Be Specific About Your Career
Alice is trying to maximize the impact of her career. She is deciding between biosecurity research and building the effective altruism community (meta-EA). As far as she can tell, her fit is about the same for both paths.
She attempts to decide between them by zooming out. What cause has a higher impact? Which one is more neglected? Which cause is more tractable?
These are all useful questions to ask. However, they are very abstract. There is another set of questions that Alice is likely to find very useful:
If I chose meta-EA as my career path, what, specifically, would I be doing?
- At which organization would I work?
- What would I do at that organization?
- Would I plan events?
- Which events?
- What would the goals of those events be?
If I chose biosecurity, what, specifically, would I be doing?
- Would I get a Ph.D.?
- If so, where?
- Who would be my advisor?
- What would the topic of my thesis be?
- What lines of research would I be pursuing?
It doesn’t matter whether meta-EA is better than biosecurity research in general; what matters is whether biosecurity research is better than meta-EA for Alice. An analysis of Alice’s individual impact screens off any analysis of average impact. (Of course, the impact of the specific things she would be doing is informed by an average impact analysis.)
Being specific about your career is very difficult. This is a feature. If you can’t tell a plausible story for why the work you would do as a biosecurity researcher is impactful, you don’t know enough about being a biosecurity researcher. One example of such a story is: “I would work at X research group studying ways to use lasers to neutralize viral pathogens, developing technology that would allow future pandemics to be quickly stamped out without waiting for the development of vaccines.” If you can’t construct a story of similar detail for yourself, you probably do not know what biosecurity researchers do.
I often see people think about their careers from the perspective of abstract cause prioritization. Besides such broad analysis, they should construct specific narratives linking potential career paths to impact. Jerry Cleaver: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.”