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Finding a job at an organization focused on existential risk

Last updated 19 June 2014

I recently talked with someone who had recently finished an undergraduate degree and spent a couple of years working in the corporate world. She had very little exposure to the x-risk community or the effective altruism community, but she was interested in learning more about jobs like working at FHI.

I told her a bit about how I got my job. The story is that I got very interested in effective altruism and existential risk, read up on them, met the people who work on them, collaborated with them on research projects, did my own research, and then applied for a job at FHI. I didn’t get the job the first time, but I almost did, and the next time around I got one.

There aren’t that many places to work like FHI, though there could be a few more in the future. If CSER gets enough funding, there will be jobs there that are probably pretty similar to jobs at FHI. And if FLI hires research staff, that might be kind of like working at FHI. I’m not very sure if there are FHI-like jobs at MIRI; it might be that MIRI is more focused explicitly on the technical FAI research agenda at the moment, so that they wouldn’t be interested in hiring generalists to work on x-risk strategy, or not. If someone needs to decide, they should ask Luke Muehlhauser. I don’t know of other places that are very similar. You can do some related work in philosophy departments, but people don’t see it as very core to the discipline. I could imagine that if someone wanted to work on the ethics and economics of climate change, they could do some work that has a lot of overlap with the ethics and economics of existential risk. I don’t know enough to say whether people would see that as central to the discipline or not.

As I mentioned in another note, I find the idea of doing technical research in AI or synthetic biology while thinking about x-risk/GCR promising. That wouldn’t be like FHI work, but it’s something related that’s worth keeping in mind.

She asked me a bit about what kinds of degrees would be useful for someone who wanted to get into this area. I started to answer that I thought background in AI or synthetic biology would be welcome, as would economics (to a lesser extent) and philosophy (to a still lesser extent). Other options to look into would be math and “responsible innovation.” But then I slowed down and cautioned that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to get an advanced degree purely in hopes of working with an organization focused on existential risk—there aren’t that many jobs, they’re very competitive, the advanced degrees aren’t that useful, and the people in this field all know each other and don’t care very much about credentials. For someone in her position, it seemed like it would make more sense to do some of the stuff I did on the way to getting my current job: read up on the fields (follow blogs and comment, read papers and books); meet the people that work in them (contact them, go to research events and conferences, hang out with the effective altruism community); seek opportunities to collaborate or volunteer with people working in the field; and try to get a sense of how well you fit in. I also mentioned that volunteering for or interning with an organization in the effective altruism community might be a reasonable option, since there is a lot of overlap in these fields/networks.