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Can I use my powers for good? (stackexchange.com)
39 points by nemoto 1853 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 22 comments

For most skillsets, the answer is: pick the career that makes the most money, figure out what the best charity is, and give most of your money to that charity. Trying to be philanthropic directly is usually less effective than making money and then paying others to do good on your behalf. On the other hand, maybe you can do more good directly, by working for a charity.

In either case, you need serious research and numbers to figure out what the right path is. 80,000 hours (http://80000hours.org; I am not affiliated) is a charity that's set themselves up to research and give career guidance for people who want to maximize their positive impact. They will probably give a better answer than StackOverflow.

Perhaps, but there's a dramatic difference in the psychological reward that one gets working for a charity verse supporting one. There are lots of tech savvy non-profits that need top-notch tech talent to help them get better, faster, stronger. Non-profits can't hire teams of 50+ programmers. Usually it's 1-10 people that move fast and ship constantly. Although it's not right for everyone to do this, they do need some people to do this. See my other comment with links.

For the second step, GiveWell (http://www.givewell.org/) does a good job of sorting out some top charities.

> Trying to be philanthropic directly is usually less effective than making money and then paying others to do good on your behalf

Have you tried? What's that based on? I know lots of people doing great direct work.

In my experience, money is NOT a good substitute for concerted, focused, long-term attention in a problem domain.

That's only an answer if you're just trying to appease your own conscience instead of earnestly solving the problem. Working for the NSA while donating most of your income to the EFF is still net evil.

There are lots of tech-savvy non-profits that need programmers. Here are a few:

GlobalGiving - http://www.globalgiving.org/aboutus/jobs/software-engineer-f...

DonorsChoose.org - http://www.donorschoose.org/blog/category/job-opportunities/

Kiva - http://www.kiva.org/jobs

charity:water - http://www.charitywater.org/about/jobs.php

Volunteer Match - http://www.volunteermatch.org/careers/

And thousands more at http://www.idealist.org/

The original poster is a mathematician, not a programmer.

Most of these non-profits either have or are hiring data scientists.

He or she would probably enjoy applied mathematics. They could work at a public health establishment as a biostatistician, for example, preventing the spread of illness; or controlling quality in pharmaceutical manufacturing; or designing infrastructure like highways to avoid congestion... Mathematics has applications everywhere.

My advice would be to stay in academia -- with a PhD and 4 years of experience they are overqualified -- but search out inter-disciplinary programs, especially in computing. Collaborating with computer scientists (or becoming one) is a sure bet.

what careers which make a positive contribution to society might be open to academic mathematicians who want to change careers?

Perhaps a few mathematicians might join the fight against innumeracy among programmers?

this is sort of the same thing i went through, except without 4 years of slogging through an academic position (i applied to two and achieved neither). there are, i think, an untold number of Ph.D.s out there who, like me (and the guy on SE), wound up not liking the realities of their field's practice but enjoyed the study and material.

i changed fields, but for this guy on SE, who enjoys algorithms and complex data, there are a wealth of openings right now to study all sorts of data in fields to "do good", including genomic and life sciences, weather, and much much more.

to anyone considering a Ph.D. in a field, i suggest you look beyond the material and instead look at the day to day of the field you think you want to get into (e.g. academic research) and train for it, and decide if you want to do it. if you don't, consider still getting the Ph.D. and exploring other things to do with it. i'll be honest, i don't think anyone would have given me the time of day in a new field without my Ph.D., so even if you change fields radically you'll still get doors opened to you!

Based on my personal experience, that's very true. A PhD is a highly valuable credential - it proves you can create knowledge. It's more a way to look at things that a certification.

It seems to me, bearing in mind my numerous career changes, that honest self-assessment is in order so that you can identify: 1) other (complementary or divergent) strengths you have and 2) what intrinsic drives of yours could be harnessed in a next career.

At times (for me) it has even been helpful to get professional career-counseling to discover careers (or even avocations) whose shape and impact have changed in preceding decade since I last looked at it. There are useful psychological batteries for assessing the fit between fit/vocation that take such assessment far beyond navel-gazing/tea-leaf-reading.

Another approach would be to involve yourself with an organization (vocation or volunteer) with a project that appeals to your vision for a better world - and discover what roles beyond traditional mathematician you find you can make a contribution to. Hope that's some help.

I was in a similar boat, less than thrilled with both banking and academia. The property/casualty actuarial field was a very good fit.

US universities need to re-think the 'publish or perish' dogma. It produces a lot of uninteresting papers and a lot of discontinued academic careers. The benefit of this system (presumably separating the wheat from the chaff) is questionable.

I'm not sure it's really being thought through so much as an emergent effect of the drive towards metrics. Universities want to (or are pressured to) quantify their researchers' productivity, which results in things such as impact factors, h-indices, number of papers in top-tier conferences/journals, and so on. Researchers then have to maximize these metrics.

It's not just US universities. The dogma is universal.

The question is incomplete ("contributing something positive or at least not actively doing harm").

Please define "good".

To me, good is where you find something interesting and worth doing.

Financial speculation makes the market more liquid and reduce the spread. You say you find that interesting. I would then call that "good".

If it matches your definition of good, you may want to engage in that.

If it does not match your definition of good, look at international finance, then international macroeconomics - you will see many people are actively looking to find ways to mitigate the effects of speculation.

Also, there are some interesting side problems where your mathematical skills could be applied (should monetary policy be used in a discretionary way?) for similar problems (if you define a stable economy as a "good" thing)

It's not hard to see where it comes from, but intelligent people should be able to see the financial sector with a bit more nuance than knee-jerk hatred. There are many good reasons not to enjoy working there, but hand-wavy self-certain assertions that everything that goes on there lands somewhere between net negative and plain evil is just disingenuous.

Go there, learn about it, make some money while you're at it. Leave if you don't like it - it's not a sect.

Where do you read "knee-jerk hatred"? The poster doesn't justify his opinion of finance, but that's not really the point of his post.

Sorry, in the comments to the answers.

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