Case study: earning to give compared to medical research


Ramit came to us with a simple question: should I try to train as a medic with the aim of doing biomedical research, or should I seek a high earning job in finance and pursue Earning to Give?

He’s currently doing both – working as a quantitative financial analyst giving away more than a third of his salary (he was an early stage funder of Give Directly) and taking pre-med courses part time, as well as other projects!

Ramit’s initial thought was that the biomedical research path would be better. Read on to find out how he came to change his mind, and came up with a new set of next steps.

The research

In our first meeting, we discussed Ramit’s background, the decisions facing him and his thoughts on their pros and cons. Ramit’s guess was that he could make a considerably larger contribution as a medical researcher, in part because that might allow him to work on potentially very high return projects like vaccine development. We also discussed some big picture questions, like how concern for the far future might be relevant to picking causes.

After this discussion, we decided to do a full comparison of earning to give and biomedical research. Here’s the report we produced. We also started a shallow investigation of biomedical research careers. You can see two of the four interviews we’ve performed for that here and here.

We ended up coming down in favor of earning to give, especially if Ramit supports the best causes, though we thought it was a difficult call, which is highly dependent on Ramit’s prospects in the two careers. One key reason in favor of Earning to Give was that we think the best causes he can support through donations over the forseeable future are likely to be considerably more effective than the biomedical research cause. Another key reason was that in the earning to give path, his impact can happen much earlier, and we think doing good earlier is generally better than doing good later.

Due to the difficulty of the decision, however, our main recommendation was to find out more about whether he might be a good fit in research. We recommended speaking to more researchers and trying out a research role. All the biomedical researchers we spoke to said that good researchers were highly valuable, so if Ramit has a good chance of becoming a good researcher, then the decision becomes much less clear. Another key variable is Ramit’s earning potential in finance. We suspected he could earn considerably more in a trading or investing position, rather than a research position, so encouraged him to speak to recruiters and make job applications in order to find out.

In our second meeting, we discussed Ramit’s reactions to the report. He was surprised that we thought it was unclear whether research beat earning to give, given that he previously thought research was clearly better. In general, he agreed with our conclusions and ideas for next steps. We also shared our guesses on his earnings prospects in finance.

In the end, Ramit switched from having medical research as his best guess path, to continuing in finance earning to give. He also became more in favor of donating to meta-charities, like GiveWell, which we discussed during our conversations.

Lessons learned

  • We improved our process for comparing earning to give to direct work. Applying this, we confirmed our belief that it’s difficult to compare research to earning to give, and in general much comes down to the relative ability of the person in the two paths.
  • We found out a lot about how to lead a career and have impact in medical research, which we’ll write up separately.

Summary of the case study

Their plans before starting:

Cause and Mission:

  • Socially Valuable Research – Develop vaccines and make vaccine development more efficient as an academic researcher – 60%
  • Fighting Global Poverty through earning to give in finance – 20%
  • Something else – 20%

Next step:

  • Finish up pre-medical classes (postbacc) and apply for MD / PhD programs starting in June 2014 – 60%
  • Seek higher earning jobs in finance – 20%
  • Something else – 20%

Questions they asked us:

Should I continue in finance and seek to maximise my earnings, or should I start to study medicine?

How many hours did we spend?: 28 hours

Information they gained:

  • The potential for earnings in trading or investing roles is much higher than his current role. It’s worth applying for other positions in order to better assess whether he can earn more.
  • In medical research, there’s potential to become stranded mid-career.
  • It’s tough to say whether medical research or Earning to Give in finance is more high impact, but in this case 80,000 Hours slightly favors Earning to Give overall due to the higher flexibility and ability to support more promising causes.
  • Working in a lab during the summer is one good way to better assess fit with biomedical research.
  • We think there are strong donation opportunities within meta-charities, for instance, donating to GiveWell.
  • The combination of medicine and programming skill is seen as highly valuable in biomedical research.
  • Some researchers believe neglected tropical diseases could be a good area to work on within biomedical research, though others favor focusing on basic science.

Their plans after finishing the case study:


  • Global poverty > global health – 60%
  • Biomedical Research – 20%
  • Meta-charity (e.g. GiveWell) 20%


  • Earning to give in finance – 50%
  • Medical researcher – 25%
  • Train medicine part-time, then choose which way to focus in several years – 25%

Next step:
Probabilities add to above 100% due to inclusivity of options

  • Finish pre-medical postbacc program in 6 months – 95%
  • Apply for trading positions – 100% (currently ongoing)
  • Apply for bioinformatics research position – 60%

Plan changes:

  • Substantial update in favor of earning to give (from 20% to 50%)
  • Substantial update in favor of supporting meta-charities (from 0% to 20%)
  • Next steps changed to include applying for more finance roles immediately and applying for research roles to learn more about them.

In their own words:

Over the past decade, I’ve invested a lot of time thinking about how best I could improve the lot of humanity. I had jumped between earning to give and direct intervention and back.

When I asked 80,000 hours for career advice, I was again stuck between an earning to give path and a medical research path. Their analysis added a level of rigor and clarity that I had never put into this obviously very important decision.

They leveraged their resources and contacts to determine what it takes to make it in the medical research field and the likelihood of making a big impact. They looked into various large earning professions that fit my skills and talked to me about earnings trajectories. They told me what they knew and what they didn’t. And they gave me a path to gather the information that I would need to finally determine what my optimal route is.

Of course, complex decisions with numerous moving parts are always difficult and uncertain, but 80,000 hours added rigor to the career decision process that makes the path forward that much clearer.