Career Advice for Phyllis Schmidt: Choosing Between Masters, Software Engineering, and EA Direct Work

Recently, an effective altruist contacted me looking for career advice. This EA had previously been working on a philosophy Ph.D., but recently decided to abandon the field due to insufficient stable job opportunities. As abandoning the philosophy field is looked upon as very negative by those still in the field, this EA asked me to keep their identity anonymous. Therefore, this person goes by the alias “Phyllis Schmidt”.

Phyllis is currently looking at a wide-variety of options for what to do next, looking to make an informed “best guess”, work on that career for a bit, and then re-evaluate.

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Phyllis is currently considering (roughly ranked):

  • I-O psychologist

  • Software engineer

  • Economist working on development (e.g., J-PAL)

  • Continue philosophy professor path

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Other options Phyllis is open to include:

  • Working directly in an EA org

  • Civil / public service

  • Working in a foundation as a program officer

  • Management consulting

  • Public health

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What follows are my notes to Phyllis on each of the options, followed by general advice:

I-O Psychology Masters

Phyllis has looked over 80k’s list of careers, but feels that pursuing a masters in industrial/organizational (I-O) psychology would be the best fit for her, given her talents and interests.

Potential Upside of I-O

According to Phyllis, I-O has the potential to be a gateway toward high-earning jobs. Psychology About pegs the salary as starting at $64K and rising to about $100K. Phyllis plans to earn to give on this salary.

Phyllis sees I-O as ripe for EA research potential. I-O psych work aimed at the right sectors could fit in 80K’s category of “working inside international organisations, government or foundations to improve them”.

Lastly, this career has not been well explored by EAs yet, and learning about the career could be a valuable contribution in itself.

Potential Downsides of I-O

Need to take a year of pre-req classes to have a shot at getting into a masters program, which is not guaranteed.

The Masters program itself requires two years and tuition to complete, and an exiting job is not guaranteed.

Options for non-PhDs appear limited, according to some Google searching and a conversation with an I-O psychology professor.

Assessment on I-O

I have actually studied organizational psychology a fair amount, even getting a concentration in it. However, I never considered going further in the career, and therefore I don’t know a whole lot about career opportunities, as I’ve never looked at the career much in depth.

It seems like an interesting field with a mix of EA research potential and earning to give potential, though the research is not as good (in my opinion) as other psych topics (e.g., behavior change) and the earning to give is not as good as other opportunities. I’d be concerned about trying to optimize for too much at once, however, as both EtG and research opportunities seem individually better elsewhere.

Also, the double-risk of failure is very daunting – you’re potentially putting a lot of time and money into something that could easily get you nowhere, with no easy way to find out in advance.

Software Engineering

Potential Upsides to Software Engineering

Very high salaries for earning to give

Great work environments

Could lead to direct impact, depending on what you work on (e.g., productivity applications, AI, etc.)

Potential Downsides to Software Engineering

The field is pretty low risk, though you could spend a lot of time learning programming only for it to not work out.

Assessment on Software Engineering

This option has pretty high potential upside, so merits exploration. Luckily, it should only take about 50 or so hours to determine provisionally if software engineering is a good fit. I recommend Phyllis to complete Steps 1 and 2 in my programming guide and then decide if she wants to pursue this field further.

Economics Masters

Potential Upsides to Economics

Leads to a wide variety of favorable options after attaining a Ph.D. (high-paying finance jobs, government work, good EA research opportunities), but it’s unclear whether a masters would attain the same benefits. Phyllis says there are programs like Master’s of Public Administration in International Development that could potentially lead to a job at the World Bank.

Research while getting the degree could be useful to EA.

Potential Downsides to Economics

Long time to finish degree.

No guarantee to get into a program, and finishing the degree does not guarantee a good job.

Might end up not matching Phyllis’s interests.

Overall Assessment of Economics

This route seems better to me than I-O or Philosophy, though I’d have to know more about Phyllis’s interests and economics background. There still is a lot of potential risk here.

Continue Philosophy Ph.D.

Potential Upsides to Philosophy

Potential influencing of students.

Already much of the way through a Ph.D. program (sunk cost)

Potential Downsides to Philosophy

Positions are very low pay.

Positions are in geographic areas undesirable to Phyllis.

Phyllis is very burnt out in this area.

Assessment of Philosophy

I personally tend not to recommend this path because I don’t think the impact is all that high, unless you get really lucky like Peter Singer, or you use it as a platform to do EA org work, like Toby Ord or Will Macaskill. As Phyllis already seems to be looking very negatively upon this path, I don’t think it’s worth exploring further.

Direct Work in an EA Org

A lot of Phyllis’s previous work seems like it would make her well qualified to do good work in an EA org of some sort. I recommend Phyllis look into this in a bit more depth. Unfortunately, as Phyllis is American, the opportunities for stable employment in Oxford’s CEA are more limited, but not impossible. I recommend Phyllis look into doing an internship with CEA and talk to people who work there.

Phyllis could also consider working for American EA organizations or EA-aligned non-profits. American-based The Life You Can Save might be of particular interest to Phyllis. Though I don’t believe they’re doing full hiring yet, I think Phyllis could potentially get an internship there to explore this opportunity further.

Working in a Foundation

Working in a foundation has many potential benefits. Unfortunately, my analysis of foundation jobs shows that positions are very competitive and seem to require a lot of prior specialized education and experience. If Phyllis wishes to work in a Foundation, I recommend pursuing a Ph.D. in economics first.

Conclusion and Next Steps

I generally err against recommending people take on Ph.D. programs without high certainty they’d enjoy and prosper in the field. Unfortunately, this does not yet appear to be the case for Phyllis. Moreover, earning to give opportunities seem higher for Phyllis in software engineering and research opportunities seem better for Phyllis in EA orgs. Lastly, committing to a lot more school does not fit well with the “best guess and re-evaluate” plan.

Therefore, I suggest Phyllis first look more heavily into software engineering and direct work in EA orgs.

I recommend to Phyllis the following next steps:

  • Complete Steps 1 and 2 in my programming guide and then decide if she wants to pursue this field further.

  • Talk to people in CEA, the Life You Can Save, and other EA orgs about what opportunities here might look like – including volunteer opportunities, internships, and full positions. I’d be happy to make these connections.

Epilogue

Phyllis has agreed to look at my programming guide and is strongly considering applying to a programming bootcamp. Phyllis has also been talking to US-based EA organization Animal Charity Evaluators about interning with them.