The career coordination problem

80,000 hours have outlined many career paths where it is possible to do an extraordinary amount of good. To maximize my impact I should consider these careers. Many of these paths are very competitive and require enormous specialization. I will not be done with my studies for potentially many years to come. How will the landscape look then? Will there still be the same need for an AI specialist, or will entirely new pressing issues have crept up on us like Operations management recently did so swiftly?

80,000 hours is working hard at identifying key bottlenecks in the community. MIRI has long stated that a talent gap has been its main limitation in hiring. This sentiment is shared among many top AI research institutions. Justifiably 80,000 hours recommended AI research as a top career path.

Attending EAGx Netherlands in 2018, I was surprised to see so many young, bright, and enthusiastic people proudly stating they were pursuing a career in AI research with some even switching from unrelated fields to a MSc in Machine Learning!

Not too long ago when it became clear there is an operations management bottleneck, 80,000 hours swiftly released podcasts and articles advocating for the value of pursuing expertise in this field.

I didn’t get to attend EAG London but was told the workshop for Operations management was so packed they had to add an extra room! If there were half as many Effective altruists excited to pursue Operations in EAG London as there were aspiring AI researchers at EAGx Netherlands I’m certain we got Operations covered.

Only one problem. Many of these brilliant people will not be ready until years from now and the bottleneck will remain until then. If we keep recommending pursuing careers that alleviate current bottlenecks for too long after they’ve been identified, then when the bottlenecks are finally alleviated there will be a flood of talented people coming after, crowding over the same limited jobs.

I’m concerned that too little effort is put into tracking how many Effective altruists are pursuing the different problem profiles. Having met more than a hundred Effective altruists early in their career I can count on a single finger the people I’ve met dedicated to improving institutional decision making for example.

80,000 hours has coached around a thousand students and must have the best idea of what careers effective altruists are pursuing, but there is little to to no public information about this that we can take into consideration when we try to figure out what paths to pursue. When planning our careers we shouldn’t only look at neglected areas. We should also look also at the neglected neglected areas, so we avoid crowding over the same subset of neglected areas that are more or less bottlenecked by the time it takes to attain expertise. Currently, this is very hard to do unless you know many young Effective Altruists and even that is a biased sample size.

The career coaches of 80,000 hours are already strained, and I’m asking them to spread their time even thinner but I think it’s important enough to warrant it. As someone with a severe lack of talent, steering clear of competition is my go-to strategy. It would be hugely valuable for me, and hopefully others like me, to have a better insight on what careers other EA’s are choosing, which problems you believe will remain as important in 5 years and which will not.

This potential failure mode is hard to regard as a flaw with 80,000 hours’ career advice but is rather a symptom of their smash success. We are really taking their advice to heart! I suspect 80,000 hours thought about these issues years ago and are well prepared, but on the off-chance I had an original idea, I figured I’d voice it!

Thanks to Sebastian Schmidt for providing feedback on a draft of this, any resemblance of coherent thought is solely due to his help.