These ideas are paraphrased from 80000 hours' website and William MacAskill's book Doing Good Better.
There are many different problems, threats and sources of suffering in the world, as well as limited resources that mankind can use to solve them. Equally your time and effort you are going to put in writing your thesis are limited resources. You have to choose which problem to focus on. Problems differ in their importance. To have the highest social impact, you should work on the most important problems, which can help the most people to the greatest degree. But how to find out which problem is the most important? And is there really that a difference between the importance of various problems?
First, let's focus on the latter - how much a difference is it when comparing the impact of various problems? Intuitively, if we were to rank problems by their importance, we would probably get the distribution like this:
In the middle, there are the average and typical problems that are most common. Next, to them, we see the more important ones, which, when you solve them, may have let´s say twice the impact. However, from the research by 80 000 Hours and others who compared world´s most pressing issues, it seems the distribution looks more like this:
Some problems are, in fact, many times more important than others, differing even in the orders of magnitude. If you focus on the right problem, you can have a ten to hundred times higher impact than focusing on other problems. Therefore, in order to use your limited resources as efficiently as possible to have the highest social impact, it is crucial to choose the most important problems.
OK, when there is so huge difference in the importance of problems, how do I find out which one is the most important?
Organisation 80 000 Hours, providing career advice, Open Philanthropy Project, foundation with billions of dollars in committed funds, Future of Humanity Institute, research group at Oxford, and Copenhagen consensus, a major economic think tank, proposed 3 criteria to help us find out which problem to focus on in order to have the highest social impact. These are Scale, Neglectedness and Solvability.
Scale focus on how many people would benefit and to what extent by solving this problem. The scale of a problem is also greater the larger long-run benefits of solving the problem are. William MacAskill in his book Doing Good Better shows that according to Global Burden of Disease data, in 2015 cancer was responsible for 7.6% of all health problems in the world, while malaria only for 3.3%. If we evaluate the problems only according to this criterion, it would certainly be better to focus on the treatment of cancer. However, this can lead us astray. We may find out that, although cancer is more important in its scale, many resources are being reserved for its treatment and many people are working on it.
This leads us to another criterion - Neglectedness. This criterion attempts to capture how effective it is to add additional resources and efforts to solve the problem. If few people have ever tried to address the problem, every additional person can make a great progress in its solution. But if thousands of experts are already dealing with the problem and there is a lot of money spent on it, every additional dollar and every additional expert will not make such a big difference. If the problem seems to be very large in scale, it is natural to focus on it. However, if many experts are already working on it, you can have higher social impact focusing on something else. Searching for neglected problems usually means not to go with the first what comes to your mind.
The last criterion to compare problems is their Solvability. Even if the problem affects a lot of people and is very neglected at the same time, it does not mean that it is effective to start working on it. The problem could be neglected because it is almost unsolvable. Consider, for example, aging - this is a problem that causes up to two-thirds of all health problems worldwide - and therefore has a large scale. In addition, it is very neglected - only a very small number of scientists are involved in researching the aging process, most of them deal with specific diseases which are an aftermath of the aging process, such as cancer, stroke or Alzheimer's disease. The reason why it is neglected, however, is that most scientists think that this problem is difficult to solve, that is, it is difficult to prevent the aging process.
So how to find out how solvable the problem is? It's good to follow the evidence - has anyone already made a progress in solving the problem? How big the progress was? However, you might not find the evidence, if the problem is very neglected. In that case, it makes sense to try to create some evidence - e.g. if the problem seems promising (big scale and very neglected) or if there is a small but realistic chance of making a massive impact by solving it. It's always good to balance problems on all three criteria, so in some cases, it also could make sense to work on a problem which seems hard to solve but has a big scale and is very neglected.
OK, we have these 3 criteria - Scale, Neglectedness and Solvability. Do I have to compare all problems in the world to find out what has the highest impact myself? Fortunately, someone else already did it! As mentioned above, organisations 80000 hours, Open Philanthropy project, Future of humanity institute, Copenhagen consensus and others have been working on this for the last eight years, creating a framework, and making a ranked list of global issues. Here is what they found:
|Solvability(?)||Total Score (?)|
|Risks from artificial intelligence||Recommended||15||8||4||27|
|Promoting effective altruism||Recommended||13||9||4||26|
|Global priorities research||Recommended||13||9||4||26|
|Improving institutional decision-making||Recommended||13||7||4||24|
|Factory farming||Sometimes recommended||13||6||4||23|
|Nuclear security||Sometimes recommended||15||5||3||23|
|Developing world health||Sometimes recommended||13||2||6||21|
|Climate change (extreme risks)||Sometimes recommended||14||2||4||20|
|Land use reform||Sometimes recommended||9||7||4||20|
|Smoking in the developing world||Sometimes recommended||12||5||3||20|
This table is copied with permission from this site.
To have the highest impact, you should also choose a topic with the good personal fit as well as a topic on which you will learn something new. When you´ll be choosing between more of these topics, choose one, which is slightly out of your comfort zone but at the same time, you will very likely be successful in completing it.
So here we go. By now, you should have an idea where to focus to have the highest social impact with your thesis. If you would like further help with figuring out which topic to focus on, try our Coaching or get inspired by our Topic suggestions.
Let’s look at the evidence based advice on how to build a career by 80 000 hours, professional career advice organisation. In sum, they recommend 4 principles: Explore, Build flexible career capital, Solve the most pressing social problems and Adapt your plan.
Exploring and trying your own hands is important because it´s very hard to figure out what´s the best just by thinking about it. It´s better to experiment - gather information, speak to people working in the field, doing a small related project and doing an internship - that will give you a better picture of what the job is like. Building flexible career capital will put you in the better position in the long run. It´s especially important when you´re early in your career. Doing what contributes by solving the most pressing social problems is one of the best motivators and a way how to increase your life satisfaction long-term. Given this point, you could easily think that it would be better to click on the other article and optimise for highest social impact. That might be true for many people. However, there are more ways how to contribute and solve social problems with your career than writing a thesis. Some people may, for example, choose to apply for high salary job and help to solve social problems by donating a significant portion of their salary to effective charities and enterprises. If you´re suitable for this kind of jobs, optimising your thesis for improving your career prospects may be much more valuable on this track than solving some important problem directly in your thesis.
So how can
we use these principles in writing our thesis? Here is our advice on how to do it.
Probably the best way to do it is to help some organisation you´d potentially like to work for with your thesis. By doing some work for them for free you can actually prove that you´re hard-working and have the skills the employer seeks, which is the best way to get a job, much better than sending out CVs. Moreover, just by getting into contact with employees and managers within the organisation you´re already building your career capital and connections, and these people can help you get the job at the firm after you graduate, or later when needed.
What organisation to choose? In terms of option of boosting your career capital the most, choose organisation that has reputation for high performance or growing start-up, as these are places you will learn the most in case you get employed. Alternatively, choose some huge and well-known organisation, which will give you credentials to your CV. Lastly, if you have an opportunity to achieve something impressive (like found a start-up) and your thesis might help you with that, that’s another option. However, if your chances of achieving something impressive aren’t especially strong, it might make sense devoting your thesis to building more certain career capital.
Now we know (at least roughly) where we´re heading. But how to get to these organisations and offer them your help?
The golden advice in this situation is again - the closer you are to the person from the organisation the better.
A supervisor is the person that will watch all your progress and effort you put in, therefore will have the clearest picture of your skills and motivation. It’s hard to persuade manager that you’re a good fit in one job-not related interview, but if he/she is your supervisor, they will read your work and watch you more carefully. Even if the supervisor is not the hiring person within the organisation, if you create a sufficiently strong impression, they can lobby for you with their manager or whoever is the hiring person.
How to find an industry supervisor?
1) see if your school offer one
2) use your connections in organisation to arrange their employee as your supervisor (but check with your school whether this is possible, usually supervisor have to be someone within academia, often someone specifically from your course)
e.g. via your academic supervisor, a friend who works there, parent’s friends, etc… Even if your supervisor is not from the organisation, you´ll still get in touch with employees and managers who will see how hard and well you can work, which can bring you the job offer or at least increase your chances when applying to this company for a job. Also, if the company is well-known, it looks good on the CV and may help you get a job when applying anywhere else (but again be aware that applying via CV is not the best way to get a job).
How to get in contact with the organisation through connections?
1) By knowing people in the organisation or knowing someone who could mediate you the contact (e.g. your family friends).
2) If you don’t have connections, you can use LinkedIn - by reaching out to some alumni of your university who is working for the company of interest and ask them what do they think the company would appreciate being researched and what are the chances of getting org access. They might help you because you already have something in common (studied the same university and therefore have likely much similar experience either with the university or with the city student life) and because you offer the organisation help for free by mediating this they can be seen as providers of this help by their colleagues and supervisors.
3) By choosing a great topic that the organisation wants to know more about (see following point 3)
that would be very relevant for the specific organisation or generally for many organisations and then reach out to them without specific connections. That can also help you get the organisational access and in future, when other organisations will see in your CV that you worked on this topic, they might want to hire you because you have some knowledge they appreciate. However, this is likely to be the least effective strategy, because it’s very hard to guess which topic would be so interesting for organisations to hire you and it also may be different for every organisation, therefore it may not provide the advantage in all contexts. As an example, David did his bachelor thesis on leadership effectiveness and it already paid off in a few interviews when interviewers noticed it in his CV and asked him about it.
How do I find out which topic is important for organisations?
Ultimately, the best option is to have a conversation with someone from the organisation. However, this was covered in previous points, therefore we give here some suggestions on how to find that out without speaking to anyone form the business.
1) reading (a lot of) relevant magazines or newspapers
2) deriving ideas from academic literature (e.g. what are the state of the art questions in your field? Which questions are considered solved and which lack solutions? From a historical perspective, are there any new trends appearing in the literature that are brand new? What do they suggest about future development? What are the best experts guesses on what will the future of your field be? E.g. look at this article about the future of the working world). However, be aware of cases when academic interests don’t relate to practice - keep in mind that needs of practice are the most important here.
Choosing a topic solely according to your interests. Usual advice when choosing the thesis topic is to “find what you’re interested in and work on this”. Often stated reason is, that motivation is very important in writing a thesis and doing something what interests you will ensure a high level of your motivation. However, the truth is, that your interests may change and you may also find interesting a topic you didn’t think of as clear candidate before. Moreover, there are other sources of motivation aside of your interests. The fact that working on a thesis will actually help you to land a job could be a much better motivator, as well knowledge that you’re helping the organisation with what they need, not with what interests you. Therefore, usually better than choosing a topic first and then asking organisations whether they want you to research it for them would be to ask organisations first what do they need and how can you help them with the course you´re studying.
Not actually being in contact with employees and managers. It may happen, that you arrange thesis with a great organisation, but as a part of the process, you won’t meet anyone from the organisation. In this case, all benefits from this cooperation depend on how valuable is the result of your work for the organisation. Given that as a student, organisation probably won´t give you the most important problems to solve, this might significantly limit the possibility of improving your career prospects with your thesis. Therefore, we recommend arranging at least introductory and final interview with a manager who you report to. Alternatively, if you cooperate with some well-known organisation, you can still use this as credentials in your CV.
DISCLAIMER: please keep in mind, that although this advice stems from evidence-based career advice, we haven’t evaluated this specific piece yet. Therefore, we would like to ask for help with improving this advice by giving us your contact details - we will only contact you in one year to ask whether your thesis has helped you in getting a job and how that happened.
Do something for your employer. Most of you probably don’t have one, but if you do, you may help them with your thesis. It probably won’t bring you additional career capital - you well might be researching people you normally work with - but it may cause you to be seen more capable and committed by your supervisor and potentially more likely to get promoted.
Choose a topic that will allow you learn skills needed for your dream job. If you want to be a leadership consultant, choose topic connected with leadership, ideally something, where you get to the role of consultants of leaders.
We acknowledge, that this advice might not suit everyone. Maybe your university rules don't allow you to cooperate with some organisation when writing a thesis or your study discipline is not suitable for this kind of cooperation. In that case, read how to optimise for higher social impact or for research career in academia and use your thesis meaningfully!
Visit 80000hours.org, organisation providing evidence-based career advice on how to find fulfilling, high-impact career!
If you have already decided that research career is the best for you and you want to make the world a better place via research, the first step is to establish your career. Academia is a very competitive environment, therefore developing a strong publications record early is very important. Choose a topic that will have the highest chance of being published in a best possible journal. But how to find out? One way is to ask your potential supervisors what chances do they think the topic has. The other way would be to find out what the best journals do usually publish. For example, Economics and Philosophy top journals are known to publish mainly highly theoretical work (Source).
Getting a great training is another important point to consider. Seeking out the best research group who will mentor you is a good step towards. In a situation of choosing your thesis topic, seeking for the best supervisor might be the best option, even if they don’t operate in the area you’d ideally work long-term.
Aside from working on your thesis, you might try research internships, such as Junior Research Programme in psychology at the University of Cambridge. These will build your research skills via international collaboration on research projects finished by publication, sometimes in very prestigious journals. You will also have a mentor who will give you a hand when needed.
In case you´ve already established your career by previous publications and pursuing awesome PhD programme or your field doesn’t require such a high level of publications track record, it’s time to choose area to focus on. Most important is to work in the field where you have the best personal fit - a chance of being in the top 10%, and ideally top 1% of most productive researchers. This is because most successful researchers have far more impact than the rest. Switching from field in which you’re a median researcher to one in which you’re near the top 10% could therefore easily increase your expected impact more than 10 times.
If you find you´d have best personal fit in more areas, it’s good to consider how pressing the area is. This involves exploring where is the greatest talent need, which often means focusing on unfairly neglected areas. It might happen because there’s no money in it, the political incentives are missing, it´s low visibility, there is some aspect of human irrationality that makes it unattractive or it´s low status. Good rules of thumb, therefore, include working in newer fields, Working on really giant problems that are in the process of getting solved and Work on questions that don’t fit neatly into an academic field. As these fields are neglected, you also have a higher chance to get into the top 10% of most productive researchers (which can increase your expected impact more than 10 times in comparison with a field where you´d be a median researcher). To focus on the intersection of two fields or areas where new techniques are making new research possible also often works.
If you consider top positions in academia, it’s also good to know that it might be harmful to ever leave academia since you start studying. (Source).
Previous advice considered a research career in academia. However, there are also research positions outside of academia, which can be more fulfilling because your work has a more tangible impact and will involve more teamwork. These are positions within international organisations (e.g. The World Bank), think tanks, companies that develop important technology (e.g. Gilead Sciences developed drugs to treat HIV and Hepatitis; Tesla is developing cheaper batteries), data science within businesses or non-traditional academia – work in academia funded by 2-4 year grants, rather than taking a traditional academic position that comes with a teaching load (e.g. the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford).
When you want to pursue a research career, our advice on improving career prospects with your thesis might not be right for you, since we generally advise to do field research, which might be harder to get published. Similarly, our Highest social impact topics might not be the best choice, because these topics are neglected and not that well rooted in academic literature, therefore it might be harder to find good academic guidance and to publish it, even if done well.
However, if you´re not planning career directly in academia and rather in some independent research institutions, our Highest social impact topics might be a good choice.