­pose in many or most cases.

1) Most peo­ple start­ing ca­reers suffer from ex­tremely poor and and in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion about the nec­es­sary and suffi­cient con­di­tions for get­ting var­i­ous jobs. This seems to me to be the most im­por­tant source of in­effi­ciency/​mar­ket failure in the la­bor mar­ket and sub­op­ti­mal (both al­tru­is­ti­cally and self­ishly) ca­reer choices gen­er­ally. I’ve seen many peo­ple fol­low the ca­reers of their friends/​fam­ily, or stay in academia long af­ter it makes sense, not be­cause of their prefer­ences or in­cen­tives but be­cause these are the only paths where the nec­es­sary and suffi­cient con­di­tions to get jobs are leg­ible to them (and they were un­will­ing to per­son­ally ac­cept the costs and risks of at­tempt­ing ca­reer paths they have no idea of the fea­si­bil­ity of). I hoped 80,000 Hours would fill this gap and give risk-averse peo­ple more op­tions (and en­able risk-neu­tral peo­ple to eval­u­ate the fea­si­bil­ity of more op­tions more quickly); I be­lieve that this is a core part of the value a ca­reer-ad­vice web­site can provide. But, while their ca­reer re­views provide an “ease of com­pe­ti­tion” rat­ing on a 1-5 scale, there’s no ex­pla­na­tion how they ar­rive at these rat­ings or what a given rat­ing means con­cretely, and what in­for­ma­tion they provide on stan­dards and ex­pec­ta­tions in differ­ent fields is frus­trat­ingly vague.

2) Given the difficulty of com­pe­ti­tion in the ca­reers most of­ten recom­mended to EAs, the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple fol­low­ing EA ad­vice will ul­ti­mately end up fol­low­ing their “backup” plans, and a good backup plan is ab­solutely nec­es­sary for most of them to be com­fortable tak­ing the kind of risks the high­est-ex­pected-im­pact paths re­quire. Fur­ther, while the very high­est-im­pact ca­reers are by na­ture likely to be unique and anti-in­duc­tive, and thus difficult to give gen­eral ad­vice on, it should be much more fea­si­ble to give gen­er­al­iz­able ad­vice about backup plans that large num­bers of peo­ple can re­li­ably fol­low. Yet, while 80,000 Hours oc­ca­sion­ally men­tions in pass­ing the value of hav­ing a backup plan, their web­site con­tains al­most no con­crete ad­vice or recom­men­da­tions about what such a plan might en­tail or how to make one. If any­thing their em­pha­sis on sui-generis ca­reer paths where a de­tailed roadmap is nec­es­sar­ily im­pos­si­ble has in­creased over time.

3) Even when 80,000 Hours has writ­ten about a topic, their web­site is of­ten un­helpful for peo­ple try­ing to learn about it. Some­body com­ing to the front page might start by read­ing the “Ca­reer Guide”, where in the sec­tion on ca­reer cap­i­tal they would read that the most im­pact­ful years of one’s life are prob­a­bly one’s 40s, and that in the mean­time it’s im­por­tant to build up broad flex­ible skills since the most im­por­tant op­por­tu­ni­ties and cause ar­eas will likely be un­pre­dictably differ­ent in the fu­ture. How­ever, buried in the 2017 An­nual Re­port where a new reader is un­likely to find it is a more re­cent dis­cus­sion reach­ing the ex­act op­po­site con­clu­sion, that one should fo­cus ex­clu­sively on nar­row ca­reer cap­i­tal that can ap­ply di­rectly to the things that seem most im­por­tant right now. (It’s fair enough if 80k have changed their minds on this point, but in that case they should mod­ify or re­move the first page to re­flect this, and not try to blame the reader for “mi­s­un­der­stand­ing”.) Other widely-linked parts of the web­site seem ne­glected or bro­ken en­tirely; for ex­am­ple no mat­ter what an­swers I put into the ca­reer quiz it tells me to be­come a policy-fo­cused civil ser­vant in the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment (hav­ing ne­glected to ask whether I’m Bri­tish). And even when fully up-to-date and en­dorsed, pages al­most never ex­plic­itly spec­ify their in­tended au­di­ence, which cre­ates ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple to wind up get­ting in­con­sis­tent or coun­ter­pro­duc­tive ad­vice (e.g. ad­vice in­tended for some­one with much more or less hu­man/​so­cial/​ca­reer/​fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal than they have).

4) Many of my friends re­port that read­ing 80,000 Hours’ site usu­ally makes them feel de­mor­al­ized, alienated, and hope­less. I’m not sure how to ad­dress this prob­lem, and it’s likely im­pos­si­ble to elimi­nate en­tirely, but it seems un­wise to ig­nore it com­pletely. I think there is rea­son to hope that ad­dress­ing the above three is­sues would at least de­crease the prevalence and in­ten­sity of such re­ac­tions.

It is un­clear to me whether these is­sues are best ad­dressed through ad­di­tions and changes to the ex­ist­ing 80,000 Hours site or through a new site with differ­ently-fo­cused EA ca­reer ad­vice. Either way ad­dress­ing them well will take sub­stan­tial effort, but I be­lieve it’s a worth­while pro­ject. In the mean­time, par­tic­u­larly in light of points 3 and 4 I think EAs should per­haps be more cau­tious about pro­mot­ing 80,000 Hours as a source of gen­eral ca­reer ad­vice for new­com­ers.