What are the 10 most harmful jobs?

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Maybe you could earn a lot of money advertising cigarettes. But even if you would give it to charity, you shouldn’t do it.

We spend most of our time discussing the most helpful careers that you should take.

We just created a three minute career recommender to highlight some of the options with the largest positive social impact for you.

As most of the people we talk to are deciding between reasonable to excellent options, this seems like the right focus.

But which careers are the worst?

Here we try to guess which mainstream jobs are most likely to do significant harm. As almost no one we know is considering careers of this kind we have limited our investment in this research; it’s an initial exploration of the topic, based on general knowledge and a review of the key figures.

Here are the criteria:

  • The job has to be legal. Needless to say, organised crime is a harmful career!
  • More than one in a million people has to work in the job in the OECD, so it can’t be incredibly obscure or specific.
  • It can’t be harmful only if you’re particularly incompetent (for example, being a bad teacher), deliberately trying to do a bad job, or violating the profession’s code of ethics.

It’s easy to think of jobs that are useless and just transfer money from one person to another.

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‘Replaceability’ isn’t as important as you might think (or we’ve suggested)

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Often if you turn down a skilled job, the role simply won’t be filled at all because there’s no suitable substitute available. For this and other reasons we don’t place as much weight as we used to on the idea of ‘replaceability’.

When we started 80,000 Hours, one of the key ideas we presented was the replaceability argument:

Suppose you become a surgeon and perform 100 life saving operations. Naively it seems like your impact is to save 100 people’s lives. If you hadn’t taken the job, however, someone else likely would have taken it instead. So your true (counterfactual) impact is less than the good you do directly.

I still think this is a good argument, but I’m not sure how relevant it is when comparing real career options.

In particular, I see the argument often being used incorrectly in the following two ways:

  1. Ignoring direct harm: Suppose you’re considering taking a job that some people think is harmful (e.g. certain parts of the financial sector) in order to donate, do advocacy or build skills. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so the potential harm I’ll do directly doesn’t matter”.

  2. Ignoring direct impact: Suppose you’re considering working at a high-impact nonprofit. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so I won’t have much impact.”

I disagree with both of these claims in most circumstances. Why?

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Systemic change becomes non-systemic change and vice versa

As you might have heard, there is an active debate among the 80,000 Hours community about the effectiveness of attempts to change societal systems – such as laws, institutions or social norms – versus so-called “non-systemic” approaches, such as funding health treatments directly, or becoming a teacher.

Sometimes these debates become quite heated.

To put my cards on the table, I lean towards systemic change being a more promising approach, at least given my skills. Hence, I’ve studied public policy and worked in a Government think tank myself. I also see one of the major long-run impacts of 80,000 Hours to be changing social norms about how people think about how they spend their working life.

But I find it hard to get too passionate with those who lean the other way. One reason for this was well explained in a comment by my friend Catriona Mackay:

I think that people on the whole are biased towards against non-systemic change (i.e if you did a survey asking whether it’s best to treat the causes or the symptoms of poverty, almost everyone would answer ’causes’, even if there were strong evidence that both were effective in terms of increasing net well-being), and so it’s likely that non-systemic causes are more underfunded, so I can contribute more.

On the other hand, I think that scaling up proven health solutions and cash grants and so on are also ways of contributing to systemic/revolutionary change.

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In some careers your parents can give you a huge boost. Should you do what they did?

Angelina-Jon-GettyWould Angelina Jolie have been as successful if her father wasn’t Jon Voight?

In our talks we often note that in the past people typically went into the same career as their parents, but today young people are free to choose from a much wider range of options that might suit them better. That’s true, and it’s a great thing. However, there are still sometimes reasons to follow in your parents’ footsteps.

New research shows that working in the same field as a successful parent can give your odds of success a huge boost. Surely some of what’s going on here is that the child of a star parent is more likely to try to enter the same field in the first place, but part must also be that they are more likely to succeed when they do so.

Some, perhaps even most, of that effect will be due to to unfair and zero-sum nepotistic advantage, and so shouldn’t be actively exploited. But part of it must also be down to nothing immoral: you will start learning about the work incidentally from a young age, you’ll happen to make useful contacts as you grow up, and your parent may even be able to offer you personal coaching.

Unfortunately, the boost seems to be largest in fields where performance is hardest to measure (it’s smaller in sport and science) or where a brand surname matters, as in politics.

Here are the results for some of the most competitive positions in society:

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I recommend reading the full article which has many more details.

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New TEDx talk released!

Check out the TEDx talk video by our Executive Director and co-founder Benjamin Todd.

In it, Ben sets out what we’ve learned through our research about finding fulfilling work. Rather than following your passion, find something you’re good at that helps others. If you aim to do what’s valuable, passion for your work will emerge. And you can also make a big difference with your life.

If you like what you see, please go ahead and share the video. We’d like to get it listed on the main TED channel!

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Stop worrying so much about the long-term

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Today I’ve been reviewing our most recent round of coaching, and something struck me about the applications. Many of them were written by people who were clearly desperate to plan out the next decade of their career, or even their entire working life. As a result, they tended to feel anxious and even overwhelmed by the options available and the weight of the decisions in front of them.

Might this be you? Some giveaways are phrases like “how can I find the right career for me?” or “I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life”.

To people who feel this way, I have this advice: stop worrying so much about the long-term.

Don’t get me wrong, of course your career decisions are important. 80,000 Hours is built around the idea that you can make an incredible difference through your career choices, if you choose carefully.

However, I don’t think that making a detailed career plan is a particularly good way to ensure that your career goes well in the long-term. A better idea, especially at the start of your career, is to make sure you get the next step right: focus on getting into a better position, and then worry about what comes next when more decisions arise.

This may sound counter-intuitive. So why do I recommend it? Four reasons:

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Update: Don’t follow your passion

Some have claimed “follow your passion” is the definitive career advice of our time.

The idea behind the slogan “follow your passion” is that the best way to choose a career is to:

  1. Identify your passions through self-reflection.
  2. Identify careers that involve those passions.
  3. Try to get one of those careers.

The reason this advice works is because:

  1. Matching your career with your passions in this way is the best way to be truly satisfied with your work.
  2. If you’re satisfied with your work, you’ll be good at what you do.
  3. Being good at what you do is the best way to make the world a better place.

We mainly disagree with the first and last claims: matching your career with your passions is not a particularly good way to find satisfying work, and being good at what you do is only one factor that matters for having a social impact.

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Lots of new content released to the site

We’ve recently expanded our research page into a series of ten, supported by sixteen career profiles. In total, we’ve released around 30,000 words of new content.

We provide an overview of everything on the getting started page.

The three most important pages are:

  1. Top careers: Lists the most promising careers from among the careers we’ve investigated so far.
  2. How to choose: A step-by-step process to make your next career decision.
  3. Our framework: A checklist of criteria to use to compare your individual options in terms of how much difference you can make.

Some other important pages include:

  • Top strategies: A list of strategies you can take to make a difference (skill build, experiment with your options, do research, earning to give, advocacy, work at effective organisations, entrepreneurship).
  • Cause selection: A framework for comparing causes, and our list of top causes.
  • Personal fit: A step-by-step process for finding a career that fits, and our views on ‘do what you’re passionate about’.
  • Job satisfaction: How to assess jobs in terms of how satisfying you’re likely to find them.

Many of our views on these topics have changed since we last wrote about them. I’ll be going through some of the changes on the blog over the next couple of weeks.

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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

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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.

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Should more altruists consider entrepreneurship?

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One thing you might consider, if you’re aiming to do the most good with your career, is going into entrepreneurship. In this post I’ll summarise our reasons for thinking for-profit entrepreneurship[^1] is a promising career path for altruists, and outline our plans for research which will form the later parts of this blog series.

In summary:

  • For-profit entrepreneurship is potentially one of the highest earning careers, making it an attractive option for earning to give
  • It seems more promising than other high-earning careers for doing good directly, because you have the option to sell products that help the world, and contribute to innovation in the economy
  • Furthermore, we think that startups may be one of the best ways to build career capital early on in your career

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How Important are Future Generations?

At 80,000 Hours, we think it’s really important to find the causes in which you can make the most difference. One important consideration in evaluating causes is how much we should care about their impact on future generations. Important new research by a trustee of CEA (our parent charity) Nick Beckstead, argues that the impact on the long-term direction of future civilization is likely to be the most important consideration in working out the importance of a cause.

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Does your personality matter in picking a career?

In order to work out current best practice within career advising, we looked into personality testing. Several people I have asked for advice have recommended that we consider using it.

Having investigated the leading personality tests, however, we’ve concluded that they’re not very useful in choosing your career. This is because they haven’t been shown to predict the real world outcomes that matter: (i) finding careers you will find satisfying (ii) finding careers that you will succeed in.

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Your career is like a startup

We think that we can draw many useful insights about career planning from thinking about how startups operate successfully. There seem to be a lot of direct analogies between startup strategy and career planning: both mean finding a niche where you can excel and beat the competition, and both require doing so in a highly uncertain and changing environment.

So what can we learn about career planning from startup strategy?

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How important is keeping your options open?

Why do so many elite graduates go into finance and consulting? At Princeton, for example, more than 30% enter finance alone.

The Aspen Impact Careers recently conducted research that attempted to work out why so many elite graduates enter finance and consulting (unpublished). They found several important factors, which chime with the explanations proposed by commentators in the media. But they proposed that the single biggest factor was a desire to keep options open. Entry level consulting and finance jobs successfully market themselves as a great general purpose training and a ticket to all sorts of other jobs in the future. The same is true of Teach for America. The demand is real, and all three have been rewarded with strong applications.

From an entirely personal point of view, it makes sense to prioritise keeping your options open in the first couple of years of your career. You have little idea what you’ll enjoy or be good at when you start working, or what opportunities will come your way in the future. A good way to deal with the problem is to take the job that most keeps your options open. That way you can learn more about what you enjoy, but retain the ability to switch into another job if it turns out you don’t enjoy your first one.

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Can you measure the good you

The idea that it’s impossible to measure which career lets you make the most difference is silly.

If it were true, then packing meat for a living would be, for all we know, as good for the world as running Oxfam or being a great President.

Why, then, do we so often meet the idea that ‘you can’t measure the good done by a career’? – an idea that quashes debate about what’s best to do, and thus leads millions of ambitious young people to do less for the world than they could.

Here’s the mistakes I think are being made.

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The best career advice you never heard in a graduation speech

“Follow your passion” is the stupidest career advice I’ve ever heard. Why? Because my passion in life is for singing bad karaoke. My friend Dodgy Dave’s passion is for dealing crack cocaine. Some of my friends have many passions. Most of my friends have none.

“Do what you’re good at” is better, but still stupid. It gets things the wrong way around. For almost all activities, being “good at” something is the result of thousands of hours of practice and learning (pdf). In choosing a career, you’re almost always making the decision about what to become good at, not the other way around.

How, then, should you find a job you’ll love?

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