In this post I am not going to argue that university is largely about signaling competence; Brian Caplan and many other writers have already provided a fairly in-depth look at that. What I am going to argue is that if your main reason for going to university is to signal competence, there are better ways to do it, particularly for EAs who have a lot of talent and dedication.
These other ways to signal competence are less well known, but worth considering for EAs who are trying to build career capital or just their career in general (although I think this advice varies quite a bit based on what career paths you are considering). There are few routes to becoming, for example, a doctor without getting a lot of schooling, but if you are considering working in the nonprofit world, EA world, or a low-barrier-to-entry corporate job (including stuff like programming), a degree is far from the optimal move. People think of a degree as robust, but I think that is not as clear as it might first appear. Many of the EAs I have seen get a degree and later move into an area where the degree is much less useful, e.g. studying economics and getting into programing after a bootcamp, or studying poverty and then going into Animal Rights. I also think degrees give people some space to procrastinate and think about their ultimate career choice (something that is best to think about sooner rather than later).
What do I mean by “better ways to signal competence”? Broadly, I mean “ways of signalling competence that are more effective at producing results to achieve your goals”, particularly EA type of goals. For example, if an action is about equally effective as a signal of competence, but also takes much less time or has more direct impact, I would consider that better. Generally, people will look at the most impressive couple of things you have done on your resume, and if these are good enough, your degree (or lack of one) won’t matter. For example, if you have written a very popular book, few people will look at what your degree is. If you apply for Charity Science and you have historically worked for Givewell, I barely notice the degree you have. Throughout this post I will cite the EA movement pretty heavily for examples, since it’s the area I know best and the area I think most people on this forum will care about. However, I have found the same trends to be true in (a lot of) other areas as well (e.g. I have worked in education NGOs and Animal Rights NGOs that used the same approach, and I know some folks who have used it in for-profits).
The rest of this post will consist of examples of the kinds of things EAs could do to signal competence in lieu of a degree.
Writing books and content in general
A lot of EAs have gotten their reputation from writing, whether on a personal blog or through contributing to something like the EA forum. Having high quality writing shows that you are competent and intelligent; it also gives me a sense of what kind of things you care about enough to write about. Putting written content together into something larger like a book can be/is a very effective demonstration of competence, though, of course, this takes a lot of time relative to random writing (but way less than the 4 years it takes to get a BA). And in addition to straight up signalling benefits, writing a useful book or useful blog posts contributes something to the world: for example, it can get new people to hear about an important cause or develop new frameworks for a movement. Another benefit of writing is that it can allow you to target the group you are interested in working for. For example, if you want to work in EA, writing a few good blog posts for the EA forum will help your applications a lot. The same goes for many other industries as well.
Bootcamps and incubation programs
Attending something like a programing bootcamp or a incubation program can serve both to teach you many skills (in most cases more than a degree does per time invested), as well as be a great demonstration/signal of both intelligence and competence on a resume. Much like writing, it can also more easily be targeted towards industries you want to work in, although many programs (e.g. YC) will just be generally impressive across the board. Getting into these programs is hard, as is doing well in them, but they are almost always much quicker than getting a degree.
Working or interning
The first thing you should always be considering when thinking about a degree is: how does this compare to an equivalent amount of work experience? For example, a BA typically takes 4 years. That’s a lot of work experience. If you are comparing a degree to a basic service job, the degree looks pretty good, but if you’re comparing it to an entry level job in your industry of choice, it’s a lot less clear. 4 years of experience working and interning in the EA movement will go a lot further than a degree when trying to get a hard-to-get job in the movement. The same goes for direct work in poverty, AR, and, I would guess, x-risk. Many of Charity Science’s senior hires have been from our intern pool, when an intern was partially impressive. Some of them had degrees, others did not, but the demonstration of work ability on our direct project was much more predictive than their degree. On the flip side, I see a lot of EAs put in pretty much time and effort into a degree and then be disappointed by the relatively low status positions that are open to them in EA. You can, of course, combine these approaches (e.g. take an internship every summer), but generally, if you are strong enough to get into an Ivy League college, you can get an entry level job at an organization and prove your ability via working there. Often, your most recent and impressive work experience will overshadow your degree and be the main thing future employers look at.
Founding organizations or projects
Running a local chapter, founding a small project (even if unsuccessful), or starting a full-scale organization can make a huge difference on your resume. If you think of many folks running cool projects in the EA movement, you likely know them by their projects, not their degrees. Founding projects also demonstrates the ability to be self-motivated, a key element of many jobs that is much less tested by formal education. Many people think they need education to found these sorts of projects successfully, but it's much more about general ability and process than it is about a degree. And many in the EA movement are able to be helpful with advice, so it's not like you are on your own.
Self-teaching via online courses
One of the things I love to see on applications, and which I know other EA organizations look for, is some evidence of self-teaching. Have you gone through a Coursera course on statistics? If so, that is a great sign for both competence and self-motivation. This is both quicker, cheaper, and more targeted than getting a full degree.
Each of these methods will fit some people and not others, and I think a large percentage of people should still go to university. But I think not going, and doing other counterfactually prestigious and impactful things instead, should be seriously considered by very high ability EAs.
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