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CAREER PATH

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25 MINUTE READ

There’s no shortage of significant problems affecting the world, but with limited time, money, and resources, it’s impossible to tackle them all at once. As a result, we need to do a bit of strategizing to figure out which problems are the most pressing – and how we can most effectively solve them. 

 

This is the job of prioritization researchers, a type of researcher who uses tools from a range of disciplines – spanning economics, philosophy, and mathematics – to help make decisions about how we can best utilize our resources to do good.

 

Our impression is that this path could be a high impact option for those who are a good fit, particularly if you stand a reasonable chance at getting into one of the most promising organizations that conduct prioritization research.

 

Our confidence in this path profile is moderate.

Prioritization Researcher

Path Overview

At its core, prioritization research aims to figure out how we should strategize our efforts, make decisions, and utilize resources to most effectively improve the world. This involves both identifying problems that are important, neglected, and tractable, and figuring out the best ways to solve them. 

 

In practice, prioritization research can look quite varied. Some prioritization research digs into the nuts-and-bolts of specific problems and solutions. This can involve identifying promising new cause areas to have an impact in. This could involve, for example, estimating how prevalent a disease is and how badly it affects those that suffer from it. Researchers may also assess the cost-effectiveness of solutions to important problems by assessing academic studies and diving into data. How do we know the existing interventions are working? Are there any interventions that aren’t receiving enough attention? These questions are crucial if we want to best use our limited resources to improve the world. But they’re also tricky to answer, and so this kind of prioritization research often deploys tools from technical subjects like economics, behavioral science, and statistics. 

 

Other prioritization research can focus on higher-level, and often slightly more abstract questions. For example, how much suffering do different animals experience? Or, just how confident can we be about our ability to predictably help future generations? Answering these questions can help us work out how much attention we ought to give to the welfare of animals, or improving the long-term future, versus other problems we might try to solve. This research tends to lean a little more on tools and concepts from philosophy, psychology, and other adjacent fields.

 

Although the day-to-day details about what prioritization researchers work on can look quite different, what unifies careers in this path is that they are fundamentally focused on working out what courses of action will make the world better – whether those be budget allocations, legislation, or other important decisions. Many prioritization researchers work within important decision-making organizations like foundations, nonprofits, and governments, helping to guide decisions from the inside. Others work externally in organizations such as research-focused nonprofits and think tanks, hoping to have influence from the outside.

 

Regardless of where they work, the most impactful prioritization researchers are those who manage to get their research tightly connected to actual decisions about where, and how, resources are managed and spent. 

 

Examples of great prioritization research

To make prioritization research a little clearer, let’s look at concrete examples of existing work in this space. This will help get a sense of the different approaches one can take within prioritization research and how they might be impactful. Here are some examples we think are particularly good, tackling a range of questions within prioritization research:

 

 

It may also be useful to bear in mind that we’re conceiving of prioritization research as generally non-academic research. Though some corners of academia conduct relevant prioritization research, such as the Global Priorities Institute, and some researchers at non-academic prioritization research organizations also publish their work in academic journals, the type of research prioritization researchers perform is generally different from the kind (and aims) of research conducted in universities. We’ve written about some types of academic work in our other path profiles and hope to write more in the future, but it’s worth noting that academic careers are typically not what we have in mind for this career path. 

 

How promising is prioritization research?

 

Our sense is that the most impactful people in this path can make a major positive impact on the world. The most impactful prioritization researchers focus on research that can affect the decisions of large and influential decision makers, which means that successful prioritization researchers can gain surprisingly significant leverage over where large amounts of resources are directed. There are a few different routes to leverage within this path:

 

  • Influencing spending – Prioritization research can influence the spending of both charitable foundations and individual donors. For example, charity evaluator GiveWell directed over $518 million of spending in 2021 from individual donors and foundations toward their recommended charities. Similarly, research positions at foundations like Open Philanthropy have the chance to influence where large grants (totaling hundreds of millions of dollars per year) are made, either through exploring new cause areas and interventions or through direct grant evaluations. (Full disclosure: Probably Good is funded by Open Philanthropy.) 

  • Inspiring new organizations – Prioritization research can lead to the creation of new organizations by discovering important problems or identifying promising new solutions. For example, this report from Charity Entrepreneurship on exposure to lead paint led to the creation of the Lead Exposure Elimination Project, which has successfully advocated for regulating paint in developing countries, saving hundreds of thousands of children from the harmful effects of lead poisoning. Charity Entrepreneurship’s research has inspired the creation of nearly 20 other promising nonprofits, too.

  • Influencing policy – Some prioritization research can lead to governments implementing new policies. It can be hard to know exactly which factors cause policy change to happen, but various organizations that conduct prioritization research strive to inform policy in some way. Think tanks like the Institute for Public Policy Research, for example, almost exclusively aim at influencing government policy. Other organizations also conduct policy research, such as foundations wishing to make policy-oriented grants.

 

These are some general advantages and disadvantages of prioritization research as a career path:

 

Advantages

 

  • Clear route to impact – Prioritization research explicitly aims at improving the world by solving important problems. Because of this, it is fairly clear to see how these types of research roles can make a positive difference. This is often in contrast to other research domains in academia – which tend to have a more tenuous or obscure connection between research and real-world change.

  • Range of cause areas – Prioritization research roles can be found working on the most pressing issues within global health and development, animal welfare, global catastrophic risks, and more.

  • Intellectually stimulating – The questions you’ll be answering – what the world’s biggest problems are and how we might solve them – are inherently interesting and often require engagement with many disciplines. This often makes these careers particularly satisfying for people with high levels of intellectual curiosity.

 

Disadvantages

  • Tough problems – Due to the nature of prioritization research, you’ll sometimes find yourself trying to answer questions that haven’t been asked before, and for which it’s not always clear what an answer might look like (these are sometimes called ‘wicked problems’). 

  • Low absorbency – Though there’s a need for more prioritization researchers, the absolute number of people who can enter this field is low, as the number of promising organizations that hire prioritization researchers, and their average size, is quite small.

  • Competitive – Relatedly, getting roles in some of the most promising prioritization research organizations can be difficult due to high bars for entry and low acceptance rates. Some of the organizations we’ve discussed have acceptance rates of (sometimes significantly) less than 1%. For this reason, it’s probably a bad idea to plan your career around being a prioritization researcher without forming good backup options. 

Resource spotlight

 

This podcast interview with Michael Aird, senior research manager at Rethink Priorities, is highly recommended. Michael covers how he entered this career path, what sets especially useful research apart from other research, the differences between applied research and academia, and a host of useful strategies for performing high-impact research. It’s a long listen at nearly four hours, but we promise it’s worth it!

Is it a good fit for you?

Some traits that indicate you might be successful in these roles include:

 

  • You have a “scout mindset.” That is, you sincerely care about finding out the truth, rather than defending pre-existing beliefs and intuitions. Prioritization research roles may often lead you to surprising conclusions that conflict with your prior beliefs. 

  • A quantitative attitude. Useful research in this domain often involves quantification, so a general ability to approach problems with a numerical mindset is important. This doesn’t mean you’ll need to be able to deploy advanced mathematical techniques, at least in most roles, but it does mean you’ll need to be comfortable with quantifying and potentially employing concepts from economics like diminishing returns and expected value

  • Good written communication. As a prioritization researcher, you’ll often need to write for both internal and external audiences. It’s important to be able to do this clearly, and bear in mind that different audiences may require different levels of complexity to be communicated. 

 

Who would be satisfied in this role

 

A career as a prioritization researcher might be particularly enjoyable for you if the following apply:

 

  • You enjoy novel problems - Many of the questions prioritization researchers work on don’t yet have substantial existing literature, or involve applying existing literature in new ways. This means some creativity may be needed in approaching these questions. 

  • You value independence - Prioritization researchers are often expected to work with a high degree of self direction and take initiative in developing research ideas and projects.

  • You like using research to inform specific decisions – Lots of prioritization research is focused on guiding specific courses of action, such as whether to fund a program or organization. This is particularly true for research that happens within decision-making bodies like foundations and governments. This makes this path more satisfying for people who care about seeing a clear path for how their research will make an impact, and is different from other kinds of research, like academia, where the causal chain from research to impact is often more nebulous.

 

Some characteristics that might make these careers less enjoyable for you:

 

  • You prefer to focus on narrow questions for long periods. These roles will often require you to reach top-line conclusions relatively quickly on a range of questions. This is different from, say, academic research, where you’re incentivized to focus rigorously on individual ideas over long time frames. 

  • You want to be highly confident your work will result in impact. Often, research results in a dead end, with no positive recommendations for action. For example, Charity Entrepreneurship often investigates ideas for charities that they ultimately don’t recommend. This is still valuable work, but you need to make peace with the fact your research might not produce any positive recommendations about where to direct resources. 

  • You value thorough answers – As a prioritization researcher, you’ll often be limited with the amount of time you’re able to give to a research question. This means you will frequently not be able to get as comprehensive an understanding of the topic as you might like.


 

How to test personal fit

 

  • Complete our GiveWell-inspired test task! (More information at the end of this section.)

  • Conduct a short investigation into a problem you think could be important, tractable, and neglected. If you don’t know where to start, take a look at some submissions to Open Philanthropy's recent Cause Exploration Prizes, which invited people to do just this. (We particularly recommend you check out the winning submission!). 

  • Some relevant organizations – such as those we discuss in the next section – run research internships. These are a great way to test your aptitude for this work over a decent period of time (and can sometimes lead to being hired). 

  • Dig into existing work produced by some of the organizations we’ve discussed. Take a deep dive into one of GiveWell’s rigorous cost-effectiveness analyses, and try to reverse-engineer them. An example of this type of work is this exchange between members of the Happier Lives Institute, who critique GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness analysis of deworming, and a thorough response from GiveWell. 

  • Just apply for jobs! For people excited about this kind of work, the application and hiring process itself can be both fun and educational. If you get through to a work test stage, this will be one of the best tests of personal fit you can find. Speaking of work tests...

Test task

 

A particularly good way to test your fit for any role is to do work that closely approximates the tasks you might perform in one of these roles. With this in mind, we’re excited to have collaborated with GiveWell to provide two example work tasks. We highly recommend you consider completing these tasks if you want to form an accurate picture of your fit for prioritization research. 

 

We estimate the tasks will take a combined total of 15-20 hours to complete, though this can be made shorter by just completing one or taking a less thorough approach.

 

You can find the full test task instructions here.

 

Good luck!

Priorities within prioritization research

 

To get the most impact in this path, it’s important to work in an organization that will both allow you to focus on the incredibly important problems that face the world, as well as provide a clear route to how your research may ultimately affect decisions made by important actors. Here, we’ll run through a few relevant options in this path and point out especially promising opportunities and organizations.

 

Work in a high-impact research organization

One of the most promising routes in prioritization research is to get a role in an organization dedicated to conducting high-quality research that has an explicit focus on identifying the most pressing problems and working out the best ways to help solve them. Here are a few highly respected organizations that fit this description and are likely worth pursuing roles in, if you’re a good fit for this path (and align with their objectives). 

 

 

Most of these organizations are both producers and consumers of prioritization research, such that the research they produce has a direct influence on their own actions, like deciding which charities to give grants to, as well as the influence their research may have on other organizations.

 

We also want to highlight a number of other impact-driven organizations that conduct impactful research. Though some of these organizations might not necessarily offer research roles that tightly fit the definition of prioritization researcher as constructed in this path profile, many or all of these organizations may nonetheless offer promising prioritization research or adjacent roles.

Among the organizations we’ve listed in this section, a large proportion are associated with effective altruism, a social movement that emphasizes reason and evidence to achieve a positive impact. Because of effective altruism’s analytical approach to doing good in high-priority cause areas, we’d expect effective-altruism-affiliated organizations to be overrepresented for the most promising opportunities for prioritization researchers. However, many other organizations conduct great prioritization research, some of whom are included in the above list. (Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive!)

 

Think tanks: Although roles in typical think tanks aren’t primarily what we have in mind when we think about prioritization researchers, there is certainly some overlap between prioritization research roles and research roles in think tanks, which work to both research and advocate for policy priorities. It’s likely worth considering positions at various think tanks if you’re interested in this career path. 

 

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that think tanks likely vary a lot in the impact they produce, making it important to seek out the most promising ones (indeed, the list above contains a few think tanks we’ve heard good things about). There are various reasons for this, one of which is that tanks are often funded privately, constraining the topics they can work on (which are often not the most important cause areas). Think tanks are also often associated with particular political views or tied to political parties, limiting their influence if their particular politics are not in the ascendancy. On the other hand, think tanks tend to pay fairly modest wages, meaning there could be less competition for talented researchers than other organization types. For more information, this article on think tank careers goes into more detail about careers in this space.

 

Governments: Some governments may offer roles that look very similar to prioritization research. An example of this is the US Congressional Budget Office, which produces reports and projections to guide the US Congress’s budgetary decisions. Another is the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which performs cost-benefit analyses of healthcare interventions and pharmaceuticals to guide the decisions of the UK’s nationalized health system. Other governments are likely to have similar bodies. Though we don’t have a thorough understanding of this space, it’s possible that a good researcher in a relevant governmental position could have some influence on the spending of huge sums of money.

 

Independent research: It may be possible to form a career as an independent prioritization researcher working on important questions, funded by grants and contracts. However, while independent researchers are capable of producing great work, you might want to be more cautious about doing so than you might be about working at an organization, and perhaps only consider it after you already have experience with this type of research. A primary reason for this is that great research requires lots of feedback; if you’re in an organization, there will be others working alongside you to give you quick feedback. But as an independent researcher, you’ll likely be more isolated. Belonging to an organization can also confer a level of credibility that might be more difficult to attain independently. 


Additionally, if the reason you pursue independent research is that you’ve struggled to land a role in a high-impact organization, this may be a signal (though perhaps a fairly weak one, because of the general competitiveness of these roles), that your comparative advantage might lie in a different career path.

Resource Spotlight

This blog post by James Snowden describes what it’s like to work as a prioritization researcher at GiveWell. He gives a great overview of what the work is like and who might be a good fit. Although some of his points are specific to GiveWell, we expect many of his points to apply to other prioritization research roles.

Strategies and next steps

 

Getting into the field

 

  • For most prioritization research roles, a specific degree subject or educational background is unlikely to be necessary. However, some roles may focus heavily on a specific subject area where relevant educational background might be much more important. And for more quantitative prioritization research roles (like those at Givewell), and particularly at more senior levels, advanced degrees in a quantitative or social science subject, like economics, can help demonstrate relevant skills and experience. We’d be cautious about pursuing an advanced degree just for one of these roles, but if you’re currently in a relevant grad school program, this might indicate a good fit. 

  • As a general consideration, though, demonstrable research experience is likely to be more important than a specific degree or educational background. Some organizations take interns and run fellowships for researchers. Take a look at this list of internship opportunities that lists positions at some of the organizations we’ve mentioned and others. This list of relevant research training programs is also a good place to look – it hasn’t been updated in a while (as of writing), but many of the opportunities listed still exist. And many think tanks also host internships, so we recommend doing your own digging around.

  • For roles in organizations associated with effective altruism, familiarity with effective altruism’s core ideas is often advantageous. If you’re unfamiliar with effective altruism, this introduction is a good place to start.

  • For independent research, there are various grant funds available. See this list for an overview of funding bodies who may be willing to pay for independently-produced high-impact prioritization research, if you can show that you’ll be able to conduct useful research on important questions


 

Excelling in the field

 

How to succeed as a prioritization researcher

 

  • Reasoning transparency – For your research to be useful to others, it’s important to be clear about precisely what you think, and why you think it. To this end, many experts recommend the use of “reasoning transparency”, a style of communication in which you make clear the weight you place on different pieces of evidence, what assumptions you’re making, and probabilistic reports of your confidence in various claims. In doing so, you make it easier for others to engage meaningfully with your research, and to use it in their decision making. For more detail, see Open Philanthropy’s article on reasoning transparency.

  • Have a clear theory of change – The best prioritization research has a clear vision of how it might produce change. Ask yourself what change you’re trying to make in the world, and work out what your research needs to do to help with this. For example: who is the audience for your research? Is it a specific organization or set of decision-makers? Find out what questions would be most useful for them to be answered, and try to make sure your research is seen by them. A helpful concept here is ‘backchaining’; articulating the impact you want to have, and then working backward through the steps of how you might get there

  • Deploy rough calculations – Fairly rough calculations are often enough to help with many questions when you don’t have the time to do anything more advanced. To this end, it could be helpful to familiarize yourself with the idea of Fermi estimates or BOTECs (back-of-the-envelope calculations). Though the numbers you produce with these will often be highly uncertain, they’re still a useful starting point and will generally improve the accuracy of your work. 

  • Stay focused on the goal – It’s often easy to get lost down research rabbit holes that seem relevant, but ultimately won’t shape your overall conclusions. This can waste your limited time. Instead, try to pin down exactly what questions you need to answer to get a useful overall conclusion (for example, the cost-effectiveness of a health intervention), and avoid spending too much time consulting resources that won’t help you answer these questions.


 

How to improve as a prioritization researcher

 

  • Seek feedback early in the process - Don’t be afraid to share work for feedback whilst it’s still a work in progress. Generally speaking, the earlier you get feedback the better, as it can save you time from chasing down the wrong paths. Additionally, try to get feedback both on the specifics of whatever piece of research you’re sharing, but also on more generalizable qualities, like the clarity of writing or quality of reasoning transparency.

  • Learn how to critically approach empirical literature. Prioritization research will often involve diving into empirical literature (though this will depend on the specific problem you’re working on). As such, it’s great to learn what separates good research from bad, and what to look out for when reading research. This blog post gives a useful introduction on how to critically approach research. We’ve also heard it can be useful just to consistently read recent research – doing so will increase your literacy in the methodologies and technical language often deployed. (One place to start is the American Economic Association, which collates free-to-read economic research from several journals.) 

  • Get good at informational interviews. Though these roles probably involve less interpersonal interaction than many others, good research often involves reaching out to multiple area experts. Getting proficient at conducting these interviews can help you get a lot more out of them. This involves sharpening your sense of what questions are most useful – and how to best phrase them – as well as ensuring that you do so in a personable manner.

  • Learn how to calibrate your confidence levels. Good reasoning transparency often involves placing probabilistic estimates of different claims. One great way to practice this is this helpful tool developed by Clearer Thinking.

Additional content

 

General resources on prioritization research:

80,000 Hours’ list of impactful research questions

Michael Aird’s collection of resources for people interested in prioritization research, especially in focused on improving the long-term future

GiveWell’s explanation of their research process

Effective Thesis’s profile on prioritization research

 

On getting better at prioritization research:

Holden Karnofsky – Useful vices for Wicked Problems

Mostly Harmless Econometrics - an approachable introduction to econometric methods.

Clearer Thinking’s judgment calibration tool

Zachary Robinson on using back of the envelope calculations to prioritize interventions (video)

The American Economic Association’s collection of journals


 

Career alternatives


If you’re not sure you want to become a prioritization researcher, other similar high-impact paths you could consider include:

 

Development economics

Grantmaking

Monitoring and evaluation specialist


 

Acknowledgements


To produce this career path profile, we have consulted with and sought feedback from experts in the field. Not all views expressed in this article are necessarily endorsed by all the experts we’ve consulted with, and all mistakes are our own. For their help, we would like to give special thanks to:

 

Akhil Bansal - Field Strategy Consultant at Schmidt Futures

Alex Cohen – Senior researcher at GiveWell

Elie Hassenfeld – Co-founder and CEO of GiveWell

James Snowden – Program Officer at Open Philanthropy

Sam Hilton – Director of research at Charity Entrepreneurship

Tom Davidson – Senior research analyst at Open Philanthropy

Path Overview
Personal fit
Priorities
Strategies & next steps
Additonal Content

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