Finding an impactful research direction
Writing a final thesis is a big investment, of likely hundreds of hours and a lot of effort. What if you could use this opportunity for something more than just getting your degree? We can support you in using your thesis to learn about, work on and direct your career towards solving the world’s most pressing problems.
There are many problems in the world, and we can’t solve all of them due to our limited resources. However, any of us can focus on having the greatest impact possible with the resources available to us. As a student, the resources you have to contribute include your time, effort and skill in research. You may be able to use these resources to contribute to improving the world now, but you can also hone your skills with the aim of increasing your ability to do good in the future. Below we’ll introduce you to our thinking about how you can improve the world as much as possible, focusing on how you can do good with your research.
What ideas is our project based on?
Our project is based on the principles of Effective Altruism, a movement focused on using high quality evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do the most good. It is also informed by the advice of 80000 Hours on how to use your career to significantly improve the world.
We take an impartial, welfarist approach to doing good, meaning we care about the wellbeing of other beings regardless of their location, species, or whether they exist now or will in the future. We are cause neutral, which means we are not pre-committed to focusing on particular problems or possible interventions, but strive to find areas in which we think further research could make a big positive difference. If you don’t share all these views you can still benefit from our work, as you can choose an area we recommend that fits with your personal values.
What are the areas in which we think more research is particularly likely to significantly improve the world? Some of the areas we focus on are long-termism, global catastrophic risk, global health and development and animal welfare, and you will find many topics linked to these areas on our site. We think long-termism (positively influencing the long-term future) is important due to the sheer number of sentient beings that could exist, as well as the lack of attention the future often receives in policy and research areas. Global catastrophic risks are events which would cause major harm on a global scale and potentially increase risk of further harms by destabilising society and slowing progress. We also believe that global health and development and animal welfare are important areas due to their scale and the many ways we can make high impact interventions.
If you want to contribute to solving the world’s most pressing problems, there are a number of strategies you can use. You could have a positive impact through a research career (as explored on our site!), or if you’re interested in considering other careers in which you could improve the world, you can take a look at the 80000 hours website for detailed advice and apply for a career consultancy appointment. For advice on doing good by giving to charity, you can look at the recommendations from GiveWell and Giving What We Can, organisations that carry out thorough research to identify the most effective charities.
If you want to find out more about Effective Altruism, why not join one of the monthly online introductory courses, find a local group near you or sign up to the monthly newsletter to keep up-to-date with community news. You can also take a look at the EA handbook for a more detailed introduction to the core ideas of Effective Altruism.
The expected impact of working on different problems
How useful is it to carefully consider what to focus on with your research if you want to do the most good possible with your research career? How much difference can the problem you choose to work on make to the impact you have? If we were to rank problems by the expected impact of working on them, we would probably anticipate something like the distribution below, where the expected impact of solving different problems increases gradually.
However, research by 80000 hours supports the idea that the impact of solving different problems is distributed more like this:
Some problems are actually many times more impactful to work on than others, with the expected impact differing even by orders of magnitude. You might have ten to a hundred times as high an impact as you otherwise would have done if you choose the most impactful area.
How we identify recommended research directions
We use a framework proposed by the foundation Open Philanthropy, and further developed by 80000 Hours and the Future of Humanity Institute, to estimate the value of working in particular areas. This is the importance, neglectedness and tractability framework. We look for areas which seem particularly promising according to this framework, and where we think further research specifically could make a significant positive difference, to inform our recommended research directions.
You can also use this framework as a heuristic to help you think about the impact of working on different problems when you’re choosing a topic, bearing in mind that you can contribute to tackling a problem directly with your thesis, but that it may often be best to focus on developing expertise in order to make contributions later. It’s good to consider all three criteria, but it could make sense to work on a problem because it scores well on only two criteria — for example, even if there’s only a very small chance a problem is tractable, but it seems very important (meaning there would be a big positive impact if you made progress) and it’s somewhat neglected, it may still be worth working on.
Depending on the stage you are at in your studies, there are various other considerations we recommend you take into account when choosing a focus for your research, such as whether you intend to stay in academia or research long-term, as well as your personal interests and your current level of study. We’ll discuss these other factors later. First, let’s look at importance, neglectedness and tractability in more depth.
Importance refers to the total improvement in welfare, both now and in the future, that we would expect to see if the problem was solved. This may require considering how many sentient beings are or could be affected by the problem and how great the impact on them is. If the problem is an event that is not certain to occur, you can use the concept of expected value to estimate its importance (for example, if there is a 1% chance the event will occur, then its importance is 1% of what it would be if it were certain to occur).
Developing the ability to think independently about how much difference answers to your research questions could make is a particularly valuable skill if you want to make progress in early-stage fields (which are often very interesting and provide opportunities for greater progress and discoveries). This ties into our next consideration: neglectedness.
The criterion of neglectedness attempts to capture how effective it would be to add additional resources and effort to working on a problem. If an area is very well funded and many people are already working in it, you will probably have a bigger impact if you use your time and talent to contribute to a different area, unless you have a very novel approach to tackling the problem. If few people have ever tried to address a problem, however, there may be a lot of low-hanging fruit, and it is less likely that someone else will make progress if you don’t. Choosing a less well-known but potentially very important idea could also raise awareness and encourage more people to research it further.
An area might be neglected because it doesn’t offer much financial reward, political incentives are missing, it’s low visibility, or it’s considered low status. Newer fields, areas where new techniques are emerging, and intersections between academic fields are more likely to be neglected areas.
While it can be very valuable to work in neglected areas, depending on your career goals, it may also be useful to consider whether an unpopular topic may damage your career capital, and to keep this in mind when choosing a research question. It’s also worth bearing in mind that if few people are working on an important problem, it may be because it has already been established that progress will be very hard to make. This brings us to our last consideration: tractability.
The last criterion to consider is the tractability of the problem; with more research, would it be possible to make progress? When choosing your thesis topic, it makes sense to consider both whether the problem seems tractable in general and also whether you are a good fit to work on it at this point. If you can think of a neglected and important topic but have no idea how you would go about researching it (even after using our coaching service and talking to people working in the relevant area), it might not be the right question for your thesis.
More broadly, when considering how tractable a problem is it’s good to follow the evidence — has anyone made any progress already? How much if so? It can help to listen to what researchers and communities connected to this area think it’s valuable to work on, making sure you pay close attention to their reasoning. However, you might not find this evidence if the problem is very neglected. In that case, it makes sense to try to create some evidence by doing some preliminary work on the problem if it is promising on the other dimensions.