The medical profession attracts huge numbers of altruistically-minded people who want to make a difference with their careers. One recent survey, which asked for the career aspirations of over 600,000 teenagers across the world, found that over 10% of them wanted to become doctors. This is great – doctors are vital, and the world is much better because of them.
But if you’ve gone through medical school, you’ll be familiar with the concept of triage – that is, treating patients according to the urgency of their needs and your ability to help. Sometimes this means making tough calls about who to help first and how to help them. Though triage can be emotionally challenging, it’s vital for saving lives.
We think it’s possible to apply a kind of triage to the world’s problems – working out which are most urgent and deciding on the most effective ways to solve them. In doing so, we may be able to identify career choices that allow us to achieve more good than we might do otherwise.
This kind of career-focused triage can be applied here in two ways. First, we can look for the highest priority paths within clinical medicine, by searching for where doctors are most needed, and what they can do to help most. Secondly, we can look at alternatives to conventional clinical careers to see if we can have more impact on the world through another route. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that there are a number of career paths in which you might be able to do significantly more good than you would as a doctor, either because these paths focus on more pressing problems, or provide larger-scale solutions than treating patients individually.
In this profile, we’ll highlight a few of these possible high-impact career routes – including biosecurity, nonprofit entrepreneurship, medical research, and public health. If one or more of these options could be a good fit for you, then you could have multiple times the impact in these careers than you might as a doctor (at least without further prioritization within clinical careers). And the good news is that a medical degree can serve as a great background for a number of these high-impact career paths.
If you are committed to working clinically, there are some great things you can do to increase your positive impact. First, you could donate a portion of your income to some of the world’s most cost-effective charities, potentially saving multiple lives per year. Secondly, you could consider splitting your time between clinical work and one of the medicine-related career paths discussed later in the profile. Dividing one’s responsibilities between clinical and non-clinical work is something many doctors do.
And, for those who haven’t yet entered medical school, the profile will also briefly address how you might potentially enter these high-impact paths through routes other than medicine. Though a medical degree could be a useful credential and teach you transferable skills, alternative degrees may allow you to develop the most relevant skills for these paths in less time.
It addresses some of the most important considerations about this career, though we might not have looked into all of its relevant aspects, and we likely have some key uncertainties.
It’s the result of our internal research, with the help and feedback from a number of medics, medical students, and area experts. For their help, we would like to thank Akhil Bansal, Bal Dhital, Elina Christian, Greg Lewis, Hunter Lau, Joe Pusey, Lucia Coulter, and Peter McIntyre.
Note that the experts we consult don’t necessarily endorse all the views expressed in our content, and all mistakes are our own.
How promising is medicine as an impactful career?
History is full of inspiring medical professionals. A couple of particularly impressive examples include:
- Donald Henderson, a doctor from the United States, used his medical background to move into a career in public health. In his role as the director of the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication campaign, he successfully led global efforts to end smallpox within a decade. It’s estimated this campaign saved the lives of 150-200 million people.
- Paul Farmer, a medical doctor who dedicated his life to treating patients in low-income countries, such as Haiti and Peru, who otherwise would lack access to even basic medical care. Farmer co-founded Partners in Health, an organization that provides cost-effective treatment to huge numbers of patients in the developing world, with a particular focus on antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis.
- Agnes Binagwaho – a pediatrician-turned public health expert and senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Binagwaho has held a number of influential positions in global health, including as the Executive Secretary of Rwanda’s National AIDS Control Commission, Rwanda’s Minister of Health, and as the co-chair of the Millennium Development Goal Project Task Force on HIV/AIDS.
All three of these people were doubtless skilled doctors who were great at treating the patients in front of them. And both of these doctors also had enormous positive impacts with their careers. However, the vast majority of their impact likely came from the non-clinical work they conducted, which improved and saved the lives of large populations of people, rather than the treatments they gave to individual patients.
If you’re reading this career profile, it’s likely you’re either already in a medical career or looking to enter one, and that you’re motivated to help others with your career. This is exciting because we think there are paths within medicine that offer great potential to help enormous numbers of people. Though most people might not be able to do as much good as Henderson, Farmer, and Binagwaho (they are particularly inspiring examples), they nonetheless show that it’s possible to make a truly huge individual impact with your career.
- Flexibility– Medical degrees can serve as a good qualification for entering a number of career paths, which we’ll go into more detail later in the profile. This is both because it is a respected credential in various fields, like public health, and because it gives you transferable skills like strong interpersonal communication, scientific literacy, and an impressive work ethic.
- Good fallback– Additionally, a medical degree serves as a good way to ensure you’ll have a good career to fall back on. Because doctors are generally in high demand, there’s less risk in taking time out to experiment with your career – and you can most likely return to clinical practice if it doesn’t work out.
- High salary– Though the pay doctors receive varies across the world, in some countries doctors command very high salaries.This is particularly true in the United States, where average salaries are comfortably above $200k, with some specialities receiving far more than this. This might make medical careers more appealing both for personal reasons and because this money can do a lot of good if donated to the most cost-effective charities.
- Common career paths in medicine might not be as impactful as other options–
As a doctor, you’ll almost certainly have a positive impact with your career. However, it’s likely that some of the most impactful careers you could also embark on could do a lot more good than those that focus on clinical medicine, especially in more developed countries. We’ll dive into more detail about why this is later on, in our section on clinical work in high-income health settings.
- Better alternative routes into impactful paths– Medical degrees tend to take longer than others. Even in countries where medical degrees are undergraduate qualifications (for example in the UK and Australia), they tend to take at least a year or two longer than typical undergraduate degrees. But in other countries, like the US, medical qualifications are postgraduate, meaning you have to spend multiple years in training on top of a separate undergraduate degree. And even some undergraduate degrees take considerably longer than usual – for instance it takes seven years in Israel. Further, if you lack access to free university education or generous loan support, medical degrees may also saddle you with significant debt. Some doctors report feeling like they have to stay in clinical medicine to pay off their student debt, even if they’d rather pursue a different career path. All this means that if you’re excited about some of the most promising paths related to medicine discussed in this profile, then there may be cheaper, faster, and more efficient ways into those paths than medical school. If you’re not in medical school yet, these might prove better routes to impact.
Non-Trivial’s interactive lesson ‘how to be irreplaceable’’ gives a great rundown of how to think about our impact, and why some career paths might allow us to have much more impact than others.
Priorities within medicine
Here, we’re going to take you through some of the best ways you might be able to have an impact in a variety of medicine-related careers. The first section looks at clinical paths, where you’ll deal directly with patients in typical healthcare settings like hospitals & clinics. The second looks at non-clinical paths, which are a variety of career paths for which a medical background might serve as a good basis. This distinction is a little bit arbitrary – some roles within these paths may combine both clinical and non-clinical activities. However, we think it’s still a useful way for thinking about the options available to you.
For each of the paths discussed below, we’ll provide a quick rating on two factors – the path’s impact potential, and the path’s impact variance.
Impact potential: The impact that can be had by the most impactful people in this path. In other words: if I’m highly optimistic about my career’s overall impact, how much impact might I be able to make in this path?
Impact variance: The degree to which different people working in this path have different impact. In other words: does most of the impact in this path come from just a few particularly impactful roles and organizations, or is it more evenly distributed? The higher the impact variance, the more important it is to find the most impactful opportunities within the path (and the more important your personal fit might be).
Note: These ratings are meant to be taken as our broad impressions rather than concrete, objective facts. However, we think they serve as a useful, albeit very rough guide to how promising each of these paths might be.
It’s also worth noting that, though it’s hard to be confident about the exact amount of impact one can have in any career, it’s likely that the differences between impact ratings could be very wide. That is, a career path rated “very high” for impact could be as much as 10 or 20 times more impactful than a “high” impact path, and a “moderate” path could be this many times more impactful than a “low” impact path.
Roles within high-income healthcare settings
Impact potential: low; impact variance: moderate
As we mentioned above, if you spend your career performing clinical work in a high-income country, you’ll almost certainly have a positive impact with your career, which is fantastic. However, there is also a surprisingly modest ceiling to the “counterfactual impact” doctors can have in high-income countries, especially when compared to the other options available to the smart, motivated people who tend to enter the profession.
This is for a few different reasons. First, in clinical practice, you’re limited to treating patients one at a time, meaning you don’t get as much “leverage” as you might in other, primarily non-clinical career paths, where you’re able to affect larger groups of people – such as by helping to implement a great new national public health policy or by discovering a new medical technology which could help millions globally.
This leads us to our second point: the impact you have as a clinician is likely to be highly replaceable. Because many people want to become doctors, most medical schools are oversubscribed. By entering medical school, it’s unlikely that you’ll increase the total number of doctors (though you might have a small effect on supply). It’s possible that you might be slightly better than whomever might have taken your place, it’s unlikely you’ll be significantly better. If you’re already a doctor or medical student, the calculation is different. Leaving medicine or dropping out of medical school is likely to mean there will be one fewer doctor, as the person who would have taken your place would probably have stayed in medicine. Though this might make you a little more reluctant to leave medicine or drop out of medical school, you’ll be able to more than make up for this modest negative impact by moving into another highly promising career.
Third, there are diminishing returns for additional doctors, particularly in countries with high physician density (i.e., the number of doctors per 1,000 people). In other words, the impact of adding additional doctors gets lower and lower the more doctors you already have. Because of the practice of triage, cases are prioritized by their severity, which means that most times you administer a life-saving or otherwise urgent treatment another doctor would likely have done the same in your absence. Instead, adding another doctor will usually increase the amount of treatment given to the less urgent cases – see our article on diminishing returns if you’re interested in a more thorough explanation of this effect.
Finally, clinical medicine is generally considered to be much less important for health outcomes and life expectancy than advances in public health (like improvements to sanitation and nutrition), so the total impact of all doctors is likely to be less than other sources of health and wellbeing.
Taking this all into account, how much impact can you expect to have as a doctor? It’s really hard to know exactly how much, but research conducted by Greg Lewis, published at 80,000 Hours estimates that a doctor in a high-income setting (the UK, to be specific) can expect to save around 6 lives over a typical clinical career, though a slightly more optimistic estimate puts the number at 20 lives. There’s a lot of uncertainty in these estimates, so the real number could easily be even higher or lower, but it would be surprising if it were very different to these estimates (e.g., 10 times higher).
However, we do want to add a couple of caveats to this conclusion. First, the amount of good you can do in clinical settings can change with the kind of role you take. Particularly talented consultants, for example, may have more impact than the typical clinician, as these roles grant higher leverage (though these roles are also likely to come with less patient interaction). Your speciality might make a difference, too – it’s possible that pediatricians might have a little more impact than the average doctor, for example, but the differences are unlikely to be large.
Another consideration is that clinical positions in rural areas are likely to provide better opportunities for impact than those in urban centers, even in high-income countries. In rural areas – particularly more deprived rural areas – physician density is often low, giving additional doctors in these areas more marginal impact. Additionally, we’ve heard it can be difficult to recruit and replace doctors for these sorts of clinical roles. This seems to be a particular problem in Australia and the United States (particularly for Indigenous communities), though it’ll most likely also be true of many other countries. So, there’s likely to be regional variance in how much impact you can have as a doctor (particularly if you’re working in a low-income country, which we’ll discuss shortly).
Finally, it’s possible to do some impactful work alongside your clinical work in high-income settings. For example, many doctors conduct clinical research or perform advocacy work on the side. We’ll also talk more about this later on.
Impact potential: moderate; impact variance: low
In the UK, it’s common to earn upwards of £60,000 a year as a doctor, and consultants can earn over £100,000. In the US, salaries are even higher, averaging over $200,000. On a salary of $200,000, giving just 10% of your income every year to the most effective charities in global health could save around 4 additional lives per year, which is close to the impact an additional clinician might have throughout their whole career if we take the more conservative estimate. This is because the top charities recommended by GiveWell – who give rigorous assessments of the cost-effectiveness of different nonprofits – save a life for roughly every $5,000, making this a really great way to increase your impact without sacrificing your career aspirations within clinical practice.
You might even choose to give more than 10%; Australian doctor Henry Howard, who has pledged to give at least 10% of his earnings to charity, recently gave an impressive 50% of his annual salary to cost-effective charities. He estimates that his giving will ‘help maybe 100 times as many people’ as his clinical career.
And another way to increase your impact with giving is to seek higher-salary positions in order to give more away, even if you don’t increase the percentage you give. You could consider moving to countries with the highest medical salaries and pursuing the highest-paying specialities. Some people even choose to switch careers entirely to take the highest-paying jobs, in order to give as much away as possible (though this probably isn’t for everyone!).
But how can you make sure your money will do good? Well, we mentioned GiveWell above, which provides recommendations of incredibly effective charities working in global health, like Malaria Consortium and Helen Keller International, following huge amounts of rigorous research. But there are great opportunities to give in other cause areas, too, like helping with animal welfare or combatting global catastrophic risks. If you want to explore this idea further, the organization Giving What We Can has a brilliant guide to effective giving.
Clinical roles in countries with low physician density
Impact potential: moderate; impact variance: moderate
Another option is to work as a doctor in a country with low physician density. We think it’s likely that doctors in the areas with the fewest doctors per citizen could counterfactually save a few lives every year – achieving around 50x (and perhaps even up to 100x, in the very most impactful roles) the impact of a clinical role in a high-density setting over the course of their careers. This is largely because there are far fewer doctors in the areas of the world with the lowest physician density, which, generally, are low-income countries.
Additionally, low-income countries struggle to retain qualified medics, who are often granted visas to work in countries that pay much higher salaries. This means that there are shortages of doctors in these regions, making the marginal impact of additional doctors much higher. As such, if you currently work as a doctor in a country with low physician density, particularly in a rural area, you may want to be a bit more cautious in changing your career path than doctors in high-income settings, as you’ll likely be having a higher direct impact with your clinical work by default – though it’s likely still worth thinking about your fit for the other career paths we’ll move onto now.
Check out the podcast from High-Impact Medicine, who worked with us to write this profile. The podcast interviews a range of medics working to maximize their impact in different ways, including this episode with Chris with Dr. Alastair Yeoh, who talks about working in Ethiopia with Médecins Sans Frontières.
The following are some paths outside of typical clinical practice that could be particularly suitable for someone who already has a medical background, and who has a good personal fit. We’ll give some detail about how impactful each of these careers might be, how you might enter these careers, and how you might do related work alongside your clinical work if you want to stay in clinical practice. On this note, it is often the case that some of the most widely known doctors pursue a combination of direct clinical and non-clinical work – and taking opportunities to engage with research, policy, entrepreneurship, and more may make for a particularly exciting and impactful career. However, as a general consideration, it’s likely that splitting time between different kinds of work might lead to less impact than going full-time on whatever the most impactful option for you is.
As always, we highly encourage you to do more research into these career paths. We’ll point towards resources we think are particularly useful, but it’s worth doing your own digging and talking to people within these fields before making any decisions.
Impact potential: moderate; impact variance: high
Public health focuses on improving the health of large populations of people by preventing and protecting them from ill health and injury. This is a broad career path, which can span various disciplines such as academic research, policy formulation and implementation, operations, advising, and advocacy (and roles often contain a combination of these). Moreover, public health roles can be found in a wide array of organization types, like governments, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO).
Public health roles can be very promising in terms of impact. One reason is that many public health interventions are highly cost-effective, and some even save money while providing benefits by reducing the need for expensive treatments. Additionally, many public health roles grant large amounts of leverage – that is, influence over how large amounts of resources are spent – compared to clinical roles.
Who might be a good fit?
- Public health roles are often academic or managerial in nature. Because of this, you’ll need to be comfortable in a job that doesn’t entail direct clinical work. Though you may be able to perform public health work alongside a clinical career, the public health work itself is unlikely to involve much (or any) patient interaction.
- Strong communicators are particularly likely to find success in public health roles, particularly roles with a focus on advocacy and advising.
Getting into public health
With a medical degree: Medicine is often regarded as one of the best ways to enter the field of public health, and certain positions (such as some roles in global health orgs like the Gates Foundation) even require clinical experience.
To get into this field, it’s very common to take a master’s in public health (MPH), which typically cover a range of specialities and domains within the broader sphere of public health. And if you want to lean into academic research, you could consider a PhD in either public health or a related subject like epidemiology.
Without a medical degree: You can also enter public health roles through other routes. For example, a degree in economics (or a similar technical subject) provides a great background for epidemiology & other data-driven public health roles (as well as general postgraduate qualifications in public health) whilst also providing the flexibility to move into a host of impactful non-medical paths such as development economics. Other degrees in the natural sciences also provide a good background for public health roles.
Priorities within public health
As with all other careers, applying the importance, tractability, and neglectedness framework can be helpful for identifying the most impactful paths. This framework suggests that, in general, it’s best to prioritize roles that can deploy or facilitate effective solutions to large-scale problems.
Because of this, working on public health within low- and middle-income countries is likely to be a great option. Health problems are typically much more serious and widespread here than in high-income countries, and there are a variety of effective public health interventions, such as regulating dangerous substances or improving air quality, which could significantly help high numbers of people.
This work could include, for example, working as a health adviser to a government or in a global health advocacy organization. Even if you live in a high-income country, there are ways you can do this, including moving to a relevant region or joining a local office of an international global health organization. If this interests you, take a look at 80,000 Hours’ global health job board, which lists some relevant positions.
But if you’re limited to roles that focus on public health within high-income countries, then it’s likely that the most promising roles are placed at the national level (such as governments, or organizations that aim to influence government) as well as international organizations like the WHO. We’d generally expect that public health jobs focusing on a relatively small geographic area are unlikely to be the best opportunities for impact, particularly in high-income countries. Because these roles are quite common, the variance of impact within public health is high – so it’s particularly important to seek out the most promising opportunities in this path.
A great example of this path is Stephen Luby, a professor at Stanford University. After getting his medical degree, Luby started a career in academic public health research. He has worked on some highly important problems within public & global health, like improving handwashing practices in low-income healthcare settings, and improving the manufacture of bricks, whose pollution is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths annually in the developing world.
Working in biosecurity-related public health roles is also an incredibly promising option, see more details in the biosecurity section.
Can I do public health work alongside my clinical work?
Because clinical roles are often highly flexible (at least, once you’re fully qualified), you may have the freedom to change your clinical responsibilities to fit other work around it. You might consider, for example, going part time on your clinical work to take a position in a public health think tank or advocacy organization. We’ve heard that organizations in this space are often receptive to taking volunteers, if you’re interested in a low-stakes way to test your personal fit in these careers. Additionally, there are some roles, sometimes referred to as public health physicians, which perform a variety of public health tasks (like developing public health initiatives) alongside more conventional clinical duties. Other specialities may also give some opportunities for public health-related work, like conducting quality improvement studies. However, these are unlikely to be among the most impactful opportunities in public health more broadly.
Recommended resources on public health
- PublicHealth.org contains information on a range of specializations within public health, from a US perspective
- Yale’s free online course the Essentials of Global Health
- 80,000 Hours’ review of policy-oriented government jobs
Impact potential: high; impact variance: very high
Another option is careers in medical research. This is a broad field, consisting of various kinds of research in either academia or industry. Some examples of medical research include developing new pharmaceuticals, supplements, diagnostic equipment, improving biomedical tools and processes, and other health interventions.
Medical research has the potential to be a high-impact area of work. For example, improved pharmaceuticals have played a significant part in the increase to life expectancy in the US in recent decades. However, as with public health, there’s a huge amount of variance in how impactful careers in medical research will be. A big reason for this is that lots of research isn’t optimized for impact, as funding often isn’t directed to the most important, tractable, and neglected areas. On top of this, medical research careers – especially on the academic side – can be extremely competitive to enter, even once you have a PhD. This will make it both difficult to be a medical researcher at all, and even more difficult to get onto specific projects which look promising in terms of impact.
Who might be a good fit?
- Those with a very strong passion for scientific research. Research roles often involve fairly banal repetitive tasks, and it can take months or even years to see the fruits of your work. For these reasons, one researcher claims an ‘absolute obsession’ with the subject area is needed, or else the work may be too dispiriting.
- As you advance in your research career, you may find yourself running a lab. Doing so has been compared to operating a small business, requiring strong organizational and managerial skills.
- Some of the impactful work in medical research is data-driven. It’ll be a real help, in terms of the range of research you’ll be able to engage in, if you’re comfortable with numbers, and are able to develop competency in statistics (including coding in languages like R or Python).
Getting into medical research
With a medical degree: A medical degree, alongside some research experience in medical school or afterwards, can be sufficient for landing some kinds of research roles in both academia and industry. For more mathematical areas of medical research, like bioinformatics, you may need to be able to demonstrate experience working with numbers and statistics, or have completed a separate qualification in a math-heavy subject.
While it’s not necessary to have a PhD to get into research work, it may be required for more senior research roles, particularly in academia. So, if you’re confident you want to pursue a medical research career, then a PhD may be a strong help. It’s fairly common to complete a PhD whilst staying in clinical work should you wish – some PhD fellowships are explicitly designed for this (like this one from the Wellcome Trust in the UK), though they are generally very competitive. However, as we mentioned above, getting a long-term academic position, even with a PhD, is not guaranteed.
If you’re completing a medical degree, there are likely opportunities within your medical school for participating on research projects. There might be opportunities as part of the degree itself (such as elective research projects), or they may be extra-curricular. This can help you test your personal fit for research and give you the chance of getting your name on an academic publication. This will make you a more competitive candidate for research-oriented positions, like clinical research fellowships, later on.
Without a medical degree: Degrees in the natural sciences are typically a good platform for research in medical science. This can be followed by a PhD or a master’s degree – neither of these are strictly necessary for taking roles in science, but should be considered strongly preferred for the most senior roles (and a PhD is almost always a requirement for conventional research within academia). The growing popularity of applying AI and machine learning to medicine also means there’s scope for working in this area of medical research with a more technical background, such as in computer science.
Priorities within medical research
It’s hard to know what kind of research is going to be impactful. After all, if we knew which drugs and interventions worked, then we wouldn’t need to do the research. However, there are some rules of thumb you can use to identify more promising opportunities in this space. Some helpful questions here include: What is the total global health burden of this disease or condition? How many people does it affect? Is there existing research which indicates that some new approach is more likely than others to work? As an example, we’d generally expect that working on a new treatment for a neglected tropical disease would be more promising than developing a new treatment for Athlete’s Foot.
Alongside developing new drugs and treatments, you may also want to work on more foundational research on the nature of different diseases, or developing new tools and techniques to improve future biomedical research. Such work is more likely to take place within academia than industry. Although this kind of research might not directly save lives, it can be hugely important for developing effective drugs and treatments in the future.
Take the example of Katalin Karikó, a research professor who played a leading role in developing messenger RNA (mRNA) technology later licensed by Pfizer and Moderna for their Covid vaccines, saving many thousands of lives. Ugar Sahin and Özlem Türeci, both former medics, also played an instrumental part in this. However, it’s worth noting that these people are outliers – the chances of contributing to something as impactful as RNA-vaccine technology is quite low (though perhaps still worth trying!).
Can I do medical research alongside my clinical work?
It’s very common for clinicians to assist in clinical research for new pharmaceuticals and other medical interventions, particularly in hospital settings. In fact, some roles explicitly contain both research and clinical responsibilities. Because of this, there are likely a fair number of opportunities to work on research alongside clinical work.
Having said this, the sorts of research activities you might be able to undertake within high-income settings alongside clinical work are unlikely to be focused on the most important and neglected areas within medicine. Nonetheless, it could still be a good way to add some impact on top of your clinical duties – though other options (like biosecurity, or particularly good opportunities in public health) may often be better.
Recommended resources on medical research careers
- 80,000 Hours’ career review on biomedical research (from 2015)
- Interview with Dr Chris Lovejoy on leaving medicine for high-impact research
- Holden Karnofsky’s blog post on medical progress
- Open Philanthropy’s grantmaking in scientific research
- BMJ – ’It’s the duty of every doctor to get involved with research’
- Harvard University’s short introduction to AI in medicine
These are a couple of other options you might want to consider. We don’t go into as much detail about these, but we’ll point towards some great in-depth resources elsewhere.
Impact potential: very high; impact variance: high
Biosecurity is a field of work which focuses on researching and implementing measures to reduce or prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including global catastrophic biological risks like natural pandemics & engineered biological weapons. Such risks threaten to kill many millions – maybe even billions – and cause enormous economic damage. And because some of the most severe biological threats pose a chance of irrecoverably damaging civilization, biosecurity looks particularly important if you really care about the long-term future of humanity (but there’s still plenty of reason to work in biosecurity even if this isn’t your main motivation!).
Additionally, mitigating biological risks also seems to be both highly neglected and potentially quite tractable – that is, there’s lots of effective work that could be done to combat them which isn’t currently happening. Because of this, roles in this space could be hugely impactful – plausibly the most impactful of all the paths listed here given the scale of the problem, if you’re a good fit.
What sorts of roles might you take? Well, for one, the scientific knowledge conferred by a medical degree can set you up nicely for technical research into novel pathogens and the development of pandemic countermeasures, like vaccines or pathogen detection systems (though we anticipate that some roles may require additional training). However, there are loads of other ways you might be able to contribute to biosecurity, for instance through working in relevant positions in public health, policymaking, and advocacy.
Some specific examples of people who have gone through medical school and into high-impact biosecurity roles include Cassidy Nelson, who now works at the Biosecurity Research Group at the Future of Humanity Institute after leaving medicine. Consider also Maximilian Schons, who, after graduating medical school, is now the Chief Medical Officer at Alvea, a biotech organization developing platform vaccine technologies and Covid-19 vaccines easily adaptable for new variants. Another great example is Tom Inglesby, a qualified doctor who now heads up the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which works to help public health systems prepare for and respond to potential pandemics.
Because of the breadth of paths one might take within biosecurity (it’s more a cause area than a career path as such), we won’t go into as much detail about personal fit and ways to get into this path, though we’d expect that our advice for medical research and public health will also apply for these sorts of roles within biosecurity. If you want to dive deeper, consider investigating some of the resources listed below, in particular the 80,000 Hours career review.
Recommended resources on biosecurity
- 80,000 Hours career review on biorisk research, strategy, and policy
- Open Philanthropy’s focus area profile on biosecurity & pandemic preparedness
- Interview with Greg Lewis on reducing global catastrophic biological risks
- An in-depth biosecurity reading list
- Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’s profile on biological risks
- Chapter 5 of Toby Ord’s The Precipice (get a free copy here)
Impact potential: very high; impact variance: very high
Doctors may also be a particularly good fit for founding and running effective nonprofit organizations, particularly those with a focus on global health. If you’ve gone through medical school, then it’s likely that you’re organized, industrious, and good with people. All of these skills would make you a great fit for this path which, though challenging, could allow you to achieve enormous amounts of positive impact.
An example is the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP), a nonprofit co-founded by a medical doctor, Lucia Coulter, that advocates for lead paint regulation, primarily in low-income countries. As of writing, LEEP has already prevented an estimated 262,000 cases of lead poisoning in children – an enormous positive difference. Another example is Neil Buddy Shah, a trained physician who now leads the Clinton Health Access Initiative, after co-founding IDinsight and working as the managing director of charity evaluator GiveWell.
Both of these former medics have had incredible amounts of impact by founding and running effective nonprofits. In fact, this path could be similarly promising in terms of impact to careers in biosecurity, as they leverage large amounts of resources to fund effective solutions to pressing problems. However, this path is particularly dependent on personal fit, and the amount of impact you can have in this path will vary a lot – in part because there’s a significant chance of failure when founding an organization.
If this path interests you, you can read our full profile on nonprofit entrepreneurship. It’s also worth checking out Charity Entrepreneurship – an organization which helps people start highly effective charities, even for those with no previous experience of running one.
Recommended resources on nonprofit entrepreneurship
- Our career profile on nonprofit entrepreneurship.
- Charity Entrepreneurship’s handbook and resources page.
- Interview with Lucia Coulter, co-founder of LEEP
- 80,000 Hours’ interviews with top nonprofit leaders.
- YCombinator’s online Startup School
Some final thoughts
The non-clinical careers we’ve covered here are just examples of paths we think have a high potential for impact, and which would be suitable for people with a medical background. However, you shouldn’t feel restricted by this list. Many people with medical backgrounds go on to have impactful careers with no relation to medicine. Indeed, most people have careers unrelated to their degree. So, if you’re a doctor or medical student, it might be worth taking a broad perspective on the range of careers you might be able to enter.
And if you’re considering medical school but haven’t started yet, it’s worth taking the time to consider some alternative careers and degrees alongside medicine. To this end, you can start to learn about a wider set of impactful career options in our full list of career profiles, as well as the career reviews over at 80,000 Hours.
Finally, we want to highlight the work of High Impact Medicine, who have collaborated with us to produce this career profile. High-Impact Medicine helps medical professionals to increase their impact by providing various resources, fellowships, and community events. If you’re a doctor or medical student, then we highly recommend you visit their site and consider joining one of their local community chapters, as well as apply to receive one-to-one advice for your career.