Choosing a research direction to suit you

Want personalised help choosing a research direction that's a good fit for your skills?

Want personalised help choosing a research direction that’s a good fit for your skills?



How should your choice be influenced by whether you’re doing an undergrad, master’s or PhD?

Although all else equal we think it is valuable to seek a problem that scores highly on a combination of tractability, neglectedness and importance, there are other factors we believe it is important to take into account, such as whether you’re doing an undergraduate, master’s or PhD and what your long term career plans are. Our ideas on research careers are inspired by the 80000 hours’ article on how to do high impact research. Before continuing, if you’re not sure about your long-term career plans you might find it useful to assess whether you’re a good fit for a career in research.

Advice for undergraduate and master’s students

First, we’ll discuss what might be a good strategy if you’re an undergraduate or master’s student and plan to pursue a research-heavy career. We’ll then explore how to make your thesis as impactful as possible if you plan to pursue a career outside of academia. Finally, we’ll explore how finding a secondary supervisor outside of academia, if your university allows this, might be useful for building your career capital.

Research careers


  • Prioritise building your research skills and working with a great supervisor over working on a pressing problem immediately. Although it’s great if you can also work on a pressing problem, you will probably be able to shift your focus later if you stay in academia.

If you’re considering pursuing a research career in future, whether in academia or in an organisation outside academia, you should make building your research skills a priority. In order to have a substantial impact, your research will need to be of excellent quality. There are several ways you can improve your research skills. Aside from working on your thesis, consider joining an already established research group or project at your department and attending summer research programmes. You might find some of our online resources helpful, such as our Tips on Doing Impactful Research. When choosing your thesis topic, consider using methods which will push you to develop your skills. You should try to choose a skilled supervisor with a good reputation, as getting high-quality guidance and helpful feedback will help you build your research skills. The primary goal of your thesis at this stage is not to come up with new findings, but rather to develop your skills and test your fit for research.

You can learn more about what an academic career is like and whether this path would be a good fit for you here.

Ideally, you will be able to build your research skills while pursuing directions that seem highly valuable in order to learn more about them and make it easier to contribute later. However, if you can’t find a great supervisor who can help you hone your research skills in one of these directions, you should choose an area that allows for greater skill-building, and come back to more valuable directions at a later stage. You will likely have a chance to switch topics and start focusing on a topic which is likely to have a higher impact when you choose the focus of your PhD.

Non-research careers


  • You can use your thesis to develop your knowledge of a pressing problem that you plan to work on later in a non-research role.
  • Other things to consider are whether you can use your thesis to support a venture such as founding a start-up or to increase your chances of having a highly paid job in future, if you’re interested in finding a highly paid role to donate more to effective charities.

If you don’t expect to pursue a research career, you can still use your thesis to improve the world by focusing on a particularly important problem and using your thesis to learn more about it, with the aim of working on this problem later in your career. If this is your goal, you should optimise for gaining a more thorough understanding of the problem and of actionable ways to tackle it. Also check out the section below this one, to learn more about using your thesis to build a relationship with an organisation you might want to work for in the future.

There are other ways to use a career outside of academia to contribute to solving the world’s most important problems. Some people apply for particularly high paying jobs and help solve social problems by donating a significant portion of their salaries to effective charities and enterprises. If this is the path you’re most interested in following, optimising your thesis for improving your chances of getting a higher paying job after your studies may be the most valuable option.

Finding a supervisor outside of academia


  • If you can find an industry supervisor to support you during your thesis, this can be a great way of making a connection with an organisation you might want to work for later, as well as making your thesis more likely to be practically useful.

Whether you are interested in a research career outside of academia (e.g. at a think tank) or a non-research career, you could build career capital by finding someone from an organisation you’d like to work for who will act as your thesis supervisor, and choosing a topic that will help that organisation’s work in some way. If your university allows this, it can enable you to provide strong evidence that you have the aptitudes the organisation is interested in, which can be difficult to demonstrate during one interview. Making connections is also the best way to get a job — much better than sending out CVs. To find an industry supervisor, consider asking your university or academic supervisor whether they can connect you. If there are alumni of your university at the company you’re interested in, you could connect via LinkedIn and ask what they think the company would appreciate being researched and whether they are able to introduce you to anyone else at the organisation. They may be more willing to help as you already have something in common and it’s an opportunity for them to mediate their organisation benefitting from your research.

If you want to prioritise learning quickly you may want to look either for organisations that have reputations for particularly high performance or growing start-ups. Alternatively, choosing a large, well-known organisation may be the best choice if you want to prioritise building your credentials.

If you can’t find a supervisor who works for an organisation you’re interested in, finding a thesis topic that seems very relevant for a specific organisation or for many organisations may still facilitate you reaching out to them later. They will also see your thesis topic on your CV if you apply in future. To find relevant topics, aside from researching the organisation(s) as thoroughly as possible, you could consider questions such as: ‘What are the most pressing questions in this field?;’ ‘Which questions are considered solved and which lack solutions?;’ ‘Are there any new trends appearing in the literature? What do they suggest about the future development of the field?;’ ‘What are the best experts’ guesses on how the field will develop in future?’ However, bear in mind that developments in your academic field won’t always relate to the research that organisations will find most useful. As finding a thesis topic that organisations will be interested in without connecting with them requires more guesswork, it’s preferable if you are able to connect with an organisation before choosing your thesis topic.

Advice for PhD students


  • Establish your career by developing a strong publications record if you intend to stay in academia, and seek out great training from a research team or supervisor.
  • Be aware of the possibility of getting locked-in to a field which isn’t especially high impact.
  • Consider research positions both in and outside of academia, as the latter may provide you with more freedom.

If you plan to stay in academia, developing a strong publications record early is very important due to the high levels of competition. Getting great training is also important. Aside from working on your thesis, you could also apply for research internships, such as the Junior Research Programme in psychology at the University of Cambridge. These will build your research skills via mentorship and collaborative research projects ending with publication, sometimes in very prestigious journals.

When choosing your thesis topic, it may be best to seek out the most impressive supervisor you can find, even if they don’t operate in the area you’d ideally work in long-term, and to choose a thesis topic that will have the highest chance of being published in the best journal. One way of establishing what this topic might be is to ask for the opinions of your potential supervisors. The other way is to look at what the best journals usually publish. For example, top economics and philosophy journals are known to publish mainly highly theoretical work.

However, it’s also good to consider how much your topic choice will lock you into a specific subfield. In our experience, the lock-in effect is stronger in some disciplines (e.g. economics, psychology, engineering) and less strong in others (e.g. life sciences, philosophy). To figure out how much of a lock-in effect there is in your discipline, try asking more experienced researchers in the field as well as observing whether you see people in your discipline changing focus. If you find that there is a good chance of becoming locked-in to a specific field, it’s much more important to choose a topic that will both be publishable in the best journals and will also be valuable and important to focus on from the perspective of improving the world. We can help you with finding such a topic.

If you want to build a research career in academia, in many disciplines you should focus on making theoretical contributions (e.g. exploring what drives people in general; how a specific type of system works; theoretical models we can use to understand the world better) rather than applied research (e.g. the effectiveness of specific interventions). However, applied research experience might be an advantage if you want to do research outside of academia (e.g. in think tanks, nonprofits, or international organisations). If you’re thinking of pursuing a research career outside of academia, bear in mind that it might be harmful to leave academia if you want to re-enter in future.

Research positions outside of academia 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 which developed drugs to treat HIV and Hepatitis, and Tesla which is developing cheaper batteries); data science within businesses, and finally non-traditional academia, such as work funded by 2-4 year grants with no teaching load (e.g. at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford).

If you’ve already established your career with previous publications, your field doesn’t require such a strong publications track record or you’re planning to work as a researcher outside of academia, you can probably focus more heavily on simply choosing a research direction you expect to be high impact.

What other factors should you consider when choosing a research direction?


  • We’ve covered the value of thinking about the importance, tractability and neglectedness of a problem, as well as how your future career plans and your current level of study may influence your choice of research direction. We think the factors below are also worth considering:Your current interests (however, bear in mind that it is possible to become passionate about new areas over time, especially if you excel in them).
  • Your skills and aptitudes and what questions these make you particularly suited to pursuing.

All else equal, we think it is good to select a research topic based on your interests, as you’re much more likely to be motivated and successful at researching a topic if you are genuinely enjoying it. Your skill at research will be a powerful intellectual tool in future, so it’s worth choosing a topic that really motivates you to develop it.

However, it is also the case that your interests may change and you may discover an interest you didn’t anticipate if you spend some time exploring. Moreover, there can be other sources of motivation aside from your interests. If working on your thesis may actually help you to land a job or help an organisation with what they need, this could also be a great motivator. Research from 80000 Hours also shows you can become passionate about work you never would have predicted finding motivating in the right conditions.

We also think it’s important to take your personal fit into account. Even if a topic seems like it could be high impact to pursue, is it a good fit for your skills? It’s often good to spend time testing your fit with a project, rather than fully committing to something right away. You might find that you are most suited to a particular sort of research, and often the best way to find this out is through practice. It’s also valuable to draw on your own intuitions and knowledge of yourself to determine whether you would be a good fit for an area. For help identifying your personal strengths, take a look at this article by 80000 Hours.

As the most successful researchers have far more impact than the rest, entering a field in which you’re near the top 10% most successful researchers could easily increase your expected impact more than 10 times compared to if you’d entered or remained in a field in which you would have been a median researcher.

Finally, although some topics have the potential to have much higher impact than others, it may be that your comparative advantage is in a direction Effective Thesis doesn’t currently consider a priority. If you think you might be an unusually good fit, researching this topic could be your highest impact option. However, if you think that you could be a fit for one of our priority topics, we would encourage trying this first.


Please keep in mind that although these ideas stem from evidence-based career advice, we haven’t yet evaluated all our advice. We welcome suggestions for how this advice could be improved and feedback on what worked for you.