Case study

Peter Hurford

Peter's story

As Peter entered his final year at Denison University, he needed to figure out what he was going to do with his life. He was 22, majoring in Political Science and Psychology, and he knew that he wanted a career that would be both personally satisfying and making a big difference. He wanted to choose between charity work, law school, and software engineering.

Since he was at the start of his career, he decided that the most important priorities were learning more and building his career capital, while keeping his options open.

These considerations made law school look worse than he had previously thought: he’d be committed to one path for three years, learn a very specific set of skills, and end up with considerable debt. Law school therefore looked poor in terms of keeping his options open and learning more about what he roles he would fit.

He thought that working in a charity would have the most immediate impact, but he felt learning to program in software engineering would do a better job of building his career capital, as computer programming is a highly in-demand, transferable skill. He’d still be able to make a difference in software engineering by donating the extra income he’d earn. And if he didn’t like it, it would be easier to switch from software engineering into charity work than the other way around.

This meant that in his final year at university, he invested heavily in developing computer programming skills, which turned out to be a good fit for him. This enabled him to get a job as a software engineer at a start-up in Chicago that makes better credit models to make personal loans cheaper.

The organization he’s working for is improving the world, but it isn’t the most effective place he could be working. Instead, it allows him to build his skills in programming, business and finance. Finally, the job gives him enough free time that he’s still able to spend a significant amount of this time on charity projects, helping him to work out the best long-term direction.

Here’s how an evaluation using the framework might have looked. You can see that the software engineer option clearly wins, with working at a charity coming second and the law degree last.

FactorExploration ValueCareer CapitalRole ImpactPersonal Fit
How important is this factor?5313
Law degree1312
Work at a charity3153
Become a software engineer at a startup5533
Table 1. Peter Hurford’s options evaluation at the beginning of his career.

See all his reasoning in his own words.

I relied heavily on research done by 80,000 Hours to inform my decision – both in assisting my initial selection of high-impact options and in comparing them. The existence of 80,000 Hours moved me away from pursuing a Ph.D. program in political science toward earning to give in web development. 80,000 Hours very much impacted my decision.