In a nutshell: Public intellectuals popularise important ideas — e.g. by writing books and blog posts, giving talks, or appearing on podcasts or other popular media. Becoming a public intellectual could be extremely impactful for the right person. However, we only sometimes recommend this career path, as it’s especially competitive, and it’s relatively easy to accidentally do harm if you end up promoting the wrong ideas — or promoting good ideas in a way that puts people off.
Sometimes recommended — highly competitive
This career is potentially high-impact, but is exceptionally competitive.
Based on a shallow investigation
Why might becoming a public intellectual be high impact?
Some people seem to have a very large positive impact by popularising important ideas — often through writing books; giving talks or interviews; or writing blogs, columns, or open letters. Putting ideas on the map — and shaping their understanding among the public — can substantially impact social movements, policy, cultural change, and technological innovation.
However, it’s probably even harder to become a successful and impactful public intellectual than a successful academic, since becoming a public intellectual often requires a degree of success within academia while also having excellent communication skills and spending significant time building a public profile. Thus this path seems to us to be especially competitive and a good fit for only a small number of people.
As with other advocacy efforts, 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. (Read more about how to avoid accidentally doing harm.)
All that said, this path seems like it could be extremely impactful for the right person. We think it might be especially valuable to build awareness of certain global catastrophic risks, of the potential effects of our actions on the long-term future, or of effective altruism, as well as spreading positive values like concern for foreigners, nonhuman animals, future people, or others.
There are public intellectuals who are not academics — such as prominent bloggers, journalists, podcasters, YouTubers, and authors. However, academia seems unusually well-suited for becoming a public intellectual, because it 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, you can experiment with spreading important ideas on a small scale through a blog, magazine, YouTube channel, 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.
Want one-on-one advice on pursuing this path?
If you think this path might be a great option for you, but you need help deciding or thinking about what to do next, our team might be able to help.
We can help you compare options, make connections, and possibly even help you find jobs or funding opportunities.
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Want to consider more paths? See our list of the highest-impact career paths according to our research.
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