5 ways to be misled by salary rankings

Suppose that you plan, like many members of Giving What We Can or the Giving Pledge, to give a significant portion of your income to highly effective causes, and as one factor in your career decision you want want to assess how much you will be able to donate in various fields.

National wage and employment surveys, such as the UK Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings or the US Occupational Employment Statistics database provide good places to start. However, typical salary is an imperfect measure of career earnings. This post discusses five ways in which the national surveys can mislead at first glance, particularly for the most financially rewarding areas, in hopes of providing some protection to the casual explorer and explaining how in-depth analysis can help.

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Software engineering: Britain vs Silicon Valley

Several British members of 80,000 hours, both students and people considering switching careers, have asked about entering the field of software development. The field has a reputation as high-paying, and in Silicon Valley, the heart of the global software industry, average salaries are now reported over $104,000 (£66,000) with generous bonuses. This image is bolstered by the spectacular success of tech startup founders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, communicated by news media and movies like The Social Network. Moving from salaried to startup status and back is easier than in many industries, a fact which should be of special interest to altruists with strong skills, as discussed in the two linked 80,000 hours blog posts. The media report fierce competition for engineers between companies like Facebook and Google.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom there have been recent news stories with titles such as “Computer Science graduates are the least employable in the UK”. What is the real story here? How attractive is the software industry for those who want to make money and use it to do good? In some ways, the British statistics are misleading, but they also reflect a real difference: software engineers in the US, and especially Silicon Valley, really are better compensated. This post will lay out the supporting data, and discuss ways people outside the United States can make their way to Silicon Valley.

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Entrepreneurship: a game of poker, not roulette

Follow-up to: Salary or startup? How do-gooders can gain more from risky careers

In a previous post, I discussed how high-risk, high-reward careers can be a better deal for those who want to do good: if you strike it rich, buying a tenth car will add very little to your personal quality of life, but vaccinating a tenth child will help that child about as much as the first one. This matters in practice: most venture-backed startups fail, but the average (mean) financial gain to founders is measured in millions.

However, it would be a mistake to think of the returns to entrepreneurship as predictably stemming from just showing up and taking a spin at the wheel of startup roulette. Instead, entrepreneurship is more like poker: a game where even the best players cannot predictably win over a single night, but measurable differences predict that some will earn much more than others on average. By paying attention to predictors of entrepreneurial success (whether good news or bad), you can better tell whether you have a winning hand or should walk away for a different game. And even if the known predictors don’t bear on your own situation, knowing about these predictors can dispel the “lottery illusion”, and can let you know that success is not magic, and that it is worth investing in skill, hard work, strategy, and an understanding of the game.

Let’s take a look at some of those predictors…

Cartas-poker

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How hard is it to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?

How much good should one expect to do in a political career aimed at Parliament or Prime Ministership in the United Kingdom? A number of members of 80,000 hours suspect that they have above-average suitability for politics, but want to compare the field against research or entrepreneurship. To do that we need to think about the power of elected officials to sway policy in office, the value of different policies, and the probability that a political career will reach various levels of success. This post will take a stab at the last question, using data from Parliament and the educational system.

With a strong academic background, interest in politics, and social skill those chances may be surprisingly good, as much as 1 in 3 for becoming an MP, and 1 in 300 for PM. Let’s take a first pass at our Fermi calculation and see how.

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Salary or startup? How do-gooders can gain more from risky careers

Consider Sam, a software engineer at Google. His employer ranks highly in both quality-of-life and salary rankings. Sam is a great coder, and passionate about his work. But Sam is not satisfied: he is sorely tempted to take his savings and launch his own company. There are costs in taking the plunge: entrepreneurship would mean working harder, and investing time and money into a venture that might easily fail with nothing to show for it. On the other hand, success would mean bringing his vision to life, and potentially a financial payoff far beyond what he could hope for as a salaried employee.

Considering just these factors, Sam isn’t sure which way to go, like many other talented technologists. But if one of Sam’s goals is making a big impact on the lives of others, that can tip the balance towards entrepreneurship. Here’s how…

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High Impact Science

Paul Ehrlich began his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, with this statement:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to
death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a
substantial increase in the world death rate.

Ehrlich predicted the deaths as a consequence of the challenge of feeding a
rapidly growing world population, pointing to recent devastating famines in
South Asia. But even as those words were written, the fields were being planted
with new, higher-yielding semi-dwarf strains of wheat and rice.

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