Sunday, October 20, 2013

Careers, caring and the unexpected (Part III)

Deciding between careers is a tough process. There are a lot of factors. Location, job security, salary, enjoyment, value to others/the world, replaceability (how easily your position could be filled by someone who would do it as well as you) - just to name a few. I spent quite a bit of time mulling over the decision of whether to continue as a professor or not.

Leaving academia was a particularly difficult decision. For one thing, the academic job market is so competitive - hundreds of eager applicants for each tenure-track job - that it's hard to go back once you leave.

I also had to get beyond the feeling that being an academic was only way to really be an intellectual. Looking back at it now that I no longer have this feeling, it seems ridiculous (of course you can be intellectual without being a professor! why not?) But there's a sense of this within academia. It's not made explicit exactly, but I believe it's quite pervasive, at least in the humanities. I'll always remember a fellow grad student who, deciding not to go on the academic job market, had printed and posted this article on the office door.

GiveWell offered me a full-time position after the summer trial period. In the end, after weighing everything up, the factor that really clinched my decision was that I wanted to be excited about my job. I knew what it was to have a really nice job, one that I was lucky to have. But I wanted to give and get more from my work. I gave notice at the college and, in January 2012, moved to NYC from Boston to work for GiveWell.

Right away, I loved being in New York. I had a great community of friends from college and elsewhere, and living in Brooklyn fit exactly what I was looking for. The job with GiveWell gave me the chance to work on a lot of interesting topics. I also really enjoyed always having people to talk to who had similar interests.

One of my favorite research topics quickly became "meta-research," GiveWell's term for initiatives aimed at improving research. This can involve a lot of things, but early on, the focus of GiveWell's work in this area was looking into the Cochrane Collaboration. As I've posted about, Cochrane does great systematic reviews of health interventions. I had a really interesting experience talking to a large number of people who work with Cochrane. On the basis of this research, GiveWell directed a grant to the US Cochrane Center (via Good Ventures).

The work on Cochrane became a gateway for me to other areas of meta-research. This work really fit into a main theme that had originally drawn me to GiveWell. I wanted better evidence for guiding decisions. As I began to learn more, it started to sink in that there are issues which affect not just philanthropic research but all research. Lack of transparency makes reported results less reliable, because we can't check them. Publication models which encourage and reward "interesting" results lead to a system where we can't trust that positive findings reflect how things really are (rather than what's likely to get published).

OK, so what's happened in the past year? (I'm going to speed through a bit, since it's harder to take a bird's-eye view of things that have happened in the past year as opposed to say, 5 years ago.)

First, GiveWell moved to San Francisco and I stayed in NYC. There were many reasons for this, some of them personal, but a big one for me was that I love New York and feel at home here and a part of a community. I've remained a big fan of GiveWell after moving on from being a researcher with the group. After some time considering my next step, I became a research consultant with another philanthropic advisor in NYC, which allowed me to follow up further on my interest in improving research.

Through that work, I thought of an idea for an initiative to increase replications of studies being done and shared (i.e., re-analyses). I've recently received a planning grant from a foundation to develop this project, and I'll be writing further posts on it as the work gets underway.


1 comment:

  1. I agree about the beliefs held within academia re being an intellectual, but my experience leaving academia has more or less borne those beliefs out. I am no longer meaningfully connected to any intellectual community, which I regret but accept.

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