Should you work at 80,000 Hours?

by Jess_Whittlestone8 min read8th Aug 201311 comments

17

80,000 HoursCareers
Personal Blog

The purpose of this post is to discuss some considerations relevant to whether it is high impact for you as an individual to work for 80,000 Hours.


Disclaimer: I am an employee at 80,000 Hours (from here on 80k). We are currently recruiting, and want to attract people to work for us who are likely to add the most value to 80k so that we can increase our impact. It seems likely that some such people might be found on LessWrong, so we want to encourage critical discussion on here about who should work at 80k. 

This post will be in the format of an interview with Ben Todd, co-founder and executive director of 80,000 Hours, and thus best placed to begin a discussion about who should work for 80k. In what follows, we’ll cover:

  • If you want to support 80k, whether you should work for 80k or fund 80k. This involves some discussion of whether to earn to give or to work directly, adding to the discussion elsewhere on LW.
  • What skills and characteristics are most valuable to 80k
  • Whether working at 80k is likely to help your future career prospects
  • How working at 80k might compare to some alternatives: other EA organisations and professional jobs
  • Who probably shouldn’t work for 80k

What this post won’t cover:


Summary 

 

If you fit the profile we’re looking for in terms of skills and experience (see below or our job descriptions linked to on the blog), think that meta-charity is potentially very high impact and want to innovate in this area, then you should consider applying to work for 80k. 

Even if you’re not entirely convinced that 80k is currently high impact but have ideas of how we could improve so that we are, we’d be very interested to hear them.

If you don’t believe that meta-charity in general or 80k specifically is potentially high impact, believe strongly that a certain narrow cause area is most important, or have a strong desire to work in a specific professional career area, then you may be better working elsewhere.

 

Thanks to Ben Todd and Roman Duda for their help with conducting the discussion that follows.


A big question for effective altruists is whether it’s higher impact to work for an organisation directly or to fund them to employ multiple people in your place. How can someone tell whether it would be better to work for 80k or to fund 80k?

 

Ben: I think a good rule of thumb for this is where you rank in the recruitment process: if you rank pretty highly, then you should probably work for us; if you’re closer to average or below average then you’d probably have more impact funding us. So the short answer is that if you’re interested then the best thing to do is probably to apply and find out!

To expand on this, if you rank highly compared to other applicants then you’re likely to be able to quickly take on high level responsibilities like managing several other team members, fundraising or producing valuable research. You’re also likely to be able to act relatively autonomously and help the rest of the team to perform at a higher level. We find that normally it’s difficult to replace people capable of this even with significant numbers of staff at the margin. This means it’s difficult for people in this position contribute equally with donations, unless you have the option of a very high paying job (able to donate in excess of $100,000).

This is supported by research, which suggests that the within similar roles the best people have many times the output of the average person. The difference is largest for complex roles, and we think most of our roles are highly complex. Moreover, in practice the difference is even larger, because there is variance in the *type of role* people can take as well as within the role. Finally, replacing one person with multiple people adds significantly to the communication costs. This all adds up to our top staff probably having the output of 2-10 staff at the margin. 

CEA and 80k feel pretty heavily talent constrained at these levels. There’s a lot of high value stuff we could do (e.g. apply to more fundraising from foundations, place more stories in the media, do more research that looks really worthwhile, set up new projects) that we’re not able to do due to a lack of people.

Putting this all together, plus the fact that our ranking process is not perfect, if you’re highly ranked I roughly guess you would need to be looking to donate $30,000 - $150,000 per year to break even. I think this drops down fairly quickly as you move down the ranking. 

Note that a crucial consideration is how these figures will evolve over time. My very speculative guess is that we’ll be talent constrained among people who are autonomous and high ability or can act as leader figures for the long-term; whereas we may end up pretty much not funding constrained (that’s the position that GiveWell seems to be in). That speaks in favour of not earning to give.

We’re happy to talk this through with individual people who are wondering whether to work for us or earn to give.

 

What are some general guidelines for the kind of person who is likely to be highly irreplaceable at 80k? 

 

Ben: You need to have strong analytical skills: most people who work for us have a degree in a tough analytical or scientific subject (e.g. maths, physics, economics, philosophy), but if you have work experience to demonstrate this that’s good too. You should be able to manage lots of projects and keep control of lots of tasks at once, and it’s really important that you’re able to motivate yourself easily and work with a high degree of autonomy. Ideally, we’re able to just hand people a portion of what needs doing in one meeting per week and trust them to get things done using appropriate priorities. Because we’re working on some pretty ambitious projects, we look for people who can persist at a tough goal over a long period even in the face of setbacks.

We want people who can not only fit into our team easily, but take on a leadership role and be persuasive and engaging in their communications with others. We’ll assess this in an interview and also look for past management and leadership experience. Of course, it’s also crucial that you really care about making the world a better place, and doing so in a rigorous, evidence-based way. We put high weight on being able to look at things in a rational way and be open to and responsive to new evidence. Ideally you’d also have knowledge of our previous content and that of related organisations like GiveWell. Previous involvement with effective altruist organisations or activities is a plus here, but not necessary.

In terms of the skills and experience we’re looking for more specifically: leadership experience, research skills, knowledge of economics, organisational/personality psychology, and social sciences more generally are all highly valued. Experience in coaching or something relevant is an advantage, and we’re also interested in people with communications, branding, marketing, design or fundraising backgrounds. Generally we don’t expect anyone to have years and years of experience, but our perfect hire would be someone with at least a couple of years work experience, rather than someone just graduated.

If you want to be really certain of how valuable you’d be at 80k, it’s best to do an internship with us and find out. And of course the best indicator of where you’d rank in our recruitment process is just to apply.

 

How good is working at 80k for personal development and future job prospects, especially compared to more professional jobs?

 

Ben: Because 80k is a small and growing organisation, you’ll be able to develop high level skills such as management and gain responsibility more quickly than in almost any job. We see this as a real advantage of working for 80k, as even in high status professional jobs like consulting and finance, it’s hard to get this kind of experience for quite a few years. There’s also a high level of autonomy and flexibility working at 80k, making it relatively easy to fit other learning and skill development around the job: we set aside around 10% of our employees’ time for generally building highly transferable skills. There’s a strong culture of personal development. A lot of people here are interested in quantified self and personal productivity. 

The networking opportunities are pretty good: for example, we currently share our offices with the Future of Humanity Institute and the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in central Oxford. More generally, working for 80k is obviously a great way to interact with a number of people in the effective altruism community. The people we interact with through coaching tend to have impressive backgrounds in a variety of industries (including entrepreneurship, finance, tech, research etc.) And since you’re able to get lots of responsibility quickly here you get to interact with high level people early on because you’ll be externally representing 80k: going to conferences on our behalf, for example.

In terms of general credentials (“CV points”), working for 80k might be a bit weaker than some immediately available alternatives - it’s acknowledged within the effective altruism community but it doesn’t look as good on your CV as McKinsey or Goldman Sachs or Google, obviously. But again, because we’re growing fast and you’ll get large amounts of responsibility this means there’s an opportunity to get some impressive achievements attributed to you if you seek them out. Examples might be running major promotional campaigns or managing a whole team of researchers.

In addition, 80k is part of CEA, which is also growing quickly, and is moving towards becoming an incubator of effective altruist projects. This means there will be plenty of other opportunities within CEA that you could be promoted into, even if you don’t stick within 80k itself.

Compared to more professional jobs like consulting or finance, working for 80k is probably higher risk in terms of future opportunities, because it depends how good your achievements end up being. It’s easier to impress a wider range of people with McKinsey than with 80k. Consulting may well be a more reliable and widely applicable to get what we call “career capital” for many people. Especially if you’ve got a strong desire to get into a specific area (you want to go into finance say, or programming) then it might be better to develop more targeted skills and experience by working in these industries. We’re happy to talk this through with people with specific alternative opportunities. We’ve done this in the past with people and sometimes do recommend that they’re better working elsewhere for personal development, other times working with us does seem to provide a lot of opportunity.

 

What about more generally working for 80k compared to working for other organisations - effective altruist or otherwise? Who shouldn’t work for 80k and would probably be better off elsewhere?

 

Ben: A useful way of thinking about this in general is to start by estimating how you rank relative to other applicants at 80k, and how you rank relative to others at the alternative organisation. Roughly speaking you should then go for where your ranking is highest, adjusted by how high impact you expect the organisations to be. 

Some more specific considerations:

The main reason you’d probably be better off working for somewhere other than 80k is if you think what we’re doing has very little chance of paying off, even with a lot of iterating. If you’re generally sceptical about meta-charity, or just think there’s another project that’s much better, then you’ll probably want to work elsewhere! One quick thing I’d say in favour of 80k here is that we have the advantage and flexibility of being cause-neutral. This means that if you’re uncertain about which cause is the most important, working at 80k might be advantageous as it means you don’t have to specify, and when we get more information about what the best cause is, we’ve got a multiplier on this by helping direct more people in that direction. 

The other side of this, of course, is that if you already think one cause is much more important than anything else, you’re probably better off working for an organisation specifically focused on that cause than for 80k. For instance, if you’re more certain that AI xrisk is the top cause, then you might want to work for MIRI or FHI, or if you think it's global poverty, then working at our sister organisation, Giving What We Can, may be better. You might also argue that whilst 80k provides flexibility, earning to give offers even more: if you get new information which suggests you’re actually more replaceable than you thought you can’t just switch jobs, whereas you can always switch your donations when you learn more. But there’s a lot of uncertainty around the question of whether talent gaps are in general more pressing than funding gaps, and how this will change over time.

Even if you’re convinced that meta-charity is high impact, working for GiveWell might plausibly be a safer bet, especially if you want to work somewhere that has more of a track record. GiveWell is highly respected, thought of as very well run, is doubling its money moved each year and has partnered with Good Ventures (which has $3bn behind it). You have the chance to receive a rigorous training in a useful skill-set.  I think one advantage 80k has over GiveWell is having more innovation value. Right now, we’re doing something completely new: working to identify the biggest talent gaps in the world and help people take them. We’re also smaller and less established, so on that basis I’d expect there to be more opportunity to take a leadership role and shape the development of the organisation (I haven’t asked GiveWell about this though). Finally, GiveWell seems to be emphasising recruiting research orientated folks, whereas we’re also recruiting for people to work on communications, coaching, fundraising and more.

As I mentioned before, if you’re after a specific career area long term (e.g. development policy, politics, academia), then it’s probably best to go straight into it and start building up your network in that area. We also can’t offer as much formal training as an established company, though we offer lots of other personal development opportunities. More likely, you’re uncertain about where you want to go long-term, in which case it might be best to try us (and other opportunities) out. Most people can spare 6-12 months without closing down their options in other fields.

 

What roles might you take?

 

Ben: Our priorities for the next 6 months include (i) doing high quality case studies (ii) writing up our core findings as blog posts (iii) rebranding the website (iv) fundraising (v) evaluating our impact (vi) seeking media coverage. After that, it’s difficult to say, but it’ll be some mixture of doing research, operations and promoting that research.

We aim to keep roles flexible, and adapt them to your skill set and interests. Some people end up as researchers, others focus on promotion, and so on. A typical week involves some meetings with the team, the people you manage and your manager, reading articles and writing up research reports, having meetings with our coachees, talking to external organisations, email, and preparing strategy. You can find out more here.

 

You might also want to check out these other effective altruist organisations currently recruiting: Giving What We Can and Effective Animal Activism. Our umbrella organisation, the Centre for Effective Altruism, is also recruiting for a Research Fellow in Global Prioritisation.






17