Hide table of contents

This post is for EAs at the start of their careers who are considering which organisations to apply to, and their next steps in general.

Conclusion up front: It can be really hard to get that first job out of university. If you don’t get your top picks, your less exciting backup options can still be great for having a highly impactful career. If those first few years of work experience aren’t your best pick, they will still be useful as a place where you can ‘learn how to job’, save some money, and then pivot or grow from there. 

The main reasons are:

  • The EA job market can be grim. Securing a job at an EA organisation out of university is highly competitive, often resulting in failing to get a job, or chaotic job experiences due to the nascent nature of many EA orgs. An alternative, of getting short-term EA grants to work independently is not much better, as it can lead to financial instability and hinder long-term professional growth.
  • Non-EA jobs have a lot of benefits. They offer a stable and structured environment to build skills, learn organisational norms, get feedback, etc.
  • After, you’ll be better placed to do directly impactful work. After a few years at a non-EA job, you’ll be better placed to fill a lot of roles at EA orgs. You might also be able to start something yourself.
  • Caveats: Of course, take everything with a grain of salt. For every piece of advice, there is someone who needs to hear the opposite, and the advice in here is no exception. 

Acknowledgments: Thanks to the following people for giving some great feedback on an a draft of this post and making it better: David Nash, Matt Reardon, Chana Messinger, Karla Still, Michelle Hutchinson. All opinions are my own. All mistakes are chatGPT’s.

What’s the problem? Three failure modes of trying to get an EA job

It seems like a lot of people who are motivated by the ideas of effective altruism, use ‘get a job at an ‘EA org’ as shorthand for ‘how to have an impact with my career’ (this includes me, but more on that later). By EA org I mean the kind of organisation where most people working there are EAs. This is understandable. Figuring out how to have a positive impact with your career is really hard. It’s a reasonable heuristic that orgs within the EA community are more likely to have a big positive impact in the world than the average non-profit. Finally, we’re all sensitive to status in our community, and in some parts of EA, working at an EA org is definitely considered pretty darn cool. 

One issue with this that I want to briefly flag is that ‘working at an EA org’ and ‘doing impactful work’ are not interchangeable (Michelle at 80,000 Hours covers that well here). But the other thing that you probably know  is that EA jobs are really hard to get. They are really, really, competitive. Some jobs get hundreds of high-quality applications. I think this leads to a few failure modes.

Story 1 - Lots of rejections: An ambitious, smart, highly engaged EA, fresh out of uni, applies to a lot of EA organisations. They make it far in the hiring rounds, maybe even to trial periods. But, after many disheartening months of applications, trial tasks, and interviews, they don’t get an EA job at an EA org. 

Story 2 - Chaotic EA Job: Alternatively, maybe they get the job at an impactful organisation™, thinking they’ve made it past the hard bit. However, many EA orgs are very young. This can lead to things like a chaotic onboarding, a lack of HR practices, inexperienced managers, and sudden changes in funding or strategy that can leave them without a job. And if that isn’t enough, EA branding does not guarantee an org is doing impactful work.

Both of these stories are pretty bad. These situations are psychologically and financially taxing. This is both personally bad and can harm your motivation to keep trying to help others. Both of these stories take a lot of effort but without the rewards of professional growth or a salary. 

However, at the end of these stories, incentives push towards picking another job at a non-EA org. I think this is a relatively good outcome in the end (more on that below). Unfortunately, I think there’s a third story, that didn’t exist in EA seven years ago, that is causing extra problems. This is the story of limping from grant to grant.

Story 3 - Limping from grant to grant: In 2017, if you applied to a bunch of EA jobs, and didn’t get any, money would force you to find another job. In 2024, this is no longer the case. With the prevalence of small grants and a range of contractor work (e.g. community building, virtual program facilitator, etc) it’s possible to get enough funding to do direct work. When funders give small grants to early-career individuals, they’ll often make bets with tail outcomes in mind, like ‘maybe this person will be shockingly good. They probably won’t be, but it’s worth taking the bet.’ This strategy makes sense if you’re a time-poor funder taking a hits-based approach. 

But if you are the person receiving the grant, and your career plan is to go from grant to grant for the next few years, I think this is problematic for several reasons:

  • Often the funding is enough to just get by, especially if you are used to being a student. This means the financial forces that force you into a non-EA job no longer exist. A 3-month grant and a few virtual programs a year is enough to stay in this cycle indefinitely.
  • This isn’t going to be the best way to try and have the biggest impact over the course of your career.  In the long run, I think it’s often better to grow at a stable organisation for a few years (especially if you’re fresh out of university), and then re-pursue directly working on impactful projects later. Here’s why…

Maybe let the non-EA world train you

Maybe let the non-EA world train you. In addition to applying for that dream EA job fresh out of university, I encourage you to see getting a job with decent career capital as a good next step. It doesn’t need to be a top 4 consulting firm or a white house internship. Lots of other types of career capital are better than a string of failed applications, and in my opinion, better than limping from grant to grant or contractor work. Some of the benefits of a non-EA job, as opposed to going from grant to grant:

  1. Slowly grow your skill tree: an entry-level job means you start working on small problems, and then once you master them, are given bigger and bigger challenges. It can start with formatting slides, or learning some spreadsheet formulas, or summarising research. Then you move from doing tasks, to managing parts of projects, to managing projects, to large projects with several people working under you. At each stage, some time is given to learn that skill properly. 
  2. Learn how normal organisations work: There’s a lot to be said about working at a normal functioning organisation for a few years. Even a poorly run organisation will still imbue dozens of big and small lessons that you’ll pick up. While these aren’t always great practices, they’re better than trying to learn everything from first principles and Google. 
  3. A stable workplace: There are lots of times it makes sense to work at an uncertain or unstable workplace, such as a startup that is pursuing something ambitious. But let me tell you, there’s something to be said for a workplace that is stable. Wondering if you’ll have a job next quarter or year takes up a lot of mental energy. That is energy that isn’t being spent on other things like focusing on the project in front of you, self-development, hobbies,  friends, or literally anything else.  
  4. Get feedback from a manager (hopefully): This one varies more from organisation to organisation and manager to manager. But a good manager, who is interested in your growth, is incredibly valuable early in your career. 

What’s more, EA organisations know the above as well. If I see two similar candidates, but one has 3 years of professional experience and one is fresh out of university,  I’ll assume the more experienced candidate will have a lot of extra soft skills. Sometimes, the right graduate will be a great fit for a role. But I think this is more the exception than the rule. 

Let’s get specific. Some of my story

This is all very abstract so far, so I thought I’d share some of my story. 

My background: I applied for a few EA jobs in 2018/2019. I went into these applications with 2.5 years of work experience. But the experience was scrappy and piecemeal, including 2 years as a part-time research assistant in psychology research spanning 3 universities, and about 8 months as a part-time data analyst at a public health consultancy. 

Failure to launch: I made it very far in a few rounds, getting to a probation at Longview Philanthropy, and a 3-week trial at GiveWell. I ultimately didn’t get either job. I think in both instances a lot of the mistakes I made were about making some weird or poor choices in how I approached my work that stemmed from not having a good understanding of what was wanted from me, and some soft skills like how to manage up. It didn’t help that both organisations are unusually selective about hiring either.  This period really sucked for me. If I wasn’t socially connected in the London EA community at the time there’s a good chance that would have been it for me and EA. 

My non-EA career break: With my tail between my legs, I finally lowered my bar substantially and got a role at an animal advocacyish non-profit. It was a more junior role, at an organisation that wasn’t particularly focused on impact, with an unengaged manager, and not great career capital.

And yet… several good things happened during this time. The job was stable, allowing me to learn some of the basics of ‘how to job’. For those of you wondering what kind of tasks I mean, it can range from sending well-crafted emails, planning and executing a project, using excel, running productive meetings, etc. Eventually, I learned slightly harder skills, like how to delegate, hire, manage, put in project proposals, etc. 

After 3 years of working at this organisation, I was in a far better place to apply for and meaningfully contribute at EA organisations. I got a few great job offers at organisations I was excited to work at (EA Australia and Farmed Animal Funders).  And I felt far more equipped when starting in these roles. 

Takeaways: I wasn’t particularly strategic about getting to this point. There are other jobs that would have built better career capital. I should have applied to those instead. And you should too. And yet, working at a normal, not too impressive organisation was good enough. More importantly, working at a standard and stable non-profit, for 3 years, gave me a range of skills that I didn’t get applying for EA jobs, or from a string of part-time contractor stints where I wasn’t integrated into a larger organisation.

Caveats

  1. You should still apply to ambitious organisations! Some of you will get these jobs straight out of university and thrive. Just also apply to a range of other organisations as well. 
  2. My take about ‘story 3 - limping from grant to grant’ is definitely something I’ve seen anecdotally. But maybe a grant or two out of university is a good approach for some people. Maybe it allows some people to do good independent work, and then get noticed and hired. If you think getting grants straight out of uni is good, I’d love to hear why. If you’re a funder who tends to fund these types of projects I’d love to hear why as well.
  3. Some EA organisations are probably well-placed to hire and train graduates. If you’re looking for these jobs, I’d look for jobs that are explicitly entry-level. Just remember that they’ll still probably be very competitive.
  4. I mention these briefly, but I want to reiterate: There is a huge amount of variance in which non-EA org you end up at. It isn’t the case that every EA org is a chaotic mess, and every non-EA org is great for career capital. 

Wrapping up

Don’t get me wrong, I think people should apply for ambitious roles straight out of university - both at EA orgs and at fancy non-EA orgs with career capital like Bain, or the White House. 

But to reiterate the advice I am trying to offer is this: It can be really hard to get that first job out of university. If you don’t get your top picks, your less exciting backup options can still be great for having a highly impactful career. If those first few years of work experience aren’t your best pick, they will still be useful as a place where you can ‘learn how to job’, save some money, and then pivot or grow from there. Good luck. 


 

369

27
0
4

Reactions

27
0
4

More posts like this

Comments29
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I think many more junior people should consider careers in government.

Interesting, I think precisely the opposite. From my experience in government, this is where highly capable people lose ambition and go on to live lives of mediocrity, conformity and no impact. You learn to be a bureaucratic paper pusher who does as they are told and work 9-4 with lots of breaks and holidays and never has any metrics they need to hit.

I'm sure this comment will get downvoted but I think it at least needs to be out there.

I'm curious where in government your experience comes from. One issue in these conversations is that I think some people who feel they have a high impact job/opportunity in government want to be a bit quiet about it because doing otherwise could attract unnecessary hurdles from stakeholders/politicians who have interests against their goals. In contrast, those who have direct experience with low impact jobs at least don't have that specific disincentive to talk about it. With that said I agree that government is extremely high variance.

Prior to EA, I worked with a political party/candidate in Canada (who was an MP and cabinet minister) and I also worked at the National Research Council of Canada.

The British civil service is really good for this. We don't pay as much at a senior level as the private sector, so instead we put a lot of effort into creating a good work culture with lots of training and feedback (of course still varies between departments and managers!).

It's also very easy to get experience presenting to boards or helping to hire people, and relatively easy to get management experience.

I've heard an EA say that working for the government was depressing and mostly taught them what not to do. Government can be really dysfunctional.

I have also heard this but i have also heard the complete opposite, that gov taught them to be able to do things quickly and not perfectly under pressure which is very valuable. I also think in general it has a high variability depending on personal fit and which department and manager you have. I will add that particularly in the animal space most organisations don't know how to lobby due to a lack of people getting this insider experience. So i think civil service is great for SOME people and maybe more valuable for certain cause areas than others. But i tend to agree that we should lean into more people testing their fit to figure out where they land on working there or at least exploring this as a great career option and talk to some people before hand to work out whether they are likely to be a good fit 

Yes I think the correct takeaway is that it's high variance. I didn't mean to say that all government jobs would be like that. :)

Can you elaborate on why? Is it the career capital, direct impact, or something else altogether?

Yes, I was thinking all of those:

  • Career capital generally seems good for a variety of jobs in think tanks. You could also take a high-paying job as a lobbyist and earn-to-give. (Obviously you still want to be choosy what you are a lobbyist for, so as to not do actual harm with your job.)

  • I think the direct impact is underrated, especially if you can get to the Legislative Director level or something senior it does seem like some staff get a surprising amount of autonomy to pursue policies they care most about and that a lot of good policy is bottlenecked on having someone to champion it and aggressively push for it.

Also just want to add that lobbying is a very sought after skill in some EA cause areas (like animals) where there is a skill gap so you could also consider getting a role in an animal advocacy non profit after to help them make progress and not have to pay extortionate PA prices. 

+1 to direct impact being underrated. But i do think that its not just any role that can be useful and that most of working in government is what you make out of it (networking, finding the highest leverage opportunities and connections etc.) not just getting a role. 

Further reasons this is a good idea:

-It reduces the degree to which the community is an epistemic bubble.

-On priors, it would be surprising if the best opportunities to do good for everyone all involved being part of one pretty small, eccentric community. (Even if you think AI risk is more important than everything else, you don't need to be "in EA" to help with AI risk. You could just be a civil servant working on governance or something like that.) 

I certainly value my first job out of university for teaching me all sorts of lessons about productivity, communication, writing emails, management, and just work in general. I didn't appreciate it at first, but the value of these many lessons became apparent after about 8 months. I also just had to "lean in" to mastering the little things about the job, no matter how pointless they seemed.

I have recently been speaking with some people who are about to retire from their normal job, are looking for stuff to do with their time, and wish they had more meaning in their work. Additionally, they aren't really worried about a paycheck - they have their retirement plan. This has me thinking about how soon-to-be retirees with a chritable/altruistic bent may be a great unexplored (or maybe just lesser explored) source of talent for the EA movement and EA orgs.

Unfortunately, I feel a lot of the intro EA materials aren't targeted to this demographic. Therefore, I find it challenging to provide the people I've spoken to with appropriate materials to explore further. Basically, if someone has been thoroughly trained by non-EA orgs, how do we best bring them into EA? Maybe I'm totally off-base with this idea, but doesn't seem too fanatical at the moment.

Definitely wish I read and believed this when I was out of college.

One thing that surprised me once I got my 'dream job' was how behind I was on soft skills. I think if I had 'lowered my bar' earlier, I would have had more practice in communicating concisely, staying cool in stressful situations, and building work relationships.

Not sure if that path would have been more or less impactful in expectation, but there are definitely benefits to 'lower ambition' that I'm only appreciating now

I can definitely +1 this, and I'm sure many of my colleagues would agree.

For one thing, experienced EAs would generally prefer not to spend much time training people in things they could learn elsewhere. It's not like we have a pool of experienced EA researchers/employees, with extra time, looking for more people to train.

Second, it seems that recently there's been more of a funding crunch. The number of talented individuals has gone up, many are now older / more experienced (so, better paid), but OP still represents the giant majority of much of EA funding. 

It seems like the strategy now is to encourage people to on the margin do more earning-to-give, and find useful work outside of OP funded organizations. 

One additional reason:

If you get your (initial) training from a neutral-ish impact organisation, like some management consulting or tech companies, and then move on to a high impact job, you can add value right away with less 'training costs' for the high impact org = more impact.

All else equal, an EA org with staff with 1-3 years (non-EA) job experience can achieve more impact quicker than one with partly inexperienced staff.

That said, some things such as good epistemics or high moral integrity may be easier to learn at EA orgs (though they can definitely also be learned elsewhere).

Thanks for writing this! It seems really useful for people getting started on their career to hear concrete experiences others have had. 

I'm so impressed with your persistence in finding roles that help others as much as possible. In your place finding it difficult to get the roles I wanted, I can imagine selecting for roles I'd enjoy and would pay well, rather than continuing to look for roles that helped others like in animal advocacy. I also imagine feeling kind of bitter about my bad luck. I'm so grateful for how resiliently you've stuck with the project of longrun having impact, and how kindhearted rather than frustrated you've continued to be.

A couple of other thoughts about the ideas in the post: 

  • One way people might think of getting short term grants is as being analogous to getting post docs in academia - doing one post doc is expected, two is fine, but after that if you're not finding longterm positions you probably want to be considering non-academic jobs in addition to academic ones.
  • How good/bad it is to have a stable job vs being on a grant varies a lot by person, and by life stage. Personally, I really value stability (eg living in the same place) and prefer having a manager, but have reasonable financial stability. Some of my friends really appreciate variety and independence. Others need more financial stability than I do. It could easily be the right decision for a person never to be willing to work on a grant rather than taking a stable job, even though the grant would be a much better option for someone else.

Great stuff Elliot :)

I’m going to be very honest here and say; if I considered working at an EA org but found a lot of their management had only ever worked at EA orgs, I’d have some pretty serious concerns.

One concrete concern; I’d ask some pointed questions about their experience managing employees who are parents.

A second; I remember reading a job ad from an EA org that said something to the effect of “if you can’t handle direct criticism then this probably isn’t for you.” Well, I personally enjoy criticism, but the fact that this job ad got through a bunch of people without that line being amended showed me a serious lack of organisational self awareness.

Thanks for writing this up - I really agree, from my own experience and also anecdotally from others I've met. I wrote about exactly this recently on the forum too, though I think you make the point much more clearly! 

I agree with this and will add a (potentially unpopular) caveat of my own - work a 'normal' job outside of your EA interest area altogether if possible. Absolutely fantastic applicable experience to a whole range of stuff.

I hire for AI-related roles sometimes and one of the main things I look for when hiring AI Safety roles is experience doing other work. Undergrad to Postgrad to Academic Role is great for many, but experience working in a 'normal' work environment is super valuable and is something I look for. It seems super neglected for consideration in recruiting too. For me it's a huge green flag.

Just understanding how large organisations work, how stuff like logistics and supply chains work, the 'soft knowledge' often missing from a pure research career is insanely valuable in many sectors.

It's almost frowned upon to the extent people apologise for it.  "I worked 2 years in a warehouse, but not because I don't care about AI Safety, it's just I needed the money" - like dude, actual logistics experience is why I picked you for interview!

Your mileage may vary obviously, and the AI Safety roles I hire for are for 'frontline impact' so less research and more stakeholder interaction so those soft skills are more useful, but too many people think stepping outside the "academic beeline" is some kind of failure.

It's also worth highlighting I do super impactful AI Safety work now, leading a team that does some amazing frontline work, and in the past have been rejected from every single EA grant, EA fellowship, and EA job I've ever applied to :) That can be demoralising, but obviously wasn't related to my value! Perhaps just fit and luck :)

I absolutely agree! One thing I've been thinking about recently: I used to think that if I want to make a career move in the next 6 months, I should start out by applying to really ambitious jobs and then lower my standards. I'm rethinking this. I now think it's probably good to get better-than-now Plan B offers early on too, even if I end up turning them down, both because it helps me calibrate, but honestly much more importantly because it keeps me motivated! Getting even 3 or 4 rejections in a row can be really hard emotionally

I've supported >100 people in their career plans, and this seems pretty solid but underappreciated advice. Thanks for writing it up!

I think I made that mistake too. I went for EA jobs early in my career (running EA Berlin and then EA Germany 2019-22, funded by CEA grants). There were some good reasons: This work seemed particularly neglected in 2019-21, it seemed a good fit and three senior people I had in-depth career 1-1s with all recommended it. I learned a lot, met many inspiring people and I think I did had some significant positive impact as well, on the community overall (it grew and professionalized) and on some individual member's careers.

However, I made a lot of mistakes too, had slow feedback loops (no manager, little mentorship), and I'm pretty sure I would have learned many (soft) skills faster and built overall better career capital (both in- and outside of EA), if I had first spent 1-2 years in management consulting or in a fast growing (non-EA) tech company with good management, and then went on to direct EA work.

Enjoyed this read, Elliot. 

Thanks for sharing! 
I really agree with this too, i think there is a lot of pressure in the EA community to get a job in EA to feel part of the community and this often leads to people just trying to get jobs immediately, when often you can do the most good by gaining some experience first. I will caveat that i still think there is a spectrum of certain jobs where you can learn more or less and it is still important to try to find those ones or have some idea of what you want to try your fit for first. In addition its not the case for all roles, e.g. i think campaigners in the animal space would be better going into this role straight out of university-ish because a lot of it is learning on the job/ from others and there aren't many campaign type jobs in for-profits :) 

For me personally, even though I think I had the steepest learning curve in my current role as a founder, I learnt a lot in my previous years of work that was transferable. More importantly, I built up financial stability that helped me take bigger risks, like starting my own organisation (I am PRETTY certain i would not have done this if i didn't have the buffer i had and a fall back job) 

I wonder how as a community we can help people to feel okay about this and less pressure to get an EA job straight away? More case studies? 

Thank you for taking the time to write this post! I started working for High Impact Medicine when I already had experience working for a for-profit start-up, three hospitals and a very large non-profit (MSF) and I can say for sure that I've learnt a lot and that it has helped me build my character :)

I just realised a caveat: of course, you will also meet really cool people in non-impact-focused organisations / for-profits and can really enjoy working in these teams, which could lead to value drift over time (the people you spend the most time with will influence you). 

I agree this is an important point I probably didn't discuss enough. Value drift is real, as is getting used to a high salary. 

I suspect that a strong community is one way to reduce this, but might be easier said than done depending on where someone lives.

Executive summary: For early-career EAs, working at a non-EA organization can provide valuable skills, experience, and stability that can lead to greater impact in the long run compared to solely pursuing competitive EA jobs or relying on short-term grants.

Key points:

  1. Securing a job at an EA organization straight out of university is highly competitive and can result in rejections or chaotic work experiences.
  2. Relying on short-term EA grants for income can lead to financial instability and hinder professional growth.
  3. Non-EA jobs offer a stable environment to build skills, learn organizational norms, and receive feedback.
  4. After gaining experience in a non-EA job, individuals are better positioned to pursue impactful work at EA organizations or start their own initiatives.
  5. The author's personal experience demonstrates how working at a non-EA nonprofit provided valuable skills and stability, leading to better opportunities in the EA space later on.

 

 

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.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities