When Planning Your Career, Start Early
This post is mainly targeted at EAs in the early stages of their career, such as those in university.
In my experience, many aspiring EAs don’t start career planning until fairly late in their undergraduate degree, and many don’t start until they’ve completely finished their studies. Despite the obvious claim that procrastination is to be avoided, I think there are some other, more subtle reasons why people should start career planning as early as possible. A lot of first and second year undergraduates feel like their graduation is far away and that they can worry about their career later — but I think that there are a lot of big wins people can capture early on. Additionally, these first and second year undergraduates likely don’t have many friends who are thinking about their career so early on, and so career planning may not even be on their radar (even if they are involved in EA). Anecdotally, I started thinking about my career fairly early on, at roughly 16, and I think this helped me greatly (though I was not familiar with EA at this age, and was not optimizing for doing good at this time).
1. Can’t get a job without experience; can’t get experience without a job
N.B. I think this point mostly applies to those who expect to be competing with less altruistic applicants for positions (i.e., roles in government or industry, but not roles at EA organizations).
It can be quite hard to get good jobs or internships without prior experience, even if they are entry level roles. This itself can make experience hard to get in the first place — a classic paradox. This can leave you trapped in less interesting or valuable roles for quite a while, and could perhaps weaken your entire career’s trajectory. By the time you’re close to graduating, employers may expect you to have a fair bit of work experience, and if you don’t have work experience, you’ll be competing against other graduates who do. For a lot of roles, such as those in government, you may also be competing with people who are more traditionally prestige or status focused than the typical do-gooder, and may have been amassing experience for several years. Because of this, it can be helpful to start looking for roles or opportunities when you’re younger, when employers will not have such high expectations, and the competition will be weaker.
If you gather experience early on in your career, then the momentum from this can keep you going. For example, if you spend a week shadowing an electrical engineer when you’re 16, you’ll be one of the only people with any meaningful experience when you apply for an internship at a robotics firm two years later, and so will be more likely to get the role. Then, when you’re applying for full-time jobs in your final year of university, you’ll be able to compete for more elusive roles. It seems plausible that this momentum may continue indefinitely.
In most cases, you won’t have a good idea at age 16 of what you want to do long term, so it’ll be hard to build any specific, relevant experience for your eventual career at this time. However, it’s still a good time to build your credentials and networks, as well as explore your options more generally.
2. University is a good time to get experience
Continuing on from point 1, university is a good time to gain experience and test out different options. You can do a summer research project in your professor’s lab, you can help organize an EAGx conference, and so on. Most people have more flexibility in university than when they graduate. Depending on where you’re studying, you may be able to try out classes or attend various introductory lectures in different subjects to test your interest in them — and I think a lot of undergraduates underestimate how hard it can be to do this once you’ve graduated. In theory you can take an economics class online once you’ve graduated, but in practice, I think it can be hard for many people to motivate themselves to do this.
Additionally, if you’re at a university with an EA group, then this is a great time to learn more about EA and cause-prioritization, which is especially important when trying to do good with your career. In my experience as an EA group organizer, it was often quite refreshing to come across aspiring EAs in their first or second year than those in their third or fourth — because they had so much more time to relax, learn about EA, and explore different paths before graduating. Students towards the end of their studies were often already deciding between specific options, or otherwise felt more stressed and time-pressured.
3. Your final year can be intense
For students in the UK (and I assume other countries), a lot of your workload and important exams are in your final year, making this a sub-optimal time to start thinking about employment. Additionally, a lot of your classmates will likely be stressed about employment at this time, so if you’ve already made career plans you’ll be at a strategic advantage should your exams be graded on a curve.
Another point is that a lot of employers make graduate job offers to people who do internships with them in their penultimate year of university, and a lot of the time these are easier to get than just applying for said job outright. (In a lot of cases there are fewer internship roles on offer, but proportionally fewer people apply — and many employers hand out job offers to >90% of their intern cohort.) Note that this mostly applies to earning-to-give roles, such as those in finance or consulting.
4. Graduate pressure
Many in the EA community have recommended that people take some time after they’ve graduated to work on career planning. In most cases, it’s better to spend some time planning and then pick a good career path than to more quickly pick an okay one, and it can be hard to go back to career planning once you’re in a full-time role.
Despite this, I claim that there’s actually a fair amount of social pressure for graduates to land a job quickly after graduating (from family, friends, and oneself) in addition to the financial pressures. I think this leads many graduates to apply more liberally for jobs, hoping to just land something somewhere. Then, as discussed above, this can leave people “stuck”, as it’s hard to find time for career planning once already employed full-time. Additionally, as discussed in point 2, one of the most important aspects of career planning for aspiring EAs is to learn about EA and cause-prioritization, and I think it can be hard to convince one’s parents, for example, that watching EA talks on YouTube is a good substitute to applying for jobs.
Thanks to Darius Meissner for his helpful comments.