What should a college student do to maximize future earnings for effective altruism?

post by D_Malik · 2013-08-27T19:06:55.348Z · score: 16 (25 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 76 comments


I'd like to solicit advice since I'm starting at Stanford this Fall and I'm interested in optimal philanthropy.

First off, what should I major in? I have experience in programming and math, so I'm thinking of majoring in CS, possibly with a second major or a minor in applied math. But switching costs are still extremely low at the moment, so I should consider other fields.

Some majors that could have higher lifetime earnings than straight CS:


Stanford actually has salary data for 2011-2012 graduates by major. CS has highest earnings, by quite far. The data is incomplete because few people responded and some groups were omitted for privacy, so we don't know what e.g. petroleum engineers or double majors earned.

Should I double-major? There are some earnings statistics here; to summarize, two majors in the same field doesn't help; a science major plus a humanities major has lower earnings than the science major alone; greatest returns are achieved by pairing a math/science major with an engineering major, which increases earnings "up to 30%" above the math/science major alone. I'd guess these effects are largely not causation, but correlation caused by conscientiousness/ambition causing both double majors and higher earnings.

I could also get minors. I'm planning to very carefully look over the requirements for each major and minor, since there do seem to be some cheap gains. A math minor can be done in one quarter, for instance; a math major takes only a bit more than two quarters.

I have a table with the unit requirements of each combination of majors and minors. Most students take 15 units a quarter. Here are some major/minor combinations I could do:

Cal Newport argues that this sort of thing a bad idea because hard schedules do not actually impress employers more.

Would employers care about double majors in undergrad if I also get a graduate degree? I will do a master's degree or a PhD, partly because those make it a lot easier to emigrate to the US. (I'm from South Africa, which doesn't have much of a software industry.)

What other things could increase earnings?

Many thanks for all advice given!


EDIT: I used a scoring rule to rank all combinations of majors and minors in CS, math, economics and MS&E (management science and engineering) according to practicality and estimated effect on earnings. Unit estimates include all breadth requirements etc., assuming I don't take stupid courses. Here's the top 20; the top 10 all look pretty good:

CS Math Econ MS&E   Total Units Units per quarter Hours/day
minor minor MAJOR minor   198 16.5 7.1
MAJOR . minor minor   207 17.3 7.4
minor . MAJOR minor   189 15.8 6.8
minor . MAJOR MAJOR   216 18.0 7.7
MAJOR minor minor minor   216 18.0 7.7
minor MAJOR minor minor   183 15.3 6.5
MAJOR . . MAJOR   199 16.6 7.1
minor MAJOR minor MAJOR   210 17.5 7.5
minor minor minor MAJOR   180 15.0 6.4
minor MAJOR MAJOR .   202 16.8 7.2
MAJOR minor minor .   190 15.8 6.8
MAJOR minor . MAJOR   208 17.3 7.4
MAJOR MAJOR . minor   211 17.6 7.5
. minor MAJOR MAJOR   192 16.0 6.9
minor minor MAJOR MAJOR   225 18.8 8.0
MAJOR . minor MAJOR   234 19.5 8.4
minor . minor MAJOR   171 14.3 6.1
. MAJOR MAJOR minor   195 16.3 7.0
minor MAJOR MAJOR minor   228 19.0 8.1
MAJOR minor . minor   181 15.1 6.5
MAJOR MAJOR minor .   220 18.3 7.9
MAJOR . MAJOR .   226 18.8 8.1
MAJOR . minor .   181 15.1 6.5
minor MAJOR . MAJOR   175 14.6 6.3
MAJOR MAJOR . .   185 15.4 6.6
minor minor MAJOR .   172 14.3 6.1
. . MAJOR MAJOR   183 15.3 6.5
MAJOR minor MAJOR .   235 19.6 8.4
MAJOR . . minor   172 14.3 6.1

Another option is to major or minor in M&CS (mathematical and computational sciences) instead of math or CS separately.


EDIT 2: Here is a graph of graduates' salaries by major. Y-axis is salary of 2011-2012 Stanford graduates. X-axis is degree: 1 is BA/BS, 2 is MA/MS, 3 is PhD; intermediate values are for groups containing two degree-levels. The sample size is tiny because only 30% of students responded, and some groups were omitted for privacy.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by solipsist · 2013-08-27T19:32:49.786Z · score: 19 (19 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you haven't already, go to 80000 hours.

comment by D_Malik · 2013-08-28T22:17:04.960Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I filled out a form for a coaching session.

comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2013-08-28T21:36:32.352Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And specifically, get a coaching session.

comment by SatvikBeri · 2013-08-28T12:36:43.252Z · score: 14 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a math major who has had relatively fast career growth. Here is the generalized process that has worked for me and a few of my friends (note that this is primarily based on personal experience and anecdotes):

  • The critical skill for creating large amounts of value and quickly growing your earnings is understanding what people value. Most people, especially STEM majors, are really bad at this. They are not able to effectively model the business and the people they work with, so they end up spending a lot of time and effort on elegant solutions that seem useful but aren't what the business values most. So how do you learn what people value? Spend a lot of time improving your communication skills. Write a lot. Talk to people a lot. Gain a general sense of business by reading books like The Personal MBA. Check out sources like Ramit Sethi's I Will Teach You To Be Rich, which is absolutely phenomenal despite the sketchy name. And of course, consistently ask yourself/your boss/your customers if what you're working on is what other people value, or if it's just what seems to be urgent.

  • Social skills are certainly important. There are two major branches of social skills, the first lets you work better with others, and the second ensures that a large number of people know that you are competent. Develop both. The classes you mentioned (improv, public speaking, etc.) are definitely helpful. You may also want to read books like The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane, I and several friends have found it extremely useful.

  • Most advice regarding majors is targeted towards median outcomes. The strategies for maximizing your mean earnings over a 40-year career are quite different. For example, more specific technical majors (e.g. petroleum engineering vs. CS) tend to have higher median earnings but less opportunity to shift fields, which in turn means lower mean earnings assuming you're already above a certain baseline level of competence. Technical majors are definitely highly valued and well-respected, so do a STEM major, but try to make it something relatively general like CS, Math, or Physics.

  • You should definitely come out of college knowing how to write code-even if you don't intend to be a programmer, a strong understanding of what can and cannot be automated is helpful for almost everyone.

  • Another next critical skill is learning to negotiate your salary-most people do not negotiate at all, despite the fact that a 15 minute negotiation is often worth thousands of dollars. Again, I recommend Ramit Sethi's book as well as several of the writings on Patrick McKenzie's website.

  • Finally, try to work in industries with a lot of change, such as technology. You may end up earning less at the beginning of your career, but it offers much greater opportunities for advancement than relatively sticky industries such as oil. If you're ambitious then over 10 years you'll probably earn more in a rapidly changing industry than a slowly growing one.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2013-08-28T14:54:11.443Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Paul Graham:

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don't commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It's not so important what you work on, so long as you're not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you'll take.

Suppose you're a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for "don't give up on your dreams." Stay upwind.

comment by lukeprog · 2013-08-27T21:26:39.026Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also see Alexei's Maximizing Your Donations via a Job.

comment by lincolnquirk · 2013-08-28T02:17:23.092Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Startups! (I do startups.)

The path to success at startups is a long one and you aren't guaranteed to succeed. But you can increase your chances massively. Programming is a critical skill; I think most new big companies have substantial programming components, though a lot of the low-hanging software-only ideas are plucked, at this point. So I wouldn't only study programming.

Social skills are pretty damn important. Social skills I am working on for my job: body language; talking to strangers; pitching; quickly evaluating people; overcoming social anxiety & aversion; public speaking; 1-on-1s; writing in order to be understood.

To address your other bullets: Internships are great, definitely do them. I'd only train "networking" to the extent of "getting people to perceive value when they meet you". I wouldn't spend too much time on "networking events" because there's a horrendous negative selection effect there. Leadership is too vague and you should define what you mean by that. Only do research if you're interested in it, but if you are, you should do a lot of it and focus on it because you could make actual useful progress and that's impressive. (If you're not interested you probably won't make progress so don't waste your time.) Explore career development centers but mostly ignore what they say. Studying abroad is something you should do if it'll be fun and edifying, not for any direct-to-resume purpose.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-28T15:06:19.362Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I second the advice on startups. Starting a startup has a higher expected monetary return than anything else you can do (as far as I know); and if you do want to start a startup, Stanford is the place to do it.

80,000 Hours has a couple of posts about startups.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T15:57:35.032Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Starting a startup has a higher expected monetary return than anything else you can do (as far as I know)

Do you have data?

I would expect the median monetary return from starting a start-up to be negative.

comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2013-08-28T21:51:19.323Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're right that median is negative when you consider opportunity cost, but why care about the median? "Expected monetary return" in the "expected value" sense and not "most likely thing to happen to me" sense is close to what you want for earning to give. (Because charity doesn't have anywhere near the diminish marginal returns an individual does.)

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-29T21:02:45.924Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're thinking about it from the point of view of the receiving charity. The charity's payoffs have a hard floor: zero. Essentially the charity has an option (in the financial sense). And because of that it is in the charity's best interest to drive the volatility (risk, variance, uncertainty) of the "expected monetary return" sky-high -- because it is insulated from the bad consequences, remember, the worst thing that could happen to charity is to get zero dollars.

However from the point of view of the individual things look different. His payoffs do NOT have a hard floor. He is fully exposed to all the risk. For him the volatility of the expected return is a bad thing.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2013-08-30T11:14:24.932Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I don't understand your reply.

Here's Ben Kuhn on risk neutrality:

Donors driven by signalling, prestige, or warm fuzzies tend to be unhappy when charities they donate to don’t get results. But effective altruists know that individually, we should just be maximizing expected outcome, and if that requires a high-risk strategy, so be it. In other words, even if we’re personally risk-averse we should be altruistically risk neutral. This (hopefully) means that we can operate something like philanthropic venture capitalists—fund pie-in-the-sky ventures that are too risky for most donors, and thus collect a risk premium (paid in QALYs, not dollars, but it’s the same idea).

Do you agree with this reasoning?

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-30T15:01:43.896Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, let's unpack.

I'll set up the situation with two players. We have Alice, a flesh-and-blood human who is an effective altruist (among other things -- being a human she is not a paperclip maximizer). And we have Charlie the charity, an organization.

Notable differences between Alice and Charlie (besides the obvious ones) are that:

  • Charlie's utility function decays (in the diminishing marginal returns sense) very slowly compared to Alice's.
  • Charlie can viably be risk-neutral, while Alice is unlikely to be.

Given this I'll posit that it's probably fine for Charlie to maximize expected outcome and be risk-neutral. It is not fine for Alice to do this.

To formulate this in a slightly different way, it's OK for Alice to give money to Charlie to enable it to act in the maximize-the-expected-outcome manner (e.g. as a philanthropic VC) but it's not OK for Alice to run her entire life this way.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2013-08-28T16:23:00.566Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The posts he linked to provide some data.

The OP wants to donate most of his earnings. Since charities, unlike people, don't generally exhibit diminishing marginal utility, he should choose a career that maximizes expected earnings. So in this context mean, rather than median, returns are relevant. As Carl notes in the second post, "most venture-backed startups fail, but the average (mean) financial gain to founders is measured in millions."

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T17:24:40.385Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As already mentioned, don't confuse a startup with a VC-funded startup. These are very different things with very different probabilities of success (and different expected returns).

I don't think going purely by the expected return and ignoring the shape of the distribution is a good idea.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-28T17:00:51.386Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

From this paper, the average startup exits with $10 million, lasts 4 years until exit, and has 1.4 founders. Extrapolating from this gives about $1.5 million annual income per founder. (I think it's actually somewhat less than that because I'm not accounting for e.g. the fact that investors own a portion of the company.)

(EDIT: This 80,000 Hours post cites $1.4 million.)

I would expect the median monetary return from starting a start-up to be negative.

I think you're right. According to the same source, about 70% of startups that receive funding never make a profit.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T17:17:59.586Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

From this paper, the average startup exits with $10 million

Nope, you're misreading the paper.

Average venture-funded startup exits with $10m. Getting to be VC-funded is a huge threshold that most startups do not reach.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-28T18:05:42.107Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did notice the "venture-funded" clause. I mention it at the end of my comment. Perhaps I should have specified at the beginning.

I'd be interested to know how many startups get VC funding. Of course, at that point, you have to decide what qualifies as a startup. If a couple of guys make a website in their spare time and never seriously work on it, does that count as a startup?

comment by lincolnquirk · 2013-08-29T06:11:34.381Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd call it a startup when you work fulltime on it, and it's designed for fast growth (as in Paul Graham's "Startup = Growth" essay, http://paulgraham.com/growth.html)

Venture funded is a big barrier, and filters a lot of startups. But it mostly filters them by personality type. I expect that most smart, extremely resourceful, good work ethic people could get venture funding if they wanted it. These attributes are what Y Combinator filters for. But the real correlate with success (and therefore money-making) is finding product/market fit. I think that's a lot harder than getting venture funding, and a lot more important.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T18:42:15.372Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know how many startups get VC funding, I suspect the percentage is single-digit.

Off the top of my head I'd say that once you hire your first employee who is not friends-and-family you can be called a startup and not just a couple of guys futzing around.

comment by CarlShulman · 2013-09-02T02:36:38.230Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Petroleum engineering. Would non-oil energy sources cause pay to drop over the next 40 years?

Yes. Also even aside from that there is volatility in fossil fuel prices, and thus demand for fossil fuel occupations. Probably too narrow a specialization for you there, without enough compensating benefits.

Actuarial math. If I understand correctly, actuaries had high pay because they were basically a cartel, artificially limiting the supply of certifications to a certain number each year. And I've heard that people that used to hire actuaries now hire cheaper equivalents, so pay could be less over the next 40 years.

You can do better than that at Stanford, e.g. higher-end fields within finance, or entrepreneurship, or high-end research.


Medicine has many virtues, but you don't need to sculpt your choice of major around it even if you want this option open: as long as you take and get A grades in the pre-requisite classes, success in any major (with appropriate extracurriculars and test scores) can get you admitted to medical school.

Quantitative finance

Finance can easily beat CS if you don't become an entrepreneur in earnings, but they are closer in risk-neutral returns if one goes the entrepreneurial route. Much would depend on which is a better fit for you.

a science major plus a humanities major has lower earnings than the science major alone; greatest returns are achieved by pairing a math/science major with an engineering major, which increases earnings "up to 30%" above the math/science major alone. I'd guess these effects are largely not causation, but correlation caused by conscientiousness/ambition causing both double majors and higher earnings.

Substantially, but STEM majors are independently desired in particular fields, and act as credible signals to employers.

What other things could increase earnings? Doing an internship every summer.


Maybe I could try to get into a leadership position at a student club or something.

Founding things is better, particularly something you actually want to do so that you will put more into it and get more value out of it.

Honors programs, or doing research. Do employers care about this?

Research is most useful for getting a sense of/preparing for/applying to PhD programs and academia.

Studying abroad.

Doubtful. Most study abroad programs push you towards taking less useful courses and being isolated from great things at Stanford (which has a higher density of good connections and resources than the usual study abroad sites).

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-28T08:42:35.895Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

they are closer in risk-neutral returns if one goes the entrepreneurial route

I would be very interested in some source for this where I could read about it in more detail.

If someone asked me, then based on a remark I came across at 80,000 Hours, my advice for choosing a high-earning career would now simply be to choose finance if your "ability" (mainly IQ) is sufficiently high and medicine if not.

Edit: It would probably be easier to find the info if I could read 80,000 Hours here in China...sigh.

comment by CarlShulman · 2013-12-28T17:35:21.030Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's by no means a rock-solid conclusion. There are various data showing good returns, but not well matched to particular individuals' ex ante prospects.

For example, the combined wealth of all technology billionaires firmly surpasses that of all finance billionaires, and if one looks at fortunes earned in the last several decades the disproportion is overwhelming.

The mean returns of venture-backed entrepeneurs are good (while the risk-adjusted returns look comparatively poor), but that's a highly selected subset of entrepreneurs and startups (some discussion on 80000 hours).

The evidence for finance is more robust than for tech entrepreneurship (although 80,000 hours is trying to get a better picture).

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-08-28T00:05:49.503Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Marry money?

comment by diegocaleiro · 2013-08-28T11:05:18.439Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And don't have children.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-08-28T11:20:39.630Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by D_Malik · 2013-08-28T17:21:55.313Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hm, that certainly looks like an option. It also seems to be the easiest way to emigrate.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2013-08-28T17:24:05.640Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Be aware that job market advice is somewhat like stock market advice. If it becomes common knowledge that career X is highly compensated (or highly compensated relative to effort/education level), this will cause a large number of young people to enter field X, in turn causing a surplus of workers and depressing salaries. You should try to pursue a career trajectory that is at least a little bit non-obvious.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-09-08T21:08:33.958Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not completely like stock market advice 'cause in the stock market, the best players tend to win more money and acquire disproportionate influence. I'm not sure how rational I should model people who are choosing their careers to be--if many follow the "passion model" described by Cal Newport in his book, then just profit-maximizing should work fairly well.

comment by dotsloyalist · 2015-10-25T03:42:11.151Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Careers r less liquid. Teenagers r the leading career path selectors.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-28T15:02:29.434Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Stanford sophomore here. I can offer some Stanford-specific advice. In fairness, I've only been here for a year, so you'd probably figure this stuff out pretty soon anyway, but hopefully it'll help.

  • 18.8 units per quarter is a lot. I only know a few people who are taking that much. However, I've found that taking 16 or 17 units is pretty feasible (assuming you don't have any other major undertakings such as research or a part-time job).
  • This may be obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me this: Go to career fairs. At Stanford, unlike at most universities, you actually have a pretty good chance of getting an internship your first year.
  • If you're going to Stanford, you should absolutely take CS106A at the very least. If it goes well, take more CS classes. I'd suggest taking CS106B and CS107 even if you don't end up majoring or minoring in computer science.

Non-Stanford-specific advice:

If you're looking to maximize future earnings via a job, you should probably look at the highest-paying graduate majors, not undergraduate. You can make more money, as Peter Hurford said, in law or finance than in most any job you could get with just a Bachelor's degree.

EDIT: Also, Stanford has a chapter of The High Impact Network. You should join us! I'll PM you the President's email.

EDIT 2: Based on personal experience, I'd recommend against becoming an actuary. My dad was an actuary for 14 years, and he hated it. If you like mathy work, you'll probably find actuarial work terribly dull. Of course, you might have a different experience.

comment by Izeinwinter · 2013-08-28T18:55:09.912Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(US) Law is a bad idea. That job market has been supersaturated by too many people taking that advice already. Look up job statistics and debt burdens for recent law-graduates if you want to be really depressed. Finance will hopefully get regulated into oblivion in the nearish future.

comment by D_Malik · 2013-08-28T18:58:01.443Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

18.8 units per quarter is a lot. I only know a few people who are taking that much. However, I've found that taking 16 or 17 units is pretty feasible (assuming you don't have any other major undertakings such as research or a part-time job).

Thanks, I forgot to get that sanity-checked. I figured that each unit is 25 minutes a day, or 35 if you only work during the week, so 4 units isn't that much extra when you're already working 6.5 hours or 9 hours a day. But I guess it could be a lot since it would mainly cut into social time. I hear the relationship between units and workload is pretty tenuous, though, so it might be possible to take lots of units without doing as much more work.

Thanks for the other advice also! I'll go to career fairs, probably at least minor in CS, and sign up for THINK.

Here's a graph of salary by major including graduate majors. CS still seems to win out, though the dataset is small.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-29T20:27:43.241Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hear the relationship between units and workload is pretty tenuous, though, so it might be possible to take lots of units without doing as much more work.

The unit-workload correlation is predictable, but not entirely straightforward. In particular:

  • IntroSems and other similar freshman/sophomore classes are usually easier than their units would suggest.
  • Humanities classes usually have less work per unit than sciences.
  • Almost every higher-level math class is 3 units, no matter how much work it is. You can usually expect 5 units worth of work for a 3-unit math class. (This also means that even though a math major takes fewer units than most other majors, it's more work.)
  • For people who aren't particularly fast at programming, CS classes can take an extraordinary amount of time (20-30 hours a week for a 5-unit class).
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-08-28T01:54:10.063Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you have independent software development experience, and curiosity/discipline to acquire more software development skills, you might consider trying to become an "X who programs". This thread has some info. Basically, get official credentials in some fairly lucrative & difficult field that has a need for software developers, and do independent study in software development (and maybe statistics/data science type stuff). More links: 1, 2. This could also be a good way to come up with an idea for a software company in some fairly technical industry (meaning relatively high barriers to entry, and possibly corporate customers that will be willing to pay good money for the product you offer). Going in to traditional software development will be a solid fallback plan, since software company employers care more about your skills than your degree, and computer science knowledge isn't actually all that useful for practical software development.

This data suggests that combining software development with stats/machine learning/big data skills can be relatively lucrative, at least in the current job market. My understanding is that data scientist employers are also fairly lax about official credentials.

comment by SatvikBeri · 2013-08-28T12:41:36.710Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I highly recommend the "X who programs" path-it helped me increase my earnings by about 150% over the course of 2 years. It was substantially more useful than concentrating solely on my programming skills or marketing/risk/statistics skills.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-08-28T16:18:45.172Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cool! Can you give us details?

comment by SatvikBeri · 2013-08-28T17:55:57.914Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure. The gist of it is that I worked in fields like marketing and analytics which were high-impact, but where people spent a lot of time doing things manually (this was ~5 years ago-there's a lot more automation in these sections of companies today.) I wasn't the best marketer or the best programmer, but I realized a lot of things that people did every week could be automated. So I automated those tasks, saving a lot of man-hours for a lot of very expensive people. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's very easy to make the case for an 80% salary increase when you've just completely automated 4 jobs.

Today there is a term for this role-"growth hacker." But in general, if you work in an environment where not much automation has already been done, then automation is massively valuable. I've saved/earned companies millions of dollars with awful code that happened to solve the business problem.

I've written this up in a bit more detail on Quora and on Hacker News

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-08-28T21:30:26.166Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Heh, now I feel silly for not noticing your username... I actually linked to the Quora question where you left an answer in my original comment. Thanks for the info!

comment by Alexei · 2013-08-29T18:59:15.058Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good question, and I'm happy to see you are taking it seriously. There are roughly two ways in which you can become an effective altruist: #1 donate a lot, #2 influence other people to donate. These paths are not exclusive, and you probably need to do at least some of #1, so you can lead by example.

So, with #2 you would focus on things like writing, psychology, marketing, sales, etc... However, some might say that the only true way to have influence over other people is to be famous and/or to have power. Thus, you can look at people that have power and/or are famous and see how they got there. Elon Musk is a good example. However, you should also keep in mind what group of people you will influence. Britney Spears is influential, may be even more so than Elon Musk, if you just look at the quantity of people, but clearly their fan demographic is very different. Of course, the type of influence matters too. I bet Britney Spears can easily raise $1M for a stray cats foundation, but she probably won't get anywhere if she tried to convince her fans about importance of x-risk reduction.
When it comes to power, you can get it through political means, other avenues that put you in charge of some highly valuable resource / policy, or you can just go for money. Being a popular startup CEO is an interesting intersection of being both famous (within specific circles), potentially rich, and potentially influential. Best example: Larry Page.

Which brings us to #1. Having more money is simply better. 80k hours has covered how to get the most money out of your career pretty extensively. I'd avoid risky narrow career paths like actuarial math and petroleum engineering. If you miss that narrow high point, you end up in a valley. (Better illustrated by Kaj_Sotala's Paul Graham's quote.) On the other hand being a solid Software Engineer (SWE) will open most SWE doors for you. It's much harder to decide if you should combine that with engineering, math, or if you should double down on CS and have lots of projects and internships to show when you graduate. In my mind, there are three broad CS roads one can take: standard SWE job at a public company (e.g. Google), standard SWE job at a startup (e.g. Ripple or Square), or a job as a quantitive analysts. There are others, of course, but if your goal is $$, then these are probably the best. In terms of EV, I think startups offer the best bet, though it does depend on your risk aversion and yearly discount rate. If it's high then the value you get from a startup is worth a lot less.

I'll mention one more important point to keep in mind. For example, as a doctor, you can help dozens of patients a day, roughly. As a researcher, you can be searching for a cure that'll help a million people. (May be all the people if you join SENS.) As a SWE, you can be working on a narrow AI that can be scaled to work on multiple research projects at the same time. Do you see what side of the fence you want to be on? Simply put, SWEs are taking/automating everyone's jobs, including their own to some extent. Once you fully automate SWEs you basically get Singularity, so you don't have to worry about that outcome when it comes to job security, but with every other job you do. WIth every other job, there is some chance that in the next few decades we'll have an AI doing that job better and cheaper than humans.

I'll also briefly mention another option you haven't considered: no college. I have a friend who just graduated from highschool, and I'm helping him find a SWE job in the bay area. He is definitely smart enough and talented enough to likely get a job at Google or other high quality SWE-heavy company/startup. The upside is that he'll start making money today, and he won't have to pay for college. He'll start learning practical skills, and he won't have to waste time on general education classes. Downside is that he'll have to take responsibility for continuing his education himself: read books, watch lectures, etc... The biggest problem, though, is that he'll miss out on all the social aspects of a university. He won't form the super valuable connections. At the end of the day, people pay extra to attend Stanford and MIT not because the education there is that much better, but because you'll get connected to people that will be world leaders in the next decade.

comment by metastable · 2013-08-28T01:07:44.868Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're interested in maximizing income, I would rule out pre-med. It's sub-optimal preparation for any career except medicine, and medicine is sub-optimal for income. A few reasons:

Salaries are essentially capped by reimbursement rates and man-hours. The best surgeon in the world isn't going to make more than a few million a year doing elective surgeries twelve hours a day year round.

The things that generate the most income for rich people with MD's, patents and start-ups and C-suite gigs, don't require the MD credential. There are better stepladders. The possible exception is medical celebrity, but the odds of you being the next Dr. Oz are extremely low.

The average physician makes far less over his lifetime than he could applying the same horsepower and hours worked to, say, finance. It's a fairly straightforward back-of-the-envelope calculation. In addition to losing seven to ten years of income after college (residency only pays a little above living wages) and possibly incurring $250K in student debt when money means the most due to time-value, you'll graduate into a market absolutely determined (for very understandable reasons) to bend the healthcare cost curve down and pay doctors less. American doctors are currently paid much, much better than doctors almost everywhere else in the world, due in large part to guild-like protections, and this cannot continue indefinitely. Globalization's already lined up to crush radiology and elective surgery, two of the better-remunerated fields, and IBM would very much like to put oncologists everywhere out of a job. Another half-dozen specialties are in turf battles against mid-level providers like nurses.

All that said, I highly recommend medicine. Just not for optimized philanthropy.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T01:14:24.677Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The average physician makes far less over his lifetime than he could applying the same horsepower and hours worked to, say, finance. It's a fairly straightforward back-of-the-envelope calculation.

That doesn't seem obvious to me. Can I see that calculation? I suspect you're comparing the absolute top-of-the-line financial career trajectory (which is very very hard to achieve) with a typical doctor path.

comment by CarlShulman · 2013-09-02T02:42:54.763Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Attrition rates for investment banking are FAR higher than for medicine. The vast majority of investment bankers don't make partner, while most good students who go to medical school graduate and earn high incomes as practicing doctors.

Finance does still have higher expected value for those suited to it, but not as large a difference as that suggests.

comment by metastable · 2013-08-28T02:29:21.598Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

OP is going to Stanford, so a career at GS, Deutsche Bank, JPM, or Bridgewater is a realistic possiblity in a way it simply isn't at 99.9% of schools.

comment by metastable · 2013-08-28T02:37:52.833Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

ETA: you're right that it's bogus to compare top-of-the-line finance to average physician. I should have said "The average Stanford-educated physician makes far less over his lifetime than he could applying the same horsepower and hours worked to, say, finance."

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T15:39:51.584Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That still isn't obvious to me and I still think you're comparing apples and durians.

comment by metastable · 2013-08-29T01:39:17.532Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

still isn't obvious

Not sure what to say. There's finance and there's finance. HYPS and maybe two or three others have pipelines for pushing kids to the banks and hedge funds at the very top. And yes, I mean undergrad. The fourth or fifth of each class that goes into finance isn't doing it to sell mutual funds in mid-sized cities. Many bail after a few years, but those who stay in can easily become millionaires, and some do it before their former classmates in med school finish their residencies.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T15:39:13.133Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

OP is going to Stanford undergrad. You should start calculating your chances of a career at GS around the time you have been accepted to a top-10 MBA school.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-28T17:19:08.350Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to this page, three graduates with a Mathematical & Computational Sciences degree (an undergraduate degree similar to CS) work at financial institutions: JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Keep in mind that these are graduates from the class of 2011, so they've only been out of school for 2 years; and the degree program only has about 15 graduates per year, so three alumni make a sizable fraction.

What I'm trying to say is, it's probably feasible to get a job in finance with only an undergraduate degree from Stanford.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-08-28T17:42:00.174Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

it's probably feasible to get a job in finance with only an undergraduate degree from Stanford.

It is, but you'll get an undergrad kind of a job.

JPMorgan has 260,000 employees. The compensation expense in 2012 was about $30.5 billion which means the average total compensation (including bonuses, etc.) was about $117K per employee.

That's a nice salary but seems to be roughly similar to what doctors make.

comment by patrickmclaren · 2013-08-28T01:20:50.920Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In Australia, a Medicare funded physician makes anywhere between 100k to 150k [1], whereas the avg. finance position pays 88k [2]. So you're right.

[1] http://www.health.qld.gov.au/hrpolicies/wage_rates/documents/hpeb2-wage-rates.pdf

[2] http://content.mycareer.com.au/salary-centre/financial-services

Sorry that these are Australian wages. I don't care about U.S. wages.

comment by metastable · 2013-08-28T01:18:09.681Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Edit to add: WRT networking, it's kind of a suitcase word. Lots of people talk about it. I am sceptical that public speaking and improv classes are the best places to meet the best networking prospects, though they might be excellent for meeting interesting people. Athletes typically do better than the mean at Stanford-type schools in terms of career earnings, despite lower HS GPAs and test scores. If you're not currently a recruited athlete, you might still be able to walk on to the crew team or ultimate team.

comment by MTGandP · 2013-08-28T17:20:27.720Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the point of public speaking classes isn't to do networking, but to improve communication skills and therefore skill at networking.

comment by Larks · 2013-08-28T17:12:16.728Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Play a team sport, especially if you might want to do IB.

comment by peter_hurford · 2013-08-28T12:36:05.789Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The highest earning careers generally* are medicine, law, and finance. For medicine, you'll need a specific major (biology and chemistry, usually). For law, you can have any major. For finance, you can have any quantitative major. Thus, I'd recommend you either go medicine or not medicine and pick either biology/chemistry, math/economics, math/computer science, or economics/computer science for your major, depending on skills and interest.

Don't worry as much about overloading your coursework as getting good grades in your classes. High GPA matters a lot for law, and somewhat for medicine and finance. Law and finance don't really care too much about what your majors are or what specific classes you've taken.

Take internships as often as possible. I think it's better to take more prestigious internships than internships relevant to your field, but I could be wrong about that.


Networking. Stanford's statistics on how 2011-2012 graduates found jobs indicates that around 29% of them got jobs through networking.

This is important, yes. Put some thought into it, but if you're doing things right, in my experience, it should evolve largely naturally. Just make sure to record who you've met and some guesses as to how they could help you. I have a spreadsheet.


Some way of signalling leadership skills? Maybe I could try to get into a leadership position at a student club or something.

Yes, plus self-direction and management skills, which are more important. Take a leadership position because you're passionate about the club, though, not for overt signaling.


Honors programs, or doing research. Do employers care about this?

Depends on the employer and the research / program. Generally these can be high prestige, which is good. But a trading firm probably won't care about your english literature research or research on fern mating cycles, etc. Good research projects do demonstrate you can write and think quantitatively, though, which could be an asset.


*This might be naïve though, because it doesn't factor in cost of living, social environment, cost of school (especially law and medical school), or amount of hours worked. On a per hour basis, I suspect these jobs aren't as high income as they seem.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-08-28T16:41:34.866Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd think carefully about law school. Also, does it have any automation risk?

Why double major instead of doing a bachelor's and then a master's in a different subject? How feasible would it be to get a bachelor's degree in 3 years and a master's degree in 1 year instead of double majoring in 4 years?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-08-30T18:32:07.254Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Search engines have eliminated a huge class of work that lawyers did at one point when finding case law. I don't know how much further things can be automated, but that combined with the number of people who see dollar signs when they think about law school makes it a bad choice these days.

comment by peter_hurford · 2013-08-28T21:26:53.223Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, does it have any automation risk?

Probably, but I don't know much about it.


Why double major instead of doing a bachelor's and then a master's in a different subject? How feasible would it be to get a bachelor's degree in 3 years and a master's degree in 1 year instead of double majoring in 4 years?

This is just an artifact of the school I chose to attend (Denison University, a liberal arts college) where double majors are relatively easy and graduating in 3 years is impossible.

comment by CarlShulman · 2013-09-02T02:40:30.877Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You left out entrepreneurship, which is (expected value) financially better than law or medicine for people with the right profile for all three.

comment by metastable · 2013-08-29T01:55:27.954Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't actually need a specific major to go to med school. You just need the pre-reqs, a pretty straightforward sequence of mostly-science that you can cram inside most majors. Bio majors are usually the easiest way to do this.

As I mention elsewhere in the thread, med school is usually debt-funded and costs you earning years in your twenties. And your per-hour income is sometimes surprisingly low.

comment by Dorikka · 2013-08-27T23:58:22.436Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Especially since the first two comments here are links, it might be good to have relevant links compiled into a repository if someone were willing to put in the time to make that happen.

(I note that I am being that guy that suggests things that he's not willing to actually do. However, this is likely better than the comment not being posted in the first place.)

comment by D_Malik · 2013-08-28T17:44:32.039Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll make a wiki page with links to all the relevant posts and websites in the next week. (If not, please downvote this comment.)

Edit: Decided not to do this.

comment by new_throwaway · 2013-08-28T16:58:30.276Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, going to Stanford with the goal of making a lot of money is a great start! I think the best thing is to go broad as an undergraduate. CS or EE or something is good because you will be able to go in a lot of different directions when you graduate such as finance or the start-up world. Taking some econ/business courses is good and getting prestigious internships in the private sector is good. As long as you work hard and try to do as well as or better than your classmates you should be in great shape to make a lot of money.

Also, I recommend that after reading this comment you close LessWrong and never look at it again. Some clever post might convince you that you'll do more good by doing good directly rather than earning and donating. If you buy into that and end up going to work at MIRI or something you could really harm your earning potential!

comment by Arepo · 2013-08-28T11:44:08.601Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd guess these effects are largely not causation, but correlation caused by conscientiousness/ambition causing both double majors and higher earnings.

Unless you're certain of this or have some reason to suspect a factor pulling in the other direction, this still seems to suggest higher expectation from doing a double major.

comment by D_Malik · 2013-08-28T17:37:09.453Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely agree, especially considering that double majors aren't even that hard if you plan ahead. (For instance, you can major in math and management science while doing less units than the minimum allowed.)

I've edited the original post with a table on good major/minor combinations.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-08-28T11:21:50.234Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might like to ask in this facebook group too :)

comment by westward · 2013-08-28T04:29:42.657Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your education (whether it's formal by paying a college, informal by life learning) is an investment. Any investment should be evaluated by its expected return which is payoff/risk within a timeline limited by your cash on hand. A startup has a high payoff but high risk in 2- 5 years with low cash on hand. A career is medicine is medium payoff but lower risk in 10-20 years (education plus time to earn) with high cash on hand or ability to get loans. The payoff of owning a franchise business, or three, (like Subway) is high in 5 years with medium risk, but with high cash requirements.

Your maximum earning ability will be limited if you work for someone else, though still potentially high with your list of possible careers (a list that is pretty solid). Running your own business however, increases your maximum earning ability immensely. You mention a lot about what makes you attractive to employers though so you would need to work on your entrepreneur skills (taking risk, understanding financials, dealing with failure) if you go that route.

Other thoughts...

Networking as a factor in future earnings may not be under your control. I expect a lot of people that are accepted into Standford already have strong network connections because of their family. And, of course, because they go to Stanford. Extra work in that department may not help.

Standford's salary survey isn't that cut and dried because it is a snapshot. What are the CS majors earning in 10 years compared to the other majors?

comment by patrickmclaren · 2013-08-28T00:38:44.048Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

@D_Malik Quantitative finance is bursting at the seams, take a look at the latest trends in MFE programs and Wilmott's CQF. Although it is fun :-)

The engineering programs you listed, coupled with an MBA, will equal bigger bucks than simply engineering on it's own, in my opinion. If you're lucky (rather unlucky, from other people's perspective, hah), you'll be able to join the ranks of the superhuman species of "all pay, no work" Suits.

Also, suppose you do a PhD. In your case, given your interest in altruism, don't simply "do a PhD". Use the opportunity for your own purposes. There have been many theses that have positively affected humanity, see "Tate's Thesis", or Shannon's thesis on Boolean Algebra. I know these examples are old, however, they came to mind simply because of my field. Look up some Systems Biology theses for more recent examples.

Also, think beyond right now. For example, what are the reasons behind wanting to improve leadership skills? Do you want to use your potential leadership skills to influence others to adopt your pov w/ respect to altruism? How are you going to get into such a position (i.e. most people with successful and useful TED talks are not simply good speakers, but they have something concrete happening as well.)

IMO most of these things will be minutely beneficial, however, you'll also likely burn out in the process. Find the most important prerequisites to your success, they'll probably take up most of your time.

comment by SatvikBeri · 2013-08-28T12:21:44.453Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
comment by D_Alex · 2013-08-28T06:17:41.937Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

IMO, if you really care about us fellow humans do this: Generate utility wholesale, in bulk. Not in bite size chunks. Your actual earnings most likely will not be of any great significance. What you should aim for is to generate great ideas, products, social/political outcomes, rather than a high salary.

CS is a great option for this, provided you use it to deliver better communications, GPS, automation, etc, maybe even AI. If you go on to do crapola iPhone apps and banner ads, not so much.

Scientific research, engineering R&D and the like are also great options, plus these fields are, IMO, exceptionally interesting.

Conversely, GP medicine, dentistry, accounting for example do not scale well in terms of total utility produced, even though salaries can be quite high. Arts and legal occupations have potential, but overall end up barely worthwhile (my opinion!).

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2013-08-28T16:14:29.500Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your actual earnings most likely will not be of any great significance. What you should aim for is to generate great ideas, products, social/political outcomes, rather than a high salary

Why do you think this?

comment by D_Alex · 2013-08-29T06:47:10.521Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was going to answer "Say you found a cure for cancer while working for pharmaceutical company...", but lets consider something more mundane.

Say you are an engineer working for Unilever. With 3 months of diligent work, you design a shampoo bottle that costs 1 cent less to manufacture, maybe through reduced material usage. There are billions of these bottles made each year, giving a saving to humanity of tens of millions of dollars each year. Compared with savings of this magnitude, your actual salary will be insignificant.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2013-08-29T12:43:46.646Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think your analysis adequately addresses the strongest arguments for earning to give. If you can do lots of good by innovating or researching, say, why can't you do even more good by making lots of money and using part of it to pay researchers or innovators?

comment by Dahlen · 2013-08-30T23:12:06.484Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because sometimes there's a shortage of ideas, expertise etc., or just other things rather than money, that prevent a goal from being reached. For example (warning: I'm a highly unreliable source on this), the SENS Foundation gets plenty of funding; at this point it appears to need more top researchers rather than more money to make progress.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2013-08-30T23:59:54.163Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that talent, rather than money, is sometimes the relevant bottleneck. However, what follows from this is that folks with the relevant talent should do research rather than earn to give. This doesn't apply to the vast majority of people, who lack such special talents.

comment by CarlShulman · 2013-09-02T02:44:31.108Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is substantial, although incomplete, overlap in the special talents needed for exceptional success in business and in other fields