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A lot of great projects have started in informal ways: a startup in someone’s garage, or a scrappy project run by volunteers. Sometimes people jump into these and are happy they did so.

But I’ve also seen people caught off-guard by arrangements that weren’t what they expected, especially early in their careers. I’ve been there, when I was a new graduate interning at a religious center that came with room, board, and $200 a month. I remember my horror when my dentist checkup cost most of a month’s income, or when I found out that my nine-month internship came with zero vacation days. It was an overall positive experience for me (after we worked out the vacation thing), but it’s better to go in clear-eyed.

First, I’ve listed a bunch of things to consider. These are drawn from several different situations I’ve heard about, both inside and outside EA. There are also a lot of advice pieces from the for-profit world about choosing between a startup and a more established company.

Second, I’ve compiled some anonymous thoughts from a few people who've worked both at small EA projects and also at larger more established ones.

Things to consider

Your needs

  • Will the pay or stipend cover your expenses? See a fuller list here, including
    • Medical insurance and unexpected medical costs
    • Taxes (including self-employment taxes if they're not legally your employer)
    • Any loans you have
  • Will medical insurance be provided?
  • Maybe they’ve indicated “If we get funding, we’ll be able to pay you for this internship.” Will you be ok if they don’t get funding and you don’t get paid?
  • Maybe they’ve indicated you’ll get a promotion after a period of lower-status work or “proving yourself.” If that promotion never comes, will that work for you?
  • If you need equipment like a laptop, are you providing that or are they? Who owns the equipment?
  • If you got a concussion tomorrow and needed to rest for a month, what would the plan be? If not covered by your work arrangement, do you have something else you can fall back on?
    • Medical care
    • A place to stay
    • Income
  • If you need to leave this arrangement unexpectedly, do you have enough money for a flight to your hometown or whatever your backup plan is?

Predictability and stability

  • How long have they been established as an organization? Newer organizations are likely more flexible, but also more likely to change direction or to close down.
  • How much staff turnover has there been recently? There are various possible reasons for high staff turnover, but one could be a poor working environment.

Structure and accountability

  • Will someone serve as your manager? How often will you meet with them? If there's not much oversight / guidance, do you have a sense of how well you function without that?
  • Is there a board? If so, does the board seem likely to engage and address problems if needed?
  • Are there established staff policies, or is it more free-form? If there’s a specific policy you expect to be important for you, like parental leave, you may want to choose a workplace that already has a spelled-out policy that works for you.

If living on-site

  • Will you have a room to yourself, or will you ever be expected to share a bedroom or sleep in a common area?
  • Is it feasible to get off-site for some time away from your coworkers? How remote is the location? Living and working with the same people all the time can get intense.

Work agreement

  • Is there a written work agreement or contract? If there isn’t one already, you can ask for one. For example, in my state anyone employing a nanny is required to write out an agreement including
    • Pay rate
    • Work schedule
    • Job duties
    • Sick leave, holidays, vacation, and personal days
    • Any other benefits
    • Eligibility for worker’s compensation
    • Process for raising and resolving concerns (typically the option of a weekly meeting)
  • Get things in writing. If you discuss your work arrangement verbally, and they haven’t sent you a written agreement, you can send a written message afterwards along the lines of “I want to be sure we’re on the same page. In our conversation just now we agreed on X, Y, and Z. Is that right?”
  • Spell out the rate at which days off (holidays, sick days, etc) will be paid. If room and board is normally part of the package, how does that work during your holidays, vacation time, and sick time?
  • Are there specific times when you’re not allowed to take vacation/holidays because of events or busy seasons at work?
  • Is this an arrangement with set hours, or can you set your own hours, or is the expectation “work whatever hours needed to accomplish X”? What kind of hours do other people work?
  • Are you expected to attend work-related functions in addition to normal work?
  • Consider asking someone you trust (and who has had several jobs before) to look over the contract.

Communications

  • Will you have permission to list this work experience on your LinkedIn, etc? There may be good reasons for not allowing this — maybe it’s a startup in stealth mode, or works in a sensitive area — but consider if you’ll be able to use the job for resume-building.
  • Are there restrictions on your social media use? Will you need to avoid posting spicy takes on work-related topics? Will they expect you to take down any existing material you’ve written? (This may be more likely at more established organizations.)

Unpaid or barely-paid arrangements

  • In some countries you can volunteer or intern at nonprofits and not be paid minimum wage. If you’re a volunteer, are you genuinely excited about contributing to the project’s work? If you’re an intern, are you gaining useful skills and experience? Or are you just very cheap labor?
  • In EA, many (most?) projects pay their interns / fellows. If this project doesn’t have money to pay you, it might be a genuinely promising project that just hasn’t caught on with funders, or funders might have a reason for not being excited, or the project might not have tried to fundraise for these roles.

Travel

  • If you need to move for this job, will any moving expenses be covered?
  • Will you need travel medical insurance?
  • Can you get items that are important to you in that location? (food to meet your diet, medicine?)
  • If you see a therapist or other healthcare provider remotely, many of them have restrictions on operating across borders. 
  • Will you be able to interface with locals if you don’t speak the local language?

Legal

  • Will you be on a proper work visa, or are you expected to do work on a tourist visa?
    • If you don’t have the legal right to work in that country, how bad would it be if you get in trouble for your visa and are never be able to enter this country again?
  • Does your status (as a contractor vs employee) match the kind of work you’ll be doing according to the country’s labor laws, or are you doing employee work but being called a contractor?
  • Will you be expected to drive (including in a country where driving rules are different from what you’re used to)? Are you licensed to drive? Will you be expected to drive a type of vehicle (like a large van) you’re not experienced with?

Outside view

  • Talk with someone who has worked for this organization or manager before, maybe especially someone who has left the organization.
  • Is there someone you trust, ideally someone with related work experience, who you can talk over your decision with? What questions do they have about the arrangement?
  • Once you’re at the project, do you have a social anchor outside that group you can stay in touch with?

Advice from a few EAs

This is a combination of lightly-edited thoughts from a few EAs who have worked both at small less-structured projects and at larger organizations.

A small project might be a better fit than a big one

I feel a bit on the edge about focusing so much on the informal projects — I am personally very unsure about my fit for a larger organization and my first year working at one has been challenging. I sometimes feel the meme spreading that working at a larger EA organization is better on so many dimensions, and even though it does provide some perks, I have had amazing times working at small informal projects and for me, one is not clearly better than the other one. Especially when you are in a time that you are more ok with taking risks I think it might be a good choice for proactive and problem-solving individuals. I learned so much at small projects and created super valuable friendships, and generally love the dynamism and sense of ambition.

Be picky

  • Treat the choice of where to work (including within the space of “EA orgs”) as an extremely serious decision. For most EAs, the stakes are much(!) higher than the stakes for their donations. 
    • Take your time to figure this out, including e.g. calendar time delays to talk to potential references. 
    • Err against rushing this decision. If it is rushed, track that as a cost/potential source of error.
  • Don’t assume that they’re impactful because they’re EAs.
  • Reason about this for yourself, don’t defer to them. They are strongly selected for thinking that whatever they’re doing is great, even if ~no one else thinks this.

The organization’s reputation

  • Ask around. What do other people think of this organization?
  • Don’t just rely on references they gave you. E.g. “This intern can tell you how great their experience was.” Also seek out references they might not want you to hear. 
  • Is it conventionally prestigious? (A more conventionally prestigious organization is likely to give you more flexible career capital)

Due diligence

  • Don’t assume that they’re maximally transparent (even if they’re EAs) 
  • What is their track record in terms of achieving objectively impressive things in the world?
    • Relatedly to the above, don’t trust them when they tell you about this. Try to do some amount of independent verification of claims. If they turn out to be exaggerated, that’s a major reason for suspicion.  
  • Don’t assume that they’re necessarily cooperative in wanting the best for the world (or you) as opposed to locally trying to get you to do their work.
  • Things that are unconventional or weird can sometimes be the right career choices. But the vast majority of "weird things" (including within EA nowadays I'd guess) just aren't that great. So the more something is unconventional, the more you'll need to do your own due diligence and independent thinking about it: if you just go work for Apple, you'll kind of know what you get and probably be ~fine if you don't pay attention to minor yellow flags or just don't worry about the details of your work arrangements etc. But if you go work for a small new org without funding, you'll really want to tune up your BS-detector.
  • Did they get funding? Are their hiring rounds competitive? If not, be more suspicious/beware of adverse selection: perhaps other people don’t work there or fund them because they know stuff you don’t.
    • E.g. maybe they don’t have money to pay you, because funders don’t want them to hire/manage people, or funders just think they’re low-impact. This is one reason that getting a normal-ish salary and then donating is often better than taking a huge paycut, even if you’re altruistic.

Spell things out

It seems boring, but talk ASAP about roles, responsibilities, and expectations. It's ok to not know and to redefine for every project you start, but knowing that you are both thinking that you don't know seems valuable.

Interpersonal fit

  • The smaller the organization and the more undefined it is, the more important it is that the collaboration is good. And not just nice, but that the collaboration is good when "shit hits the fan.” Conflicts will inevitably arise, and interpersonal conflicts are extremely likely to form in small, chaotic, informal teams. So the question is how you can handle these conflicts together, if you have good communication, if you trust each other, and if you are willing to step aside for the other person and help, even if this means doing things that you don't like / that you did not expect / that feel lower status.
  • Ways I test interpersonal fit when I am forming small projects now:
    • conversations about feedback culture
    • three days in-person work test that are mostly about testing fit for working together (so not testing skills, but how do we scope together something that is very ill-defined and we probably have different ideas about?) and also hanging out informally (e.g.; having dinner, playing board games, etc.). 
    • an open feedback conversation that includes negative feedback at the end, to test if you could work through issues that could be emotional together
  • I recommend having an outside person who can help you to process interpersonal fit. At [small organization] we followed the process where every team member had a conversation about the interpersonal work culture/dynamic with a board member at the start of the collaboration, and a similar conversation after three months. One of the goals was to surface issues before they were too big.
  • I recommend having an outside person who knows all team members (decently) well and can play a helping role by talking with people and helping to process what's going on.

Test and adjust

  • Have a three month (or other time interval) explicit 'testing' period. [Small project] usually works with three months of mutual (it's for both sides!) testing out. We have not needed to terminate, but having an explicit re-evaluation and clear moment of "It’s ok to leave, and we are probing you now to consider if you want to leave" seems good.
  • If the project is not open to testing and shaping the working relationship, I would find this a red flag. I would like to know if they are open to suggestions along the lines of the above.
  • Be ready to leave — sometimes it doesn't work out, and that's ok.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:46 PM

I would note a consideration in terms of impact. Orgs that are larger, have more resources for better perks, can offer higher pay, and are more prestigious are going to be able to attract stronger applicants, all else being equal. Consequently, your impact is going to be the delta between the world with you in that position in the org and that of the person who would occupy that position. Consequently, your expected impact might be small or negative (or it could be high if you are exceptional at it relative to the second best option). I think EAs in general tend to conflate the value that is actualized by an org's operation with their counterfactual impact by taking a job at such an org. 

I understand the concerns with small, new, organizations with less funding. Surely in some circumstances this can be a reflection of the merits of the organization, but in some circumstances, there is a promising project that needs help getting off the ground. The counterfactual  person who might occupy the position in question for that org might not exist at all or could be much less competent. If you have reason to believe an org is significantly underrated in terms of funding access, prestige, etc., helping in early stages might be the highest EV choice.

This also is probably more of a hits-based approach than joining an established, funded, prestigious org. If you join that org, you will have a high probably of seeing legible impact and feel good about being a part of it, although it is hard to surmise what difference you made versus the other person they would have counterfactually hired. On the other hand, joining a new organization that you think has a promising theory of change is much less likely to yield a legibly impactful outcome. Even if there is a sound theory, there are just a lot of variables that could prevent a new org from being impactful. On the other hand, if such an org does succeed and scales, your dedicated and competent support of the org may actually have been the but-for cause of its success, implying high utility gains. If you are talented, hardworking, bright, good at networking, organized, etc. and are good at assessing areas that might be undervalued, I think the highest impact work would be at such underrated orgs. I definitely think this approach is less likely to lead to more happy or secure lives, however.

Agreed; but I'd also add that I think in any role, the default assumption is that if you're selected for the job, you're likely to be at least somewhat better than the next best candidate. Applying for the job is a great way to find this out, and if you're uncertain about the counterfactual, you can also be open with the team about this and ask them how much they prefer you to the next best candidate – I've done this before and got replies that I think are honest and open. (Though some care is needed with this reasoning: if everyone did this, they'd just end up down at the best candidate who doesn't think to ask this.)

But yeah agree that the gap between you and the next best candidate is likely to be bigger for a less conventionally-appealing project.

(Additional musing this made me think of: there's also the consideration that the next-best candidate also has a counterfactual, and if they're aligned will probably themselves end up doing something else impactful if they don't take this job. A bit of a rabbit hole, but I think can still be useful: e.g. you could consider whether you seem more or less dedicated to a high-impact career than the typical applicant for the job. Or could ask the hiring manager whether they had promising community-external candidates, and whether they think you being aligned adds a lot to how well you'll do in the role.)

Additional musing this made me think of: there's also the consideration that the next-best candidate also has a counterfactual, and if they're aligned will probably themselves end up doing something else impactful if they don't take this job

Agreed, if you or other people want to read about issues with naive counterfactuals, I briefly discuss it here

Probably lots of motivated reasoning here as I am doing something quite entrepreneurial myself: A positive about doing something in the early stages is that if we get lots of additional EA funding in a few years (there are indications chances of this are significant), we will likely again be scrambling for people to start new projects, just like in the "FTX days". It would be good both for:

  • Candidates to build career capital, knowledge and skills in starting something new, and
  • For these candidates to have a track record from doing so to demonstrate to grantmakers

I think these skills are somewhat uniquely built in doing something as close as possible to EA entrepreneurship.

I hadn't read this at the time I wrote the post, but an excerpt from Ricki Heicklen's piece in the "Mistakes" issue of Asterisk Magazine:
 

In January 2022, I decided to leave my job at Jane Street Capital to move to the Bahamas and take a job as a generalist at a new crypto firm funded by Sam Bankman-Fried. In the weeks that followed, I had three strokes of good luck:

a) I talked to a family friend, a lawyer familiar with financial fraud, who expressed alarm about various details of my new job. From our conversations, I made a list of a few dozen questions to investigate before committing.

b) I shared those questions with my new employers, believing they would be appreciated as valuable for our firm.

c) A few hours after sharing the questions, I was told not to come into work the next day

Fully agree. And a flip side of this: reading this list also seems very valuable for people looking to recruit for early-stage projects. Putting yourself on the more reassuring side of as many of these points as is achievable is likely to aid recruitment, and reduce risks around staff retention, satisfaction and public image. 

Some of the points won't be possible in every situation (e.g. things that cost a lot when you're tight on funding); but others are likely achievable for everyone, e.g. clarifying expectations around the items on this list, having a written agreement (even if informal) detailing what each side is committing to.

These are great things to check! It's especially important to do this kind of due diligence if you're leaving your support network behind (e.g. moving country). Thanks for spelling things out for people new to the job market ❤️

I'm curating this post. 

Partly this is because there is great advice in here, which I expect will be useful to early career EAs, and I'd love more of them to see it. 

But I'm also curating this because good career advice is valuable, and It'd be great to see more of it posted on the Forum. If you have given a piece of career-related advice to several people, consider writing it up for the Forum. If it is small, or you aren't sure whether it is valuable, post it as a scrappy quick take. 

This is mentioned here, but I want to double down on the value of "asking around about the organization and what the experiences of others were". 

I talked to someone recently in tech about whether there were good ways to find out if working at any given tech organization was right for you, and he said basically no, that it was hard to get an accurate picture, that the resources that had tried to do this in the field (like Blind) added some information but gave warped impressions from who posted there. (That said, from a quick skim, it seems a lot better than nothing to me! I'm glad it exists)

So basically my current view is it's hard, and you might need to get information from a bunch of different sources.

Strong +1 to all of the above - I've observed this a lot especially with ops roles.

I was literally starting to compile a list like this for myself personally. Thank you!

Executive summary: When considering an informal job or internship opportunity, especially early in your career, carefully evaluate details like pay, structure, interpersonal fit, and exit options to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Key points:

  1. Assess if the pay and benefits will realistically cover your needs, including backups for uncertainty.
  2. Consider the organization's stage, turnover, accountability, and policies around issues like parental leave.
  3. For on-site roles, evaluate lodging, time off-site, and work-life separation.
  4. Request a written work agreement covering details like pay, hours, time off, and raising concerns.
  5. Evaluate the people, communication norms, and processes for addressing interpersonal conflicts.
  6. For unpaid or alternative arrangements, ensure you're gaining commensurate value and have financial backups.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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