How to assess the impact of a career

80,000 Hours is a non-profit that gives you the information you need to find a fulfilling, high-impact career. Our advice is all free, tailored for talented graduates, and based on five years of research alongside academics at Oxford. Start with our career guide.

Our sole purpose is to help you work out in which career you can make the most difference.

At first sight, it’s hard to know where to begin. Or what this even means. Indeed, many people don’t think it’s even possible to work this out!

We don’t agree. If you don’t try to weigh up your options, you’ll end up doing far less for the world than you could otherwise be doing. And you could achieve so much.

How, then, do we go about helping you decide in which career can you make the most difference? It’s not an easy question, but it is a fascinating one that has a great deal of importance to the world.

What factors are the most important?

After talking one-on-one with around 100 people about their careers, asking people who have made a big impact, and thinking through what matters, we’ve developed an initial simple framework for assessing the value of different careers.

We expect this framework will develop significantly and become more precise over time as we come to gain a better grasp over which factors matter. It just represents our best guess at which key factors are most important, organised in a way that we’ve found relatively easy to understand and evaluate separately.

In summary, we find it useful to judge careers on two key factors:

  • Immediate Impact
  • Building career capital

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We break immediate impact down further into: the size of your contribution multiplied by the effectiveness of the cause you work on.

We break career capital down into: skills, network and CV points.

In the rest of this post, I’ll go over these factors in more detail.


1) Immediate Impact

This is the immediate scope you have to make the world a better place through this career over the next couple of years.

We break this down into the multiple of two further factors.

[Impact = Contribution x Cause Effectiveness]

a) Contribution

In some careers, you have more ability to contribute to important problems than others. Simply put, Presidents are more influential than sandwich makers. There are many ways to contribute to a cause, including:

  • Gaining a public platform and using it to spread an important idea
  • Gaining a network and using it to spread an idea or carry out a project
  • Donating money
  • Influencing budgets in existing organisations or by building a new organisation
  • In addition, there’s the direct contribution you make through your work

It’s often useful to assess careers on how much contribution you’ll be able to make along each of these dimensions.

b) Cause effectiveness

With some problems, a small contribution can go a long way. With others, you can devote your entire life to it, and not make any difference. Some problems are not worth solving – like cops running out of donuts. Other problems are important, but really hard to do anything about – like making a perpetual motion machine to provide free energy for ever.

To make a big difference, you’ll want to work on the problems where your contribution will go as far as possible. These are problems which are both important – worth doing something about – and tractable – it’s possible to do something about them. We call these effective causes.

I’ll write about which causes seem most effective in an upcoming post.

The multiple of the two

You have the most immediate impact when you can make a big contribution to an effective cause.

The relation seems to be multiplicative. If your contribution increases by 10x, then so does your impact. Likewise with the effectiveness of your cause.

2) Building Career Capital

This is the extent to which the career path builds your general ability to take high impact opportunities in the future.

We find it useful to separate out this factor from immediate impact for two reasons. (i) Beyond 3-5 years, it’s very uncertain what projects most people will be working on, thus we don’t find it very useful to try to evaluate the impact of these projects. Rather, we prefer to evaluate your general potential to have an impact. We call this your career capital. (ii) Your long-term general potential is often more important than your immediate impact. First, it’s because most careers only peak after around 20 years1 – you’ll be having more impact when you manage the charity rather than intern for it.

Second, it’s because keeping your options open is highly important in itself. This is because your thoughts on which cause is most important are very likely to change. We think building career capital is a very important way to keep your options open (though there can be other ways). Since building career capital is important in itself, it’s useful to separate from immediate impact and control the balance between the two.

We break down career capital into the quality of your network, skills and CV.

a) Network

Many jobs are landed through the people you know. Thus, if you know more influential people, it should increase your opportunities in the future to get jobs. Your network is also a direct source of impact. Simply put, it’s easier to lobby the government if you know a senator.

b) Skills

In the future, you’ll need connections to get your foot in the door, but people will ultimately hire you for your skills. Moreover, your skills are what you’ll actually use, in addition to your network, to make a difference. We define your skills as any aspect of your ability to get stuff done that can be improved with practice. Your intelligence and personality are relatively fixed, but a skill like the ability to fundraise, can (to a significant extent) be learned.

With training, we think it’s possible to increase your ability to get stuff done a great deal, at least in many areas. We largely believe this due to the literature on expert performance2. So that means skill development is very important.

c) CV Points

Some jobs help you gain further opportunities for reasons over and above the usefulness of the skills and network you gain. This is sometimes because they are prerequisites for further jobs. For instance, you won’t be considered for a career as a lawyer unless you have the right qualifications, even if you know all you need to know. Some careers or qualifications are also useful as a means of signalling your ability to others. In practice, people can’t assess everything about you, so they’ll resort to rules of thumb: like what schools and qualifications are generally regarded as impressive or difficult. For instance, it becomes much harder to get into finance without graduating from an elite school, regardless of your true skill. It’s important to take these factors into account too.

How to combine these three sub-factors?

None of the factors seem obviously more important than the others in general, so at this stage, I’d recommend equally weighting them. If forced to choose, I’d put them in the order they are above.

In practice, it will also depend a great deal on the individual, since some people will be more limited by one area than another.

So in which careers can you make the most difference?

We’ve argued that keeping your options open is very important for effective altruists – probably at least comparable to your immediate impact. This means that building career capital (which seems to be the main way to improve your options), is at least as important as your immediate impact.

Indeed, for many effective altruists, especially those at the start of their career, building career capital is likely to be several times more important than their immediate impact.

So, to find the best career for you, first focus on finding the careers that are best for building your career, then factor in your immediate impact.

Which specific careers look particularly promising in general? We explore this in a future post.


You might also enjoy:

Can you measure the good you’ll do?

What’s your true impact?

How important is keeping your options open?


Notes and References:

Expected value estimates

Ideally you’d estimate a range for the contribution factors (in the right units) and a range for cause effectiveness (in the right units) and combine them to produce a confidence interval for the expected value of the impact of the career.

In some cases, this may be possible. In our experience, however, the state of the data generally isn’t good enough to make this very easy, and even if possible, the models are likely to be very simple and fragile, which can easily make them misleading.

At this stage, we generally focus our efforts on using qualitative arguments to identify the most important factors, and then intuitively weigh up between them. We try to inform our approach with numbers wherever possible, but we rarely make explicit expected value estimates.

This is somewhat similar from how Givewell, despite maintaining the goal to maximise cost-effectiveness, reduced their reliance on explicit expected value estimates when they moved into more speculative areas of charity evaluation. Jonah Sinik has recently argued for focusing more on qualitative arguments here, which increases our confidence in this approach.

This evaluation framework is firstly a conceptual framework to help you think through the key issues. To make it one step more quantitative, you could define a weight for each factor, score on each factor (fitting your scorings to a distribution, so as not to accidentally change your weightings), then combine the factors into an overall estimate of value. We plan to experiment with approaches along these lines.


You might also be interested in this video which gives an overview of the framework:

Notes and References


  1. “Age and Outstanding Achievement”, D. Simonton, 1988, Psychological Bulletin, Vol 104, No. 2, 251-267 http://resources.emartin.net/blog/docs/AgeAchievement.pdf 
  2. See a summary in this article: “Expert Performance,” Ericsson and Charness, 1994, American Psychologist http://stuff.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/course/6/6.055/readings/ericsson-charness-am-psychologist.pdf