How to pursue a career in research to lower the risks from superintelligent machines: a new career review.

google-deepmind-artificial-intelligence

This is a summary of our full career review on artificial intelligence risk research.

Have you read the profile and think you want to contribute to artificial intelligence risk research? Fill out this form and we’ll see if we can help.

Many people we coach are interested in doing research into artificial intelligence (AI), in particular how to lower the risk that superintelligent machines do harmful things not intended by their creators – a field usually referred to as ‘AI risk research’. The reasons people believe this is a particularly pressing area of research are outlined in sources such as:

Our goal with this career review was not to assess the cause area of AI risk research – on that we defer to the authors above. Rather we wanted to present some concrete guidance for the growing number of people who want to work on the problem.

We spoke to the leaders in the field, including top academics, the head of MIRI and managers in AI companies, and the key findings are:

  • Some organisations working on this problem,

Continue reading →

Why you should focus more on talent gaps, not funding gaps

80K_posts_talentgap_balance_V2

Many members of the effective altruism community see making a difference primarily in terms of moving money to fill funding gaps rather than moving talent to fill talent gaps. This seems to me to be one of the community’s more serious mistakes, which causes us to:

  • Put too much weight on earning to give and fundraising.
  • Put too little weight on gaining expertise and developing the skills needed for direct work.
  • Overlook pressing causes that aren’t funding constrained.

In the rest of the post, I’ll:

  1. Outline what I mean by talent gaps.
  2. Suggest why the community might be biased towards focusing on funding gaps.
  3. Argue there are whole cause areas we’ve completely overlooked due to this focus.
  4. Argue that many of the causes the community does support are also more talent constrained than funding constrained.
  5. Argue that the importance of talent constraints compared to funding constraints is likely to increase over the next 2-5 years.
  6. Argue further that this imbalance is likely to persist in the long-term.
  7. Consider some of the arguments against focusing on talent gaps.
  8. Give ideas for what the community should do differently in order to focus more on talent gaps. In particular, I’ll outline who should earn to give and who shouldn’t, and list the greatest talent needs within the community.

Continue reading →

Our new tool can help you make the right career decision

map

We’ve released a new tool to help you think through career decisions, such as which major to study, which jobs to apply for, and which of various offers to accept. We’ve tested it in one-on-one coaching over the last six months, and are now making it freely available.

These decisions can both be very important and very difficult. This tool will make these decisions easier by walking you through a step-by-step process, asking you the questions we use during coaching, and checking that you’ve applied the most important results of our research. We designed the process using the scientific literature on decision making to reduce bias and it has received positive feedback from many users:

  1. Try out the tool.
  2. Share it on Facebook or Twitter.

It won’t tell you what to do, but it will make sure you haven’t missed anything obvious, are asking the right questions, and have a clear next step. It takes about 30 min to run through.

We will continue to improve the tool in coming months based on your feedback and our experience in coaching.

If you know a friend or family member trying to make a career decision you might also like to pass it on to them!

80K_howtochoose_flowchart_V5

Continue reading →

How to write a career plan

We see lots of career planning mistakes.

Some people simply don’t have a plan, and hope the future will figure itself out. This leads them to take steps that seem attractive in the short-run but don’t help in the long-run e.g. we’ve met quite a few people who ended up regretting doing a philosophy PhD.

Other people try to figure out “what to do with their lives”, or make a detailed “10 year plan”. That doesn’t work either.

Instead, we recommend:

  1. Have a plan, but make it flexible – we call this flexible plan a “vision”.
  2. Review your plan at least once a year. Think like a scientist testing a hypothesis.
  3. Make sure you gain flexible career capital, that way you’ll be in a better position no matter what the future holds.

We recently updated our key article on career planning to explain.

For long-term readers, what’s new?
1. New content on how to make your “vision”

We added a new step-by-step process for making your plan based on “ABZ planning”, an idea we found in Reid Hoffman’s excellent book “The Start-Up of You”.

Here’s the process we recommend:

First start by asking:

  1. What does the world most need? List the 1-3 causes that you think are most pressing. If you’re trying to make an impact, then you need to start by understanding what the world most needs.

Continue reading →

Startup employees don’t earn more

Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg. License: CC-BY-SA 2.0

Since the average startup founder who makes it to Series A earns more than a large company employee, many believe that early-stage startup employees also earn more (albeit less than founders). Dustin Moskovitz has even claimed that startup early employees have better earnings prospects than founders.

We’ve looked at the data, and this does not seem to be true on average. There are strong reasons why people might want to work at a startup (e.g. career capital), and it’s true the employees of the most successful startups will earn more; but someone deciding between working at a startup vs. a bigger company should rarely be making the decision based on income. On average, startup early employees earn at most only a little more than developers at larger companies.

Three estimates of how much startup early employees earn, including both equity and salary

According to AngelList, early-stage backend developers, for example, generally get about $110,000 in salary and .7% equity (salary data from Riviera is similar).

While the startup salary data is fairly clear, it’s hard to know how to value the equity portion of their compensation. Below are three different methods for doing so, which all show that developers at early-stage startups at most earn only a little more than they would at a large tech company.

1) Using average exit values

Let’s assume the 0.7% equity stake will eventually get diluted down to .35% at time of exit (a typical amount of dilution from Series A to exit).

Continue reading →

How to explore in your career

Tony Blair tried to make it in rock n roll before going into politics.

We often talk about the benefits of trying out several different paths, especially early in your career. But changing job too often has costs. How can you explore effectively?

Here’s a couple of ideas from our recently updated page on why and how to explore.

Tips for exploring
1. Use your natural exploration opportunities

There are times when, money permitting, society gives you a free pass to do something random:

  • In a “gap year” between school and university, or just after you graduate.
  • In your high school and university summer holidays.
  • In university courses that aren’t your major.

Take advantage of these opportunities as much as you can.

2. Use the “graduate school reset”

After you graduate from university, you can do something unusual and risky for a few years, then go to graduate school, then begin a regular professional career as if not much happened. More specifically:

  • You can take one to two years out before doing a PhD, and by the time you graduate, it probably won’t matter.
  • Sometimes you can use a Masters degree to transition into a new field.
  • You can do a law degree and become a lawyer or go into policy.
  • Consulting, finance and many corporate jobs accept people directly out of MBAs,

Continue reading →

Can you have more impact working in a foundation than earning to give?

Photo credit: Flickr – Refracted Moments

Key points

  • Working to improve grants at a foundation could well be more effective in terms of the impact of the money moved than earning to give. Which is better will usually come down to how good your personal opportunities are to make money, or get a job at a large foundation working on an important cause.
  • If you know of a cause area or organisation that is many times more effective than what any foundations you could work at would make grants to, then earning to give is likely to be better.
  • There are other issues, like the impact on your long-term career trajectory, that you have to consider as well as the direct impact of the money you move.

As soon as we thought of the idea of earning to give, we started thinking of ways to beat it. One idea that was floated in the very early days of 80,000 Hours was working in a foundation to allocate grants to more effective causes and organisations. Since a foundations grantmaker might allocate tens of millions of funding, far more than they could earn, maybe they could have a greater impact this way?

In this post, we provide a model for comparing the impact of foundations grantmaking and earning to give, which some people may find useful for specific scenarios where they have more info on the inputs. We also provide some very tentative estimates using the model to demonstrate how it works.

Continue reading →

‘Replaceability’ isn’t as important as you might think (or we’ve suggested)

mJNoza3
Often if you turn down a skilled job, the role simply won’t be filled at all because there’s no suitable substitute available. For this and other reasons we don’t place as much weight as we used to on the idea of ‘replaceability’.

When we started 80,000 Hours, one of the key ideas we presented was the replaceability argument:

Suppose you become a surgeon and perform 100 life saving operations. Naively it seems like your impact is to save 100 people’s lives. If you hadn’t taken the job, however, someone else likely would have taken it instead. So your true (counterfactual) impact is less than the good you do directly.

I still think this is a good argument, but I’m not sure how relevant it is when comparing real career options.

In particular, I see the argument often being used incorrectly in the following two ways:

  1. Ignoring direct harm: Suppose you’re considering taking a job that some people think is harmful (e.g. certain parts of the financial sector) in order to donate, do advocacy or build skills. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so the potential harm I’ll do directly doesn’t matter”.

  2. Ignoring direct impact: Suppose you’re considering working at a high-impact nonprofit. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so I won’t have much impact.”

I disagree with both of these claims in most circumstances. Why?

Continue reading →

If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not.

About 1 in 200 people become doctors, many of them because they want to cure the sick and generally make the world a better place. Are they making the right decision?

To help answer that question, we’ve produced an exploratory career profile on medical careers.

The conclusion of our research is that most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career.

The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA.

However, medicine is high earning and highly fulfilling, and we expect there are more promising opportunities to help others through biomedical research, public health, health policy and (e.g. hospital) management.

Overall, we think going to medical school would be the best way to have a social impact only if someone felt they were a significantly better fit for medicine than the other options we recommend.

Dr Greg Lewis, a practicing physician in the UK, wrote most of the career profile.

Key findings

  • Having more physicians in the developed world has a surprisingly small impact on the health of recipients.

Continue reading →

Why are wages less stable in skilled professions?

There is some evidence, in fact, that markets for highly skilled workers, such as engineers and other specialized professionals, exhibit systematic periods of boom and bust…1

Earnings tend to fluctuate significantly more in highly skilled professions than in others, rising to high levels for a number of years before plunging and, ultimately, rising again. Why is this the case? Here’s the explanation put forward by Harvard economist George Borjas in his leading textbook on Labor Economics.2

What’s going on?

Continue reading →

I want to make a difference. Should I work in marketing?

If you want to make a difference, should you work in marketing? The short answer: probably not. Although marketing may have positive effects through informing consumers, there’s also arguments that marketing is harmful, so it’s overall effect is unclear.

However, marketing is a valuable, transferable skill. So spending several years in marketing keeps your options open and could open up positions in high-impact organisations.

It’s also well paid, so worth considering for earning to give.

Overall, it’s worth considering as an early career option, especially if you’re stronger on verbal rather than quantitative skills, and don’t want to work in consulting (which is also highly paid and keeps your options open).

Read our full new career profile.

Continue reading →

Should you go into journalism to make a difference?

We just completed an exploratory profile on journalism. To write the profile, we interviewed an NPR correspondent and a writer for the New Yorker, and spent a day reading the best advice we could find on the career.

When it comes to having a social impact, journalism might not be the first career you think of, but we think it’s actually a pretty good option, because you can use it as a platform to promote neglected causes to a big audience. The main downside is its competitiveness, which is exasperated by reductions in the number of positions over the last decade. Spending a couple of years in journalism is also better for career capital than it first looks, because you can use it the build a good network.

Read the rest of the profile.

Continue reading →

The rise of income inequality and what it means for your career

One of the most important (though maybe regrettable) long-term trends effecting the outlook of many careers is the rise in income inequality. In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, the difference in earnings between the best and worst paid has risen sharply for the last few decades, with the top earners taking a higher and higher proportion of total income. From the early 1900s to the 1970s, income inequality gradually decreased. However, in Anglo-Saxon countries it began to rise again from the late 1970s. The rise was sharpest in the United States, where the income share of the top decile of earners rose from 33% to 48% in forty years, while the share of the top percentile rose from 8% to 17%.1 In Japan and the rest of Western Europe on the other hand, inequality was either steady or rose much more gradually.

Increasing income inequality means a better outlook for many high-earning careers. It may also reflect trends in which skills are most in-demand and useful as technology changes, making it important to understand if you want good career capital in the future. Finally, it may mean the financial rewards of being at the top of a profession (compared to the middle) are increasing, and this means the importance of personal fit is increasing.

The top decile income share: Europe and the U.S., 1900-2010
This graph is taken from Pikkety (2014) 2

In the rest of this post, we’ll look at the reasons economists have put forth for the increase in income inequality, and speculate on whether the trend will continue.

Continue reading →

New in-depth profile on management consulting

We’ve released a major update to our career profile on management consulting.

See the updated profile here.

See the new in-depth report upon which it’s based here.

Overall, our recommendation is similar to before:

Consider a job in consulting if you have strong academic credentials and you aren’t sure about your long-term plans and want to experience work in a variety of business environments, or you want to pursue earning-to-give but not a good fit for quantitative trading or technology entrepreneurship.

But we’ve gone much more in-depth into:

  • The chances of becoming a partner, showing that it’s about 10% but requires a great deal of dedication.
  • Common exit options, showing that consultants enter a very wide range of fields when they leave.
  • What proportion of people who want to become consultants actually make it.
  • The potential for direct impact, arguing it’s worse than other common alternatives.

This is our first ‘medium-depth’ career profile, and we hope it will act as a template for further work.

Thank you to Nick Beckstead for carrying out the research.

Continue reading →

The camel doesn’t have two humps – update to software engineering profile

In our current software engineering profile, we say:

Programming ability seems to roughly divide into two groups: those who find it relatively easy and those who don’t. If in the past you’ve done well at mathematics and science and can think abstractly, then it’s likely you can learn to program well enough to get an entry-level job within about six months.

In evidence of the first claim, one piece of evidence we cited was a paper called “The Camel Has Two Humps” by Dehnadi and Bornat.

However, we’ve just discovered that Bornat has publicly redacted this paper. He says:

It’s not enough to summarise the scientific result, because I wrote and web-circulated “The camel has two humps” in 2006. That document was very misleading and, in the way of web documents, it continues to mislead to this day. I need to make an explicit retraction of what it claimed. Dehnadi didn’t discover a programming aptitude test. He didn’t find a way of dividing programming sheep from non-programming goats. We hadn’t shown that nature trumps nurture. Just a phenomenon and a prediction.

Though it’s embarrassing, I feel it’s necessary to explain how and why I came to write “The camel has two humps” and its part-retraction in (Bornat et al., 2008). It’s in part a mental health story. In autumn 2005 I became clinically depressed. My physician put me on the then-standard treatment for depression, an SSRI. But she wasn’t aware that for some people an SSRI doesn’t gently treat depression, it puts them on the ceiling. I took the SSRI for three months, by which time I was grandiose, extremely self-righteous and very combative – myself turned up to one hundred and eleven. I did a number of very silly things whilst on the SSRI and some more in the immediate aftermath, amongst them writing “The camel has two humps”.

Based on this, we’ve removed the paper from the profile, and removed the claim about the distribution dividing into two clumps.

We intend to do a more thorough review of the predictors of success in this field when we release our full profile of software engineering in the new year.

Did we make a mistake in this case? The profile was only at the “considered” stage, so not the result of in-depth research. Even so, when most skills and abilities are normally or log-normally distributed, we should have been cautious about the existence of a bimodal distribution without relatively strong evidence.

Continue reading →

Why and how to keep your options open

Keeping options open is important for everyone, it’s especially important if you want to make a difference, because the most effective career opportunities are likely to change in the future. Indeed, we think it’s usually more important to keep your options open to make an immediate impact.

Many people think that ‘keeping your options open’ means being non-committal and avoiding tough decisions. We disagree. The best to keep your options open is to commit to building flexible abilities and resources, such as transferable skills, money and a public platform.

For more, see our new page on the topic.

Continue reading →

Should you wait to make a difference?

The issue

One big picture consideration in career choice is the question of how important it is to make a difference now versus later. Here’s the issue: suppose you could either work at a charity next year or go to graduate school. If you work at the charity, you’ll be making a difference right away, speeding up progress. If you go to graduate school, you’ll be investing in yourself and able to have a larger impact later. Which is better?

If you think it’s better to make a difference as soon as possible, the more you’ll value your immediate opportunities for impact. In our framework, you’ll put more emphasis on path impact potential. If you think it’s better to invest and give later, the more you’ll value activities that build your skills, connections and credentials (career capital), and the more you’ll value learning about the world so you can make better decisions in the future (exploration value).

There’s a similar issue with charitable giving. If you have some money, you can either give today, or you can invest your money, which will grow over time, and give a larger amount later. Under what circumstances should you invest rather than give now?

Summary

Overall, we favour investing in your human capital and wealth early, so that you make a greater difference later in your career. Why?

  1. You’ll be able to find better opportunities to make a difference in the future, because you’ll get wiser and be able to use better research in which causes and careers are most effective.
  2. Early-to-mid career, most people can make investments that significantly increase their career capital, such as learning new skills, doing a graduate degree and building a professional network. The returns from these investments more than justify the cost of waiting.

Nevertheless, there are a few other reasons to start making a difference now: it will teach you about the world; it will help you find collaborators; it’s motivating; and it will help you build altruistic habits.

So, overall, we suggest that early in your career you mainly focus on building career capital and learning more, though still put some weight on your immediate impact. If choosing between two jobs, this could mean choosing the one that best builds your career capital, using immediate impact as a tiebreaker. As you get older, put more and more weight on your immediate impact.

Read on to see a full discussion of the considerations and our reasoning.

Continue reading →

Update: 7 career strategies for making a difference

We recently released a page on “top career strategies”, featuring two strategies for building your long-run potential, and five for immediate impact:

  1. The experimenter: Finding a career that’s the right fit for you is important, but it’s also difficult to do just by thinking about it. It can therefore be a good strategy to try out a number of different areas in order to learn more about your own interests and skills.
  2. The self-developer: When you’ve narrowed down which area you want to enter, focus on investing in yourself to build your career capital.
  3. The effective worker: There are many non-profit and for-profit organisations that have a large impact, which are short of specific types of human capital. If you’re a good fit for a high-impact organization, it’s an option worth considering. By high-impact organisations we mean those that are well-run and work on an effective cause.
  4. The entrepreneur: If you’ve got potential as an entrepreneur, attempt to found new effective non-profit organisations or innovative for-profits that benefit their customers and create positive spill-over effects.
  5. The philanthropist: Some people have skills that are better suited to earning money than the other strategies. These people can take a higher-earning career and donate the money to effective organisations. We call this strategy ‘earning to give’.
  6. The researcher: Some people are especially good at and interested in research – attempting to create new knowledge. If this is you, and have you have the opportunity to work in a field that seems particularly important, tractable and neglected, then this could be a way to have a large impact.
  7. The advocate: If you can take a job that gives you a public platform, good network and credibility, you can use it to promote and unite people behind important ideas.

Continue reading →