Are too many people going into biomedical research – or too few?

Are too many people going into biomedical research or too few? As we explore in our new review of the career there are probably too many people entering the field. Biomedical research is a very promising way to make the world a better place if you have a high chance of being a top researcher, but for most people it’s a very tough road and entering could be a costly mistake. In the rest of the post, we’ll explain why and help you figure out whether it might be for you.

Biomedical research is a good path—if you’re a good fit.

We sometimes encounter people who might be a good fit for biomedical research, but who are skeptical about its potential impact. We think this might be misguided because:

  1. There are exciting areas of research that could offer enormous upside, such as anti-aging research, neural implants, gene therapy and synthetic biology.
  2. Potentially very high returns to research with comparatively low costs. According to one estimate, the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease in the US in the 1970’s and 1980’s alone had $31 trillion of associated gains. This is on the order of 60 times as large as all spending on medical research over the period. Another analysis estimates that a 1% reduction in cancer mortality in the US would be worth $500 billion (in comparison,

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The Undercover Economist speaks to 80,000 Hours

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Tim Harford recently spoke to us at Oxford. He’s a journalist for the Financial Times and the best-selling author of the Undercover Economist, which we’d recommend as a popular introduction to Economics. He also wrote Adapt, which argues that trial and error is the best strategy for solving important global problems. The arguments he makes fit with some of the arguments we have made for trial and error being a good way to plan your career.

Tim gave a talk on innovation, similar to this. The talk introduced a distinction between two types of innovation, and asks, which one is more important?

  1. Marginal improvements – incremental improvements to existing systems.

  2. Revolutionary improvements – transformations of existing systems to create new ones.

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In which career can you make the most difference?

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Introduction

Previously, we introduced a way to assess career opportunities in terms of their potential for positive impact, but which careers actually do best on these criteria? In this post, we’ll apply an adapted version of this framework to some career paths that seem particularly promising for recent graduates. Using what we’ve learned over the past two years of research and coaching over 100 people, we’ll provide a ranked list of options.

Summary

  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organisations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organisations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by our members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organisations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.

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Interview with malaria vaccine researcher Katie Ewer

Introduction

A recent case study candidate asked us whether he should enter vaccine research. As part of our research for that study, we contacted the Jenner Institute, an international centre based in Oxford that develops vaccines for infectious diseases . Our aim was to interview one of the scientists to better understand how careers in this sector tend to go, and to get their thoughts on a variety of important questions (especially those concerning vaccines) for our case study candidate to cross-check against other interviews we have done with medical researchers.

Katie Ewer, a cellular immunologist based at the Institute, agreed to talk to us. We sent her a list of questions by email (see the appendix), and discussed them on Skype. Below, we present a summary of her responses and key quotes from the Skype call.

Key updates for us

  • Katie was less keen on starting your career by studying medicine than our previous interview, because she didn’t think the benefits are worth the lost time, which made us less certain about this question.
  • We updated slightly in favor of the idea that most of the benefits of doing vaccine research on a specific disease are flow through effects i.e. advances in one vaccine have many benefits for other vaccines, reducing pandemic risk, and medical research more generally. This suggests that ability at research is relatively more important than the priority of the research question than we previously thought.
  • Katie suggested without prompting that research into neglected tropical diseases might be particularly neglected, which fits with previous research done by Giving What We Can into the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
  • Katie, as with everyone else we’ve spoken to, said that strong motivation by the subject is very important, because the work is tough and the pay is low.
  • Katie thought that the vast majority of people would be better off supporting research through earning to give than by becoming researchers, though talented people should do research, which fits with our view.
  • A useful way to test out a medical research career is to take a research assistant job over the summer.
  • We found that careers in medical research might be more flexible than we had first thought.

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Interview with a Cambridge Professor of Medical Genetics on research careers

Introduction

I recently interviewed John Todd, a Professor of Medical Genetics at Cambridge, as part of a series of interviews we’re carrying out for a case study. The aim of the series is to find out what key people in the field think about:

  1. What opportunities are best in the medical research field?
  2. What’s the balance between talent constraints and funding constraints?
  3. Who’s a good fit for medical research?
  4. Would our case study candidate be a good fit?
  5. How to go about this kind of career

Summary

The main points made in this interview were:

  1. John would prefer a good person in his lab to an extra £0.5mn in annual funding. Generally, there are enough grants, so finding good people is a bigger constraint than money.
  2. People with both medical knowledge with statistical and programming skills are highly sought after.
  3. Within medical research, it’s not straightforward to try to “pick” an area to work on and it changes quickly, though there are some broad strategies to use (e.g. pick diseases neglected by pharma, take a longer term perspective, avoid bandwagons)
  4. If you want to fund medical research, it would be difficult to beat going with the Wellcome Trust or Gates Foundation. Likewise, if you want to find the best areas to work on, these foundations are a good start.
  5. Getting an MD, then doing a PhD as a registrar is a good way in. If you have programming and statistics, you don’t need the PhD.
  6. He prefers Academia to Pharma.

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