In which career can you make the most difference?

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Introduction

Previously, we introduced a way to assess career opportunities in terms of their potential for positive impact, but which careers actually do best on these criteria? In this post, we’ll apply an adapted version of this framework to some career paths that seem particularly promising for recent graduates. Using what we’ve learned over the past two years of research and from coaching over 100 people, we’ll provide a ranked list of options.

Summary

  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organisations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organisations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by our members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organisations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.

Why a ranking?

Lots of people who receive our coaching start with little idea about what they could do. Their question is just, ‘What are my options?’ For people who already have a couple of good options on the table, one of the most common questions asked is, ‘Have I overlooked something good?’ The purpose of this list is to help answer these questions.

Of course, a ranking of career paths has significant limitations. The career in which you can have the most social impact depends in large part on which careers you’ll be good at. On the other hand, we think there are some useful things to be said about which careers are promising in general, which we explain below.

Nevertheless, if there’s a career path you think you can excel on, take it very seriously even if it’s lower in the rankings. Equally, don’t feel bad about dismissing one if you think you’d be bad on it. Either way, watch out: in our experience people often overestimate their current chances of success in difficult paths, but they underestimate their potential to grow, learn new skills and transform the set of opportunities open to them in the future. You can learn a lot in just a couple of years if you really try!

Another limitation is the diversity of career opportunities. Many do not fit neatly into a widely applicable category. There are also substantial differences within each category. We, however, have focused on broad options that are widely known and have come up in our coaching. There are other options, which we haven’t yet assessed, so just because an option isn’t on this list, doesn’t mean it’s not promising. Consider what other options might be open to you by asking around your network for jobs, speaking with interesting organisations and keeping your eyes open for opportunities. This list is just a starting point and it’s still important to make an individual assessment of your unique options. If you would like individualised help choosing your career, consider our one-on-one coaching.

Finally, we’d like to stress that the assessments this list is based on are just informed judgement calls. The answers can be controversial, and we expect them to change significantly as we learn more (the rating factors are also likely to change). We also don’t present our full reasoning here. Nevertheless, you have to choose a career, so we think it’s better to give you our best guesses and then revise them over time, than to wait until we have only solid results (a day which may never come), especially because we’ve had lots of requests to share our thinking. We plan to deepen our research on each option as they arise in our case studies.

Before we begin discussing which careers might be particularly promising, don’t forget: you can make a huge difference in any career. Sometimes the best option won’t be to pursue one of these jobs – it’ll be to do something completely different and have a positive impact in a different way.

In the rest of this post, we:

  1. Explain how we ranked career paths
  2. Present our current list of best careers
  3. Give an overview of our reasoning for each career
  4. Suggest how you might use this ranking
  5. Overview our research process

What factors did we use?

We chose factors that we think are: (i) important – play a significant role in determining your potential for social impact in the long-run, (ii) generalizable – can be applied to most careers, (iii) tractable – given what we currently know, it’s possible to distinguish careers on these factors.

1. Career capital

Career capital refers to the skills, connections and credentials you can gain from the specified career path, which help you to gain better opportunities for social impact in the future.

We considered questions like:

  1. How impressive is having this career?
  2. Do you gain qualifications that open doors to good options?
  3. Do you build valuable, transferable skills, or are the skills narrower?
  4. How influential are the people you’ll meet?
  5. Do you have control over how you spend your time?

2. Potential for direct contribution

This is how much potential you’ll have to make an impact directly through the work you’ll do, taking account of what would have happened otherwise.

We considered questions like:

  1. How high-priority is the cause you’ll be contributing to through your direct work?
  2. How much potential to cause change does this career path seem to offer (e.g. budgets influenced, people reached)?
  3. What are your chances of success?
  4. To what extent will your work in this field displace others from the field, versus expand the field? To what extent might you be able to ‘pull the rope sideways’ and bring about change that wouldn’t have ordinarily happened?

3. Potential for donations

Careers differ a large amount in earning potential, and since your donations can do a huge amount of good, this is also important to consider.

We mainly based this on our impressions of which careers are highest earning, though it’s also important to remember that some careers incur more lifestyle costs (e.g. if you have to live in New York). We based our estimates of earning potential on:

  1. How high do the earnings go over time?
  2. What are your chances of success? What are the typical dropout rates?
  3. How quickly do you receive the earnings and do you have to pay for expensive training?

4. Potential for advocacy

Often it seems possible to have more impact through promoting effective causes than through what you do directly. At the same time, careers seem to differ in their potential for advocacy, so we think this is another important factor to consider.

We considered questions like:
1. How influential are the people you’ll meet on this career path?
2. How prestigious is this career?
3. How many people might you have a chance to meet? Will you have much free time?

How did we weight the factors?

The last three factors are proxies for your potential for immediate impact, which we weighted equally.

We think it’s highly important to keep your options open and prioritise capacity-building early in your career, so we think career capital is comparably important to immediate impact, so weighted it 3 times greater than the other factors.

Who is the assessment applicable to?

We aimed to make the assessment useful to a typical user of 80,000 Hours: a motivated, altruistic graduate in their twenties. Moreover, we added the condition that ‘they could plausibly get the career in the ranking given their current situation.’ So, when we rate journalism higher than law, we mean: it seems like a better opportunity for a motivated, altruistic graduate in their twenties, who could plausibly get into either law or journalism.

The list

What might be some of the most promising career paths for recent graduates? Here’s a summary table. Later, we’ll explain these options and our reasoning behind them in a little more depth.

Note that the numbers are just a relative ranking. ‘5’ means ‘very good relative to the other options’, ‘3’ means ‘average’, and ‘1’ means ‘unfavoured relative to the others on the list.’ The numbers do not indicate any scale.

CareerCareer capitalPotential for direct contributionDonation potentialAdvocacy potential
1. Tech entrepreneurship5353
2. Consulting5242.5
3. Party politics (UK)3525
4. Founding effective non-profits4514
5. Finance4153
6. Work in international organisations3424.5
7. Valuable academic research3424
8. Economics PhD4213
9. Software engineering3232.5
10. Medicine2.533.52.5
11. Work at effective socially-orientated organisations3412
12. Foundation program manager2424
13. Journalism2414
14. Policy-orientated civil service2324
15. Law2.5142.5
16. Work in sales and marketing312.52

You can comment on the scores here.

Skip ahead to find more about each:

  1. Tech entrepreneurship
  2. Consulting
  3. Party politics
  4. Founding effective non-profits
  5. Finance
  6. Work in international organisations
  7. Valuable academic research
  8. Economics PhD
  9. Software engineering
  10. Medicine
  11. Work at effective socially-oriented organisations
  12. Foundation program manager
  13. Journalism
  14. Policy-oriented civil service
  15. Law
  16. Work in sales and marketing

Why these careers?

Tech entrepreneurship

What is it?

Tech entrepreneurship involves founding new companies in the technology and biotechnology industries with the aim of achieving large-scale positive effects. You can enter this path straight from university if you can find co-founders and an idea, but people enter this path from many stages in their career. A highly useful first step is learning to program. It can also be useful to gain some general business experience, especially from working in a small company. After starting, many people aim to join an ‘incubator, most famously, Ycombinator, before moving on to receive venture capital funding. Schemes like Entrepreneur First aim to help you before you even have an idea or co-founder. There can also be entrepreneurial opportunities within large companies (‘intrapreneurship’).

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 5
Direct contribution: 3
Donations potential: 5
Advocacy potential: 3

Tech entrepreneurship seems to be one of the highest-earning careers,1 offering great potential for earning to give. But it also offers far more leverage if a product that makes a big difference is developed. It gives excellent career capital, because you’ll rapidly learn highly useful entrepreneurial skills, and starting a company looks impressive on your CV. It scores moderately on advocacy potential, because being a founder in the tech industry will let you meet entrepreneurial, influential people.

Entrepreneurship outside of technology also seems of high potential, but ranks lower in terms of expected earnings, usefulness of the skills and your chances of improving society with your products. We add ‘aiming at large scale’, because there are many entrepreneurs who aim only to set up small businesses like restaurants or shops – a substantially different type of opportunity.

Who might it suit?

If you’re going to be working on the product side of things, being a great programmer, hacker or designer is what’s needed. The business side requires salespeople with strong social skills, who are able to cut deals and persuade key stakeholders to back the venture. Early on, you’ll need to be well rounded, since 2-3 people will do everything. Tech entrepreneurs strike us as smart and very gritty. You’ll have to be able to work very hard, spend years living on little money and be able to deal with a high risk of failure. On the other hand, the work can be highly motivating, since you have a huge amount of autonomy and interesting, challenging work. For more, see our work on the predictors of success in entrepreneurship.

Further reading

Consulting

What is it?

Management consultants provide advice to organisations to help improve performance. Consultants divide into two broad types: strategy and operations. Strategy consultants advise management teams on top-level decisions like how much to invest in research and development, how to structure the organisation and how to deal with competitive threats. Operations consulting is more about how to implement strategy, for instance; how to improve the efficiency of the recruitment process, or implement a new sales strategy. Consultants may also specialise in highly technical areas. The industry is divided into the ‘Big 3’ strategy consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain, BCG), the ‘Big 4’ professional services firms (PwC, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG) who do operations consulting (as well as auditing and accounting), and a large number of small ‘boutique’ companies, who often specialise in a particular type of situation or subject matter.

You start this career by joining a graduate scheme after graduating. Or you can join later after receiving a graduate degree, in particular an MBA. Some people work their way up consultancy to become a partner, but many aim to exit into high-level corporate jobs (e.g. CEO) or a wide variety of other options, including policy, non-profits, graduate study, asset management and start-ups.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 5
Direct contribution: 2
Donations potential: 4
Advocacy potential: 2.5

The more important reason to do consultancy is career capital. It’s a high status, impressive credential, especially if you consult for one of the Big 3, which shows you can work hard. You get intense training in general business skills, and experience of a wide range of organisations. Moreover, you interact with clients from the start, who tend to be senior people in government and business, and work with colleagues who will pursue a wide range of leadership roles in the future. The large consultancies promote themselves as passports to future careers, and provide services to help with this, such as an extensive alumni network and paying for your MBA.

We think consulting primarily makes an impact through earning to give, but consultants generally earn less than people in finance at each stage in their career, so we rate it lower for earning potential.

If you’re interested, you could also consider careers in accountancy (e.g. at the Big 4 professional services firms), though they generally seem lower-paid than strategy consultants at each level and the career capital is less useful.

Who might it suit?

We think it suits someone with a well-rounded profile of good analytical skills, social skills and the ability to work hard. Compared to the other careers in the list, the verbal and social skills seem particularly important since you need to interact with and persuade clients from the start. Consultants also have to travel extensively, since they generally work where their client is based, which some people find very tiresome. The work is probably more interesting than many other corporate jobs, including the early years of finance, because it involves more problem solving and variety.

More reading:
* Find out about consulting jobs and firms by using this list of firms.
* The Vault Guide to Consulting is a good guide on how to get in. The case interview is a particularly significant part of the selection process, and you can find out more about that here and on the consultancy company websites.
* All our resources on Consulting.

Party politics

This profile is focused on the UK

What is it?

Party politics means joining a party with the aim of being elected to office. Careers in this path often start by becoming an advisor or researcher for a politician, then seeking to rise up the party ranks. You could also start your career as a journalist or lawyer, though it’s more common in the UK to be a career politician.

We suspect there are other highly promising roles within politics, the civil service and international organisations, as highlighted below, but we guess that party politics is the best.

We haven’t done research into the US political system, so this section is primarily about the UK. Our impression of the US is that it’s much more normal to start your career in some other area, and then move into running for office later. We suspect it would also be a highly promising option.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 3
Direct contribution: 5
Donations potential: 2
Advocacy potential: 5

Being elected is an opportunity for huge leverage over the government budget, regulation and the space of ideas. Of course, most people have a very small chance of making it. Nevertheless, our impression is that the chance is large enough that it’s still a highly influential path in expectation, at least for certain types of people. Our main uncertainty is that we’re not sure how much better you can be, compared to the people who already go into politics.

We also rate it a bit lower for career capital, because we’re not sure how useful the early years of politics are for building up your general skills and CV. There’s a risk that the career capital is mainly only relevant to political and policy careers, so if your political career fails (which seems likely), then you might not be left in a great position. However, you’ll still have good options within think-tanks and other government organisations.

Who might it suit?

Politics requires really strong social skills – you have to talk to huge numbers of people and get them behind you. There’s a strong correlation between success in this field and graduating from Oxford or Cambridge, studying PPE at Oxford, and being successful in student politics, though it’s unclear how much of this is causal and how much is due to the most motivated people picking these paths. You’ll need to be comfortable with having your personal life in the limelight and staying committed to your values in the face of tough political trade-offs.

Further reading
* All our resources on politics
* Coachees interested in politics have recommended reading of Parliamentary Affairs, talking to people in the field, and reading biographies of politicians to learn more about what it’s like and how to succeed. (Also, as some insiders have recommended(!), watching The West Wing and The Thick of It).

Founding effective non-profits

What is it?

Founding effective non-profits means starting new organisations with the explicit aim of addressing a high-priority cause in an effective way. Generally, this career path requires several years’ experience within a cause, and within the non-profit sector or corporate sector before starting your own project.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 4
Direct contribution: 5
Donations potential: 1
Advocacy potential: 4

Setting up a new organisation is an opportunity for huge leverage. If you can set up the non-profit in an effective area, then you can contribute to a top cause. Moreover, many effective causes seem somewhat constrained by entrepreneurial talent (e.g. there seems to be a shortage of people able to implement the interventions that have been proven effective in the academic development literature). Our main doubts are that we’re unsure about typical chances of success and setting up a new organisation generally involves compromising your flexibility to switch cause, which we think is important.

Turning to the other factors, being entrepreneurial in the social sector seems to give you good potential for advocacy. On the other hand, the earnings are usually terrible! As with tech entrepreneurship, it’s a strong option for career capital, because it’s impressive and teaches you highly useful entrepreneurial skills. It can also build your network within an important cause. We don’t give it a ‘5’ in this field however, because our impression is that it’s harder to start a significant non-profit than a for-profit, so you have to spend more years building up to being a founder. For instance, for-profit start-ups have a large ecosystem of incubators to support entrepreneurs, but the same does not exist for non-profits.

Who might it suit?

Similar to tech entrepreneurship above, although tech skills are less important in this career choice. Instead, it’s important to have a deep understanding of the relevant cause.

Further reading

Finance

What is it?

Finance means working in the financial industry, which allocates capital across the economy. In particular, we mean jobs in ‘high finance’, like investment banking, asset management and private equity. Careers in this path generally start by joining a graduate scheme after university as an ‘analyst’ (especially in investment banking), and then working up the roles in the face of high attrition. You have a second chance to enter investment banking as an ‘associate’ after working for several years and doing an MBA. The most common entry route is through investment banking, which leads into other roles in asset management and private equity, but you can also enter these roles directly.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 4
Direct contribution: 1
Donations potential: 5
Advocacy potential: 3

We think finance jobs primarily have the potential to make a difference through earning to give. On this front, they are among the best, because finance is a good candidate for the highest-earning career. Advocacy potential is moderate, because you’ll be able to meet lots of rich people as colleagues. On the other hand, we don’t rate direct contribution highly, because there are significant doubts about whether finance makes a positive economic contribution at the margin. That said, there may be potential to promote improvements to finance from within the industry (like those reviewed by the Copenhagen Consensus), and to do other socially useful activities like developing social impact bonds.

Finance is also good for career capital, because several years in finance is a strong signal of ability and work ethic. You receive intense corporate training, and you develop a network of wealthy and influential people.

Within finance, we think asset management (including hedge funds, mutual funds, private equity and VC) is the best path, since it seems to offer higher average pay, more interesting work and better hours, though it’s also more competitive. If you have strong mathematical skills, then the quantitative trading firms like D.E. Shaw and Jane St. seem particularly attractive.

Who might it suit?

Finance generally requires a degree from a top university and a rounded profile of abilities. The ‘deal making’ tracks in investment banking and private equity require more social and sales skills, whereas the asset management and research tracks require more analytical skills. There are also roles which require strong quantitative skills, which are often especially well-paid. You need to be very hard working, able to cope with pressure and get by without much sleep. In the early stages, the work seems relatively uninteresting (lots of preparing of Powerpoint documents and financial models) but you gain autonomy and more challenging work later.

Further reading

Work in international organisations

What is it?

This means pursuing work at organisations like the World Bank, World Health Organisation, International Monetary Fund and United Nations. It can be possible to enter these organisations directly from graduate studies (ideally in a relevant area), but it seems much more common to start by building a career elsewhere since these positions are highly competitive. A few common paths include: (i) the world of think-tanks and policy-oriented civil service, (ii) consultancy and MBAs, (iii) non-profit management, (iv) economics academia, focusing on a high priority area. Which of these is best depends on which international organisation you’re aiming at, and what types of positions you’re aiming for.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 3
Direct contribution: 4
Donations potential: 2
Advocacy potential: 4.5

These positions may offer the opportunity to influence substantial budgets, since these organisations govern huge pools of aid money and international regulation. Typically in these organisations the average budget per employee is on the order of US$1m.2 We’re highly uncertain about the expected size of the influence, and how much the effectiveness of the spending can be improved.

This career path is of a similar type to foundation program management and policy-oriented civil service, as described below. Compared to those, it seems more competitive, but this may be offset by greater focus on high-priority areas and a better network.

These organisations are highly influential over important global challenges, so you’ll be working with highly influential people, which increases our assessment of advocacy potential and career capital. We also rate the career capital highly, since these positions are highly prestigious.

Who might it fit?

It seems to require a well-rounded profile: good social skills, analytical skills and high motivation. Some roles are more tilted towards research, whereas others are more about management and negotiation. You’ll also need to be comfortable working in a large, and potentially bureaucratic organisation.

Further reading

Valuable academic research

What is it?

‘Valuable academic research’ means a position in a university to carry out research within high-priority causes. Careers in this field start by doing a PhD, and then working your way up to tenured professor. In addition to the research itself, some academics become public intellectuals or become involved in policy.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 3
Direct contribution: 4
Donations potential: 2
Advocacy potential: 4

Research has the potential to create a huge amount of value, and progress often seems constrained by a lack of good researchers. If you might be a good fit for research, then you could make a big contribution. One disadvantage, however, is that it’s difficult to radically change your cause within an academic career, which we think is important, although this varies from field to field: social scientists seem to have a fairly large degree of flexibility, whereas lab scientists are relatively constrained to their particular area. In addition, some academic fields have become highly competitive, reducing chances of success. Academic positions have credibility and you have a lot of flexibility in how you spend your time, especially after securing tenure, which can also be good for advocacy. In particular, you may have the opportunity to join grant committees, and influence large amounts of academic funding.

Career capital depends on the field. Quantitative, scientific subjects and economics can open up opportunities in industry and entrepreneurship. Subjects with policy relevance, like economics, also open up government positions. Overall, however, we don’t rank it at the top, because the training process takes a long time, it’s highly competitive, and the training mainly prepares you for careers within academia, rather than developing a broad network and portfolio of skills.

Who might it fit?

IQ seems more important in research than in the other options on the list. It’s also highly important to be able to develop strong motivation for your subject, because the field is competitive, failure is common, and it’ll mainly be down to you to choose projects and make grant applications. The lifestyle can be good, with high autonomy, interesting work and shorter hours than the other careers, but it depends on the subject and stage of your career. Pre-tenure, hours are often very long. Lab science is notorious for needing very long hours early in your career.

Further reading

Economics PhD

What is it?

Studying a doctorate in economics. This is not a full career path (it’s part of the ‘valuable academic research’ path), but doing a PhD is a significant step that often shows up in our discussions independently of going into academia, so we decided to include it separately on the list. We highlight economics because it seems like the most promising PhD subject for the goals in question, for the reasons given below. We also think, however, that many other PhDs can be a great step, especially in subjects like applied mathematics, statistics and computer science.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 4
Direct contribution: 2
Donations potential: 1
Advocacy potential: 3

This option is mainly about gaining career capital. An Economics PhD gives good job prospects. In particular, it opens the door to economics academia, which seems a particularly high-potential area of academia, and can lead to careers in policy, foundations and some parts of finance for earning to give. You can find an overview of the arguments in favour here.

Who might it suit?

Similar to academic research above. Also note that economics requires strong mathematical skills, but it’s possible to enter without having studied economics at undergraduate (perhaps through a one year conversion course). Find more information on how to be admitted here.

Further reading

Software engineering

What is it?

Software engineers design, develop and maintain software. This career path generally involves learning to program (either by yourself, at university, in a company, or through one of the increasing numbers of training academies), and then joining a software company and working your way up in seniority. Learning to program is also a good first step into the world of tech entrepreneurship and is sought after in academic research, or can be pursued freelance alongside other projects.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 3
Direct contribution: 2
Donations potential: 3
Advocacy potential: 2.5

You can often enter a moderately well-paid job in software after just a year or so of learning to program. Salaries can rise rapidly to around US$100,000 per year in the first couple of years, and up to $200,000 in top tech companies, but they generally level out faster than in consulting or law, except for a small number of star or entrepreneurial engineers. Overall, the career is good for earning to give.

Software engineers can also make some direct contributions to innovation and economic productivity, especially if working for a good company. Advocacy potential is moderately good because you can be involved in the influential and innovative tech community.

Career capital is moderate, since these jobs mainly establish your credibility in the tech industry. On the other hand, programming and data analysis skills are widely in demand, so we mark it up for this.

Who might it suit?

This is a good career for people with an analytical side. There’s some evidence to suggest that the distribution of programming talent divides into two halves: those who find it relatively easy and those who don’t. So, it’s a priority in this career to find out which group you fall into. Fortunately, you can test this relatively quickly by trying a couple of free online programming courses and seeing whether you enjoy it. If you make it in, the lifestyle seems good. The work can involve solving interesting puzzles in innovative companies, the hours are reasonable, and it’s comparatively easy to find opportunities to work remotely or part-time.

Further reading

Medicine

What is it?

By ‘medicine’ we mean studying a medical degree, and then working as a doctor in a hospital or other healthcare setting, potentially also including participating in medical research and consultancy.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 2.5
Direct contribution: 3
Donations potential: 3.5
Advocacy potential: 2.5

Medicine is a high-earning career – potentially the top earning option for people who don’t want to enter finance or entrepreneurship (especially in the US, where salaries are about 30% higher than in other developed world countries). Although lower-earning than finance, the chances of dropping out are much lower once you’ve made it into medical school. This means you can contribute through earning to give. We don’t think doctors make a large direct contribution through their hospital work, though they have the option to get involved in medical research, innovation in the medical system and public health, which can all be high leverage opportunities. We rate it moderately for advocacy potential, since it’s a highly respected career in which you can meet lots of people.

Medicine is a highly valuable qualification, since it gives you a lot of good options (being a doctor, research, public health, biotech industry). However, it’s expensive (the average debt is $170,000 on graduation in the US) and takes 5-6 years, so we only rate it moderately for career capital.

Note that there are many other healthcare careers that offer lower but still very good pay, where demand is growing fast, training is cheaper and the hours are better than medicine. This includes careers like pharmacy, audiology, occupational therapy and dentistry (almost as high-earning as medicine). These could be good alternative options for earning to give.

Who might it suit?

Medicine is good for scientifically inclined people who don’t want to enter finance or tech entrepreneurship. It’s also less risky, so good if you want a safer choice. The work seems interesting and varied. On the other hand, it generally requires very long hours, with some variation depending on your speciality.

Further reading

Working at effective socially-oriented organisations

What is it?

This is a bit of a catch-all category, but we wanted to highlight that one approach to finding a good career is seeking out outstanding, effective organisations and taking a job with them.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 3
Direct contribution: 4
Donations potential: 1
Advocacy potential: 2

Many people can have a large impact by identifying a great, socially-oriented organisation and taking a job where they have a strong comparative advantage. For instance, we’ve highlighted GiveWell and the Copenhangen Consensus as potential opportunities in this category. Note that it seems there are often important contributions to be made in unglamorous roles, which improve the effectiveness of the rest of the team.

Otherwise, we rate this moderately for career capital and advocacy potential, but much will depend on the organisation. We rate it low for donations potential, because typically these jobs are in the non-profit or public sector, so have they lower salaries.

Who might it suit?

This depends entirely on the type of job.

Further reading

  • You can see all our content on relevant organisations here. Also see the section on foundations below.
  • You could also consider organisations that are backed by impact-oriented funders (e.g. those backed by the Gates Foundation).

Foundation program manager

What is it?

Working in a philanthropic foundation to distribute grant funds. Typically you start these careers by training in project management in a non-profit organisation, doing consultancy or working in think-tanks. MBAs can be useful. You also often need a Master’s degree and subject area expertise. Then you join as a program manager, and work your way up the ranks.

This path is similar to policy-oriented civil service work and working in international organisations, and there’s considerable switching between the two, so you may also want to consider them as well.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 2
Direct contribution: 4
Donations potential: 2
Advocacy potential: 4

This career may offer significant potential to influence spending, since in many foundations, small teams allocate large pools of funding, often with considerable flexibility, and these jobs seem attainable. How much influence you have, however, will depend on the foundation, since some are highly constrained by their mandate. We don’t yet have a good picture of the typical scale of the opportunities. In addition, this is only an opportunity to do good if you can significantly improve the allocation of funds, and we’re not sure how large the room for improvement typically is. We also rate this career ‘4’ for advocacy potential, since awarding funds in a foundation could offer broader influence over the non-profit sector.

We rate it relatively low for career capital, because although the connections could be good (especially in the non-profit sector), it’s less clear that the skills and credentials are highly useful outside of foundations.

Some foundations that stand out are: the Arnold Foundation, a $4bn which is new and has an open-minded, ambitious effective altruist approach, potentially offering a significant opportunity to help shape their agenda; the Gates Foundation since it’s an extremely influential leader in evidence-based philanthropy; Good Ventures, which works very closely with GiveWell; and CIFF a $3bn evidence-driven global poverty foundation. In addition, you could seek to work at other large foundations to promote a more impact and evidence driven approach to giving from inside. See here for a list of the top US foundations. Focus on those that are open to funding a wide range of causes.

Who might it suit?

It seems to require a rounded skillset. Since the impact depends on being able to improve practices within the foundation world, it also requires good persuasion skills and deep subject knowledge.

Further reading

Journalism

What is it?

Journalists work in the media to spread and analyse news and information. This career path involves joining a graduate scheme after university (perhaps after studying a Master’s in journalism, and doing internships and building experience in related areas), then aiming to work up the ranks in seniority, for instance to editor of a major newspaper. Many people also enter journalism after establishing themselves in another field, like politics or academia.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 2
Direct contribution: 4
Donations potential: 1
Advocacy potential: 4

Journalists have a very strong platform for spreading important ideas, both through the stories they write and the influential people they meet. If used to promote effective causes, this can be enormously impactful. We don’t rate it more highly, however, because it seems like an extremely competitive career. Many people want to be journalists, while demand is falling due to the rise of online media.

We don’t rate it highly for career capital, because the skills don’t seem broadly applicable to many other fields, and because it’s highly competitive. Salaries are usually relatively low, so we put donation potential at ‘1’.

Who might it suit?

Journalism requires strong verbal abilities and writing skills. Due to its competitiveness, it also requires grit. You can test out your potential by getting involved in student journalism and attempting to secure internships.

Policy-oriented Civil Service

What is it?

By ‘Civil Service’ we mean seeking jobs in administration within the government, and working your way up the ranks. Note that it’s becoming more and more common to switch in and out of the civil service at different stages of your career – going between the Civil Service and think-tanks, international organisations, academia or the corporate sector. We add the qualifier ‘policy-oriented’ because many civil servants focus on providing services, which seems to offer less opportunity for impact than those who focus on developing and implementing policy. Many countries have career paths with accelerated promotion and training (e.g. the Fast Stream in the UK), which seem to offer much better career capital and influence.

This is a fairly similar type of path to working in international organisations and foundations, so you may also want to consider them.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 2
Direct contribution: 3
Donations potential: 2
Advocacy potential: 4

In the Civil Service, you have scope for direct impact through improving the development and implementation of policy. Although your influence might be slight, the scale is very large, so your overall impact has the potential to be large. On the other hand, we’re very uncertain about this path, for instance, we don’t know how much scope for improvement there is in policy-setting. Overall, we prefer party politics, because the influence seems much larger and more flexible. While there are thousands of party politicians in the UK, there are almost half a million civil servants. Even subtracting the majority, who are not substantially involved in policy, party politics seems to come out better for influence.

To maximise your impact within this path, seek out departments that are involved with the causes you think are most high-priority. For instance, if you want to work on development in the UK, aim at DfiD. Some departments may also offer significantly more scope for influence than others, for instance the grant-writing agencies are unglamorous but offer influence over large budgets; however, we don’t yet have much information about the differences between agencies.

Salaries are not great – comparable or only slightly better than academic salaries, but worse than corporate salaries. On the other hand, advocacy potential seems high since you can meet policy-makers.

Career capital strikes us as worse than comparable jobs in the corporate sector, since Civil Service jobs are less respected in the corporate sector, the work is less intense and progression seems slow. Accelerator schemes, like the Fast Stream, however, are substantially different. They raise you into management roles in just a few years and are fairly prestigious.

Who might it suit?

We think it’s probably similar to the foundation manager job, though the higher responsibility positions (e.g. in accelerator schemes) will require better social skills, since you’ll be managing a lot of people, and the ability to make decisions under pressure. How stimulating the work is varies depending on your project and department. Hours seem better than in the corporate sector, but some complain about a slower pace and more bureaucracy.

Law

What is it?

By Law we mean studying for a law degree and then practicing law in the US as an attorney, counsel or solicitor, or in the UK as a barrister or solicitor. In particular, we mean ‘high end law’, since there are really two law job markets.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 2.5
Direct contribution: 1
Donations potential: 4
Advocacy potential: 2.5

Law is a high-earning career, which so you can make a difference through earning to give. We rank it lower on donation potential than finance, however, because the earnings generally seem lower at each stage, once you factor in legal training. Lawyers can also contribute by helping to create an effective legal system, but our overall impression is that the direct contribution is not large compared to that in other careers because it’s not neglected and some aspects of law seem zero-sum (Moreover, there’s widely thought to be a trade-off between earnings and positive direct contribution.)

A law degree provides reasonable career capital, since it’s an impressive qualification, it helps with entering policy careers and it allows you to practice law for earning to give. Nevertheless, law degrees are expensive and competitive, and since the skills seem less generally useful, we rank law lower than finance.

Who might it suit?

Law is often among the most high-earning options for people with strong verbal abilities, but relatively weaker numerical ability. As with many of these careers, you’ll need to be prepared to work very long hours. The work seems less interesting and to cause higher stress than in some other careers, reflected in higher rates of depression among lawyers.

Further reading

Work in sales and marketing

What is it?

Sales and marketing refers to a group of roles in the corporate sector, involving understanding the desires of customers, advertising and selling. The career path could involve entering a sales or marketing job after university (there are many marketing graduate schemes), and then aiming to rise up the corporate ladder, either to a VP of Sales or other management role.

Note that people considering this path also often consider working in public relations, which also offers many graduates schemes, and can be preparation for journalism or political work.

Why is it a good opportunity?

Career capital: 3
Direct contribution: 1
Donations potential: 2.5
Advocacy potential: 2

This seems like a good option for career capital. ‘Sales’ meant broadly as persuading people to exchange goods, is a highly important skill in many of the other careers listed. You could use corporate sales experience to transfer into the non-profit sector, get involved in entrepreneurship, or work up the ranks of the higher-paying corporate jobs.

Sales jobs can be fairly well-paid, especially if you’re good at them, since the pay is often performance-based. The vital importance of sales and marketing to most companies means that sales and marketing is one of the highest-paid corporate positions (e.g. see here, though note the problems with these kinds of rankings), and it’s one route into the top corporate management positions. So this path could also be used for earning to give.

Within this path, working in small companies can lead to better skill-development and higher chances of promotion, whereas working in larger companies offers more widely recognisable credentials.

Who might it suit?

Sales jobs require people with good social skills who can handle rejection (which means high levels of optimism and grit). Sales work is potentially engaging due to rapid feedback on how you’re doing. Otherwise, we guess much depends on the company you’re working in.

Further reading

  • Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human argues that soft sales skills are very widely applicable and becoming increasingly important. He also outlines the scientific research about how to become better at selling.

How might you apply this list to your own situation?

1) Use the list to generate some initial ideas. Consider careers you think you could plausibly do well in.

2) Add extra ideas that you’ve come across or are unique to your situation.

3) Narrow down the careers using these criteria, but adapt the results to your own situation. For instance, if you love programming, then you might increase your expected direct impact, career capital and earnings potential in software and tech entrepreneurship.

4) Also compare your options, based on the following factors that are also proxies for impact:

  • Fit: What are you chances of excelling in this career? If you can excel in a career, that dramatically increases your potential to contribute and gain career capital.
  • Discovery value: (AKA value of information): If you embark on this career path, how much will you learn about which career paths are best for you, and which opportunities are best for making an impact?
  • Corruption risk: What are the chances of losing your altruistic motivation if you embark on this path?

5) You might also want to compare careers based on personal factors like:

  • Job satisfaction: Do I think the work will be engaging? Will you be able to maintain good relationships at work? Does this career use your strengths? Do you have the chance to excel?
  • Fit with rest of life: To what extent will this career allow you to flourish in the rest of your life? For instance, will you be able to maintain good relationships with your family and friends, will you be able to support your family?

Do you know a good resource for one or more of these careers? Do you disagree with one of our scores? Would you like to propose a career we’ve overlooked? Please leave your ideas in the comments!


Thank you to Carl Shulman for comments on a draft, though he does not necessarily endorse the claims made. Thank you to Jacob Williamson for editing.


Appendix: Research process

We developed the factors using the process described at the start of the post. We generated options from our experience in coaching, picking the options that come up most commonly in graduate career choice and seem particularly promising. Note that if there were two similar options but one seemed better, we tended just to include the better one, although we tried to mention the other similar options where possible, e.g. tech entrepreneurship but not general entrepreneurship, consulting but not professional services.

We rated the options according to the factors using our judgement and we picked the top sixteen. We sought feedback on our reasoning from several research volunteers. Sketches of the reasoning for each option are provided in the body of the post. Some career options mentioned above, which we considered as major options in their own right but didn’t make it into the list were: working in a small company, teaching, dentistry, pharmacy and high-paying trades.

Some other options we’re thinking about but didn’t have space to consider: think-tanks, the executive track at a large company, being a philanthropic adviser, non-profit consulting, working at a large non-profit, data analysis, being an academic grant-writer, entrepreneurship outside of technology, being an actuary, and headhunting or executive search.


Notes and Footnotes


  1. There’s good evidence tech entrepreneurship offers high earnings for people who can make it beyond the initial stages, e.g. the founders of start-ups who receive venture capital on average make very high returns. The average start-up which went through Ycombinator has a valuation of around US$20m and founders who went through Entrepreneur First had equity on average worth about half a million dollars after one year (from conversation with Entrepreneur First). On the other hand, we’re much less sure what the average returns on entrepreneurship are. The Founder’s Dilemmas argues it’s probably less than salaried jobs, though this may be because many entrepreneurs are aiming for control of their business rather than maximum wealth, or because tech entrepreneurs earn much more than self-employed people in general. It’s a high priority for us to do more research into this issue. 
  2. For instance, the money allocated by the World Bank over the last 5 years is US$41.8 billion, based on the 2012 Annual Report. There seems to be roughly 7,000 staff, giving an average figure of US$6m per employee. Also see this analysis of the UK’s international aid department, again showing budget of ~US$6m per employee.