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The new rules of choosing a career

According to career advisers, young people are increasingly interested in finding “fulfilling” careers, ones in which they can do good and enrich the lives of others as well as their own, rather than maximise their take-home pay. In the process, conventional wisdom on what makes a good job is being torn up.

Roman Duda is part of the six-strong team at 80,000 Hours, an ethical careers advisory service founded by Oxford University students in 2011. Named after the amount of time in the average career, the service helps bright students explore the ethical potential of popular graduate careers – from management consulting and software engineering to founding tech start-ups – while also suggesting ways to maximise a salary from more “selfless” career paths within nursing and the non-profit sector.

“‘Follow your passion’ is an easy thing for an undergraduate to hear,” says Duda, “but we think that advice is incomplete and misleading.”

He explains that the mantra misses important factors in establishing a satisfying career, such as having supportive colleagues, and points to research suggesting that, rather than discovering our passion over time, we need to try things before we know what we enjoy and what we might excel at.

The 80,000 Hours charity, which is backed by Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley start-up accelerator, reports that more than 1,800 people have so far changed career paths because of its advice – and that those it has schooled have taken jobs that have enabled them to pledge £23 million to charity. Its online career guide has now been turned into a book, 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career that Does Good.

In the book, Ben Todd, the group’s founder, shows how a good salary can be the backbone of a philanthropic career, and outlines four different pathways for those wanting a selfless working life.

The first pathway is “earning to give”: for particularly driven and able individuals, jobs in areas such as quantitative finance might allow them to earn huge sums of which they could then give a large proportion to charity.

According to 80,000 Hours, earning to give is only appropriate for individuals who are already interested in such careers, and many people will be better suited to the second pathway: advocacy. Todd cites the example of Viktor Zdhanov, the Soviet virologist who lobbied the World Health Organisation to eliminate smallpox. The disease killed around 400 million people in the 20th century alone, many more than the deaths caused by both world wars put together, and it was extinguished with his help. Few of us can hope to have such an impact on our society, but, says Todd, politicians, journalists and think-tank workers are well-placed to circulate important ideas.

Those who are more academically minded might be a good fit for the third pathway: research. Here, they might make a difference by working to improve healthcare or technology – all the while being paid handsomely for their efforts.

Alex Barry, a 20-year-old student from Devon, wanted to be a digger driver as a toddler and a teacher as a sixth-former – but, having come across 80,000 Hours, he decided on “earning to give” as a guiding principle for his career, whatever that may be. Now an undergraduate at Cambridge, he is looking for opportunities in research. “I think this will put me in a good position to assess my fit within different fields,” he says.

Finally, Todd recommends direct work – jobs in which you help people day-to-day. Under this umbrella comes traditional “fulfilling” careers such as aid work, social work, and jobs with charities. All very worthy, but there’s a caveat: how irreplaceable are you in this line of work?

The replaceability question is exemplified by the story of Gregory Lewis, who went to Cambridge to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor, before beginning to have doubts. How much difference could he really make? What if another bright, diligent student came along? Would the world really be much better off for having a Dr Lewis in the white coat rather than a Dr Bloggs?

The good he would do practising as a doctor, Gregory realised, would be far outweighed by the good he could do donating even a small proportion of his annual salary to cost-effective charities fighting to eradicate, say, diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Having qualified in 2013, Dr Lewis, 28, now works as a public health doctor – and donates a quarter of his £30,000 salary to charity. “I’m still a doctor,” he says, “so my parents are not fussed about what type. I don’t need the money, and giving it away can do more good than my day job. So why not?”

According to 80,000 Hours, there are other counter-intuitive ideas in the new rules of ethical careers. For example, the exhortation against “selling-out” to the corporate world is given short shrift. “We recommend some graduates spend a few years working in the corporate sector before they transition into roles with more direct social impact,” says Duda. “This is because, compared with starting your career in a non-profit, working in the corporate sector often gives you better training and opens up a larger number of longer-term career options.”

80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career that Does Good, by Benjamin J Todd, is out now.


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