Career Advice for Jacy, Choosing Between Ph.D. Programs

Jacy is an effective altruist trying to decide what career to go into after college. He’s currently choosing between a Ph.D. in neuroscience or a Ph.D. in economics. He wrote to me asking for advice. This was my reply. We both agreed it would be good to publish it so that others thinking about Ph.D. programs can benefit as well.

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I made you wait a long time for not too much, because I don’t know a lot about PhD programs. So I’ll be saying more general things that are less helpful.

Generally speaking, I’m skeptical of PhD programs because they tend to really restrict your options (committing you to a path for several years), which seems bad early on when you’re just learning about what you can do.

My intuition is that a PhD is a pretty poor path toward earning a lot of money, because the earnings are not a guarantee and they are in the more distant future, requiring discounting for both time and probability. An economics PhD might be an exception for opening up superior finance careers, but I suspect that if you have the talent to do well in finance, you’d have that talent immediately and could go in straight away. That’s just a guess though.

Notably, this time distance and the option-closing inflexibility seems especially bad when you consider the fact that (luckily) it seems EA is heading long-term toward having more money than talent. Thus, it seems best to me (right now, based on what I know), for really dedicated EAs to head toward doing more direct work than earning to give. So not only do I think PhDs are an inferior path to earning to give, I think earning to give might be an inferior path altogether.

Thus, in my opinion, what you’re really comparing PhDs on is the “valuable academic research” route. This way, getting a PhD could be valuable direct work. Here, my intuitions lean to economics PhD over neuroscience for a variety of reasons: (1) economics seems more relevant to policy and thus more likely to make changes that lead to impact, (2) economists seem more credible as influencers generally, and (3) economists get to focus specifically on the developing world over the developed world where needs seem less strong. (Also, weighted in the favor of economics is the non-direct impact stuff.)

I know you’ve been thinking through this a lot and have been having a hard time choosing between many different choices. My guess is that if you’re not >95% committed to an economics PhD for reasons both including effective altruism and including non-EA stuff like personal satisfaction / enjoyment / etc., you should hold off and do something that keeps your options open. Learn more about what direct work you could do or what your earnings in finance et. al. could be (perhaps by trying these things for a year each or something), and then make a decision based off that. You’ll be in a much better position to make an informed choice after that.

In addition, you might find it useful to reflect on your open options with criteria on paper, like I did here. Then publish it for people to review and critique. This was the single most helpful thing I did for myself, but I understand it’s not how everyone thinks through things best.