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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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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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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Reasoning about influence in politics

Understanding a politician’s influence at first appears to be hopelessly tangled. A politicians’ influence is very tenuously related to the vote they can cast in parliament, and is mediated by a complicated process involving respect for precedent, social consensus, explicit and implicit negotiation, explicit and implicit appeals to popular opinion, and so on. Fortunately, on closer inspection many of these challenges can be ameliorated.

In the following research notes, we introduce an argument that the naive answer is about right: if there are 100 politicians with one vote each, then each politician has about 1% of the total impact of the politicians.

The result is highly useful in making estimates of the influence you might expect to have by becoming a politician, or indeed in any situation when a group of people negotiate over an outcome e.g a company board setting strategy, or a committee of grant makers allocating funding.

Note that the following are only preliminary research notes that were made while doing a case study, and not the results of in-depth analysis, so we’re cautious about the conclusion. Nevertheless, we’re keen to share the ideas and seek feedback.

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Neglectedness and impact

Summary

Let’s suppose there’s a cause that you care about much more than society at large. In your eyes, that cause is neglected. All else equal, you should have more positive impact by working on a neglected cause, because other people won’t already be taking the best opportunities within it. But how much more positive impact can you expect?

The following is a set of research notes we made while performing a case study, which we’re making available for feedback on our thinking. It argues for a simple result: If you care about an output K times more than society at large, then (all else equal) you should expect investing in gaining that output to be K times more effective than making other investments.

For instance, most people don’t put a high weight on avoiding animal suffering. Let’s suppose you do. In fact, you estimate that you care about it roughly 10 times more than the average person (i.e. you would be satisfied investing 10 times the amount of resources to avoid the same amount of animal suffering compared to the average person). Then, you should expect that investing to end animal suffering is, all else equal, roughly 10 times more effective than making other investments.

This seems like it might be a highly relevant consideration in picking causes. If the argument is correct then, all else equal, we should expect more neglected causes to be more effective. Our current position is that the arguement below shows that we should weight neglectedness to some extent in picking causes, but we’re not yet sure how highly we should weight it because we’re not sure: (i) how important neglectedness, as modelled in this way, is compared to other considerations we could investigate (ii) how tractable it is to investigate.

The research note also explores how important this consideration is to members of 80,000 Hours, the effect of adding further considerations, and how the result might be applied in practice.

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Find the Gate

There’s an easy way to tell a smart dog from a stupid dog. There’s a fence in front of you, and behind it is a delicious juicy bone. You’re starting to salivate just thinking about how amazing it will feel between your teeth. Now you have a choice. If you’re a stupid dog, you’ll run at the fence, stand in front of the bone and start to bark. If you’re a smart dog, you’ll look along the fence, find the gate, run happily through it and devour your prize.

Humans also have a hard time finding the gate. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the bone. It can look so inviting that you don’t take the time to look around, take things in, and choose the best path. Sometimes that path is indirect. It often means getting other people involved. But by spending the time, you can have far more impact…

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The high impact PA: how anyone can bring about ground-breaking research

Suppose you could identify a really important research topic – one that could yield huge benefits to millions of people … something like ending ageing, developing a cheap, clean supply of energy, or discovering a cheap vaccine for HIV/AIDs. Suppose you think that carrying out this research is one of the most important things for humanity to do.

At this point, it’s easy to think ‘how can I get involved with this field..?’

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Heuristics for a good life

I wondered what careers or the like help other people the most. Tyler reposted my question, adding:

(Let’s) rule out ‘become a billionaire and give away all your money’ and ‘cure cancer’ by postulating that said person ends up at the 90th percentile of achievement in the specified field but no higher.

Unfortunately calculating the net costs and benefits of all the things one could do with oneself is notoriously impossible. So how about some heuristics for discerning what types of jobs tend to be more socially beneficial?

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