Doing a PhD in the US

I think doing a PhD in the US was probably questionable, compared to the UK. It has some benefits, but it took a long time. US PhDs are heavily designed for teaching — but If you’re not thinking about going into US academia, I don’t think it makes much sense.

Getting advice from the wrong people

Not getting advice from the right people about something I was working on. I should have reached out to more people. The people around me were not experts, so I should not have trusted their judgment. It would have taken a lot of effort to find the right people, but it also would have made a big difference.

Learn to write simply and clearly

Assuming I only get to keep my wisdom and not explicit knowledge or skills, I’d:

  • Learn personal finances and retirement concepts and put money into retirement immediately
  • Learn critical thinking, research methodology, and statistics/probability regardless of initial ability (stats and research methods skills would realistically require school for me)
  • Learn to write simply and clearly and start a blog to practice
  • Get really good at networking and learning people’s names
  • Do everything I can to minimise or avoid student loan debt
  • Take on complicated organising activities and actively learn project and people management
  • Participate in diverse groups to build my network
  • Sign up for toastmasters

Obsessing about grades

Obsessing about getting good grades, without thinking about whether getting a good GPA is actually important. I burned hundreds, maybe thousands of hours on that, without really thinking through whether the odds of it really increasing my impact justified the time and stress.

Not paying for tutoring

I think it was a mistake to not pay for tutoring. In college I was really frugal, and just didn’t value my time enough. If you want to do a PhD, getting tutoring might be the difference between getting into a good programme and a great programme, and that has a real impact in terms of getting the best jobs down the road. In my case, it’s possible that tutoring could have saved me years of time in terms of eventually getting my current role — and if I knew that then, obviously it would have been worth the money.

It’s a little bit different from the standard advice that you have to value your time; there are some particularly high-stakes moments in your life where it’s definitely worth spending the money.

Make riskier financial investments when you’re young

In terms of investing, those in the effective altruism community tend to believe you cannot beat the market. However, simply doing value investment within the US stock-market can get you a couple percent greater returns (back tested >80 years). And then if you apply well-established value metrics for global investing, you can beat the market by several more percent.

It is good that EAs have emphasized that people should be risk neutral, especially with their charity money. But even for non charity money, it makes sense to be far more risky than most investors (I think including EAs) are.

This means things like investing nearly the whole portfolio in risky countries when they are undervalued and doing leverage. If one is far away from retirement, one’s current net worth is a very small fraction of the future worth (because you will be adding to your retirement as you earn money). Therefore, you should be nearly completely risk neutral.

One way of thinking about this is that stocks are almost guaranteed to recover in 20 years, so there is no loss with risky investing (of course this is assuming that the person is rational enough not to sell out when it goes down). But even as one gets closer to retirement and a prolonged loss could actually delay retirement, the upside is a much earlier retirement, so with logarithmic utility, you still should be very near to risk neutral. I think ‘investing to give’ would make a great 80,000 Hours podcast topic.

If you’re really fortunate, don’t be scared

If you have a degree from a top university, and family and / or friends who will be able to support you financially… if it comes to it, there’s absolutely no need to be very cautious.

You’re not going to end up on the streets, so don’t be scared of taking some risks. You’re going to be fine.

© Wesley Tian 2019

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