Here’s how to find a career that is both personally satisfying and will make a difference

Graduate, then…?
Graduate, then…?
Image: Reuters/Noah Berger
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As Peter Hurford entered his final year at Denison University, he needed to figure out what he was going to do with his life. He was 22, majoring in political science and psychology. He knew he wanted a career that would both be personally satisfying and would make a big difference to the world, but he had no idea where to start.

Many people find themselves in positions like Peter’s. But how should young, socially motivated people like him think about their career decisions?

I founded a non-profit called 80,000 Hours (which refers to the number of hours you typically work in your life) in order to help people choose a career with a big social impact. We’ve coached hundreds of people like Peter. Based on this experience, and years of research at Oxford University, we recommend focusing on three factors that will help set you on the road to a satisfying and impactful career.

1. Personal fit

What we call “personal fit” is simply how good you’ll be in a particular job. Of course, there’s nothing revolutionary in the idea of looking for a job you’ll be good at. The interesting question is how to go about doing so.

A lot of career advice encourages people to “look inward,” to discover their “passions.” We think that this is bad advice. Most people don’t have work-related passions and, even if they do, they are often in the same fields everyone else is passionate about (music, sports etc.) which makes careers in those fields particularly competitive.

Instead, you should think of passion as something you cultivate, by finding work that you become excellent at. Not just a way to achieve fulfillment on the job, this is will help you achieve your full social impact potential. But you can’t find this out by introspection (I never thought I’d be a good social entrepreneur until after I co-founded a charity, simply because I had no experience of management, or sales, or fundraising). Instead, take the attitude of an experimental scientist or investigative journalist—learn as much as you can about different jobs. Speak to people in different fields. Ask what traits they think are most important to success, and see how you measure up. If possible, actually try out different types of work: take advantage of work experience, internships, and short-term placements. Most importantly, in every case ask, “Is this something that, with work, I could become good at?”

2. Immediate impact

The next consideration is how much impact you’ll have within the job.

The most obvious way to make a difference is to work in the social sector: charities, NGOs, or corporate social responsibility.

Undoubtedly, these can give you great opportunities for direct impact. However, many non-profits achieve little—according to one estimate, 75% of social programs are found to have no impact when tested. And direct impact is not the only way to make a difference: you can work in a high-flying corporate career and do a huge amount of good by donating a lot of money, or you can go into journalism and advocate for important causes.

The crucial thing is the effectiveness of the organizations and causes you’re working for, funding, or promoting. Is the cause particularly large in scale, neglected, or tractable? Do the organisation you’re working for, funding, or promoting evaluate their programs and publish the results? Does this kind of social program have a track record of success elsewhere?

3. Later impact

The final question is how much impact will this job allow you to have later in your career? People focused on getting rich will always consider how their current job improves their future prospects. The same should be true of people who want to make a difference, but this factor is often neglected among wannabe altruists.

At the beginning of your career, it’s generally more important to build skills, networks, and credentials (“career capital”) than it is to have an immediate impact. When you’re just starting out, you don’t have many useful skills: you need to ‘level up’ before you can beat the bad guys. Most of your working hours occur later in life, and that’s when you’re at your most influential.

What’s more, there are many ways of boosting your later potential that have a high return on investment, such as getting an advanced degree or an MBA, learning to program, or building your network. Taking a few years to focus on this now can pay off with increased impact over a much longer period. For example, Rob Mather, who founded the outstandingly effective Against Malaria Foundation spent many years building skills in strategy consulting before moving into the charity sector. This meant that by the time he set up AMF, he had an excellent grasp of how to run an organization well, and had earned enough that he doesn’t need to take a salary—a major selling point to donors.

Whittling down the options

At 80,000 Hours we’ve condensed this framework into an online career decision tool. We’ve found that the biggest mistakes people make are focusing on an overly narrow range of options, sticking too much with the status quo, overestimating their chances of success, or merely going with gut instinct rather than making a more deliberative, reasoned decision.

Going back to our protagonist, Peter Hurford had always imagined that he’d go to grad school to continue studying political science. However, after reading our research, he widened his search considerably. He drew up a list of fifteen possible options across a range of areas and spoke to people who knew about them.

Based on that research, he was quickly able to rule out some of his options: consulting would involve a lot of travel, which he’d hate; medicine would require a lot of retraining.

Peter then focused on his potential impact later in life, and how well the different options would allow him to keep his options open. This made nonprofit work less appealing: It’s hard to transition from non-profit to for-profit work, whereas it’s comparatively easy to go the other way around. It also cast doubts on law school: he’d be committed to one path, learn a very specific set of skills, and end up with considerable debt after three years.

By contrast, software engineering looked extremely promising. It would help him to quickly gain extremely flexible skills, pay him enough that he could donate a decent amount to effective charities, and allow him sufficient free time to focus on nonprofit projects.

As a result, in his final year at school he invested heavily in developing his computer programming skills. After graduation, this enabled him to get a job as a software engineer at a start-up in Chicago. He’s already having an impact—both through donations and charity work in his spare time—while simultaneously learning coding, statistics, and business skills.

Peter’s path is not for everyone: a lot will depend on what you’re good at, and what you could become good at. But by focusing on the factors set out here, you’ll give yourself the best possible chance to have a satisfying career and make the world a better place.

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Want to get ideas about careers that make a difference? Try 80,000 Hours’ Career Recommender Quiz.