80,000 Hours aims to identify particularly high-impact career paths for our readers to consider. We do this by trying to identify the most pressing global problems and the key obstacles to progress within them.
This page lists some of the paths we currently take to be particularly promising. For more context and explanation of how we came up with these options, see our full article on high-impact careers.
Table of Contents
- 1 The five key categories
- 2 Our priority paths
- 2.1 AI policy and strategy research and implementation
- 2.2 AI safety technical researcher
- 2.3 Grantmaker focused on top areas
- 2.4 Work in effective altruism organisations
- 2.5 Global priorities researcher
- 2.6 Biorisk strategy and policy
- 2.7 China specialists
- 2.8 Earning to give in quant trading
- 2.9 Decision-making psychology research and policy roles
- 3 More ideas
- 4 All our career reviews
- 5 Read more
The five key categories
Given our take on the world’s most pressing problems and the most pressing bottlenecks within these problems, we think the following five broad categories of career are a good place to start generating options.
Many of the top problem areas we focus on are mainly constrained by a need for additional research, and we’ve argued that research seems like a high-impact path in general.
Following this path usually means pursuing graduate study in a relevant area where you have good personal fit, then aiming to do research relevant to a top problem area, or else supporting other researchers who are doing this.
Research is the most difficult to enter of the five categories, but it has big potential upsides, and in some disciplines, going to graduate school gives you useful career capital for the other four categories. This is one reason why if you might be a good fit for a research career, it’s often a good path to start with (though we still usually recommend exploring other options for 1-2 years before starting a PhD unless you’re highly confident you want to spend your career doing research in a particular area).
After your PhD, it’s hard to re-enter academia if you leave, so at this stage if you’re still in doubt it’s often best to continue within academia (although this is less true in certain disciplines, like machine learning, where much of the most cutting-edge research is done in industry). Eventually, however, it may well be best to do research in non-profits, corporations, governments and think tanks instead of academia, since this can sometimes let you focus more on the most practically relevant issues and might suit you better.
You can also support the work of other researchers in a complementary role, such as a project manager, executive assistant, fundraiser or operations. We’ve argued these roles are often neglected, and therefore especially high-impact. It’s often useful to have graduate training in the relevant area before taking these roles.
Some especially relevant areas to study include (not in order and not an exhaustive list): machine learning, neuroscience, statistics, economics / international relations / security studies / political science / public policy, synthetic biology / bioengineering / genetic engineering, China studies, and decision psychology. (See more on the question of what to study.)
Government is often the most important force in addressing pressing global problems, and there are many positions that seem to offer a good network and a great deal of influence relative to how competitive they are.
In this category, we usually recommend that people aim to develop expertise in an area relevant to one of our priority problems and then take any government or policy job where you can help to improve policy relevant to that problem. Another option is to first develop policy relevant career capital (perhaps by working in a generalist policy job) and then use the skills and experience you’ve developed to work on a high-priority problem later in your career.
If you’re a U.S. citizen, working on U.S. federal policy can be particularly valuable because the U.S. federal government is so large and has so much influence over many of our priority problems. People whose career goal is to influence the U.S. federal government often switch between many different types of roles as they advance. In the U.S., many types of roles that can lead to a big impact on our priority problems fit into one of the following four categories. (We focus on the U.S. here because of its influence. We think working in policy can also be quite valuable in other countries, although the potential career paths look slightly different.)
- Working in the executive branch such as the Defense Department, the State Department, intelligence agencies, or the White House. We don’t yet have a review of executive branch careers but our article on U.S. AI policy careers also makes a more general case for the promise of working in the U.S. federal government. (See also our profile on the UK civil service) Note, though, that in the U.S. top executive branch officials are often hired from outside the traditional career civil service. So even if your goal is to eventually be a top executive branch official, the best path might include spending much of your career in other types of roles, including those we describe next (but also including other roles such as some in the private sector) .
Working as a Congressional staffer. Congressional staffers can have a lot of influence over legislation, especially if they work on a committee relevant to one of our priority problems. It’s possible to achieve seniority and influence as a Congressional staffer surprisingly quickly. Our impression, though, is that the very top staffers often have graduate degrees, sometimes including degrees from top law schools. From this path it’s also common to move into the executive branch, or to seek elected office.
Working for a political campaign. We doubt that political campaign work is the highest impact option in the long run but if the candidate you work for wins this can be a great way to get a high-impact staff position. For example, some of the top people who work on a winning presidential campaign eventually get high-impact positions in the White House or elsewhere in the executive branch. This is a high-risk strategy because it only pays off if your candidate wins and, even then, not everybody on the campaign staff will get influential jobs or jobs in the areas they care about.
Influencer positions outside of government, covering policy research and advocacy. For example, you might work at a think tank or a company interested in a relevant policy area. In this kind of job, you can develop original proposals for policy improvements and/or help to set the agenda around a specific area of policy. You can also often build expertise and connections to let you switch into the executive branch, a campaign, or other policy positions. For many areas of technical policy, especially AI policy, we’d particularly like to emphasise jobs in industry. Working at a top company in an industry can sometimes be the best career capital for policy positions relevant to that industry. In machine learning in particular, some of the best policy research is being done at industry labs, like OpenAI’s and DeepMind’s. Journalists can also be very influential but our impression is that there is not as clear of a path from working as a journalist to getting other policy jobs.
In the UK, the options are similar. One difference is that there is more separation between political careers and careers in the civil service (which is the equivalent of the executive branch). A second difference is that the U.K. Ministry of Defence has less power in government than the U.S. Defense Department does. This means that roles outside of national security are comparatively more influential in the U.K. than in the U.S. Read more in our profiles on UK civil service careers and UK party political careers. (Both are unfortunately somewhat out of date but still provide useful information).
People also often start policy careers by doing graduate studies in an area that’s relevant to the type of policy you want to work on. In the US, it’s also common to enter from law school, a master of public policy, or a career in business.
Some especially relevant areas of policy expertise to gain and work within include: technology policy; security studies; international relations, especially China-West relations; and public health with a focus on pandemics and bioterrorism.
There are many government positions that require a wide range of skill types, so there should be some options in this category for nearly everyone. For instance, think tank roles involve more analytical skills (though more applied than the pure research pathway), while more political positions require relatively good social skills. Some positions are very intense and competitive, while many government positions offer reasonable work-life balance and some don’t have very tough entry conditions.
Although we suspect many non-profits don’t have much impact, there are still many great non-profits addressing pressing global issues, and they’re sometimes constrained by a lack of talent, which can make them a high-impact option.
One major advantage of non-profits is that they can tackle the issues that get most neglected by other actors, such as addressing market failures, carrying out research that doesn’t earn academic prestige, or doing political advocacy on behalf of disempowered groups such as animals or future generations.
To focus on this category, start by making a list of non-profits that address the top problem areas, have a large scale solution to that problem, and are well run. Then, consider any job where you might have great personal fit.
The top non-profits in an area are often very difficult to enter, but you can always expand your search to consider a wider range of organisations. These roles also cover a wide variety of skills, including outreach, management, operations, research, and others.
We list some organisations to consider on our job board, which includes some top picks as well as an expanded list at the bottom. Read more about working at effective non-profits in our full career review (which is unfortunately somewhat out of date).
If you already have a strong existing skill set, is there a way to apply that to one of the key problems?
If there’s any option in which you might excel, it’s usually worth considering, both for the potential impact and especially for the career capital; excellence in one field can often give you opportunities in others.
This is even more likely if you’re part of a community that’s coordinating or working in a small field. Communities tend to need a small number of experts covering each of their main bases.
For instance, anthropology isn’t the field we’d most often recommend someone learn, but it turned out that during the Ebola crisis, anthropologists played a vital role, since they understood how burial practices might affect transmission and how to change them. So, the biorisk community needs at least a few people with anthropology expertise.
This means that if you have an existing skill set that covers a base for a community within a top area, it can be a promising option, even if it’s obscure.
However, there are limits to what can be made relevant. We struggle to think of a way to connect some subjects directly to the top problem areas, so sometimes it will be better to retrain rather than apply an existing skill.
If you have an unusual skill set, it’s hard for us to give general advice online about how best to use it. Ideally, you can speak to experts in the problem areas you want to work on about how it might be applied. For the problems we focus on, we have some rough ideas about how particular skillsets can be applied here.
We think many of our readers can excel in roles in the four areas mentioned above, and we encourage you not to rule out these categories prematurely.
If you’re able to take a job where you earn more than you need, and you think none of the categories above are a great fit for you, we’d encourage you to consider earning to give. It’s also worth considering this option if you have an unusually good fit for a very high-earning career.
By donating to the most effective organisations in an area, just about anyone can have an impact on the world’s most pressing problems.
You may be able to take this a step further and ‘earn to give’ by aiming to earn more than you would have done otherwise and to donate some of this surplus effectively.
Not everyone wants to make a dramatic career change, or is well-suited to the narrow range of jobs that have the most impact on the most pressing global problems. However, by donating, anyone can support these top priorities, ‘convert’ their labour into labour working on the most pressing issues, and have a much bigger impact.
This can allow you to pursue your preferred career, while still contributing to pressing areas that require a specialised skill set like biosecurity or global priorities research.
For those who are an especially good fit with a higher-earning career (compared to the other paths), earning to give can be their highest-impact option. For instance, people who were earning to give provided early funding for many organisations we now think are high-impact, and some of those organisations could not have existed without this funding (including us!).
We list some of the highest-earning jobs available in a separate article, and for those with quantitative skills, we especially highlight quantitative trading. However, you can earn to give in any job that pays you more than you need to live comfortably.
When earning to give, it’s also important to pick a job with good personal fit, that doesn’t cause significant harm, and that builds career capital, particularly if you might want to transition into other high-impact options later on.
Considering both income and career capital leads us to favour jobs in high-performing organisations where you can develop skills that are useful in one of the other four categories, such as management or operations. Tech startups with 20-100 employees are often a good place to consider. Management consulting is another option.
Read more about earning to give.
Our priority paths
Below are some more specific options that are among the most promising paths we know. Many of them are difficult to enter – you may need to start by investing in your skills for several years, and there may be relatively few positions available. However, if you have potential to excel in any of these paths, we encourage you to seriously consider it, as it may be one of your highest-impact options.
As we’ve argued, the next few decades might see the development of powerful machine learning algorithms with the potential to transform society. This could have both huge upsides and downsides, including the possibility of catastrophic risks.
To manage these risks, one need is technical research into the design of safe AI systems (including the “alignment problem”), which we cover later. But in addition to the technical problems, there are many other important questions to address. These can be roughly categorised into the three key challenges of transformative AI strategy:
- Ensuring broad sharing of the benefits from developing powerful AI systems, as opposed to letting AI’s development harm humanity or unduly concentrate power.
- Avoiding exacerbating military competition or conflict caused by increasingly powerful AI systems.
- Ensuring that the groups that develop AI are working together to develop and implement safety features.
To overcome these challenges, we need a community of experts who understand the intersection of modern AI systems and policy, and work together to mitigate long-term risks and ensure humanity reaps the benefits of advanced AI. These experts would broadly carry out two overlapping activities: (i) research – to develop strategy and policy proposals, and (ii) implementation – working together to put policy into practice.
Ultimately, we see these issues as equally important as the technical ones, but currently they are more neglected. Many of the top academic centres and AI companies have started to hire researchers working on technical AI safety, and there’s perhaps a community of 20-50 full-time researchers focused on the issue. However, there are only a handful of researchers focused on strategic issues or working in AI policy with a long-term perspective.
Note that there is already a significant amount of work being done on nearer-term issues in AI policy, such as the regulation of self-driving cars. What’s neglected is work on issues that are likely to arise as AI systems become substantially more powerful than those in existence today — so-called “transformative AI” — such as the three non-technical challenges outlined above.
Some examples of top jobs to work towards long-term in this path include the following, which fit a variety of skill types:
- Work at top AI labs, such as DeepMind or OpenAI, especially in relevant policy team positions or other influential roles.
- Become a researcher at a think tank that works on relevant issues, especially the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown, which is a new think tank that analyses the security implications of emerging technology and is currently focused on artificial intelligence.
- In the US government, develop expertise in a relevant issue, then take a position somewhere like the Office of Science and Technology Policy, National Security Council staff, Office of the Secretary of Defence, Joint AI Research Center, or the US Government’s defence and intelligence research funding agencies (DARPA and IARPA). The US government is probably the most important nation in shaping AI development right now, but similar roles in other countries can also be useful.
- In academia, become a researcher at one of the institutes focused on long-term AI policy, especially the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, which already has several researchers working on these issues at the Center for the Governance of AI.
- In party politics, aim to get an influential position, especially as an advisor with a focus on emerging technology policy (e.g. start as a staffer in Congress).
How to enter
In the first few years of this path, you’d focus on learning more about the issues and how government works, as well as meeting key people in the field, and doing research, rather than pushing for a specific proposal. AI policy and strategy is a deeply complicated area, and it’s easy to make things worse by accident (e.g. see the Unilateralist’s Curse).
Some common early career steps include:
- Relevant graduate study. Some especially useful fields include international relations, strategic studies, machine learning, economics, law, public policy, and political science. Our top recommendation right now is machine learning if you can get into a top 10 school in computer science. Otherwise, our top recommendation tends to be: i) law school if you can get into Yale or Harvard ii) international relations if you want to focus on research and iii) strategic studies if you want to focus on implementation. However, the best choice for you will also depend heavily on your personal fit and the particular schools you get into.
Working at a top AI company, especially DeepMind and OpenAI.
- Any general entry-level government and policy positions (as listed earlier), which let you gain expertise and connections, such as think tank internships, being a researcher or staffer for a politician, joining a campaign, and government leadership schemes.
This field is at a very early stage of development, which creates multiple challenges. For one, the key questions have not been formalised, which creates a need for “disentanglement research” to enable other researchers to get traction. For another, there is a lack of mentors and positions, which can make it hard for people to break into the area.
Until recently, it’s been very hard to enter this path as a researcher unless you’re able to become one of the top approximately 30 people in the field relatively quickly. While mentors and open positions are still scarce, some top organisations have recently recruited junior and mid-career staff to serve as research assistants, analysts, and fellows. Our guess is that obtaining a research position will remain very competitive but positions will continue to gradually open up. On the other hand, the field is still small enough for top researchers to make an especially big contribution by doing field-founding research.
If you’re not able to land a research position now, then you can either (i) continue to build up expertise and contribute to research when the field is more developed, or (ii) focus more on the policy positions, which could absorb hundreds of people.
Most of the first steps on this path also offer widely useful career capital. For instance, depending on the subarea you start in, you could often switch into other areas of policy, the application of AI to other social problems, operations, or earning to give. So, the risks of starting down this path if you may want to switch later are not too high.
Since this is one of our top priority paths, we have a specialist advisor, Niel Bowerman, who focuses on finding and helping people who want to enter it. He is especially focused on roles aimed at improving US AI public policy. If you would like advice, get in touch here.
Could this be a good fit for you?
One key question is whether you have a reasonable chance of getting some of the top jobs listed earlier.
The government and political positions require people with a well-rounded skill set, the ability to meet lots of people and maintain relationships, and the patience to work with a slow-moving bureaucracy. It’s also ideal if you’re a US citizen that might be able to get security clearance, and don’t have an unconventional past that could create problems if you choose to work in politically sensitive roles.
The more research-focused positions would typically require the ability to get into a top 10 grad school in a relevant area and deep interest in the issues. For instance, when you read about the issues, do you get ideas for new approaches to them? Read more about predicting fit in research.
Turning to other factors, you should only enter this path if you’re convinced of the importance of long-term AI safety. This path also requires making controversial decisions under huge uncertainty, so it’s important to have excellent judgement, caution and a willingness to work with others, or it would be easy to have an unintended negative impact. This is hard to judge, but you can get some information early on by seeing how well you’re able to work with others in the field.
However, if you can succeed in this area, then you have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to what might well be the most important issue of the next century.
Key further reading
- Our article on the case for working on U.S. AI policy
- Our profile on AI safety
- U.S. AI policy introductory reading list
- See a list of open positions
As we’ve argued, the next few decades might see the development of powerful machine learning algorithms with the potential to transform society. This could have both huge upsides and downsides, including the possibility of existential risks.
Besides strategy and policy work discussed above, another key way to limit these risks is research into the technical challenges raised by powerful AI systems, such as the alignment problem. In short, how do we design powerful AI systems so they’ll do what we want, and not have unintended consequences?
This field of research has started to take off, and there are now major academic centres and AI labs where you can work on these issues, such as MILA in Montreal, FHI at Oxford, CHAI at Berkeley, DeepMind in London and OpenAI in San Francisco. We’ve advised over 100 people on this path, with several already working at the above institutions. The Machine Intelligence Research Institute, in Berkeley, has been working in this area for a long time and has an unconventional perspective and research agenda relative to the other labs.
There is plenty of funding available for talented researchers, including academic grants, and philanthropic donations from major grantmakers like the Open Philanthropy Project. It’s also possible to get funding for your PhD programme. The main need of the field is more people capable of using this funding to carry out the research.
In this path, the aim is to get a position at one of the top AI safety research centres, either in industry, nonprofits or academia, and then try to work on the most pressing questions, with the eventual aim of becoming a research lead overseeing safety research.
Broadly, AI safety technical positions can be divided into (i) research and (ii) engineering. Researchers direct the research programme. Engineers create the systems and do the analysis needed to carry out the research. Although engineers have less influence over the high-level research goals, it can still be important that engineers are concerned about safety. This concern means they’ll better understand the ultimate goals of the research (and so prioritise better), be more motivated, shift the culture towards safety, and use the career capital they gain to benefit other safety projects in the future. This means that engineering can be a good alternative for those who don’t want to be a research scientist.
It can also be useful to have people who understand and are concerned by AI safety in AI research teams that aren’t directly focused on AI safety to help promote concern for safety in general, so this is another backup option. This is especially true if you can end up in a management position with some influence over the organisation’s priorities.
How to enter
The first step on this path is usually to pursue a PhD in machine learning at a good school. It’s possible to enter without a PhD, but it’s close to a requirement in research roles at the academic centres and DeepMind, which represent a large fraction of the best positions. A PhD in machine learning also opens up options in AI policy, applied AI and earning to give, so this path has good backup options.
However, if you want to pursue engineering over research, then the PhD is not necessary. Instead, you can do a masters programme or train up in industry.
It’s also possible to enter this path from neuroscience, especially computational neuroscience, so if you already have a background in that area you may not have to return to study. Recently, opportunities have also opened up for social scientists to contribute to AI safety (we plan to cover this in future work).
Could this be a good fit for you?
- Might you have a shot of getting into a top 5 graduate school in machine learning? This is a reasonable proxy for whether you can get a job at a top AI research centre, though it’s not a requirement. Needless to say these places are very academically demanding.
- Are you convinced of the importance of long-term AI safety?
- Are you a software or machine learning engineer who’s been able to get jobs at FAANG and other competitive companies? You may be able to train to enter a research position, or otherwise take an engineering position.
- Might you have a shot at making a contribution to one of the relevant research questions? For instance, are you highly interested in the topic, sometimes have ideas for questions to look into, and can’t resist pursuing them? Read more about how to tell if you’re a good fit for working in research.
The Open Philanthropy Project takes an effective altruism approach to advising philanthropists on where to give. It likely has over $10bn of committed funds from Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, and is aiming to advise other philanthropists. There are other “angel” donors in the community who could give in the $1-$10m range per year, but aren’t at their maximum level of giving. And we know a number of other billionaires who are interested in effective altruism and might want to start new foundations.
One reason why these donors don’t give more is a lack of concrete “shovel-ready” opportunities. This is partly due to a lack of qualified leaders able to run projects in the top problem areas (especially to found nonprofits working on research, policy and community building). But another reason is a lack of grantmakers able to vet these opportunities or generate new projects themselves. A randomly chosen new project in this area likely has little expected impact — since there’s some chance it helps and some chance it makes the situation worse — so it’s vital to have grantmakers able to distinguish good projects from the bad.
The skill of grantmaking involves being able to survey the opportunities available in an area, and come to reasonable judgements about their likelihood of success, and probable impact if they do succeed. Grantmakers also need to build a good network, both so they can identify opportunities early, and identify groups with good judgement and the right intentions.
In addition, grantmakers need to get into a position where they’re trusted by the major funders, and this requires having some kind of relevant track record.
All of this makes it incredibly difficult to become a grantmaker, especially early in your career. The Open Philanthropy Project’s last hiring round for research analysts had hundreds of applicants, only twelve of whom got in-person trials, of which 5 received job offers.
However, the high stakes involved mean that if you are able to get into one of these positions, then you can have a huge impact. A small scale grantmaker might advise on where several million dollars of donations are given each year. Meanwhile, a grantmaker at a large foundation — typically called a “programme officer” or “programme director” — might oversee $5-$40m of grants per year.
Given the current situation, it’s likely that a significant fraction of the money a grantmaker oversees wouldn’t have been donated otherwise for at least several years, so they get good projects started sooner and may increase the total amount of giving by creating capacity before potential donors lose interest.
What’s more, by having more talented grantmakers, the money can be donated more effectively. If you can improve the effectiveness of $10m per year to a top problem area by 10%, that’s equivalent to donating about $1m yourself. This often seems achievable because the grantmakers have significant influence over where the funds go and there’s a lot of potential to do more detailed research than what currently exists.
Overall, we think top grantmakers working in effective altruism can create value equal to millions or even tens of millions of dollars per year in donations to top problem areas, making it one of the highest-impact positions right now.
Finally, these positions offer good career capital because you’ll make lots of important connections within the top problem areas. This creates opportunities to exit into direct work. Another exit option is government and policy. Or you could switch into operations or management, and have an impact by enabling other grantmakers to be more effective.
One related path is to work as a grantmaker in a foundation that doesn’t explicitly identify with effective altruism, in order to help bring in an effective altruism perspective. The advantage of this path is that it might be easier to add value. However, the downside is that most foundations are not willing to change their focus areas, and we think choice of focus area is the most important decision. Existing foundations also often require significant experience in the area, and sometimes it’s not possible to work from junior positions up to programme officer.
Another related path is philanthropic advising. One advantage of this path is that you can pursue it part-time to build a track record. This also means you could combine it with earning to give and donating your own money, or with advocacy positions that might let you meet potential philanthropists. We’ve seen several people give informal advice to philanthropists, or be given regranting funds to donate on their behalf.
A third related path is to work at a government agency that funds relevant research, such as IARPA, DARPA and NIH. Grantmakers in these agencies often oversee even larger pools of funding, but you’ll face more restrictions on where it can go. They also often require a PhD.
How to enter
One entry route is to take a junior position at one of these foundations (e.g. research analyst), then work your way up to being a grantmaker. We think the best place to work if you’re taking this path is the Open Philanthropy Project (disclaimer: we’ve received grants from them). Founders Pledge also has a philanthropic advising team, though it has less of a track record and is less focused on long-term focused problem areas. You could also consider research positions at other effective altruism organisations — wherever will let you build a track record of this kind of research (e.g. the Future of Humanity Institute).
Another key step is to build up a track record of grant making. You could start by writing up your thoughts about where to give your own money on the effective altruism forum. From there, it might be possible to start doing part-time philanthropic advice, and then work up to joining a foundation or having a regranting pool (funds given to you by another donor to allocate).
A third option is to pursue work in the problem area where you want to make grants, perhaps in nonprofits, policy or research, in order to build up expertise and connections in the area. This is the usual route into grantmaking roles. For instance, the Open Philanthropy Project hired Lewis Bollard to work on factory farming grants after he was Policy Advisor & International Liaison to the CEO at The Humane Society of the United States, one of the leading organisations in the area.
Could this be a good fit for you?
- This position requires a well-rounded skill set. You need to be analytical, but also able to meet and build relationships with lots of people in your problem area of focus.
- Like AI policy, it requires excellent judgement.
- Some indications of potential: Do you sometimes have ideas for grants others haven’t thought of, or only came to support later? Do you think you could persuade a major funder of a new donation opportunity? Can you clearly explain the reasons you hold particular views, and their biggest weaknesses? Could you develop expertise and strong relationships with the most important actors in a top problem area? Could you go to graduate school in a relevant area at a top 20 school? (This isn’t needed, but is an indication of analytical ability.)
- Note that working as support or research staff for an effective grantmaker is also high-impact, so that’s a good backup option.
We think building the effective altruism community is a promising way to build capacity to address pressing global problems in the future. This is because it seems possible to grow a great deal and contains people who are willing to switch area to work on whichever issues turn out to be most urgent in the future, so is robust to changes in priorities.
We realise this seems self-promotional, since we ourselves run an effective altruism organisation. However, if we didn’t recommend what we ourselves do, then we’d be contradicting ourselves. We also wouldn’t want everyone to work on this area, since then we’d only build a community and never do anything. But we think recommending it as one path among about ten makes sense.
A key way to contribute to building the effective altruism community is to take a job at one of the organisations in the community — see a list of organisations. Many of these organisations have a solid track record, are growing and have significant funding, so a big bottleneck is finding staff who are a good fit.
An additional staff member can often grow the community by several additional people each year, achieving a multiplier on their effort. And these organisations also do other useful work, such as research, fundraising and providing community infrastructure.
These roles let you develop expertise in effective altruism, top global problem areas and running startup nonprofits. They put you at the heart of the effective altruism movement and long-term future communities, letting you build a great network there. Many of the organisations also put a lot of emphasis on personal development.
However, it’s also important to bear in mind that these roles require a specific type of person: someone who both has strong skills that are needed by the organisations (which often require a style of research and reasoning which isn’t common elsewhere), a good fit with the specific team, and deep engagement in effective altruism. Many of the organisations are also management constrained, which raises the bar for getting hired — your application may need to demonstrate a high likelihood of excelling with relatively little supervision almost immediately.
This means if you are a good fit for one of these roles, then you probably won’t be significantly replaceable, and taking the role can be very high-impact.
However, it also means that most people are not a good fit for most of these roles. This means that unless you have strong evidence otherwise, you shouldn’t expect to have more than a couple of percent chance of landing a specific job. Given that there are usually not many jobs available within these organisations at a given time, you shouldn’t have ‘work at EA orgs’ as the only category of jobs you pursue. You should also apply to another category, such as policy positions or something to build career capital.
There are a variety of roles available, broadly categorised into the following:
- Management, operations and administration – e.g. hiring staff, setting strategy, creating internal processes, setting budgets.
- Research and advice – e.g. developing the ideas of effective altruism, writing and talking about them.
- Outreach, marketing and community – e.g. running social media accounts, content marketing, running promotional accounts, visual design, moderating forums, market research, responding to the media, helping people in the community.
- Systems and engineering – e.g. web engineering, data capture and analysis, web design, creating internal tools.
We’d like to especially highlight roles in operations management, since there’s a significant need for them by organisations in the community, but we often find that these roles get neglected, perhaps because they’re seen as less glamorous. Another common assumption is that these roles are easier to enter, which makes them more replaceable. Our view, however, is that operations management jobs are both essential and difficult, and require people to make that the main focus of their career. Read more in our full article about operations management.
How to enter
To enter these roles, you can apply directly to the organisations. Organisations often hire people who are already involved in the community, because commitment to and knowledge of the community are a requirement for many jobs and because it’s easier to evaluate a candidate if you already know their work. This means that if you want to aim towards these positions, the most important step is to start meeting people in the community, and doing small projects to build your reputation (e.g. writing on the forum, volunteering at EA Global, starting a local group, or doing freelance consulting for an organisation). We list more advice in our full profile.
As mentioned, because these positions are scarce, almost nobody can count on getting one. This means you should make sure you’re acquiring career capital that would be relevant to other paths (e.g. a full-time job or graduate school) at the same time as you’re building your reputation within effective altruism. It’s usually not a good idea to commit to this path or build plans that depend on getting one of these jobs before you’ve gotten an offer.
If you want to get a job that puts you in a better position to enter these roles in the future, then do something that lets you develop a concrete skill that’s relevant to one of the role types listed above. Well-run tech startups with 10-100 people are often a good place to learn these skills in a similar context. Alternatively, some effective altruism organisations frequently hire people from our other priority paths. Excelling in any of those paths is a great way to better position yourself for a job at an effective altruism organisation and could be equally or more impactful on its own.
Could this be a good fit for you?
Whether you might be a good fit in part depends on the type of role you’re going for. However, there are some common characteristics the organisations typically look for:
- A track record that demonstrates intelligence and an ability to work hard.
- Evidence of deep interest in effective altruism — for some roles you need to be happy to talk about it much of the day. This breaks down into a focus on social impact and a scientific mindset, as well as knowledge of the community.
- Flexibility and independence – the organisations are relatively small, so staff need to be happy to work on lots of different projects with less structure.
- It’s not a requirement, but it seems to be becoming difficult to get most of these jobs without several years of experience in a relevant skill.
- Our problem profile on why it’s valuable to promote effective altruism
- Our career review: working at effective altruism organisations (though some of this content is now out-of-date compared to what’s written here).
- See a list of open positions
We’ve argued that one of the most important priorities is working out what the priorities should be. There’s a huge amount that’s not known about how to do the most good, and although this is one of the most important questions someone would ask, it has received little systematic study.
The study of which actions do the most good is especially neglected if you take a long-term perspective, in which what most matters is the effects of our actions on future generations. This position has only been recently explored, and we know little about its practical implications. Given this, we could easily see our current perspective on global priorities shifting given more research, so these questions have practical significance.
The study of how to help others is also especially neglected from a high-level perspective. People have done significant work on questions like “how can we reduce climate change”, but much less on the question “how pressing is climate change compared to health?” and “what methods should we use to make that comparison?”. It’s these high-level questions we especially want to see addressed.
We call the study of high-level questions about how best to help others “global priorities research”. It’s primarily a combination of moral philosophy and economics, but it also draws on decision theory, decision-making psychology, moral psychology, and a wide variety of other disciplines, especially those concerning technology and public policy. You can see a research agenda produced by the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford.
We’d like to see global priorities research turned into a flourishing field, both within and outside of academia.
To make this happen, perhaps the biggest need right now is to find more researchers able to make progress on the key questions of the field. There is already enough funding available to hire more people if they could demonstrate potential in the area (though there’s a greater need for funding than with AI safety). Demonstrating potential is hard, especially because the field is even more nascent than AI safety, resulting in a lack of mentorship. However, if you are able to enter, then it’s extremely high-impact — you might help define a whole new discipline.
Another bottleneck to progress on global priorities research might be operations staff, as discussed earlier, so that’s another option to consider if you want to work on this issue.
You can broadly pursue this path either in academia or nonprofits.
We think building this field within academia is a vital goal, because if it becomes accepted there, then it will attract the attention of hundreds of other researchers.
The only major academic centre currently focused on this research is the
Global Priorities Institute at Oxford (GPI), so if you want to pursue this path as an academic, that’s one of the top places to work. One problem is that GPI only has a couple of open positions, and you’d usually need to have a top academic background in philosophy or economics to get one of them (e.g. if you did well in a PhD from a top 10 school in your subject that’s a good sign). Positions are especially competitive in philosophy.
A new organisation called the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research offers scholarships and fellowships to students in global priorities research as well as research grants for established scholars. We expect you’ll need a top background in philosophy or economics to get one of these (e.g. an undergrad who could get into a top 10 philosophy PhD programme or a top 10-20 economics PhD programme; a grad student attending one of those programmes; or a postdoc or academic who graduated from – or teaches at – one of those programmes).
That said, we expect that other centres will be established over the coming years. In the meantime, you could try to build expertise. For instance, doing an economics PhD (and postdoc) opens up lots of other options, so is a reasonable path to pursue even if you’re not sure that global priorities research is a good fit for you. It’s also important to have academics doing global priorities research (and potentially collaborating with GPI) at other universities.
One downside of academia, however, is that you need to work on topics that are publishable, and these are often not those that are most relevant to real decisions. This means it’s also important to have researchers working elsewhere on more practical questions.
We think the leading applied centre working on this research is the Open Philanthropy Project. One other advantage of working there is that your findings will directly feed into how billions of dollars are spent (disclaimer: we have received grants from them). However, you can also pursue this research at other effective altruism organisations. 80,000 Hours, for instance, does a form of applied global priorities research focused on career strategy.
How to enter?
The best entry route to the academic end of the field is to study a PhD in economics or philosophy. This is both because PhDs provide useful training and because they are required for most academic positions. Currently, economics is in shorter supply than philosophy, and also gives you better back-up options, so is preferable if you have the choice.
It’s also possible to enter from other disciplines. A number of people in the field have backgrounds in maths, computer science and physics. Psychology is perhaps the next most relevant subject, especially the areas around decision-making psychology and moral psychology. The field also crosses into AI and emerging technology strategy, so the options we listed in the earlier sections are also relevant, as well as knowledge of relevant areas of science. Finally, as the field develops there will be more demand for people with a policy focus, who might have studied political science, international relations, or security studies. In general, this is a position where wide general knowledge is more useful than most.
With the non-academic positions, a PhD isn’t necessary, but you do ideally need to find a way to demonstrate potential in this kind of research. It’s useful to develop skills in clear writing and basic quantitative analysis. Sometimes people enter the non-academic roles directly from undergrad if they’re sufficiently talented.
Could this be a good fit for you?
- Might you be able to get into a PhD in economics or philosophy at a top 10 school? (This isn’t to say this qualification is required, it’s just that if you would be able to succeed in such a path, it’s an indicator of ability.)
- Do you have excellent judgement? By this we mean, can you take on messy, ill-defined questions, and come up with reasonable assessments about them? This is not required in all roles, but it is especially useful right now given the nascent nature of the field and nature of the questions that are ultimately being addressed.
- Do you have general knowledge or an interest in a wide range of academic disciplines?
- Might you have a shot at making a contribution to one of the relevant research questions? For instance, are you highly interested in the topic, and sometimes have ideas for questions to look into? Are you able to work independently for many days at a time? Are you able to stick with or lead a research project over many years? Read more about predicting success in research.
Key further reading
- Our profile on global priorities research (update pending), which also contains a list of recommended organisations and some relevant podcasts.
- Our career review of academic research
- See a list of open positions
- GPI’s research agenda
We’ve argued that pandemics pose a global catastrophic risk, and this risk could increase as advances in bioengineering make it possible to create engineered pandemics that are more deadly than naturally occurring ones.
There is already a significant community working on pandemic prevention, and there are many ways to contribute to this field. However, (while this is starting to change) most of the existing work is focused on conventional, naturally-caused pandemics, while we think what’s most important are catastrophic risks, especially those that might end civilisation. These are much more likely to be deliberately caused, so involve issues more naturally covered by the defence & bioterrorism community than public health, and involve a different set of interventions. What’s more, we’ve estimated that most of the past funding for work on bioterrorism has focused on risks like anthrax, which can’t spread from person-to-person, and so don’t pose a catastrophic risk.
This means that despite significant existing work on pandemic prevention, “global catastrophic biological risks” remain highly neglected.
We rate biorisk as a less pressing issue than AI safety, mainly because we think biorisks are less likely to be existential, and AI seems more likely to play a key role in shaping the long-term future in other ways. However, it can easily be your top option if you have a comparative advantage in this path (e.g. a background in medicine).
To mitigate these risks, what’s most needed at a high-level is people able to develop strategy and policy proposals, and work with governments to aid their implementation. We call this path “biorisk strategy and policy research”. We can further divide this into an academic and a government path, as follows.
The main line of defence against these risks is government, but there are currently few people concerned with existential risks working there. So, we think it’s valuable to build up a community of experts in relevant areas of national government and intergovernmental organisations, such as the US Centers for Disease Control, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate and the World Health Organization. You could also work in relevant think tanks, such as the Center for Health Security or nonprofits like the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These experts can help to implement better policies when they’re known, and they can also help to improve policy proposals in the meantime. We list key organisations in our profile (which is unfortunately out of date).
Another option is to work in academia. This involves developing a relevant area of expertise, such as synthetic biology, genetics, public health, epidemiology, international relations, security studies and political science. Note that it’s possible, and at times beneficial, to start by studying a quantitative subject (sometimes even to graduate level), and then switch into biology later. Quantitative skills are in-demand in biology and give you better back-up options.
Once you’ve completed training, you could: do research on directly useful technical questions, such as how to create broad-spectrum diagnostics or rapidly deploy vaccines; do research on strategic questions, such as how dangerous technologies should be controlled; or you could advise policy-makers and other groups on the issues. A top research centre to aim to work at is the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.
As with AI strategy, global catastrophic biological risk is still a nascent field. This again can make it hard to contribute, since we don’t yet know which research questions are most important, and there is often a shortage of mentorship.
This means that there’s an especially pressing need for more “field building” or “disentanglement” research, with the aim of defining the field. If you might be able to do this kind of work, then your contribution is especially valuable since you can unlock the efforts of other researchers. The main home for most of this kind of research with a long-term focus right now is the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. There’s also a significant need for mentors who can help the next generation enter.
If you’re not able to contribute to the strategic research right now, then you can (i) try to identify more straightforward research questions that are relevant, (ii) work in more conventional biorisk organisations to build up expertise, (iii) focus on policy positions with the aim of building a community and expertise, (iv) become an expert on a relevant area of biology.
One advantage of biorisk is that many of the top positions seem somewhat less competitive than in AI technical safety work, because they don’t require world-class quantitative skills.
Besides pandemic risks, we’re also interested in how to safely manage the introduction of other potentially transformative discoveries in biology, such as genetic engineering, which could be used to fundamentally alter human characteristics and values, or anti-ageing research. We see these issues as somewhat less pressing and neglected than engineered pandemics, but they provide another reason to develop expertise in these kinds of areas.
Often the way to enter this path is to pursue relevant graduate studies (such as in the subjects listed above) because this takes you along the academic path, and is also helpful in the policy path, where many positions require graduate study. Alternatively, you can try to directly enter relevant jobs in government, international organisations and nonprofits, and build expertise on the job.
The main backup option from this path depends on what expertise you have, but one direction is other options in policy — it’s usually possible to switch your focus within a policy career. You could also work on adjacent research questions, such as those relevant to global health.
Unfortunately, overall the backup options often seem a little worse than for AI safety, because qualifications in biology don’t open up as many options (many more people get biology PhDs than there are academic positions, leading to a high rate of drop out). This is another reason why we list this path lower. That said, you could still exit into the biotechnology or health industries to earn to give, and ultimately a wide range of other paths, such as nonprofit careers.
Could this be a good fit for you?
- Are you deeply convinced of the importance of reducing extinction risks?
- Compared to similar roles in AI safety, this field doesn’t require equally strong quantitative skills.
- In research, might you be capable of getting a PhD from a top 30 school in one of these areas? This isn’t required but is a good indicator. Read more about predicting success in research.
- If focused on field building research, can you take on messy, ill-defined questions, and come up with reasonable assessments about them?
- Are you able to be discreet about sensitive information concerning biodefence?
- If focused on policy, might you be capable of getting and being satisfied in a relevant position in government? In policy, it’s useful to have relatively stronger social skills, such as being happy to speak to people all day, and being able to maintain a network. Policy careers also require patience to work with large bureaucracies and sometimes public scrutiny.
- Do you already have experience in a relevant area of biology?
- Our profile on biorisk (unfortunately out of date with an update in progress), which includes a list of recommended organisations and research centres, and relevant podcasts, which are linked to from the profile.
China will play a role in solving many of the biggest challenges of the next century, including emerging technologies and global catastrophic risks, and China is one of the most influential countries in AI development and deployment.
However, it often seems like there’s a lack of understanding and coordination between China and the West. For instance, even today, 3 times as many Americans study French as study Chinese. For this reason, we’d like to see more people (both Chinese and non-Chinese) develop a deep understanding of the intersection of effective altruism and China, and help to coordinate between the two countries.
In particular, we want people to learn about the aspects of China most relevant to our top problem areas, which means topics like artificial intelligence, international relations, pandemic response, bioengineering, political science, and so on. China is also crucial in improving farm animal welfare, though we currently rate this as a lower priority.
More concretely, this could mean options like:
- Graduate study in a relevant area, such as machine learning or synthetic biology; economics, international relations, or security studies with a focus on China or emerging technology; or Chinese language, history and politics.
- If possible, a prestigious China-based fellowship, such as the Schwarzman Scholarship programme or Yenching Scholars, is a great option.
- Research at a think tank or academic institute focused on these topics.
- Work at a Chinese technology company.
- If you are a foreigner, learn Chinese in China, or find another option that lets you live there.
- If you are Chinese, work at an international effective altruism organisation.
- Work at an influential philanthropic foundation.
Once you have this expertise, you could aim to contribute to AI and biorisk strategy & policy questions that involve China. You could also advise and assist international organisations that want to coordinate with Chinese organisations. You might also directly work for Chinese organisations that are concerned with these problem areas.
Note that we’re not in favour of promoting effective altruism in China, working in the government, or attempting to fundraise from Chinese philanthropists. This could easily backfire if the message was poorly framed or if its intent was misperceived in China.
Rather, the aim of this path is to learn more about China, and then aim to improve cooperation between international and Chinese groups. If you are considering doing outreach in China, get in touch and we can introduce you to people who can help you navigate the downsides.
To help with this priority path, we work with a part-time advisor who’s a specialist in China. You can get help from them here.
Could this be a good fit for you?
- Do you already have knowledge of China? If not, could you see yourself becoming interested in Chinese politics, economy, culture, and so on, and also being involved in the effective altruism community?
- Compared to other options on the list, this path requires more humanities skills (e.g. understanding international relations and cross-cultural differences) rather than scientific skill set.
- Otherwise the skill set required is fairly similar to the AI strategy and policy path earlier.
If you can find a job with good fit, it usually seems possible to make a larger contribution to the problem areas we highlight by working directly in them rather than earning to give — so in this sense they’re more “talent constrained” than “funding constrained”.
However, additional funding is still useful, so earning to give is still a high-impact option. Earning to give can also be your top option if you have fit with an unusually well-paid career. One path we’ve seen work especially well is quant trading in hedge funds and proprietary firms.
Quant trading means using algorithms to trade the financial markets for profit. We think, for the most part, that the direct impact of the work is likely neutral. But it might be the highest-paid career path out there.
Compensation starts around $100k-$300k per year, and can reach $1m per year within a couple of years at the best firms, and eventually over $10m per year if you make partner. We estimate that if you can enter the path at a good firm, the expected earnings are around $1m per year over a career. This is similar to being a tech startup founder, except that for startup founders who make it into a top accelerator, the deal is more like a 10% chance of getting $30m in 3-10 years, so the startup option involves much more risk and a major delay.
This means that the earnings in quant trading can enable huge donations to effective charities relatively quickly. We know several people in this path, such as Sam, who donated six figures within their first couple of years of work. This is enough to set you up as an “angel donor” in the community — you can try to identify promising new projects that larger donors can later scale up.
Many people also find the work surprisingly engaging. Creating a winning strategy is an intellectual challenge, but unlike academia, you get to work closely with a team and receive rapid feedback on how you’re performing. These firms often have “geeky” cultures, making them quite unlike the finance stereotype. The hours are often a reasonable 45-60h per week, rather than the 60-80h reported in entry-level investment banking.
These jobs are prestigious due to their earnings, and you can learn useful technical skills, as well as transferable skills like teamwork. The main downside on career capital is that these positions do not especially help you make connections, since you’ll mainly only work with others in your firm.
The other main downside of these jobs is that they’re highly competitive. There are more comments on fit below.
You may also find it surprisingly hard to set aside the time to figure out where is best to give, especially if you’re hoping to provide funding to early projects, working in unusual areas.
Role types and top firms
There are two broad pathways:
- Traders – who develop and oversee the strategies.
- Engineers – who create the systems to collect data, implement trades, and track performance.
It varies from firm to firm, but typically the engineers get paid less, but with more stability in their earnings.
It’s also important to know that the salaries can vary significantly by firm. There are perhaps only a couple of firms where it’s possible to progress to seven figures relatively quickly without a graduate degree, including Jane Street, Hudson River Trading, DE Shaw, and maybe several others. The pay is often significantly less in other firms, though still often several hundred thousand dollars per year. Other firms also offer earnings on this level, but require a PhD.
In addition, note that quant trading positions are very different from “quant” jobs at other financial companies, such as investment banks or non-quantitative investment firms. Usually “quants” are “middle office” staff who provide analysis to the “front office” staff who oversee the key decisions. This makes them more stable but significantly lower paid, and sometimes less prestigious. Such firms also typically have a less geek-friendly culture.
Could this be a good fit for you?
- One indication of potential is that you’d be capable of finishing in the top half of the class at a top 30 school in mathematics, theoretical physics or computer science at undergraduate level.
- Another option is to enter based on your programming skills as an engineer. This might be possible if you’re someone who would be able to get a top software engineering job at a tech company such as Google.
- Besides intelligence, the firms also look for good judgement and rapid decision-making skills. One indication of these is that you like playing strategy games or poker.
- Would you be capable of reliably giving a large fraction of your income to charity?
- Compared to academia, you need to have relatively better communication and teamwork skills, since you’ll work closely with your colleagues hour-by-hour in potentially stressful situations.
Governments and other important institutions frequently have to make complex, high-stakes decisions based on the judgement calls of just a handful of people. There’s reason to believe that human judgements can be flawed in a number of ways, but can be substantially improved using more systematic processes and techniques. Improving the quality of decision-making in important institutions could improve our ability to solve almost all other problems.
We’d like to help form a new community of researchers and practitioners who develop and implement these techniques. We’re especially keen to help people who want to work on the areas of policy most relevant to global catastrophic risks, such as nuclear security, AI, and biorisk. Note that we’re not talking about the popular “nudge” work in behavioural sciences, which is focused on making small improvements to personal behaviours. Rather, we’re interested in neglected work relevant to high-stakes decisions like whether to go to war, such as Tetlock’s research into forecasting.
This path divides into two main options: (i) developing better decision-making techniques (ii) getting them applied in important organisations, especially those relevant to catastrophic risks.
To enter, the first step is to gain relevant expertise. This is most naturally done by getting a PhD in behavioural or decision science. However, you could also take a more practical route by starting your career in government and policy, and learning about the science on the side.
Once you have the expertise, you can either try to make progress on key research questions in the field, or work with an important organisation to improve their processes. We can introduce you to people working on this.
As with global priorities research, this is a nascent field that could become much bigger, and now is an exciting time to enter.
Could this be a good fit for you?
- Might you be able to get a job in a relevant area of government? Do you know how to influence choices within a bureaucracy?
- On the research path, might you be able to get into a psychology PhD at a top 30 school?
- Might you have a shot at making a contribution to one of the relevant research questions? For instance, are you highly interested in the topic, and sometimes have ideas for questions to look into? Are you able to work independently for many days at a time? Are you able to stick with or lead a research project over many years? Read more about predicting success in research.
Remember: it is difficult to predict your potential for a path, and your gut assessment is unlikely to be accurate. To get an accurate read, try small experiments, look objectively at your track record, and ask experts to assess your chances. Beware of underconfidence — if a path strikes you as daunting, don’t rule it out for that reason alone.
Below we’ve compiled two additional lists of career paths that that we think could be high-impact for some people to pursue.
However, we don’t want to recommend these paths as widely as we do our priority paths. This is either because we haven’t researched them much and so aren’t sure how promising they are — as in the first list — or because there isn’t much room for many people to enter the paths — as in the second.
There are, of course, also many pressing global issues that these lists do not touch on, and likely many ways to improve the world that we haven’t thought of. We encourage you to come up with and explore additional options that might be the best fit for you.
We think these options have a chance of being as impactful as our priority paths. However, we’ve spent much less time investigating them, so we’re very unsure. If you’re willing to take on the risk, you could pursue one of these paths, report back, and if it works out well, potentially encourage more people to take it.
They are listed in no particular order.
Becoming a specialist in Russia or India
We’ve argued that because of China’s political, military, economic, and technological importance on the world stage, helping western organizations better understand and cooperate with Chinese actors might be highly impactful.
Although we think working with China represents an especially promising path to impact, a similar argument could be made for gaining expertise in other powerful nations, such as Russia or India.
This is more likely to be your comparative advantage if you are from or have spent a substantial amount of time in these countries, as this seems important for having a nuanced understanding of their cultures and institutions.
If you are not from one of these countries, one way to get started might be to pursue area or language studies in the relevant country (one source of support available for US students is the Foreign Language and Area Studies scholarship programme), perhaps alongside economics or international relations. You could also start by working in policy in your home country and slowly concentrate more and more on issues related to Russia or India, or try to work in philanthropy or directly on a top problem in one of these countries.
There are likely many different promising options in this area, both for long-term career plans and useful next steps. Though they would of course have to be adapted to the local context, some of the options laid out in our article on becoming a specialist in China could have promising parallels in other national contexts as well.
Non-technical roles in leading AI labs
Although we emphasize the good you can do in technical AI safety research and AI Policy, we think having very talented people focused on safety and social impact at top AI labs may also be valuable, even when they aren’t in technical or policy roles.
For example, you might be able to shift the culture around AI more toward safety and positive social impact by talking publicly about what your organization is doing to build safe and beneficial AI (example from DeepMind), helping recruit safety-minded researchers, designing internal processes to consider social impact issues more systematically in research, or helping different teams coordinate around safety-relevant projects.
That said, it seems possible that some such roles could have a veneer of contributing to AI safety without doing much to head off bad outcomes, or might even help create a false sense of security. For this reason it seems particularly important here to continue to think critically and creatively about what kinds of work in this area are useful.
Some roles in this space may also provide strong career capital for working in AI policy by putting you in a position to learn about the work these labs are doing, as well as the strategic landscape in AI.
There are some roles that fit this description on our job board.
Communications roles at organizations working on priority problems
Most organizations working to make a positive difference require people with communications skills — such as in public relations, digital marketing, design, or data visualization. (For an example of how high-quality data visualization can be an effective form of communication, check out Our World in Data)
For most global problems, making progress requires at least some degree of public support, so effective public-facing communication can be essential. Even in cases where broad support is less important, you still have to be able to get your ideas across to key actors in ways that are clear, accessible, and credible. And communications blunders can potentially inhibit progress on almost any issue.
Moreover, although not among the most mentioned skills, there was substantial demand reported in recent surveys of some staff within the effective altruism community for more people with communications skills, making this option seem more promising for people with a good fit for that skill-set.
Policy careers that are promising from a longtermist perspective
There are likely many policy projects that have the potential to positively affect the long term future.
Possibilities might include: researching or implementing age-weighted voting (i.e., giving more influence to younger voters who might care more about the farther future); other forms of voting reform (such as approval voting); researching policies or strategies for preventing ‘authoritarian backsliding’; or specific projects that might reduce global catastrophic risks — e.g., improving forecasting techniques, improving the security of voting processes or helping to implement nonproliferation of especially dangerous weapons, such as bioweapons.
Progress on these issues could come from research, advocacy, or implementation within governments.
Research might be done within academia, think tanks, or elsewhere. Political advocacy can take many forms, corresponding to the many different channels of power in democracies. For instance, you might try to become an early or key member of a political campaign staff, or work on ballot initiatives. (Check out this recent success story of using ballot initiatives to increase development spending in Zurich.)
As for implementation, you can influence what policies are enacted by seeking policy roles in the executive branch or civil service, becoming a congressional staffer, or even running for office yourself.
See our problem profiles page for more issues, some of which you might be able to make progress on in a policy-oriented career.
Becoming a personal assistant to someone doing really valuable work
A highly talented personal assistant can dramatically increase the impact of leading researchers, writers, entrepreneurs, or public intellectuals.
Some people may be extraordinarily productive compared to the average — perhaps especially so in research careers.But these people often have to use much of their time on work that doesn’t take the best advantage of their skills, such as bureaucratic and administrative tasks. This may be especially true for people who work in university settings, as many researchers do.
If you can work for one of these people, then by supporting their day-to-day activities and freeing up more of their time for work that other people can’t do, you may be able to have a large positive impact by acting as a ‘multiplier’ on their productivity.
There are some roles that fit this description on our job board.
Becoming an expert on formal verification
‘Proof assistants’ are programs used to formally verify that computer systems have various properties — for example that they are secure against certain cyberattacks — and to help develop programs that are formally verifiable in this way.
Currently, proof assistants are not very highly developed, but the ability to create programs that can be formally verified to have important properties seems like it could be helpful for addressing a variety of issues, perhaps including AI safety and cybersecurity. So improving proof assistants seems like it could be very high-value.
For example, it might be possible to use proof assistants to help solve the AI ‘alignment problem’ by creating AI systems that we can prove have certain properties we think are required for the AI system to reliably do what we want it to do. Alternatively, we may be able to use proof assistants to generate programs that we need to solve some sub-part of the problem. (Read our career review of researching risks from AI)
Both further research in this area as well as applying existing techniques to important issues seem potentially promising to us. You can enter this path by studying formal verification at the undergraduate or graduate level, or learning about it independently if you have a background in computer science. Jobs in this area exist both in industry and in academia.
Testing out a project in a potentially pressing area
There are many neglected global problems that could turn out to be as or even more pressing than those we currently prioritize most highly. We’d be keen to see more people explore these areas and test out promising projects within them.
Learning about and pursuing an underexplored or unconventional career path might be especially promising if you have unusual skills or ideas about how you can do the most good.
If, after exploring a less well-researched path, you find that opportunities for impact within it are limited, you can share what you have learned with others and help them focus on higher-impact options.
A few potentially promising options:
- Improving information security may prove to be essential as AI capabilities and risks from biosecurity increase.
- Improving civilization’s resilience in case of catastrophe could help reduce existential risk.
- Research into surveillance technologies could help us manage the risks surveillance poses to political freedoms or privacy while still using them to increase security.
- Research into a problem area we haven’t even thought of yet.
It can be hard to decide what to focus on when the possibilities seem so open-ended. We’ve written up a decision-making process to help you generate more ideas and then narrow down your options.
Some career paths are especially competitive or unable to absorb large numbers of people — no matter how talented they are. Thus we can’t recommend these paths to a broad audience. However, we think they are still worth talking about, because if you have exceptional personal fit for one of these paths it might easily be your highest-impact option.
Becoming a public intellectual
Some people seem to have a very large positive impact by becoming public intellectuals and popularizing important ideas — often through writing books, giving talks or interviews, or writing blogs, columns, or open letters.
However, it’s likely even harder to become a successful public intellectual than a successful academic (which many public intellectuals also are), due to intense competition and somewhat limited public attention. It also seems relatively easy to accidentally do harm if you promote mistaken ideas, or even promote important ideas in a way that turns people off.
That said, this path seems like it could be extremely impactful for the right person. We think building awareness of certain global catastrophic risks, of the potential effects of our actions on the long-term future, or of effective altruism might be especially high value, as well as spreading positive values like concern for foreigners, nonhuman animals, future people, or other beings.
There are public intellectuals who are not academics — such as prominent bloggers and authors. However, academia seems unusually well-suited for becoming a public intellectual because academia requires you to become an expert in something and trains you to write (a lot), and the high standards of academia provide credibility for your opinions and work. For these reasons, if you are interested in pursuing this path, going into academia may be a good place to start.
Public intellectuals can come from a variety of disciplines — what they have in common is that they find ways to apply insights from their fields to issues that affect many people, and they communicate these insights effectively.
If you are an academic, experiment with spreading important ideas on a small scale through a blog, magazine, or podcast. If you share our priorities and are having some success with these experiments, we’d be especially interested in talking to you about your plans.
For the right person, becoming a journalist seems like it could be highly valuable for many of the same reasons being a public intellectual might be.
Good journalists keep the public informed and help positively shape public discourse by spreading accurate information on important topics. And although the news media tend to focus more on current events, journalists also often provide a platform for people and ideas that the public might not otherwise hear about.
This path is also very competitive, especially when it comes to the kinds of work that seem best for communicating important ideas (which are often complex), i.e., writing long-form articles or books, podcasts, and documentaries. And like being a public intellectual, it seems relatively easy to do harm as a journalist by directing people’s attention in the wrong way, so this path may require especially good judgement about which projects to pursue and with what strategy.
Becoming a historian focusing on large societal trends, inflection points, progress, or collapse
We think it could be high-impact to study areas relevant to the long-term arc of history — e.g., economic, intellectual, or moral progress from a long-term perspective, the history of social movements or philanthropy, or the history of wellbeing. Better understanding long trends and key inflection points, such as the industrial revolution, may help us understand what could cause future trajectory changes.
Our impression is that although many of these topics have received attention from historians (examples: 1, 2, 3), some are comparatively neglected within the subject, especially from a more quantitative perspective.
In general, there seem to be a number of gaps a skilled historian could help fill. Revealingly, the Open Philanthropy Project commissioned their own studies of the history and successes of philanthropy because they couldn’t find much existing literature that met their needs. Much existing research is not aimed at deriving action-relevant lessons.
Although there may be some opportunities to do this kind of historical work in foundations, or to get it funded through private grants, pursuing this path would in most cases involve seeking an academic career. This path is risky because history academia has a shortage of positions and doesn’t provide many backup options. However, it could be an attractive path for someone who is already strongly considering history academia, has ideas for how they can do high-impact research, and thinks they have a reasonable chance of ending up in a tenure track position.
It may also be possible to pursue this kind of historical research in ‘non-traditional academia’, such as at groups like the Future of Humanity Institute or Global Priorities Institute. Learn more about the Global Priorities Institute by listening to our podcast episode with Michelle Hutchinson.
If you can find a way to address a key bottleneck in a problem area that isn’t already being covered by an effective organisation, starting one of your own can be extremely valuable.
That said, this path is difficult and seems to us to be particularly high-risk — most new organizations struggle, and there’s a significant chance of accidentally setting back the field, especially if you’re one of the first organizations in the area and things go wrong. We wouldn’t generally recommend someone pursue this path without substantial experience working on the problem and a strong understanding of the space of interventions. A reasonable strategy is to focus on scaling up an existing project first, and start your own only when you know more. (Though to be fair, we didn’t have that much experience when we founded 80,000 Hours!)
It’s hard to give general advice here because this path varies so much depending on your ideas and what area you’re working in. If you think you might be a particularly good fit for starting an effective nonprofit, consider applying for our one-on-one career advising.
You might also be interested in checking out these resources on effective nonprofits.
Creating or managing a long-term philanthropic fund
Some of the best opportunities for making a difference may lie far in the future. In that case, investing resources now in order to have many more resources available at that future time might be extremely valuable.
However, right now we have no way of effectively and securely investing resources over such long time periods. In particular, there are few if any financial vehicles that can be reliably expected to persist for more than 100 years and stay committed to their intended use, while also earning good investment returns. Figuring out how to set up and manage such a fund seems to us like it might be very worthwhile.
Founders Pledge — an organization that encourages effective giving for entrepreneurs — is currently exploring this idea and is actively seeking input. Especially if you have a background in finance or relevant areas of law, this might be a promising path to explore.
Supporting roles within the effective altruism community
Considered as a broad category, this could ultimately absorb a substantial number of talented people — we mention it in this section because it seems like only a few people are needed for each specific role within the category.
Roles we have in mind include: marketing materials for effective altruism organizations, working in human resources, recruiting, or hiring, providing legal council, or organizing student and local effective altruism groups (more resources for local groups).
We think these roles are good to pursue in particular if you are very familiar with the effective altruism community, and you already have the relevant skills and are keen to bring them to bear in a more impactful way.
We list some roles that fit this description on our job board.
All our career reviews
Below are all the career reviews we have written so far, grouped by how often we recommend them, and then listed alphabetically.
Some of these reviews are a little out of date and the scores should be taken with a pinch of salt. There are many more reviews of other potentially high-impact options we’d like to write over the coming years.
Careers we often encourage people to consider
- Academic research
- Congressional staffer
- Economics PhD
- Foundation grantmaker
- Machine Learning PhD
- Party politics
- Policy-oriented government jobs
- Research into risks from artificial intelligence
- Think tank research
- Trading in quantitative hedge funds (for earning to give)
- Working at effective altruist organisations
- Working at effective non-profits
See also these articles on our priority paths:
Careers we sometimes encourage people to consider
- Biomedical research
- Computer Science PhD
- Data science (for skill-building & earning to give)
- Founding effective non-profits (international development)
- Management consulting (for skill-building & earning to give)
- Marketing (for skill-building & earning to give)
- Medical careers
- Philosophy academia
- Product manager in tech
- Program manager in international organizations
- Software engineering at large tech-firms (for skill-building & earning to give)
- Startup early employee
- Tech startup founder
- Web designer