The Undercover Economist speaks to 80,000 Hours


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.

Continue reading →

Case study: earning to give compared to medical research


Ramit came to us with a simple question: should I try to train as a medic with the aim of doing biomedical research, or should I seek a high earning job in finance and pursue Earning to Give?

He’s currently doing both – working as a quantitative financial analyst giving away more than a third of his salary (he was an early stage funder of Give Directly) and taking pre-med courses part time, as well as other projects!

Ramit’s initial thought was that the biomedical research path would be better. Read on to find out how he came to change his mind, and came up with a new set of next steps.

Continue reading →

Interview with leading HIV vaccine researcher – Prof. Sir Andrew McMichael


Andrew McMichael

Continuing our investigation into medical research careers, we interviewed Prof. Andrew McMichael. Andrew is Director of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, and focuses especially on two areas of special interest to us: HIV and flu vaccines.

Key points made

  • Andrew would recommend starting in medicine for the increased security, better earnings, broader perspective and greater set of opportunities at the end. The main cost is that it takes about 5 years longer.
  • In the medicine career track, you qualify as a doctor in 5-6 years, then you work as a junior doctor for 3-5 years, while starting a PhD. During this time, you start to move towards a promising speciality, where you build your career.
  • In the biology career track, get a good undergraduate degree, then do a PhD. It’s very important to join a top lab and publish early in your career. Then you can start to move towards an interesting area.
  • After you finish your PhD is a good time to reassess. It’s a competitive career, and if you’re not headed towards the top, be prepared to do something else. Public health is a common backup option, which can make a significant contribution. If you’ve studied medicine, you can do that. People sometimes get stranded mid-career, and that can be tough.
  • An outstanding post-doc applicant has a great reference from their PhD supervisor, is good at statistics/maths/programming, and has published in a top journal.
  • If you qualify in medicine in the UK, you can earn as much as ordinary doctors while doing your research, though you’ll miss out on private practice. In the US, you’ll earn less.
  • Some exciting areas right now include stem cell research, neuroscience, psychiatry and the HIV vaccine.
  • To increase your impact, work on good quality basic science, but keep an eye out for applications.
  • Programming, mathematics and statistics are all valuable skills. Other skills shortages develop from the introduction of new technologies.
  • Good researchers can normally get funded, and Andrew would probably prefer a good researcher to a half million pound grant, though he wasn’t sure.
  • He doesn’t think that bad methodology or publication bias is a significant problem in basic science, though it might be in clinical trials.

Continue reading →

Which cause is most effective?

In previous posts, we explained what causes are and presented a method for assessing them in terms of expected effectiveness.

In this post, we apply this method to identify a list of causes that we think represent some particularly promising opportunities for having a social impact in your career (though there are many others we don’t cover!).

We’d like to emphasise that these are just informed guesses over which there’s disagreement. We don’t expect the results to be highly robust. However, you have to choose something to work on, so we think it’ll be useful to share our guesses to give you ideas and so we can get feedback on our reasoning – we’ve certainly had lots of requests to do so. In the future, we’d like more people to independently apply the methodology to a wider range of causes and do more research into the biggest uncertainties.

The following is intended to be a list of some of the most effective causes in general to work on, based on broad human values. Which cause is most effective for an individual to work on also depends on what resources they have (money, skills, experience), their comparative advantages and how motivated they are. This list is just intended as a starting point, which needs to be combined with individual considerations. An individual’s list may differ due also to differences in values. After we present the list, we go over some of the key assumptions we made and how these assumptions affect the rankings.

We intend to update the list significantly over time as more research is done into these issues. Fortunately, more and more cause prioritisation research is being done, so we’re optimistic our answers will become more solid over the next couple of years. This also means we think it’s highly important to stay flexible, build career capital, and keep your options open.

In the rest of this post we:
1. Provide a summary list of high priority causes
2. Explain what each cause is and overview our reasons for including it
3. Explain how key judgement calls alter the ranking
4. Overview how we came up with the list and how we’ll take it forward
5. Answer other common questions

Continue reading →

A comparison of medical research and earning to give

Introduction and Summary

We recently did a case study with Ramit (see the full case study write up here). He was wondering whether to start a medicine degree, with the aim of going into research, or to continue in finance doing earning to give, where he already has a job as a quant researcher earning in the range of $150,000 per year.

We did an in-depth comparison of the expected impact of the two paths to help him decide. The rest of this post contains our case study research notes on the comparison.

If forced to guess now, we lean in favor of earning to give, though we think it’s very high priority to gain more information. Ramit is going to try to better assess his degree of fit with medical research, perhaps by working as a researcher during the summer, and learn more about his earnings prospects in finance by making applications and speaking to a headhunter. We’ll review our decision when we find out more.

In the rest of the post, we explain our reasoning:

  1. We outline our general approach
  2. We define a number of factors to compare the two options
  3. We evaluate the two paths based on the factors
  4. We make our overall conclusions

Note that there were several potentially important issues we didn’t address, including job satisfaction and which path is best for career capital in careers besides finance and research.

Continue reading →

Interview with malaria vaccine researcher Katie Ewer


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.

Continue reading →

Interview with a Cambridge Professor of Medical Genetics on research careers


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


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.

Continue reading →

What should you do with a very large amount of money?

A philanthropist who will remain anonymous recently asked Nick Beckstead, a trustee of 80,000 Hours, what he would do with a very large amount of money.

Nick, with support from Carl Shulman (a research advisor to 80,000 Hours), wrote a detailed answer: A long-run perspective on strategic cause selection and philanthropy.

If you’re looking to spend or influence large budgets with the aim of improving the world (or happen to be extremely wealthy!) we recommend taking a look. It also contains brief arguments in favor of five causes.

Continue reading →

Is most research a waste?

Worldwide, over US$100 billion is invested every year in supporting biomedical research, which results in an estimated 1 million research publications per year

A recently updated systematic review of 79 follow-up studies of research reported in abstracts estimated the rate of publication of full reports after 9 years to be only 53%.

An e?cient system of research should address health problems of importance to populations and the interventions and outcomes considered important by patients and clinicians. However, public funding of research is correlated only modestly with disease burden, if at all.


Continue reading →

High Impact Science

Paul Ehrlich began his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, with this statement:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to
death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a
substantial increase in the world death rate.

Ehrlich predicted the deaths as a consequence of the challenge of feeding a
rapidly growing world population, pointing to recent devastating famines in
South Asia. But even as those words were written, the fields were being planted
with new, higher-yielding semi-dwarf strains of wheat and rice.

Continue reading →