Historian of large societal trends, inflection points, progress, or collapse
In a nutshell: Historical research into the long-term arc of history — by looking at societal trends over time and key inflection points — could help us better understand what might cause important technological and social shifts in the future.
Sometimes recommended — highly competitive
This career is potentially high-impact, but is exceptionally competitive.
Based on a shallow investigation
Why might becoming a historian of large social trends be high impact?
Studying subjects relevant to the long-term arc of history may shed light on the range of changes that are possible (or probable) in our future. These subjects may include things like economic, intellectual, or moral progress from a long-term perspective; the history of social movements or philanthropy; or the history of wellbeing. Historians in these areas can help us better understand long trends and key inflection points, such as the Industrial Revolution and other promising topics.
Our impression is that although many of these topics have received attention from historians and other academics1 some are comparatively neglected, especially from a more quantitative or impact-focused perspective.
In general, there seem to be a number of gaps that skilled historians, anthropologists, or economic historians could help fill. Revealingly, Open Philanthropy commissioned their own studies of the history and successes of philanthropy because they couldn’t find much existing literature that met their needs. Most existing research is not aimed at deriving action-relevant lessons.
We expect there will be opportunities to do this kind of historical research outside of academia — as an independent researcher, within a foundation like Open Philanthropy, or within another research organisation within effective altruism. However, these opportunities will likely be difficult to secure, as they require strong research skills, a good knowledge of effective altruism, and also the unusual mindset required to do the kind of research sketched above.
Most people pursuing this career will likely aim to become an academic historian, which is also a highly competitive path.
Academia generally has a shortage of positions relative to the number of people who study PhDs, and humanities PhDs don’t provide strong backup options. If you have the quantitative skills, it seems less risky to pursue historical research as an economist, since an economics PhD also gives you other good options.
How can you estimate your chance of success as a history academic? We haven’t looked into the fields relevant to history in particular, but some of our discussion of parallel questions for philosophy academia or academia in general may be useful.
It may also be possible to pursue this kind of research in ‘non-traditional’ academia, such as at organisations like the Future of Humanity Institute or Global Priorities Institute.
Example of someone pursuing this path
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- Podcast: Christopher Brown on why slavery abolition wasn’t inevitable
- Podcast: Tom Moynihan on intellectual history and the concept of extinction
- Podcast: Michelle Hutchinson on the Global Priorities Institute
- Podcast: Luisa Rodriguez on why global catastrophes seem unlikely to kill us all
Read next: Learn about other high-impact careers
Want to consider more paths? See our list of the highest-impact career paths according to our research.
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Notes and references
- Examples of relevant existing work include: The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes; The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich; Casebook for The Foundation: A Great American Secret by Joel L. Fleishman, J. Scott Kohler, and Steven Schindler; *Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond; and Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian.↩