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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Plan change story: interview with Dillon Bowen, founder of Effective Altruism group at Tufts University

I recently interviewed Dillon Bowen, who runs the EA student group at Tufts University, about how his career plans changed as a result of interacting with 80,000 Hours. Dillon’s original plan was to do a Philosophy PhD and then go into philosophy academia. After going to a talk at Tufts by our co-founder Will MacAskill and receiving career coaching from 80,000 Hours, he started taking classes in economics, now intends to do an Economics PhD instead.

More details of the key points from the interview are below.

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I want to make a difference. Should I become a philosopher?

To most people, this question sounds like a joke. I think that’s the wrong reaction. (Full career profile on philosophy PhDs here)

I think research into philosophy (certainly, at least, moral philosophy, and some other areas in political philosophy, epistemology and decision theory), is potentially extremely valuable. The impact of philosophy on the world seems to me to have been vast. Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine shaped much of Christian ethics. Locke heavily influenced the American constitution. Peter Singer helped give rise to both the animal welfare movement and to the effective altruism community, and Nick Bostrom has catalyzed concern for existential risks, in particular risks from artificial intelligence. If you include aspects of the Bible (such as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule), the writings of Budda and the writings of Confucius as philosophy, as I think you should, then most people for most of civilization have had large chunks of their lives shaped by the philosophical views of the time…

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Should you do a computer science PhD?

We’ve released a new exploratory profile on computer science PhD’s in the US.

Our recommendation in the profile:

A computer science PhD offers the chance to become a leading researcher in a highly important field with potential for transformational research. Especially consider it if you want to enter computer science academia or do high-level research in industry and expect to be among the top 30% of PhD candidates.

Read the rest of the profile.

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Why an economics PhD might be the best graduate program

We’ve released an exploratory profile on doing an Economics PhD in the US, concluding that it looks like one of the most promising graduate study options for people who want to make a difference.

Our recommendation in the profile:

An economics PhD is one of the most attractive graduate programs: if you get through, you have a high chance of landing a good research job in academia or policy – promising areas for social impact – and you have back-up options in the corporate sector since the skills you learn are in-demand (unlike many PhD programs). You should especially consider an economics PhD if you want to go into research roles, are good at maths (i.e. quant GRE score above 165) and have a proven interest in economics research.

Read the rest of the profile.

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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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Economics PhD the only one worth getting?

Introduction

Here’s a case for doing an Economics PhD by Noah Smith, professor of finance at Stony Brook University. We think it’s an interesting argument, though there’s much more we need to investigate to work out whether this is an especially promising path for 80,000 Hours members. Regardless, we think that many of our readers will find this article and several of the embedded links useful.

If you’re persuaded, Smith also coauthored a guide on how to get into an Economics PhD program.

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Career Opportunities for Economics PhDs

Introduction

This post presents some research notes we made while investigating the value of economics PhDs. We were motivated to do this research because we have some reasons to think that an economics PhD is a particularly good way to build career capital and keep one’s options open. We have coached several individuals who are considering applying to economics PhD programs. We lacked information about a) how useful an economics PhD is for high impact careers outside of academia and b) how important attending a top ranked program is for different career options. With more information, we can be more confident in determining whether an economics PhD or an alternative is the best option in individual cases.

Summary

Key findings from our research are:

  • A majority (about 60%) of economics PhDs place into academic positions immediately following graduate school. About one-in-six place into government, and a similar percentage place into the private sector. Very few place into nonprofits or think tanks.

  • Program tier does not appear to affect what sector one places into, but placement types can vary widely between individual programs.

  • Within academia, professorships in top departments are largely held by graduates of top tier programs. For example, twenty-six percent of faculty at the top 15 departments earned their PhDs at Harvard or MIT.

  • One-in-three professors at LSE and Oxford, top ranked departments outside of the US, went to a 1st tier program in the US.

  • Prestigious awards within economics tend to go to individuals who graduated from top-ranked programs.

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The value of economics PhDs: A conversation with Robin Hanson

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Summary

Purpose of the call: We organized this call to learn more about the value of getting a PhD in economics to help advise people considering that path.

Why this person: We sought Robin’s thoughts because he is a like-minded economics professor with whom we already had a relationship.

We discussed what career options are available to people who get PhDs in economics, who is a good fit for a PhD in economics, and how to maximize one’s impact in economics. We did not discuss highly data-oriented questions, such as PhD acceptance rates, tenure rates, and portions of economics PhDs working in different areas.

An economics PhD is

  1. generally necessary for becoming an economics professor

  2. can be a promising route (among some other potentially promising routes) to finding work in think tanks, government agencies, international organizations such as the World Bank,

  3. can be helpful for getting a job in consulting.

Good indicators of fit for an economics PhD include aptitude for math, interest in economics, being open-minded about research topics, being able to work on challenging tasks with little direction from others, and being willing to put in a lot of hours. A firm grasp of basic economics concepts and theory, developed through years of practice, is very valuable for understanding how the social world works, which is helpful for evaluating causes and interventions.

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