I Now Have Approximately Five Career Categories

Continued from “My Careers Plan”.

As I continue the third week of the school year, I have 7 months and 29 days until I graduate and need a “Thing To Do After I Graduate”(TM) in order to qualify for “The Real World”(TM). Earlier, I outlined a plan to try and get a career that would lead me on a path “that will, taken as a whole, contribute the most to the world with regard to my utilitarian goals to increase total well-being”.

I recognize that my first career very likely won’t be my only career or even the place I spent all that much time at. But it’s important that I have a “first step” or “five year plan” to figure out where I’m supposed to be pointed at in order to make this well-being maximization thing actually happen.

So where should I point? I’ve narrowed it down to approximately five broad categories. In no particular order, they are: law school, graduate school, computer programming, market research, or non-profit work. I say “approximately” because these categories can be combined in some ways to make new opportunities.

Here’s the details. Sorry it’s long, but it’s a complicated question and I have a lot of thoughts. I really appreciate all those people who have taken the time to slog through this with me and give me valuable advice.

My Methodology

The methodology I followed was the following:

  1. Decided on what general values and criteria I wanted to uphold in pursuing career choice (effective altruism).

  2. Created as comprehensive of a list as I could of careers that fit my general values and criteria (see here).

  3. Solicited feedback on this list generally.

  4. Broke down the careers and identified people I respect in those careers I could talk to. I then asked them (26 different people so far) specific questions. I also asked them about opportunities not on my list.

  5. Processed and aggregated their responses into a Workflowy document.

  6. Reviewed their responses and my thoughts and narrowed down the list.

  7. Synthesized everything into what you see here.

What’s Currently Out and Why

I had previously entertained some other career options, but I’ve decided that I really do need to narrow some things down in order to focus particularly on areas I find more promising – I’m worried enough that I’m spreading myself too thin even with just five options. So here’s why I got rid of some options.

Investment Banking / Finance: This career is the highest earning that is feasible to get into as a graduate (and therefore offer the most to donate), but from what I’ve experienced of it, I don’t think the job and social environment of it are a good fit for me. Also, I have not done the things that are generally considered necessary to prepare for it (have a very relevant major and do an internship or two in finance). Overall, I probably could make an effort to try and get into this field, but it just doesn’t appeal to me.

Consulting: Consulting seems like it could have promisingly high salaries with even higher earning potential down the road. But the consulting jobs I would have access to, assuming I could get them, are all extremely high travel. As someone who values stable routines in predictable places and doesn’t like to travel, this would annoy me a lot. Therefore, this job is just not going to be for me.

Startups: Startups might have an even higher earning potential than finance, though this seems highly uncertain. I just don’t feel passionate about trying to make this happen, though, and I think that’s exceptionally critical for startup success. I don’t have any good ideas for startups or really any particular aptitude in this area.

Journalism: I think I’m a good writer and could have an opportunity to influence people through journalism. However, I have a low expectation that people would actually read my material and change their mind. Moreover, I think it’s important for journalism that you already be famous for some other reason before you’ll get picked up by major publications. For now, I’ll just stick to writing in my blog and around the internet, but be open to these opportunities if they present themselves.

Option #1: Law School

Besides maybe finances and startups, corporate law probably has the highest potential earnings out of any career. Once you finish three years of law school, I’m told by a bunch of people that if you go to a good enough law school and do well enough, you could get hired into a job at $160K. Yes, this job is in New York and yes the lifestyle of the lawyer is a bit higher spending, but I’d be very surprised if I couldn’t donate $80K or more a year off of the base salary.

Add to that the fact that there are bonuses of $10K-$60K and there’s even more to donate. Best of all, if one does well enough to make partner or counsel in the firm, one could potentially make $300K to $3M a year after 15-20 years of being in law.

Why am I interested in law?

Well, besides getting lots of money for altruistic purposes, I do find the actual subject matter interesting. This is what makes the law, for me, very different from finance (where I don’t care much). I did Mock Trial for all four years in high school and did Moot Court for all four years in college, even making it as far as the first round of Moot Court Nationals last year. I enjoy reading court cases and think I would also enjoy other aspects of the law. I also think I have decent aptitude in this area, though it’s a bit hard to tell.

What are my chances of getting into a top 10 law school?

Admissions to law school seem pretty straightforward based on college GPA, LSAT score, and a little bit of consideration given to other things like race, in state status (if a state school), your personal statement, and extracurricular activities you’ve done in college. From here, you can see a list of top schools and quartiles for GPA and LSAT and even derive a probability calculator based on past results.

Currently, I have a GPA of 3.5, which is great, but not stellar top school material, putting me at maybe the range of top 25 schools. Right now, my LSAT scores on practice tests are coming in at 166, which puts me in the range of top 15 schools. The calculator suggests I have a little bit below even odds of getting into a top 10 school right now. I’m personally hoping that, between now and the time I take the LSAT, I’ll find a way to boost my score up a little bit more.

What are my chances of getting a high-income job, given getting into a top 10 law school?

I’m told by quite a few people that the standard $160K law jobs recruit lots of people from top 10 schools, so if you’ve made it to the top 10 law school, you can pretty easily make it into the law job, provided you don’t burn out in law school. For non-top-10 schools, this probably isn’t the case, which is why I want to focus so heavily on getting into a top 10 school.

How likely would I be to continue in law, given that I get into it?

The biggest risk I see to law school is that I get as far as being in a law job and then either (a) hate it and want to quit or (b) get fired. The social environment of the law job seems like it could be quite like that of finance. I’m personally not an exceedingly outgoing person and dislike “going to the bar”, so I might not fit in with what are the stereotypical backslapping law types. But I have seen quite a few successful lawyers that don’t fit that stereotype.

I know the hours of law are quite ruthless. I’m not sure how well I’d do with that. I’m already used to working quite a lot (averaging an 81 hour workweek), but never on the same task. I like varied work, and law might not provide that. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the law environment is difficult for altruistic tendencies to survive and thrive.

It’s possible that law could get me into other high-paying careers, but this route is not ideal. Given the time and money costs of law school, I think I should go only if I intend to be a lawyer basically forever.

How much of a concern is the three-year delay of going to law school?

The biggest issue people bring up to me is the delay involved in going to law school for three years (and potentially more delay with debt repayment). I think this is a serious concern, but not for the reasons people think. Most people seem driven to reject this with the haste consideration – thinking that getting money now is more important than getting even more money later. But the salaries for law are double or more what I could make through any other route and I think that more than makes up for the pause. I think the haste consideration matters, but maybe not all that much. We only can spend money so quickly and it would also be good to have more later.

What is a concern, however, is the amount of time and money that needs to be invested in a career that might not work out well. This is potentially high-risk and I should aim to be very sure that law is a good path for me.

Option #2: Graduate School

I used to really want to be a college professor because I thought it would be a really fun and personally satisfying job, and I think I have a lot of aptitude in this area. I still think that, but I’m concerned that the possibilities for impact are, while not low in an absolute sense, lower than I would like. I’ve become recently concerned that people tend not to read academic research or put it to good use, and that’s when the research is actionable, useful, and practical in the first place, which it generally isn’t.

There might be some opportunities to do useful research that could make an impact on the world and there might be other benefits to being a professor, like writing a bestselling book and getting a lot of influence, but these opportunities seem very unlikely and happen only to a select few highly skilled and highly lucky people.

I still see it as a really good fit for me personally, even if it might not be the highest impact. Additionally, I think there’s a chance that getting a masters in something like statistics could open up some high-paying jobs that are very relevant to where I see my interests and skills lying.

Could the concerns of irrelevance be addressed?

I think this is a possibility, but I’m worried that it is unlikely. Some research in psychology seems rather relevant to effective altruism, like Paul Slovic’s work on how people think about charity or Tversky and Kahneman’s work on biases.

Could I get the benefits of graduate school without going to graduate school?

It seems somewhat plausible that any studies I’d want to run for their impact value, I could run without needing to be a graduate student, perhaps through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or go to work doing research for an existing EA organization – and probably accomplish both with far more academic freedom and less hassle. What I would miss, however, would be the skills development and credentials that come with graduate school, as well as the nearly unlimited supply of undergraduate research participants. But it’s possible I could do research as direct work in an EA org, or on the side of a different earning to give career.

How likely would I be to get into a desired graduate program? How likely would I be to secure a good future based on being in a desired graduate program?

I don’t currently have good answers to these programs, but my initial thoughts are the chances are perhaps above 50%.

What is my chance of burning out or abandoning this idea prematurely? I’ve heard a lot about graduate school burnout. So far, I’ve gone through four years of college without tiring much for academic curiosity and willingness to do lots of research. I could see this passion continuing very easily if I were in the right graduate program. But, like law school, I run some risk of wasting time and money, though not as much because monetary costs should be much lower.

Option #3: Computer Programming

I don’t currently have any credentialed training in computer science, but it seems like the skills can be picked up by doing things like Codeschool and working on projects. And then, to land the job, you just need demonstrate the technical skills on the white board in your interview. Then, to keep the job, you just need to have learned what to do. No official schooling required, unless you’re shooting for a top job.

What’s the expected salary in computer programming?

Computer programming has decently sized incomes that one can get right out of college, but it’s a bit complicated, since it will depend on your skills and years of experience. One person suggests that average Ruby / Python programmers can land $70-80k in most cities, with the notable exception of NYC and San Francisco. Another person suggests that I’d probably start at $60K-80K or something and then reach $100K in a few years, and maybe $125K-$150K in 5-10 years. A third person places the average at $45k-$60k for an entry-level inexperienced Ruby programmer. A fourth person says the average might be $80k for a generic entry-level programmer.

Jeff Kaufman, who publishes his compensation over time, started at about $66K plus bonuses and donation matching, four years later now has $160K plus bonuses (>$15K) and donation matching (~$12K).

An analysis of average salaries across all programming languages puts Ruby at $98K, but doesn’t give data specifically for my level of (in)experience. Furthermore, I expect any salary by programming language to be a snapshot in time that doesn’t matter much, because trends in programming change quickly and it’s relatively easy (I believe) to change programming languages as it suits you.

It’s possible that doing a coding bootcamp, like Dev Bootcamp or Launch Academy might boost salaries. I heard from one person who went into programming with little initial skills starting at a salary of $45k. He then spent time at Launch Academy and exited with a salary of $75k. Given that these programs are just a few months, this seems pretty promising.

What are my chances of getting these salaries?

I think it’s unclear. I’d expect to exist on the low end of salaries and have to work my way up. I think I have natural talent at programming, but am still very much a beginner at something like Ruby on Rails and still have quite a ways to go in my knowledge of JavaScript. I can keep practicing, but I have lots of other obligations and can’t devote as much time as I would like. Could I learn enough in 8 months to land a job? I don’t know. Would it be worth it to keep going until I do know enough to land a job? I don’t know.

I’ve been encouraged by almost a half dozen people to “stick with” programming and I’ll keep at it because I trust them as a collective source of wisdom. But I personally see this as a quite a long shot.

Option #4: Direct EA Volunteering / Work

Another very compelling option is to not donate to organizations I like, but to work for them directly instead. I can think of doing this in two ways: as a volunteer dedicating free time left over after doing a different job or as a staff member (or intern) in the organization itself.

What kind of direct additional value, if any, could I provide in direct EA work?

I say “additional” value because I want to make sure I’m better than my hypothetical replacement – that is, if I decided not to apply for the job, would the person hired in my place do just about as good or do substantially worse? The difference in my performance and the performance of this hypothetical replacement is what is of concern to me.

However, I think my experience at my Giving What We Can internship showed that I actually could have promise in this kind of organization. I seem better at both writing and research than many other people in the EA movement who would potentially compete for my spot. I’m also widely knowledgeable about “EA theory”. I’d consider myself conscientious and self-directed enough to do a good job.

I think I’m still unproven in some other areas like management (though I have lead some pretty stellar college organizations). It’s quite plausible that I’d want to get experience somewhere else first, not only to prove myself more, but to develop more skills and also build a broader résumé in case I want to do something else.

Which is better – full-time work or volunteering?

Full-time work seems more promising at first for a few reasons: I’m more directly involved with the organization and what it’s doing, have more opportunities to influence the organization to be better, have more opportunities to learn from being there, and am in a great environment. It seems like if I think that direct work is actually higher impact, I should want to do as much of it as I can, right?

However, there could be a few great reasons to just volunteer instead: I could do it remotely from anywhere I’d like, I could do it while doing another job (and earn to give at the same time), I could work for a wide variety of organizations at once, and I’d have more control over what projects I’d do. This seems like a good idea if I want flexibility and I want to keep options open as to both direct work and doing more earning to give.

How likely would I be to get a permanent staff position in an EA organization?

This seems to be a difficult question. EA positions seem quite competitive and there are very few of them. Moreover, several of the organizations I like are located in England, where it would be very difficult to get work authorization there, as I am a US Citizen.

I still could work for American organizations like Effective Animal Activism, The Humane League, or GiveWell (I’m much less interested in other options), but I know much less about how one obtains full-time positions in any of these organizations. On the other hand, arranging volunteering opportunities has been exceedingly easy to date.

Option #5: Market Research

Through college, I’ve picked up a strong statistics background, and I think market research could be a particularly good fit for this. I think this mainly because I’ve seen other people at my university who graduated before me with very similar interests and talents do the same thing and end up liking it (though they weren’t focused as much on the “total well-being” thing).

What are the salaries in market research like?

In a few words: not as amazing. I actually know less about this than I should. A lot of the current salaries on Glassdoor seem to hover in the $50K range, possibly going up as high as $90K after a fair amount of time in the company. This is lower compared to, say, law and probably much lower than I could make even in programming with comparably less options for salaries to rise with advancement, but still high compared to other options out of college as an undergraduate.

Why focus on market research then?

Essentially, I expect to like it, find it to fit with my passions and skills, and get good skill development out of it. It seems like a very good career to also do volunteering on the side, as discussed in the previous option.

In the next essay, I’ll lay out my preferred framework for comparing careers, compare these five options, come to some initial conclusions, and outline what I still need to know and my next steps.

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Continued in “Comparing Across My Five Career Categories”.