Working at effective altruist organisations: good or bad for career capital?

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Working in effective altruism directly is a good way to build career capital in some respects, and a bad way in others. How about on balance?

Many people in our community are interested in working at “effective altruist” (EA) organisations, which I define as organisations whose leaders aim to do the most good on the basis of evidence and reason, and explicity identify as part of the effective altruism movement (see a list).

These jobs are often seen as higher-impact and more fulfilling than alternatives, but there’s a common worry: they’ll provide worse career capital, putting you in a worse position in the long-term.

I argued here that career capital might not be a strong enough consideration to outweigh the additional impact.

In this post, I’ll explore whether the career capital you get from working at EA orgs really is worse than the alternatives. I’ll outline arguments give for and against, arguing the career capital is better than is often assumed.

Arguments against working in effective altruist organisations for career capital

Less prestige

The jobs are less prestigious – few people have heard of organisations like GiveWell or the Center for Effective Altruism – and so these jobs don’t provide as impressive general-purpose credentials as working at a brand name employer like Google or McKinsey.

Less concrete career progression

The jobs don’t come with an obvious career path. If you work at CEA for a couple of years, it doesn’t obviously lead into other jobs. In contrast, if you do two years of accounting, you can either continue with that or seek a job in industry (or many other positions). If you do a science PhD, then you can continue into academia or go into industry or data science instead.

I think there’s something to this point, but it’s also partly a result of bias. Working in an effective altruist organisation doesn’t lead to concrete, foreseeable future options, but it does progress your career. First, there will be jobs in other effective altruist organisations that are created in the future. Second, you can still get good skills, connections and credentials from these jobs, and that means you’re still going to have better opportunities in the future even if you don’t know what they are yet. However, it’s uncomfortable to not know what the future holds, so it feels safer to take a standard path.

Risk

Working at effective altruist organisations is in part of a bet on the continued success of the effective altruism movement. If you think there’s a significant risk of the movement stagnating or even shrinking, then that’s a good argument against.

Less mentorship from experienced people

Most EA organisations are filled with young people who don’t have in-depth experience. If you’re a fresh college graduate, that doesn’t matter too much, but there are limits to the levels of mentorship you can get within EA organisations. Moreover, most EA organisations are startups, which means they have less time and resources for training you up.

On the other hand, mentorship is only one component of skill development. As I’ll outline in the next section, you’ll get more responsibility and might be more motivated in EA organisations, which could mean you’ll learn more. Many at EA orgs are also mentored by more experienced people from outside their organisations, because lots of people want to help the organisations grow.

Arguments in favor of working at effective altruist organisations for career capital

Before we continue with this section, bear in mind that as someone who works at an effective altruist organisation, I’m biased. I think the prospects for effective altruism are better than most, and I want people to come and work at 80,000 Hours. Nevertheless, I think the arguments speak for themselves, and if you share my judgement that the effective altruism community is likely to keep succeeding, they should hold for you too.

A track record of impressive achievements

Over the last couple of years, people working in effective altruist organisations have had some exceptional achievements. The impressiveness of these achievements seems greater than the impressiveness of doing a regular brand name job, so they provide better credentials.

Here’s a couple of examples:

  • Partnered with an $8bn foundation (GiveWell)
  • Received major international press coverage (many different organisations and individuals).
  • Advised high levels of the government and international organisations (Giving What We Can and Global Priorities Project).
  • Founded a professional nonprofit while in college (Charity Science, Animal Charity Evaluators, 80,000 Hours, Giving What We Can).
  • Become World Economic Forum Young Global Shapers.
  • Been given a prestigious award by their alma mater.
  • Attended conferences at the UN.
  • Been admitted into top startup accelerator Y Combinator.
  • Met and been funded by Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.
  • Gained a literary agent with no previously published works and secured a major book deal.
  • Raised $500m in pledges to charity (Giving What We Can).

Many people I know who work at effective altruist organisations think they’ve had more impressive achievements than what they would have achieved in a normal job by the same age, even if they were successful in the normal job.

I think this track record of exceptional, high-status achievements is due to:

  • The fact that effective altruism has stumbled across a group of neglected but highly important ideas, allowing people in the movement to quickly gather support and momentum.
  • The strength of the community.

These factors still hold, so I expect the run of successes to continue. And that means if you work in effective altruist organisations, you’re likely to be directly involved in some impressive achievements too, which will be great for your career capital. We shouldn’t overlook this chance just because it’s hard to know exactly what form these achievements will have ahead of time.

Great connections

By working in the community, I’ve met the most impressive people of my life. Moreover, people in the community are unusually willing to help each other out, because we all share the same aim of social impact. If I help someone else have a greater impact, then I’m equally achieving my goals to have an impact.

I’ve known people who have participated in groups that are supposed to be great for networking, such as McKinsey, Harvard Business School and Fulbright, but found they gained more valuable connections by spending time meeting other effective altruists. These connections will put you in a strong position to find jobs in the future.

The achievements mentioned above also mean the community is increasingly connected to top leaders in business, media, science, philanthropy and so on, and working at an effective altruist organisation can give you access to these people.

Continued growth

The number of people involved in effective altruism seems to have been roughly doubling each year. The amount of resources involved has grown faster: five years ago effective altruist organisations were only influencing several million dollars per year, whereas now there’s billions of dollars influenced by effective altruism, and tens of millions of dollars per year.

If this trend continues, then effective altruist organisations are going to continue to gain scale, and that means anyone working at an effective altruist organisation is going to have the opportunity to continue to gain responsibility. If an organisation doubles in scale each year, then unless the organisation hires over you, the amount of responsibility you’ll have will roughly double each year.

The people who will end up with the most responsibility will be those who join early, because then they’ll have the most time to build up the experience, reputation and connections needed to be leaders in the community. So, it’s important to get involved earlier rather than later.

If there’s a chance that effective altruism becomes “the new social movement of our generation”, then getting heavily involved is probably the best thing you can do for your career capital.

Stay motivated

You’ll probably be more motivated at an effective altruist organisation, because you’ll care about the work itself. Whereas doing a job from extrinsic reasons such as career capital and money is usually less motivating.

You’ll also work with people who share your values, which is also motivating. This means you’ll work harder, learn more and gain better achievements.

A culture of personal growth

Most effective altruist organisations place a lot of emphasis on self-development. Your boss will focus on results and provide honest feedback. You’ll come across many evidence-based ideas for becoming happier and more productive. You’ll meet other people who share that interest and want to help you grow as a person. The atmosphere is one that values ambition, hard work and personal growth.

This is aided by the fact that all the organisations are still small, entrepreneurial and results-focused, which means you get plenty of autonomy over your time, get to try many different types of work and get responsibility quickly, while avoiding much of the bullshit that creeps into larger organisations.

Overall, many people feel that they learned a huge amount working at effective altruist organisations, and become more generally motivated, productive and happy. We’ve seen people go into regular jobs that are thought to be good for career capital then come back to effective altruist organisations, and it seems like the people at EA organisations had at least a similar level of personal growth as those who went elsewhere.

Conclusion

Working at an effective altruist organisation may be less prestigious, provides less clear career progression and is in some ways more risky than taking a “regular option” like consulting, but if you’re a good fit for a position at an effective altruist organisation, I think these downsides are often offset by the upsides. Working an effective altruist organisation will probably mean you’ll end up with more impressive achievements, build a better network, stay motivated, rapidly gain responsibility and grow as a person.

How can you weigh it up in your situation? As always, much depends on the details of your individual situation. First, try to apply to lots of roles so you can compare between specific offers rather than the options in abstract. Second, when it comes to making your individual decision, here’s some key factors to bear in mind:

  • Degree of personal fit with the role. The better your personal fit, the better your achievements will and career capital will be.
  • Your assessment of the prospects of the EA community. The more optimistic you are, the better it is to work in the community.
  • The details of the role – how much responsibility will you get? will you get to work with good people? do you expect the organisation to succeed?

If you’d like to work at an effective altruist organisation, let us know and we’ll see if we can help out.