In The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity our trustee Toby Ord argued that reducing existential risks — the chances of e.g. catastrophic global pandemics, run-away climate change, or unaligned artificial intelligence — should be a top global priority.
But what does this mean in practical terms? How can you actually use your career to reduce existential risks?
We think there are many different ways to help tackle these issues, and so various lines of work could be both very helpful and potentially a good fit for many readers.
In short, the process we recommend for finding the best ways to help is:
- Think about which particular risks you want to focus on mitigating — ‘direct’ existential risks like particularly severe pandemics, or ‘indirect’ existential risks (so-called ‘risk factors’), like global political instability or lack of cooperation between major powers. (More below)
- Come up with ideas for careers that address these issues — we think careers in research, government & policy, and nonprofits seem especially promising. (More below)
- Identify next steps to entering into those careers, compare them, and get started. (More below)
In the rest of this article, we give more detail on how to follow each of these steps.
1. Choose which issues to focus on.
Broadly speaking, you have three options for reducing existential risks:
- Directly working to reduce the world’s largest and most neglected existential risks
- Directly working to reduce the largest and most neglected ‘risk factors’ (i.e. issues that amplify existential risk, even if they wouldn’t lead to human extinction themselves)
- Going ‘meta’ and increasing society’s general ability to deal with existential risks going forward
The biggest existential risks we know about right now come from emerging technological developments. In particular:
We think both of these have the potential to pose existential threats, and that more work to mitigate the risks from these sources is highly pressing.
Some problems seem very unlikely to cause a truly existential catastrophe by themselves, but might increase direct risks or combine with other problems to make extinction more likely in a way that can’t be directly foreseen.
Here are some especially worrying risk factors:
Our guess is that working on risk factors generally doesn’t reduce existential risk as much as addressing direct risks. One factor may be that because risk factors are relevant to so many different issues (and therefore of interest to so many different people), they often seem less neglected. But this is by no means a hard and fast rule.
Another option is to take a more ‘meta’ approach, which means focusing on making the world better at identifying and handling whatever risks might come up in the future.
To do that, we think some of the most promising ideas are:
You can find longer lists of issues we think may be promising to work on — which contain a mix of direct risks, risk factors, and meta causes, as well as other issues — on our full problem profiles page.
How should you pick among different issues?
Which issue should you focus on in your career in order to reduce existential risk the most?
You can think of the impact of working on a particular issue as roughly a product of how pressing the issue is for reducing existential risks x your ability to contribute.
We think all the issues listed above are pretty pressing, though as we’ve indicated we’d rank some more highly than others. You can see our reasoning and decide for yourself by clicking through to the articles for each issue.
What about your ability to contribute? Talent, experience, natural interest in the topic, and temperament all play a role. Check out our resources on personal fit and the relevant sections of each issue’s article to learn more.
2. Choose an approach.
Once you’ve identified what issue or issues you want to focus on, the next step is to try to identify the biggest bottlenecks to progress on these issues — and what you can do to facilitate as much progress as possible.
To do that, you can try to ask experts in these areas what they think is most holding back progress, and how you might fit in.
We’ve done a general version of that research ourselves for some of the issues listed above, and have written up some of the most promising ideas we’ve found as ‘priority paths‘ — career paths that seem especially promising to us for improving the world, often by helping reduce existential risks.
But those paths are not going to be a good fit for everyone. You may want to instead start with some broader categories of career, and brainstorm particular options within them that seem most promising for you.
So which broad types of career are most likely to help resolve bottlenecks to progress on the most pressing issues contributing to existential risks? Below we suggest four.
Most of the issues described above are not very well understood, and it’s not yet clear how best to fix them. This is partly because they are more neglected than many more commonly discussed issues, which is also part of why we think they are promising to work on. Many of them could therefore benefit from much more research. How big are the risks? What aspects are current analyses missing? What are the most important changes we can make to address them, and how can we best implement those changes?
Progress on these questions can help us figure out where we should direct our efforts in order to reduce risk the most.
Often this research is best pursued from within a field that gives you relevant background on the subject, tools, and potential collaborators. Fields that seem particularly promising for research relevant for reducing existential risk include:
- Economics — for global priorities research, improving institutional decision making, building effective altruism, and more
- Machine learning — for developing safe and beneficial AI
- Applied maths & statistics — for developing safe and beneficial AI, global priorities research, and other issues
- Policy research — for AI safety, reducing risks of catastrophic pandemics, improving institutional decision making, and more
- Epidemiology — for reducing risks of catastrophic pandemics
- International relations or security studies — for reducing the chance of great power conflict and improving coordination between countries
- History and related fields — for building the effective altruism community and global priorities research
- China studies — for AI safety, reducing the risk of great power conflict, and more
If you already have deep expertise in a field, even if it’s not on the above list, there is likely a way to contribute — it might just take a bit more ingenuity to find research questions relevant for existential risk reduction.
We think it can be useful to do research in nonprofit organisations (like some of those listed below), think tanks, or academia. Which of these is best for you depends on your fit with the particular research environments each one offers, your topic, and the particular opportunities available to you.
One advantage of academia is that if you’re successful, you may be able to advise governments or other actors, or even advocate for measures to reduce existential risks as a ‘public intellectual‘. One disadvantage to this path is that it is intensely competitive.
80,000 Hours Podcast episodes about or showcasing relevant research
- Hilary Greaves on moral cluelessness, population ethics, probability within a multiverse, and harnessing the brainpower of academia to tackle the most important research questions
- Danny Hernandez on forecasting and the drivers of AI progress
- Owen Cotton-Barratt on research careers and risk
- David Roodman on whether crime would go up if the US put fewer people in prison
- Philip Trammell on how becoming a ‘patient philanthropist’ could allow you to do far more good
- Will MacAskill on the moral case against ever leaving the house, whether now is the hinge of history, and the culture of effective altruism
- Ben Garfinkel on scrutinizing classic AI risk arguments
Government and policy
Governments will likely play a key role in managing risks of existential catastrophes, so there are many opportunities for people concerned with these risks to contribute in the government and policy spheres. Government roles also sometimes seem fairly influential relative to how hard they are to enter.
Three paths we’re particularly excited about in this area are:
There are also many other policy paths that we haven’t looked into as closely but which could be useful for reducing existential risks — for example, paths in intelligence or international relations.
It might make sense to work on policy changes outside AI policy and pandemic prevention. Some examples include:
Find some more ideas here.
It can sometimes make sense to start out as a researcher and then move into policy, though it’s not always easy to succeed at both. For example, AI researchers can bring valuable deep knowledge of the AI technical landscape to AI policy, if they can develop the skills required to succeed in the policy world on top of their technical understanding.
There is a wide variety of positions within this path, so many people can find an option that’s a good fit.
Check out policy roles on our job board
80,000 Hours Podcast episodes about government and policy
- Tom Kalil on how to have a big impact in government & huge organisations
- Daniel Ellsberg on the creation of nuclear doomsday machines, the institutional insanity that maintains them, and a practical plan for dismantling them
- Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins on 8 years of combating WMD terrorism
- Glen Weyl on radical institutional reforms that make capitalism and democracy work better
- Helen Toner on the new 30-person research group in DC investigating how emerging technologies could affect national security
- Professor Tetlock on why accurate forecasting matters for everything, and how you can do it better
Work at a relevant nonprofit
There are several nonprofit organisations that are working to reduce existential risks, and which need staff with a wide range of skills, including:
If you could do an exceptional job in one of these roles we think this could do a lot to help reduce existential risks.
The crucial thing is to find excellent organisations working on the issues that are most important for reducing existential risks.
To do that, you can navigate to each of the issue-specific articles linked in the issues section above, where we list relevant organisations. You can also find open positions at these organisations listed on our job board.
Founding a new organisation in a pressing area that’s better than what already exists or that fills a gap in the area can be even higher-impact — though it’s also much more risky.
80,000 Hours Podcast episodes about nonprofits
- Tanya Singh on ending the operations management bottleneck in effective altruism
- Tara Mac Aulay on the audacity to fix the world without asking permission
- Nick Beckstead on how to do as much good as possible with billions of dollars
- Holden Karnofsky on how philanthropy can have maximum impact by taking big risks
These lists of ideas within research, policy, and effective organisations are not meant to be exhaustive. There are other ways to help reduce existential risks, and your best opportunity for doing so could also be something we haven’t even thought about.
Some ideas we’ve identified for promising careers that fall outside the above categories:
There are of course other options, so if you’ve found something else that excites you, it may be best to follow that. However, we think it’s worth thinking hard about the case for impact for each path — how can it help you address a bottleneck to one of the most relevant problem areas for existential risk?
See our guide to generating more high-impact career options.
3. Choose among next steps.
What concrete next steps can you take toward your best long-term career options?
If you need more information
Often you’ll need to explore multiple options in order to figure out which ones are worth pursuing. Sometimes this means just reading about options or talking to people in a field. Sometimes it means testing them out. We have a guide to exploring your options here.
If your focus is building career capital
Especially if you’re early in your career, or you’re making a big career shift, you’ll need to focus most on building relevant skills, connections and credentials — what we call ‘career capital’ — in your next step.
Here are some ways you might be able to get in a better position to work later on existential risks, depending on your specific goals. Some of these can also double as ways to test out different paths you’re interested in:
- Graduate study in one of the research areas listed above at a middle-ranked school or higher
Many of the issues most relevant to existential risk are technical and require significant expertise, and going to graduate school in a relevant subject is one way to get that expertise (one which can also give you good back-up options if you choose the right subject). Graduate degrees are also often semi-required for many of options that it seems best to pursue in the long term, e.g. in research or government policy. See our article on pros and cons of applying for a PhD.
Working in any well-run organisation with capable people and learn a skill that will be useful in one of these paths
For instance, you could work on a great operations team in the private sector, with the aim of later transferring into an effective nonprofit organisation or a relevant department of government. This strategy generally works best if the people you’ll be working with can teach you a lot, even if they aren’t working on the issues you’re most interested in. You can find concrete job options that offer good career capital on our job board.
Meeting people who work on these issues
The best jobs are often found through connections and it’s always useful to learn more about specific issues and opportunities by discussing them. There are conferences about some of the specific risks we’ve talked about and communities in each of the research areas, as well as many people in the effective altruism community who can help. Try reading discussion of the issues you’re interested in on the Effective Altruism Forum and reaching out to people online, or try attending an Effective Altruism Global conference.
No matter what job you’re in now, you can put yourself in a better position in the future by learning more about the area and job you want to transition into — we outline some of the best advice for learning on your own here. This is also a low-cost way to learn about your personal fit for a potential career. For example, if you’re thinking about entering a research career, you might try your hand at writing ‘fact posts‘ and see how that goes.
If you’re ready to enter a path
Maybe you’re ready to apply for jobs directly focused on the issue and approach you’re most excited about.
If so, great! Of course career capital will still matter, as you will probably still need to work up to bigger long-term goals — but you should also start to think about the direct social impact of different roles you are considering.
Plan to make lots of job applications — including ‘safe’ and ‘stretch’ options. Applying for lots of jobs can be very time consuming, but you usually learn a lot from the process, and it’s unfortunately necessary in most cases.
If you aren’t getting rejected from most jobs, you probably aren’t applying enough or aren’t aiming high enough.
Note that even if an organisation isn’t advertising open positions, it can be worth getting in touch with people at the organisation directly to express your interest and build connections. We know many people who’ve gotten positions that were never publicly advertised.
It can also make sense to apply for career-capital-building roles as well as roles in your chosen field at the same time, and choose based on the quality of the concrete opportunities you’re accepted for.
You can find concrete opportunities to apply for on our job board, and use our career decision process to compare options.
Career decisions are important — you can do a lot of good if you focus your career wisely. But they’re also difficult, and highly individual. You’re bound to make some mistakes along the way, and there are many different options you could take. Hopefully this article gives you a jumping-off point to explore more.
When it comes to taking your next step, you’ll need to weigh your options, considering factors like:
- The extent to which the options you’re looking at help reduce existential risk
- The long-term career paths that are the best fit for you
- How much your next-step options will help you build good skills and other career capital for the long term
- Whether the opportunity has good back-up options if things don’t go as planned
- How different roles would fit your personal life
These decisions aren’t simple. But you can break them down and approach them in a systematic way. For help with this, see:
Speak to us one-on-one
If you want to focus your career on reducing existential risks, we’d like to help you do it. We can help you analyse your plan, make connections, and find jobs in these areas. It’s all free.
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