Table of Contents
You’ll spend about 80,000 hours working in your career: 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 40 years. So how to spend that time is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.
Choose wisely, and you will not only have a more rewarding and interesting life — you’ll also be able to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. But how should you choose?
To answer this question, we set up an independent nonprofit and have done over 10 years of research alongside Oxford academics. Our only aim is to help you have the greatest possible positive impact.
Along the way, we’ve discovered some surprising things, and over 10 million people have viewed our advice.
How can this guide help you?
Back in 2011, we were students at Oxford in the UK. We wanted to figure out how we could do work we loved while having a positive impact.
We wondered: should we work at a nonprofit? Go to grad school? Try to earn high salaries and give back through philanthropy? Give up and go meditate in a cave? Or something else entirely?
Most career guides we read were about how to land different jobs, but few gave advice on what jobs to aim for in the first place. Most people we knew didn’t even use formal career advice, relying instead on conversations with friends.
As for doing good with your career, people suggested things like medicine, social work, teaching, or (most thrillingly) working in corporate social responsibility. But, valuable as these careers are, we felt like there might be even higher-impact options out there.
For instance, we recognised that some of the highest-impact people in history came from different fields. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor who shaped the US civil rights movement. Marie Curie was a scientist who pioneered life-saving medical technologies through her research into radioactivity.
Since founding 80,000 Hours, our team has spoken to hundreds of experts, spent hundreds of hours reading the relevant literature, and conducted our own analyses of the many job options available. We still have a lot to learn: these questions are difficult to settle, and we’ve made some mistakes, but we don’t think anyone else has spent as long researching these topics as we have.
Among the things we’ve learned:
- If you want a satisfying career, “follow your passion” can be misleading advice.
- You might be able to do more good as a bureaucrat than a charity worker.
- Many conventional approaches to making the world a better place don’t actually work.
We’ve also come up with more research-backed and hopefully better ways to approach age-old questions like how to figure out what you’re good at, and how to be more successful.
One of the most important things we’ve learned is that if lots of people already work on an issue, the best opportunities to help are more likely to have already been taken. But that means the most common and popular issues to work on, like health and education in rich countries, are precisely not the ones where you can have the biggest impact — instead, you need to find something more unconventional.
At the same time, we found real ways to help with important neglected problems. For instance, by focusing on the world’s poorest people, it’s really possible to save hundreds of lives, while doing work you enjoy too.
We’ve even found that our generation faces issues that could affect the entire future of civilisation, and that relatively few people focus on them. This includes issues such as pandemics even worse than COVID-19 and the creation of smarter-than-human AI (which we’ve been recommending people work on since 2014!). In fact, we think these issues are where many of our readers could make the biggest possible difference, so that’s where we focus the most.
As of today, thousands of people have significantly changed their career plans based on our advice. Some of them are researching ways to prevent the next pandemic, some are working on neglected areas of government policy, some are developing groundbreaking technology, and others have used our research to figure out their own paths.
What you’ll learn
The first article is about what to look for in a fulfilling job longer term:
- Part 1: What makes for a dream job?
The next five are about which options are most impactful for the world:
- Part 2: Can one person make a difference?
- Part 3: How to have a real positive impact in any job
- Part 4: How to choose which problems to focus on
- Part 5: What are the world’s biggest and most urgent problems?
- Part 6: What types of jobs help the most?
The next four cover how to find the best option for you and invest in your skills:
- Part 7: Which jobs put you in a better position?
- Part 8: How to find the right career for you
- Part 9: How to be more successful in any job
- Part 10: How to write a career plan
The last two cover how to take action and launch your dream career:
Or see a two-minute summary of all 12 articles in one page.
How to use the guide
Each article takes 10 to 30 minutes to read. One option is to set aside a weekend to read through everything. Another option is to read one article per week over a quarter.
Each article also has some exercises at the end. If you complete them, you’ll have applied the ideas to your own career, and it’ll be easy to write out a new career plan using our template.
If you’re thinking about changing your plan or working on one of the problems we recommend, we recommend applying to speak to our team one-on-one. They may help check your plan and put it into action, by introducing you to mentors, jobs, and funding.
Or if you’d like to continue to deepen your understanding of how to do more good, you can browse our advanced series, list of most pressing problems, reviews of impactful careers, podcast interviews, and all our research by topic to see what’s most useful to you.
Who is this guide for?
We designed the guide especially for English-speaking students and recent graduates in their 20s, who are lucky enough to have the security and ability to make helping the world an important goal. However, we also have advice about all kinds of career decisions, and many of the core ideas apply to readers of any age or circumstance.
Career decisions are highly individual, so there are many questions we can’t easily help with. We aim to focus on career questions that are more widely relevant. To answer the questions we tackle, we draw on:
- Expert interviews — you can listen to over 150 examples of these interviews on our podcast, and also see the results of some anonymous interviews. Our first pass on many questions involves synthesising what several experts say on the question.
- Academic literature — we draw on academic literature where it’s available, such as the literature on existential threats, the distribution of productivity in different fields, and how to make good decisions. We also work with some academic partners as well as researchers at other nonprofits and in industry.
- Advising our readers — we’ve given one-on-one advice to over 3,000 people since 2011, many of whom we’re still in touch with. This gives us a sense of what mistakes are common, as well as some indication of how decisions play out over time.
It’s not possible to confidently answer all the questions we tackle. However, we do our best to synthesise the sources of evidence we draw on, using our research principles. We also aim to highlight the key aspects of our reasoning so that readers can make their own assessments.
The topics we tackle are complex, and in the past we’ve noticed people interpreting our advice in ways we didn’t intend. Here are some points to bear in mind before diving in.
- We’ve been wrong before and we’ll be wrong again. While we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, we still have a lot to learn. Our positions have changed over the years, and due to the nature of the questions we take on, we’re rarely more than about 70% confident in our answers. You should try to strike a balance between what we think and your previous position, depending on the strength of the arguments and how much you already knew about the topic.
It’s extremely difficult to give universally applicable career advice. Most importantly, the option that’s best for you depends a huge amount on your skills and circumstances, and the specific details of the opportunity. So, while we might highlight path A more than path B, the best opportunities in path B will often be better than the typical opportunities in path A. Moreover, your personal circumstances could easily mean the best option for you is in path B. So, treat the specific options we mention as an aid for compiling your personal list of career ideas. Also keep in mind that many issues in career choice are a matter of balancing opposing considerations — for instance, some readers are underconfident, and need to be encouraged to aim higher, while some readers are overconfident, and need to be encouraged to make a better backup plan. If we say people put too little emphasis on X, there will usually be some readers who put too much emphasis on X, and need to hear the opposite advice.
Our advice is aimed at a particular audience: namely, people with college degrees (or on their way to getting one) who want to make having a positive impact (from an impartial perspective) a significant focus of their career (especially in the problem areas we most recommend); who mostly live in rich, English-speaking countries; and who want to take an analytical approach to their career. At any given moment, many people need to focus on taking care of their own lives, and we don’t think anyone should feel guilty if that’s the case. Certain parts of our advice, such as our list of priority paths, are especially aimed at people who are unusually high achieving. In general, the more similar you are to our core audience, the more useful the advice will be, although much of what we write is useful to anyone who wants to make a difference.
Treat increasing your impact as just one long-term goal. Working on the world’s most pressing problems is among the most worthwhile challenges we can imagine, though it can also be overwhelming. We see increasing our impact as just one important goal among several in our lives, which means we often do things that aren’t ideal from the perspective of doing good. Indeed, even if your only goal was to have an impact, to do that it’s vital to do something you can stick with for years — and this means taking care of your personal priorities as well.
Aim for steady progress rather than perfection. It can take a long time to work out how to incorporate the ideas we cover into your own plans and find the right opportunity. Because there’s always more that could be done, it can be easy to become overly perfectionist, get caught up with comparisons, and never be satisfied. When using our advice, the aim is not to find the (unknowable and unattainable) perfect option, or have more impact than people you compare yourself to. Rather, focus on making steady progress towards the best career that’s practical for you, given your constraints.
Older articles on the site are less likely to reflect our current views, so check their publication date. We aim to flag older articles when our views have changed, though we have hundreds of pages of content, so we don’t catch everything.