Hiring analytical thinkers to help give away billions

Applications are now closed for this position.

The Open Philanthropy Project — a 22-person organization working to give away billions of dollars to improve well-being as much as possible — is looking to hire several Research Analysts this year. I’ve been a Research Analyst there for the last two years and think this is an extremely high impact opportunity for a smart and altruistic person. Applications close May 6, 2018.

Our funders Cari Tuna and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz allocate money based on our research team’s analysis of how to maximize impact per dollar rather than out of personal passion for any particular cause. We emphasize high-risk, high-reward giving that may be too unconventional or long-term for other funders, and we are open to helping populations that many people feel aren’t worth helping at all, including chickens, fish, and those who will live in the distant future. Some of our grants include:

  • An initiative to develop and test gene drive technologies which we believe could permanently eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease kills over 640,000 people each year and causes massive long-term economic burden.
  • Campaigns which secured commitments from over a hundred major grocery and restaurant chains to buy only cage-free eggs; the resulting shift of egg production to a less confined system will likely relieve suffering for over 200 million hens each year.
  • PhD fellowships for top machine learning students to do technical research to help reduce potential risks from advanced AI and increase the odds that progress in AI will massively benefit the world in the long-run.

Research Analysts at Open Phil have a rare opportunity to make a major impact on one of the largest philanthropic funders in the world. I was hired directly out of college with an engineering degree, and within a year I took responsibility for modeling how our capital should be allocated across cause areas in the long-term. Other RAs grew to lead grantmaking in top-priority areas and manage teams of senior staff after only a few years on the job. The amount of responsibility and influence a talented young person can have here is unprecedented among major philanthropic funders.

Research Analysts at Open Phil:

  • Help decide which causes we should operate in and how much money should go to each in the long-term
  • Expand our grantmaking capacity and shape our program strategies in nascent fields such as potential risks from advanced AI
  • Critically evaluate our impact so far to inform changes to our focus and strategies

If this sounds interesting, I strongly encourage you to apply.

There’s no simple reference class for the work we do here: no one goes to school for this, and no one sets out imagining that this is “the kind of thing they do.” I definitely didn’t — I always imagined I would work as a software engineer and donate to effective charities. Working at Open Phil has allowed me to have many times as much impact. It’s also one of the most intellectually rewarding careers I could imagine having, and I get to work every day with many of the smartest and most passionately altruistic people I know. For more detail on the role, see below.

What Research Analysts do

A Research Analyst’s main job is to inform decision-relevant grantmaking and strategic questions. Typical projects include:

  • Investigations of potential new focus areas, such as improving cybersecurity, decreasing the risk of a great powers war, or improving welfare of animals in the wild.
  • Cost-effectiveness estimates to help decide whether to make a major grant or whether it’s worth committing to a new focus area. Cost-effectiveness is assessed in terms of various measures of “good accomplished” per dollar spent; e.g. “human lives saved per dollar”, “animals helped per dollar”, or “percentage point reduction in the risk of extinction per dollar.”
  • Critical impact assessments of our grantmaking strategies and the case for and against our program areas. Examples include my colleague David’s analysis of the impacts of incarceration on crime and my assessment of whether cage-free housing systems improve hen welfare.
  • Doing open-ended research to explore a consideration relevant to budget allocation decisions or to deepen our understanding of a current or possible future focus area. My colleague Luke’s writeups on forecasting, moral patienthood, historical examples of philanthropic field-building efforts and timelines for transformative artificial intelligence are examples of this sort of work. More potential topics are here.

Taking an expected value approach means we’re making constant tradeoffs between the information value of thorough investigation and the benefits of moving quickly or making major bets on exciting but uncertain arguments. The best methods to use to efficiently get to a useful answer can include:

  • Critical literature reviews: Systematically identifying key papers and meta-analyses, picking them apart to assess their relevance and methodological strengths and weaknesses, and judging their overall informativeness to your main question.
  • Conversations with experts: Critically synthesizing a view based on interviews with experts who provide domain knowledge and expert intuitions but can’t directly answer the research question.
  • Quick estimates: Providing a fast judgment or estimate based on a quick Google search and guesswork.

Research Analysts will get a lot of practice moving fluidly between different levels of depth and different methods of investigation, as well as commenting on the limitations of their methodology, flagging the remaining uncertainty they have after an investigation is complete, and estimating how important it is to dig deeper.

Where the role could lead

Research Analysts will receive intensive training and mentorship to quickly familiarize themselves with Open Phil’s approach to cost-effectiveness analysis, critical evidence assessment, and grant evaluation. In only a few years, Research Analysts could:

  • Take increasing ownership of our budget allocation framework. We don’t yet know what proportion of our capital should be spent on which cause areas — building a quantitative model to resolve this is a major priority. Good research on this question could reallocate billions of dollars from some cause areas to others. About a year into my time as a Research Analyst, working on this became my primary focus.
  • Have primary responsibility for a grantmaking portfolio directing 10s of millions of dollars per year with a high degree of autonomy. Our Program Officers in Global Catastrophic Risks, Claire and Nick, both joined as Research Analysts. They now manage portfolios in some of our highest-priority areas.
  • Manage teams and steer our long-term strategy. Nick, who joined as a Research Analyst, currently manages several staff including our Program Officer for Potential Risks from Advanced AI. As our team expands, we expect many people who started as Research Analysts to take on management roles.
  • Develop expertise and connections in one or more of our focus areas. Open Phil’s grantees and collaborators include machine learning experts, top biologists, think tanks and advocacy organizations, and members of the intelligence and defense communities.

Job qualifications

There is no single academic background or credential that makes for a good Open Phil Research Analyst. The best candidates will have:

  • Passion for Open Phil’s core values of risk-neutral impact maximization, radical empathy, and skeptical truth-seeking. Involvement with effective altruism is a plus.
  • The ability to quickly get up to speed in new fields through desk research and conversation with experts. Possible areas include macroeconomics, animal behavior, cybersecurity, machine learning, governance of emerging technologies, and others.
  • Comfort thinking in terms of expected value, using systematic quantitative frameworks, and giving numerical estimates of highly uncertain quantities and probabilities. A strong background in a STEM field or experience in quantitative professions is a plus.
  • Clear writing, and the ability to explain complex concepts well at many different levels of depth. Experience in law or journalism, experience teaching or tutoring at a university level, or writing a well-regarded blog are all positive signals.
  • The ability to quickly build rapport with experts in a wide variety of fields, engage articulately with new subject matter in conversation, and critically but respectfully challenge expert views.
  • Strong self-direction and self-motivation in a highly uncertain domain where external confirmation of correctness or success is rarely possible and no clear precedents or guidelines exist. Experience with self-directed projects, independent research, creative work, or startups are all good signs.
  • Comfort with frank discussion and debate, including being willing to challenge management and organizational leadership, and being direct and open in giving and receiving feedback.

That said, I have found it’s very difficult to predict success at this kind of work in advance. I would encourage simply applying if the position sounds exciting to you. Applications close May 6, 2018.