Chris Lakin

On choosing a career path

It seems that by default, most people want to do good in their career. Doing useful work for society is preferable to not doing something good for others.

It also seems that we have a natural preference for doing more good than less. Doing very useful work for society is preferable to doing minimally useful work, all other things equal.

Naturally you have to ask,

If your time is limited, how can you do the most good?

Asking this question is the heart of the philosophy and community of Effective Altruism (EA). The philosophy is about more than career choice, but that’s what I’ll focus on here.

In general, the rewards from most inputs follow a pattern of marginal returns: the 100th person working on something typically has a much larger marginal impact than the 10,000th, for example. It seems in general that there are potentially massive differences, 100x or more, between the altruistic-impact of one career versus another.

For example, here’s the difference in effectiveness for five different strategies of reducing HIV/AIDS spread:

HIV/AIDS intervention cost effectiveness via intro

DALY: a measure of marginal healthy years of life added by the intervention. (Source)

The least cost-effective intervention, too small to show on the graph, is 1,400 times less effective than the most effective intervention. This doesn’t seem to be particularly unique to HIV/AIDS spread either.

It seems in general that some options might simply be hundreds, if not thousands of times more effective than others.

Thus career choice may closely determine whether our lifetime impact for doing good is x, 100x, or 10,000x.


My path

I want to do meaningful work in my career— to work on a big and important problem. For me, EA is a framework for finding meaningfulness. I know that I would regret my choices if I found myself working on something neutral or negative.

I know I would be most productive in science/ tech/ engineering/ math areas. I also want to do research—as far as I can tell with my inclinations, this is exactly my thing. Note: I want to do research in industry, and not in academia. Maybe if I do good undergrad research I can research in industry without getting a PhD? If you have any advice for this path of industry research without a PhD, please reach out.

It feels odd to pick something like this, but I know in the past that I’ve struggled in situations where I have too many options. In which cases, I find myself doing nothing at all deeply due to opportunity cost regret.

I don’t mind jumping around between different research areas, though. If anything, this might increase my potentials. After BCIs, maybe I’ll go work on some of the other options I mentioned in the previous toggle-details block.

Why brain-computer interfaces?

Optimistically: develop safe BCIs → enhance human cognitive capability and improve our ability to solve problems → solve other hard problems. BCIs as a ‘meta-solution’?

Though, frankly, this technology could go poorly. We all saw how social media went, and I think this could be similarly mishandled. BCIs could, for example, create virtual reality technology that I’m not sure is good for the world. I’m not sure what I’m hoping: the power to hack the brain will only be used for good?

In the meantime, I need to think about this more. If I continue into my career pursuing BCIs, I could, at the very least, be the person to shout “Ethics!!”. But for now I have committed to BCIs because I need to commit to something, or else I’ll never engage deeply with anything. I’ve made this mistake before. And even if I change my mind later, the career capital seems pretty transferable—statistics and machine learning—so I’m not too concerned right now.

Slight update: I’ve resolved to work on BCIs for now, but I would like this to be just one area of many I dip my toe in.

If you have ideas for or contributions to my philosophy here, please reach out. Also, if this led you to rethink your path, let me know! I’m interested.

And if you think this summary could be better, let me know— I like feedback.


Posted 2020 July, last updated 2021 January 22.

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