Why you should consider applying for grad school right now

Application deadlines for US PhD programs are coming up over the next month. We think many of our readers who are considering grad school at some point in the next few years should apply this year.

We’re writing this informal list of pros and cons now because a number of people we’ve coached recently have been more reluctant to apply for grad school than we think they should have been.

Why should they take the option seriously?

  • You have to plan far ahead of time. If you apply now you will only begin the program late next year. Even if you don’t feel ready to start a PhD today, you should consider whether you will be in a year’s time. If you aren’t sure, applying keeps that option open. We’ve spoken to many people considering grad school but thought they would work for a few years before returning, only to have their situation change and grad school seem like a much better option. Early in your career, your mind can change more often than you expect.
  • An increasing number of the paths we recommend, especially in research and policy, are much easier to pursue with a PhD. For example, if you want to work on improving our ability to control pandemics, the best options appear to be research (most likely in academia but perhaps also in the private sector), or policy reform (in think tanks, government agencies, congressional, or elsewhere). Some of the best roles are only open to people with PhDs.

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We can use science to end poverty faster. But how much do governments listen to it?

In both rich and poor countries, government policy is often based on no evidence at all and many programs don’t work. This has particularly harsh effects on the global poor – in some countries governments only spend $100 on each citizen a year so they can’t afford to waste a single dollar.

Enter MIT’s Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Since 2003 they’ve conducted experiments to figure out what policies actually help recipients, and then try to get them implemented by governments and non-profits.

Claire Walsh leads J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative, which works to evaluate policies and programs in collaboration with developing world governments, scale policies that have been shown to work, and generally promote a culture of evidence-based policymaking.

We discussed (her views only, not J-PAL’s):

  • How can they get evidence backed policies adopted? Do politicians in the developing world even care whether their programs actually work? Is the norm evidence-based policy, or policy-based evidence?
  • Is evidence-based policy an evidence-based strategy itself?
  • Which policies does she think would have a particularly large impact on human welfare relative to their cost?
  • How did she come to lead one of J-PAL’s departments at 29?
  • How do you evaluate the effectiveness of energy and environment programs (Walsh’s area of expertise), and what are the standout approaches in that area?
  • 80,000 Hours has warned people about the downsides of starting your career in a non-profit. Walsh started her career in a non-profit and has thrived,

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Dr Cameron fought Ebola for the White House. Now she works to stop something even worse.

“When you’re in the middle of a crisis and you have to ask for money, you’re already too late.”

That’s Dr. Beth Cameron, and she’s someone who should know. Beth runs Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

She has years of experience preparing for and fighting the diseases of our nightmares, on the White House Ebola Taskforce, in the National Security Council staff, and as the senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.

Unfortunately, the nations of the world aren’t prepared for a crisis – and like children crowded into daycare, there’s a real danger that something nasty will come along and make us all sick at once.

During previous pandemics, countries have dragged their feet over who will pay to contain them, or struggled to move people and supplies to where they needed to be. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t happen again today. And at the same time, advances in biotechnology may make it possible for terrorists to bring back smallpox – or create something even worse.

In this interview we look at the current state of play in disease control, what needs to change, and how you can work towards a job where you can help make those changes yourself. Topics covered include:

  • The best strategies for containing pandemics.

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Speeding up social science 10-fold, how to do research that’s actually useful, & why plenty of startups cause harm

What is the best, state-of-the-art therapy for depression? Do most meat eaters think it’s wrong to hurt animals? How likely do Americans think climate change is to cause human extinction? How do we make academics more intellectually honest, so we can actually trust their findings? How can we speed up social science research 10-fold? Do most startups improve the world, or make it worse? Why is research in top journals less reliable?

If you’re interested in these questions, this interview is for you.

A scientist, entrepreneur, writer and mathematician, Spencer Greenberg is constantly working to create tools to speed up and improve research and critical thinking. These include:

  • Rapid public opinion surveys – which he has used to learn public opinion on animal consciousness, farm animal welfare, the impact of developing world charities and the likelihood of extinction by various different means;
  • Tools to enable social science research to be run en masse very cheaply by anyone;
  • ClearerThinking.org, a highly popular site for improving people’s judgement and decision-making;
  • Ways to transform data analysis methods to ensure that papers only show true findings;
  • Ways to decide which research projects are actually worth pursuing.

In this episode of the show, Spencer discusses all of these and more. If you don’t feel like listening, that just shows that you have poor judgement and need to benefit from his wisdom even more!

Enjoy:

If you subscribe to our podcast,

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New problem profile: Improving institutional decision-making

A few weeks ago we released a new problem profile focussed on improving decision-making in major societal institutions:

When powerful people make dumb choices it hurts us all. Here’s how to fix it.

In 2003, the United States chose to invade Iraq. Most now agree this decision was deeply flawed, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

Exactly what went wrong here is a contested and controversial issue. At best, the decision-making process severely lacked rigour, and at worst, it was heavily biased.

The government justified the invasion thanks to the intelligence community’s claim that it was “highly probable” that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) – but this statement was ambiguous. Policymakers took that to indicate near-100% certainty, and made decisions accordingly.1 But “highly probable” could easily also be interpreted as 80% certainty, or 70% – carrying very different practical implications. Those involved didn’t really think through the relevant probabilities, or consider how likely the estimates were to be wrong, or the implications if they were.

Others have suggested that the US had already decided to invade Iraq, and that this decision influenced intelligence collection – not the other way around. This a particularly extreme example of what’s known as motivated reasoning – a tendency to reason in ways that support whatever conclusion one wants to be true.

The call to invade hinged on the subjective impressions of a few key people – subjective impressions that later turned out to be wrong,

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New career review: Policy-oriented civil service (with a UK focus)

We have a new career review focussed on government jobs developing policy, with a focus on the UK:

Working in the government you can have a big impact on pressing global problems. Here’s how to get started.

On the Sunday after Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, Tony Blair rang Alan Milburn to tell him he was going to be a minister in the Department of Health. Blair said: ‘We haven’t got a health policy. Your job is to get us one.’1

Milburn ‘was hungry for ideas’1 and met with a civil servant: Graham Winyard, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. According to Winyard, this meeting was where the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was born.1 NICE helps the National Health Service decide which treatments are evidence-based and cost-effective.

Although its approach is controversial,2 NICE is seen internationally as a role model for how to make evidence-based decisions about health spending.3 The editor of the British Medical Journal described it as ‘conquering the world’ and thought it might ‘prove to be one of Britain’s greatest cultural exports’.4

What if you could have this kind of impact?

There are civil servants working on some of the world’s most urgent problems, from how to prevent nuclear proliferation to encouraging economic growth in the developing world. Like Winyard, they often have opportunities to play a central role in solving these problems.

In this profile we cover why it’s possible to have a significant impact as a civil servant,

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Our computers are fundamentally insecure. Here’s why that could lead to global catastrophe.

Take a trip to Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s, when going to space sounded like a good way to get around environmental limits, people started cryogenically freezing themselves, and nanotechnology looked like it might revolutionise industry – or turn us all into grey goo.

In this episode of the 80,000 Hours Podcast Christine Peterson takes us back to her youth in the Bay Area, the ideas she encountered there, and what the dreamers she met did as they grew up. We also discuss how she came up with the term ‘open source software’ (and how she had to get someone else to propose it).

Today Christine helps runs the Foresight Institute, which fills a gap left by for-profit technology companies – predicting how new revolutionary technologies could go wrong, and ensuring we steer clear of the downsides.

We dive into:

  • Can technology ‘move fast and break things’ without eventually breaking the world? Would it be better for technology to advance more quickly, or more slowly?
  • Whether the poor security of computer systems poses a catastrophic risk for the world.
  • Could all our essential services be taken down at once? And if so, what can be done about it? Christine makes a radical proposal for solving the problem.
  • Will AIs designed for wide-scale automated hacking make computers more or less secure?
  • Would it be good to radically extend human lifespan?

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Is it time for a new scientific revolution? Julia Galef on how to make humans smarter, why Twitter isn’t all bad, and where effective altruism is going wrong

The scientific revolution in the 16th century was one of the biggest societal shifts in human history, driven by the discovery of new and better methods of figuring out who was right and who was wrong.

Julia Galef – a well-known writer and researcher focused on improving human judgment, especially about high stakes questions – believes that if we could develop new techniques to resolve disagreements, predict the future and make sound decisions together, we could again dramatically improve the world. We brought her in to talk about her ideas.

Julia has hosted the Rationally Speaking podcast since 2010, co-founded the Center for Applied Rationality in 2012, and is currently working for the Open Philanthropy Project on an investigation of expert disagreements.

This interview complements a new detailed review of whether and how to follow Julia’s career path

We ended up speaking about a wide range of topics, including:

  • Her research on how people can have productive intellectual disagreements.
  • Why she once planned on becoming an urban designer.
  • Why she doubts people are more rational than 200 years ago.
  • What the effective altruism community is doing wrong.
  • What makes her a fan of Twitter (while I think it’s dystopian).
  • Whether more people should write books.
  • Whether it’s a good idea to run a podcast, and how she grew her audience.
  • Why saying you don’t believe X often won’t convince people you don’t.

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How Alex GB earned millions for charity within years by working in quant trading

Quantitative financial trading is one of the highest paying parts of the world’s highest paying industry. 25 to 30 year olds with outstanding maths skills can earn millions a year in an obscure set of ‘quant trading’ firms, where they program computers with predefined algorithms to trade very quickly and effectively.

This makes it an attractive workplace for people who want to ‘earn to give’, and we know several people who are able to donate over a million dollars a year to effective charities by working in quant trading. Who are these people? What is the job like? And is there a risk that their trading work directly harms the world?

To learn about all this I spoke at length with Alexander Gordon-Brown, who has worked as a quant trader in London for the last three and a half years and donated hundreds of thousands of pounds. We covered:

  • What quant traders do and how much they earn;
  • Whether their work is beneficial or harmful for the world;
  • How to figure out if you’re a good fit for quant trading, and if so how to break into the industry;
  • Whether Alex enjoys the work and finds it motivating, as well as what alternatives careers he considered;
  • What variety of positions are on offer in quant trading, and what the culture is like in the various firms;
  • How he decides where to donate, and whether he has persuaded his colleagues to join him in becoming major philanthropists.

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Which professions are paid too much given their value to society?

Many jobs have spillover effects on the rest of society. For instance, the value of new treatments discovered by biomedical researchers is far greater than what they or their employers get paid, so they have positive spillovers. Other jobs have negative spillovers, such as those that generate pollution.

A forthcoming paper, by economists at UPenn and Yale, reports a survey of the economic literature on these spillover benefits for the 11 highest-earning professions.

There’s very little literature, so all these estimates are very, very uncertain, and should be not be taken literally. But it’s interesting reading – it represents a survey of what economists think they know about this topic, and it’s surprisingly little.

Here are the bottom lines – see more detail on the estimates below. (Note that we already discussed an older version of this paper, but the estimates have been updated since then.)

We calculated mean income for 2005 in an earlier article. We increased income by 30% to account for nominal wage growth since then.

The paper uses the expressions spillover and ‘externality’. An ‘externality’ is a technical term for a ‘cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.’ The authors of the paper call it an ‘externality’ when someone who buys a service does (or does not) benefit after taking account of the cost of purchasing it. This is a nonstandard usage,

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Podcast: Prof David Spiegelhalter on risk, statistics and improving the public understanding of science

My colleague Jess Whittlestone and I spoke with Prof David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Spiegelhalter tries to help people prioritise and respond to the many hazards we face, like getting cancer or dying in a car crash. To make the vagaries of life more intuitive he has had to invent concepts like the microlife, or a 30-minute change in life expectancy. He’s regularly in the UK media explaining the numbers that appear in the news, trying to assist both ordinary people and politicians to make sensible decisions based in the best evidence available.

We wanted to learn whether he thought a lifetime of work communicating science had actually had much impact on the world, and what advice he might have for people planning their careers today.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or by searching 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts. Links and a transcript are below.

“…What do we hear in the news? We hear about Ebola, we hear about terrorism, we hear about the latest threat that might be in what we eat and the way we travel, and we get very concerned about this, whether it’s a plane crash or whatever. Because that’s what’s in the news, that’s what is available to us. That’s what’s so prominent, but of course, so many of these risks are actually very small indeed…

What I am proud of is being part of a general community that’s very strong in Britain, to do with public engagement in science, which I’m just a small part of that because it covers material on the radio, stuff on television, stuff in some newspapers, and in various agencies. For example, in Statistics Authority, which is just trying to take a much more critical attitude to the way that numbers and evidence are used in society. I think it works. In Britain, we’re rather good compared with most people about, I don’t know, we don’t have these massive fears of vaccinations and nuclear power, of even GMOs. I think this is a sign that we in this country have developed quite a good public engagement with science community.”

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Podcast: The world desperately needs AI strategists. Here’s how to become one.

If a smarter-than-human AI system were developed, who would decide when it was safe to deploy? How can we discourage organisations from deploying such a technology prematurely to avoid being beaten to the post by a competitor? Should we expect the world’s top militaries to try to use AI systems for strategic advantage – and if so, do we need an international treaty to prevent an arms race?

Questions like this are the domain of AI policy experts.

We recently launched a detailed guide to pursuing careers in AI policy and strategy, put together by Miles Brundage at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

It complements our article outlining the importance of positively shaping artificial intelligence and a podcast with Dr Dario Amodei of OpenAI on more technical artificial intelligence safety work which builds on this one. If you are considering a career in artificial intelligence safety, they’re all essential reading.

I interviewed Miles to ask remaining questions I had after he finished his career guide. We discuss the main career paths; what to study; where to apply; how to get started; what topics are most in need of research; and what progress has been made in the field so far.

The audio, summary and full transcript are below.

We suggest subscribing, so you can listen at leisure on your phone,

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The Schwarzman Scholarship: An exciting opportunity to learn more about China and get a Masters in Global Affairs

Co-authored with Helen Toner.

In general, living in a foreign country – for example, by studying there – is a great way to learn about the country, its language, people, and culture.

There’s one country in particular we think it would be very valuable for some of our readers to become knowledgable about: China. It’s the world’s largest country by population, and gets closer every year to being the largest global economy too. On the international stage, China is the probably world’s second most influential country. Its influence in economic, geopolitical, and cultural terms looks set to continue to grow throughout the course of the 21st century.

All of this means that China is likely to play a larger and larger role in all kinds of areas, including topics we care a great deal about, like factory farming, pandemic preparedness, preserving international peace and cooperation, and AI research. Being familiar with China is likely to provide unique and high-value opportunities to people working in those areas. What’s more, there aren’t yet many westerners with deep (or even passing) familiarity with China, which suggests that now is an especially valuable time to be learning more.

If you’d like to become knowledgable about China, there is a promising new way to do that: the Schwarzman Scholarship program.

Modelled on the Rhodes Scholarship, the Schwarzman Scholarship is targeted at high achieving students from around the world with an interest in leadership,

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How much do hedge fund traders earn?

Hedge fund trading may be the highest paying job in the world, so to learn more, we spoke with a former manager at one of the world’s leading hedge funds. They gave us the following information, which allowed us to make a rough estimate of the typical earnings of hedge fund traders.

We also ran this document past several other people in the industry and asked them to point out mistakes.

We found that junior traders typically earn $300k – $3m per year, and it’s possible to reach these roles in 4 – 8 years. Senior portfolio managers can easily earn over $10m per year, though average earnings are probably lower. Read on for the details.

How do hedge funds make money and how is it shared among the employees?

Hedge funds trade in financial markets on behalf of clients in exchange for annual fees, and a cut of the profits. They’re similar to mutual funds but face fewer restrictions on what they can invest in, and can only be used by accredited investors.

The revenue of a hedge fund comes from the fees on the assets it manages. The typical fund charges a fee of 2% of assets under management per year, plus a performance fee. The performance fee is typically 20% of any returns it makes for the clients over and above the 2% base fee. So, if a fund makes 10% returns in a year, then the performance fee is 20% of (10% –

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5 reasons not to go into education

First published June 2015. Updated February 2017.

When we first speak to people interested in doing good with their careers, they often say they want to get involved in education in the US or the UK. This could mean donating to a school, doing education policy work, or becoming a teacher.

However, we haven’t prioritised careers in education at 80,000 Hours. We don’t dispute that education is a highly important problem – a more educated population could enable us to solve many other global challenges, as well as yield major economic benefits. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be very easy to solve or neglected (important elements of our problem framework). So, it looks harder to have a large impact in education compared to many other areas. In the rest of this post, we’ll give five reasons why.

The following isn’t the result of in-depth research; it’s just meant to explain why we’ve deprioritised education so far. Our views could easily change. Note that in this post we’re not discussing education in the developing world.

1. It’s harder to help people in the US or UK

Everyone in the US or UK is rich by global standards: the poorest 5% of Americans are richer than the richest 5% of Indians (and that’s adjusted for the difference in purchasing power, see an explanation and the full data).

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How much is one vote worth?

Just 537 votes in Florida would have been enough to change the outcome of the 2000 election from George Bush to Al Gore – a margin of 0.009% (recount pictured above). And that wasn’t even the closest-won state that year: in New Mexico the margin was a mere 366 votes.

People say it’s your civic duty to vote, but it also seems like it’s very unlikely your vote will make a difference.

Who is right? Is voting really valuable, or a waste of time?

We looked into the research on this, especially regarding the US Presidential election. The answer, surprisingly, is that the single hour you spend voting for the President and Congress can be the most important thing you do with an hour each four years – and we expect similar numbers for other kinds of elections outside the USA. It also looks like there are effective techniques you can use to ‘get out the vote’, if you want to do more than just vote yourself.

The impact of your vote largely depends on 2 things, which we’ll investigate in turn:

  • The chances of your vote changing the election outcome.
  • How much better for the world as a whole one candidate is, compared to another.

At first blush it might seem that the chances of your single vote changing the election outcome are zero. But while the chances are low, they could be around 1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state.

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Maria Gutierrez on doing good through art, Costa Rica and why 80,000 Hours changed her career

This week I interviewed Maria Gutierrez to learn more about how 80,000 Hours had changed her career plans. For the last year Maria has been our freelance graphic designer, producing most of the artwork on our site today.

I sped up the recording so it is quick to listen to:

Summary of the interview

  • In 2014 Maria had a general desire to improve the world, but no idea how to put that into practice. She didn’t see any way to do useful work while using her creative skills and was frustrated by this.
  • She stumbled onto 80,000 Hours and effective altruism while browsing the internet, and its ‘honesty’ immediately resonated with her. It provided a much more concrete way to assess what would actually be useful to do than she previously had. It was the first time she had considered ‘earning to give’ as a way to do good.
  • She realised that she could do a lot of good by using her artistic skills to contribute to any organisation that does exceptional work. She decided to make her first contribution by working for us.
  • Maria decided to move back to Costa Rica to dramatically lower her cost of living, and thereby be able to donate more. This is possible because all the work she does is online for groups in the US and UK. She recommends other people think about doing the same thing, and we suggest some careers that are particularly promising for remote work.
  • We discuss how the 80,000 Hours framework can be applied to others in the creative arts, and challenge the view that such skills are not valuable.
  • Long term, Maria is weighing up earning to give as a fine artist, against doing ‘direct work’ as a designer for non-profits or for-profits that she thinks are having a large social impact.
  • This raises tricky issues about personal fit, and which sacrifice she is willing to make and which she isn’t. Maria doesn’t think she could be happy without being challenged artistically. She also thinks she would burn out doing pure marketing.
  • Finally, we discuss RISE (Red de Impacto Sustenible y Effectivo), en effective altruism inspired organistion for Costa Rica, which she intends to launch with a friend. Maria explains why she doesn’t want to take donations away from charities that work in countries poorer than Costa Rica.

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Interview: trying to change the resources industry from the inside

Benjamin Todd interviewed Michael Dello-Iacovo about his attempts to do good as a geophysicist inside the Australian mining industry.

What does the job involve?

I’m a geophysicist working for a resources company in Australia. The resources industry is broad, and includes exploration, mining and oil and gas production. Roles in the resources industry include geologists, environmental scientists, engineers (of almost all types), information technology, and a host of others. All of these potentially involve some intermittent field work. I’ll focus on geophysics and geology, as these are the roles I’m most familiar with. Note that this summary is focussed on private oil & gas and mining companies, not government or research organisations. While the roles may be similar in these organisations, the culture, salary and other perks are likely not.

As a resources geophysicist, my work ranges from data processing (which is actually more enjoyable and challenging than it sounds), interpreting and developing geological models and spending time in the field, where my role becomes more one of contractor management, environmental/safety auditing and data quality management. Being in a technical role, I don’t have a lot of meetings (perhaps 2-3 formal meetings per week), and a lot of time is spent behind a computer screen.

Why did you take this job?

I first decided to enter the resources industry part-way through my university science degree because I had a long-time love of rocks and minerals, I liked physics,

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New career review: web designer

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What is the best career for someone whose main strengths are in visual design?

To start figuring that out we’ve released a new career review on web design.

Here’s a quick summary:

Pros

  • Web designers can work on a broad range of high impact projects because they are in-demand across many types of organisations, including charities, governments and startups.
  • As a backup, web designers can enter paths with good pay, like UX design ($80,000 median salary), and earn to give.

Cons

  • Good design is hard to measure, which makes it hard to prove your abilities to potential employers, meaning entry and progression can be difficult.

Who should do it?

  • You should consider web design if you studied graphic design or a related field; you’ve already spent several years developing web-design skills; and you are persuasive enable you to get a foot in the door when you’re starting out.
  • However if you have the technical skills to do web development, we recommend you do that instead, since it wins over web design on most dimensions (salary, number of jobs, job growth rate, quality of work is easier to measure).

Read the full review.

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What the literature says about the earnings of entrepreneurs

This piece is part of our series on high impact entrepreneurship. Sign up to our newsletter and we’ll email you with the rest of the series.

Summary

  • Until recently, academics lumped ‘entrepreneurs’ together with all the ‘self-employed’. A new paper, however, split the self-employed into those who owned incorporated businesses and those who don’t. (Though note that the incorporated self-employed are still very different from startup founders.)
  • Self-employed people who own incorporated businesses earn about 50% more than people with regular jobs.
  • Most of this is due to them being more educated and working harder. However, even if you correct for these factors, it seems like shifting into owning an incorporated business boosts income by about 18%.
  • The unincorporated self-employed (mostly running things like hairdressers, restaurants, corner shops etc.) earn less than salaried workers on average.
  • Once you try to compare like-for-like workers, you find that when people switch into unincorporated self-employment, 50% earn less than they would as a salaried worker (but gain more freedom), and 30% earn more. The overall average is about the same.

Introduction

It’s widely believed that entrepreneurs earn more than salaried workers. However, until recently the research did not seem to back this up. In fact, the findings of several studies in 1989 presented a puzzle: entrepreneurs appeared to earn less than their salaried counterparts.

In his 2013 book The Founder’s Dilemmas,

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