Academia as a career option, its social value, and alternatives

Many of the high school and col­lege stu­dents who con­tacted us at Cog­nito Men­tor­ing were look­ing for ad­vice were con­sid­er­ing go­ing into academia. The main draw to them was the de­sire to learn spe­cific sub­jects and ex­plore ideas in greater depth. As a re­sult, we’ve been in­ves­ti­gat­ing academia as a ca­reer op­tion and also con­sid­er­ing what al­ter­na­tives there may be to academia that fulfill the same needs but provide bet­ter pay and/​or gen­er­ate more so­cial value. The love of ideas and epistemic ex­plo­ra­tion is shared by many of the peo­ple at Less Wrong, in­clud­ing those who are not in academia. So I’m hop­ing that peo­ple will share their own per­spec­tives in the com­ments. That’ll help us as well as the many LessWrong lurk­ers in­ter­ested in academia.

I’m ea­ger to hear about what con­sid­er­a­tions you used when weigh­ing academia against other ca­reer op­tions, and how you came to your de­ci­sion. In­ci­den­tally, there are a num­ber of great an­swers to the Quora ques­tion Why did you leave academia?, but there’s prob­a­bly many thoughts peo­ple have here that aren’t re­flected in the Quora an­swers. I’ve also writ­ten up a de­tailed re­view of academia as a ca­reer op­tion on the info wiki for Cog­nito Men­tor­ing here (long read), and I’d also love feed­back on the val­idity of the points I make there.

Many of our ad­visees as well as the LessWrong read­er­ship at large are in­ter­ested in choos­ing ca­reers based on the so­cial value gen­er­ated by these ca­reers. (This is ev­i­denced in the strong con­nec­tion be­tween the LessWrong and effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­ni­ties). What are your thoughts on that front? Jonah and I have col­lab­o­ra­tively writ­ten a page on the so­cial value of academia. Our key point is that re­search academia is higher value than al­ter­na­tive ca­reers only in cases where ei­ther the per­son has a chance of mak­ing big break­throughs in the area, or if the area of re­search it­self is high-value. Ex­am­ples of the lat­ter may in­clude ma­chine learn­ing (we’re just start­ing on in­ves­ti­gat­ing this) and (ar­guably) biomed­i­cal re­search (we’ve col­lected some links on this, but haven’t in­ves­ti­gated this in depth).

For those who are or were at­tracted to academia, what other ca­reer op­tions did you con­sider? If you de­cided not to join, or chose to quit, academia, what al­ter­na­tive ca­reer are you now pur­su­ing? We’ve iden­ti­fied a few pos­si­bil­ities at our al­ter­na­tives to academia page, but we’re largely shoot­ing in the dark here. Based on anec­do­tal ev­i­dence from peo­ple work­ing in ven­ture cap­i­tal, it seems like ven­ture cap­i­tal is a great place for poly­math-types who are in­ter­ested in re­search­ing a wide range of sub­jects shal­lowly, so it’s ideal for peo­ple who like shal­low in­tel­lec­tual ex­plo­ra­tion rather than stick­ing to a sin­gle sub­ject for an in­or­di­nate amount of time. But there are very few jobs in ven­ture cap­i­tal. On pa­per, jobs at con­sult­ing firms should be similar to ven­ture cap­i­tal in re­quiring a lot of shal­low re­search. But we don’t have an in­side view of con­sult­ing jobs—are they a good venue for in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous peo­ple? Are there other job cat­e­gories we missed?

All thoughts are greatly ap­pre­ci­ated!