Tara saved lives working as a pharmacist in Bhutan – no really we checked, and she totally did – but she nevertheless left to try to find something better.
This is part of our series of profiles of people who changed their career in a major way in order to have more impact because of their exposure to 80,000 Hours.
Today Tara Mac Aulay is the head of operations in the Centre for Effective Altruism. But just two years ago she was working as a pharmacist. How and why did she make this transition? Her career path is sufficiently fascinating it’s worth telling the story form the start.
Tara was extremely conscientious and hard-working from a very young age. As a result she was able to finish high school and start studying at university at the young age of 16, rather than the usual 18 or 19. She managed to do this while at the same time i) redesigning the staff and inventory management for an Australian restaurant chain, then, because this saved them so much money, being promoted to a more senior role to ii) travel around the country to make major changes to failing stores to save them from closure. As a teenager! Needless to say, this entrepreneurialism and ambition allowed her to develop a wide range of professional skills at a young age.
At the age of 15 she applied to study pharmacy, motivated by a desire for ‘direct impact’ by improving the health of customers. While there is nothing wrong with pharmacy specifically, many of the things she learned in the course were non-transferrable to other careers. Specialising too early is a common mistake we encourage people to avoid, recommending instead that people build up flexible credentials until they have enough evidence to be confident they will need specialised skills.
Tara also found out about ‘effective altruism’ as a teenager – though the term didn’t yet exist – because her friends at high school were enthusiastic about Peter Singer and utilitarianism. However, she wasn’t convinced about the usefulness of getting involved, because the group mostly just seemed to discuss philosophy on the internet, rather than take practical steps in their own lives to help people.
After completing pharmacy, Tara took a job at a hospital in Melbourne. While there, she managed to significantly improve the inventory management of drugs in the hospital in order to make sure they didn’t run out of medicines they needed, but also didn’t have so many they would expire. Apparently her system saved them over a million dollars a year. Tara’s attitude is that if you haven’t found the potential for major improvements in a big institution, you probably just aren’t looking hard enough.
She also ‘hacked’ the criteria for promotion within her profession, doing exactly what was required to advance to the next level, including publishing studies in academic journals. This allowed her to rise up the ranks very rapidly in just a few years.
While working at this hospital Tara encountered 80,000 Hours and was impressed. Although this was an early stage, when our website was much less informative than it is now, she found the core concepts, such as ‘direct impact’, quantifying your impact, earning to give, and exploring your options very useful in thinking through how she could do more good in her own career.
The concrete stories of people who had made major changes to their career path in order to help more people caused her to become much more excited about ‘effective altruism’. It was now not just a bunch of people on discussion forums, but rather an actual movement of people who did useful things. She began regularly checking the website for updates in order to learn more.
Tara was less enthusiastic about donating to charity than many people in effective altruism because of a greater interest in filling talent gaps than money gaps. For this reason 80,000 Hours excited her more than GiveWell or Giving What We Can, which focussed on giving more money to better charities. However, she did realise that working within pharmacy was a reasonable way to earn to give, especially if she worked on weekends and public holidays when the hourly salaries were much higher. Over this time, in addition to building up a savings buffer, she started donating 10% of her income to GiveWell recommended charities.
Despite her rapid success at the hospital, Tara wanted to have more direct impact than she felt she could in an Australian hospital. As a result she quit and looked around for a better option. Following the principle that you can have more direct impact by working in a place where you skills are more scarce and people are poorer, she got a job in the Red Cross as a pharmacist, working in Indonesia and Bhutan.
While pharmaceutical knowledge was indeed more scarce in these countries, this created other barriers to impact. Tara felt like major changes were necessary in the delivery of medical care. She saw techniques being used that were dangerously beyond the training of the physicians available. In one place she thought no treatment at all would have been better than those being provided by her clinic. In another case the local staff had very poor mathematical knowledge, which raised the risk of fatal errors in the delivery of drugs. She ended up spending a significant fraction of her time teaching them simple arithmetic in order to reduce the risk of overdose. In the end she formed the view that rather than try to copy treatments from the world’s richest countries, instead they should change to simpler, cheaper and more robust treatments.
Unfortunately, significant cultural differences made it hard to get buy-in for such dramatic system-wide changes, and she felt her skills were being under-utilised. As a result, having completed the goals the Red Cross had set her in Bhutan, she decided to leave again and explore something else.
Having become more enthusiastic about the rationality and effective altruism communities, she decided to intern without pay at the Center for Applied Rationality in Berkeley. In addition to wanting to be directly useful there, she thought this would be a good chance to build her knowledge and network, and help her find better high-impact job opportunities in future.
This ‘exploration’ worked out well for her. After being encouraged by her friends, she applied to work at the Center for Effective Altruism – leading our operations – as well as several start-ups in the bay area. She had multiple offers, but ended up deciding to work for CEA. The key factor was believing the work would be more directly useful, even though the pay was lower. We didn’t have any other candidates available who we thought would do a comparably good job.
Since then she has been doing an outstanding job bringing our operations up to scratch for a mid-sized non-profit and preparing us for future growth. This is due to a combination of an excellent fit with the role, as well as her past experience in management and logistics. While I don’t want to gush, I think she is having much more impact than she would have as a pharmacist.
Tara’s story is an example of the following ideas:
- The potential to have a lot of direct impact working in an organisation doing valuable work because you are not easily replaced.
- The potential to have concrete impressive achievements even at a very young age.
- The challenges of working in the developing world as a foreigner, even when you identify major problems.
- The value of exploration, even if it involves changing industry and taking an unpaid internship.
- The downsides of specialising early before you can explore your options. In this case it hasn’t done much harm, but Tara’s study of pharmacy is now somewhat ‘stranded’ unless she returns to it later on.
It’s also an example of 80,000 Hours’ ideas and examples – even when we were in a very early stage – changing how people think about their career.