Our list of high-impact careers

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.

Right now, this has led us to focus on career paths that reduce global catastrophic risks or otherwise improve the prospects of future generations. This page presents some of the paths we currently take to be particularly promising.

The lists below are not comprehensive – there are many great options that are not included. To find the right career for you, you should consider these options and more, and then narrow down based on your personal fit and circumstances. See our article on how to narrow down your options.

The suggestions below will be most useful if you still have lots of flexibility in your career. If you’ve already acquired a lot of specialist skills or experience, then it may be better to focus on finding a way to apply these to the most pressing problems. See our article on advice for people with existing expertise.

To see the reasoning behind these lists, and a process you can use to generate more options, see this article.

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 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 by supporting other researchers.

Research is the most difficult to enter of the five categories, but going to graduate school gives you useful career capital for the other four categories, so it’s often a good path to start with (though we still recommend exploring other options for 1-2 years before starting a PhD).

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. Eventually, however, it may well be best to do research in non-profits, corporations, governments and think tanks instead of academia, since it can 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 manager, executive assistant, fundraiser or operations role. We’ve argued these roles are often neglected, 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): machine learning, neuroscience, statistics, economics / international relations / security studies / political science / public policy, synthetic biology / bioengineering / genetic engineering, China studies, philosophy, decision psychology. (See more on the question of what to study.)

Read more about research careers.

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, aim to develop expertise in a relevant area, then take any government or policy job where you can help to improve policy relevant to a pressing global problem.

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., we know about four main types of roles that can lead to a big impact on our priority problems. (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.)

  1. Working in the executive branch such as the Defense Department, the State Department, intelligence agencies, or the White House. See our profile on the UK civil service, which starts with a general case for working in government. 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 the other types of roles we describe next.

  2. 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.

  3. 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, many people who work on a winning presidential campaign eventually get high impact positions in the White House or elsewhere in the executive branch.

  4. 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, working on a campaign, or other policy positions. 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 except there is more separation between political careers and careers in the civil service (which is the equivalent of the executive branch). Read more in our profile on UK civil service careers and UK party political careers.

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 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 don’t have 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.

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. 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 apply a PhD in medieval portraiture directly to the top problem areas, so sometimes it will be better to retrain rather than apply an existing skill.

By donating to the very most effective organisations in an area, any graduate in a high income country can have a significant impact.

This means that a reasonable career option is to take a higher-earning job than you would have otherwise, and donate the extra income to effective charities.

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, so you have the option to switch out of earning to give later.

We list some of the highest-earning jobs available in a separate article, however, you don’t need to enter one of these in order to earn to give. You’re earning to give whenever you earn more than you would have otherwise, so everyone should have some earning to give options open to them.

The most obvious high-earning areas are sectors like technology, law, finance, consulting and medicine. But some higher-earning options outside of these sectors include the following: real estate, allied health, corporate management, sales & marketing and engineering.

Considering both income and career capital leads us to favour jobs in high-performing organisations where you can develop a concrete skill that’s useful in one of the other paths, such as management or operations. Tech startups with 20-100 employees are often a good place to consider.

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.1 This could potentially 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 (the “alignment problem”), which we cover later. But even if the technical problems are solved, there remain 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. 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.

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.
  • In think tanks, aim to become a researcher at one that works on relevant issues.
  • 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). Other governments are relevant as well, but the US is probably the most important right now.
  • 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 in the Governance of AI Program.
  • 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, 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 Unilateralists Curse).

Some common early career steps include:

  1. Relevant graduate study. Some especially useful fields include international relations, strategic studies, machine learning, economics, law, public policy, and political science. Our top recommendations right now are international relations if you want to focus on research and strategic studies if you want to focus on implementation.
  2. Working at a top AI company, especially DeepMind and OpenAI.
  3. 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 research field is at a very early stage, which creates multiple challenges. For one, the key questions have not been formalised, which creates a need for “distentanglement 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.

These problems mean that it’s 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. On the other hand, if you are able to do this, then you’ll be able to make an especially big contribution, because you can be one of the founders of the field.

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, you could often switch into other areas of policy, the application of AI to other social problems, 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 recently hired a specialist advisor, Niel Bowerman, to focus on finding and helping people who want to enter it. He is especially focused on roles aimed an 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, able 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 get used against you.

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 also 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

Other reading

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 potentially have both huge upsides and downsides, including the possibility of catastrophic 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 Vancouver, 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.

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, non-profits 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 pursue research for whatever reason.

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 back-up 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. In the future, there might be social science opportunities to contribute to the alignment problem as well (to be covered 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?
  • 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 predicting success in research.

Further reading

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 non-profits working on research, policy and community building). But another reason is a lack of grantmakers able to vet these opportunities or start 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 difficult to become a grantmaker. However, this also means 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” — 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 increase the total amount of giving and get good projects started sooner.

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, so it seems easy 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.

Related paths

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). Founder’s 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 non-profits, 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.

Further reading

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 their biggest 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. These organisations don’t only grow the community, they also do other useful work, such as research and fundraising.

Not many people have the characteristics needed to fill these positions, and many of the organisations operate close to “threshold hiring”, in which they’ll hire anyone who meets their criteria. This means these jobs are hard to get, but if you can get one, you won’t be significantly replaceable and it’ll be high-impact.

In our survey, leaders in the community estimated that recent junior staff members generate the equivalent of $80,000 – $600,000 in donations of value per year (interquartile range); and that recent senior hires generate the equivalent of $330,000 – $1.4m per year. For the most impactful recent hires, people gave figures over $3m, and the most successful in this field would be even higher again.

These roles let you develop expertise in effective altruism, top global problem areas and running startup non-profits. 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.

Role types

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, helping people in the community.
  • 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.
  • Systems and engineering – e.g. web engineering, data capture and analysis, web design, creating internal tools.

How to enter

To enter these roles, you can apply directly to the organisations. However, most of the organisations want to hire people who are committed to the community, so they often hire people who are already involved. 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 EAG, starting a local group, or doing freelance consulting for an organisation). We list more advice in our full profile.

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.

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 — 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.
  • Several years of experience in a relevant skill is a bonus, but not required.

Further reading

Within working at effective altruism organisations, we’d like to especially highlight roles in operations.

Operations staff enable everyone else in the organisation to focus on their core tasks and maximise their productivity. They’re especially crucial for enabling an organisation to increase in scale. The best operations staff do this by setting up scalable systems, rather than addressing individual tasks. This could involve creating a financial system to make budgets and track expenses; creating an HR system to hire staff, onboard them and give feedback; or being an executive assistant to a project founder. Some operations staff manage a significant part of their organisation, and several have worked their way up to CEO or COO.

As we’ve argued, these positions seem especially in-demand right now, both within the core effective altruism organisations and the broader global catastrophic risk community. There are many open positions and organisation leaders often say this skill-set is their biggest bottleneck. A recent influx in funding has also created a systems bottleneck — it’s hard to rapidly hire and retain staff without an excellent operations team.

Many expect that it must be easy to hire operations staff from outside of the community, but we don’t think that’s true, especially right now while the relevant organisations are small. Since operations staff are so central to an organisation, they need to deeply understand the mission and be deeply embedded in the team.

Instead, we think these roles likely get unfairly neglected, because they are less glamorous and their impact is more indirect.

Within academic settings, it’s also because university regulations often prevent the institutes from paying as much as these roles merit.

This can make operations roles an especially good way to contribute to these top problem areas.

Operations roles also let you gain a skill-set that’s needed in basically every organisation — especially by managers — and so is highly transferable. In addition, in this path you can gain the other career capital benefits from working at effective altruism organisations we mentioned earlier.

How to enter

To get these roles, it’s often possible to enter directly and work your way up.

If you’re not able to land a full-time job right away, one common way people have entered these roles before is by volunteering to help run an EAG conference.

Otherwise, you could seek operations experience in top organisations in the private sector, such as a growing a well-run tech startup, while also meeting people in the relevant communities.

Could this be a good fit for you?

In addition to the traits we list for working at effective altruism organisations, operations staff are especially good at optimising systems, anticipating problems, making plans, having attention to detail, staying calm in the face of urgent tasks, prioritising among a large number of tasks, and communicating with the rest of the team.

We often find that people who are good at operations don’t realise that they are. Some clues you might be a good fit include:

  • Have you gone above and beyond in a previous job? For instance, did you notice a problem and take steps to fix it without anyone telling you what to do?
  • Have you been able to quickly learn new skills, and apply that knowledge? For instance, did you succeed in your studies or quickly pick up hobbies in your spare time?
  • Can you work independently? For example, have you pushed ahead with side projects that you weren’t required to do for work or school?
  • Have you run a significant event, such as a conference, exhibition or concert? This involves some similar skills, and people have often had the opportunity during university.

Further reading

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. This is why effective altruism is so important.

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 elucidated, 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.

Role types

You can broadly pursue this path either in academia or non-profits.

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 the ideal place 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 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.

That said, we expect that other centres will be established over the coming years. In the meantime, you could try to build expertise or pursue relevant research in other academic positions. 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.

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.

There have also been people who have pursued global priorities research independently, such as Carl Shulman and Paul Christiano. These researchers often start with blogging, and then take freelance work from donors and organisations once they’ve proven their abilities.

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

Other reading

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 civilization. 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. This is why we rank this path lower than the AI paths above. 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 and 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.

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 perhaps even 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, 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 non-profits, 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 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 non-profit 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 be 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?

Key reading

  • Our profile on biorisk, which includes a list of recommended organisations and research centres (update in progress), and relevant podcasts, which are linked to from the profile.

Other reading

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 the most influential country in AI development after the US.

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 ending factory farming, though we currently rate this as a lower priority at the margin.

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.
  • If from the West, learn Chinese in China, or find another option that lets you live there.
  • If Chinese, work at a Western effective altruism organisation.
  • Work at a Chinese technology company or philanthropic organisation.

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 Western 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 Western 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 other politics and cultures) rather than scientific skill-set.
  • Otherwise the skill-set required is fairly similar to the AI strategy and policy path earlier.

Further reading

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 St, 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. Might you be able to get a top software engineering job such as at 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 team work skills, since you’ll work closely with your colleagues hour-by-hour in potentially stressful situations.

Further reading

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.

Further reading

Key resources:

Other resources:

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.

To get a better sense of the opportunities within our priority paths, see our job board for a list of vacancies and our podcast for interviews with people who work in these areas.

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.

Read more

To see more of the reasoning behind this page, and a process you can use to generate more options, read our high-impact careers article.

For advice on how to narrow down your options and assess your potential to excel in a particular path, see this article.