Navigating Your PhD Topic Choice


Embarking on an impactful research career, starting with your thesis

We’ve compiled this guide to share the tools and frameworks we think will be most helpful to you if you’re searching for a meaningful thesis topic for your PhD.

About this guide

If you’re applying for a PhD, this guide can provide comprehensive assistance throughout your journey towards finding the best possible PhD for you. In the first part we focus on how you can decide whether to pursue a PhD, identify the values you want to guide your research and start generating research ideas. In the second half we will introduce a framework you can use to narrow your ideas down to a specific research question and ultimately create a PhD proposal. Finally, we will help you with finding the best possible supportive environment for your project and identifying the next steps of your PhD journey.

If you are not yet very familiar with core concepts like career capital and the ITN framework, we recommend reading the linked articles. We also recommend you read this article to understand why systematic approaches to career decisions are probably more useful than popular advice like “follow your passion”, and why helping others with your career will help you experience your job as more meaningful. 

How to use this guide

We recommend completing this guide over multiple sittings, e.g. working through one section per week. However, please adjust the pace to suit your circumstances. We think you will get the most out of this guide if you start from the beginning, but you might want to skip some sections if you’ve already thought deeply about the content.

After reading the articles linked in each step, take some time (5-10 minutes) to answer the prompts we list, or to complete the exercises we recommend. We find that writing your thoughts down on paper is a step that people often want to skip, but it can help tremendously in getting clarity for yourself. 

Is a PhD the right next step for you?

Lots of people “stumble” into PhDs. For example, they might see it as a default step in completing their education, or they might have been offered to continue with their previous supervisor. Before committing to a PhD programme, it is good to consider a broad range of alternatives in order to ensure that a PhD is the best path for you at this stage. Make sure you have done enough reflection and updated your plans based on your experiences thus far, instead of going down the “default” academic path.

We also recommend that you take some time to browse through these short descriptions of core concepts, particularly ‘Expected Value’, ‘Opportunity Cost’ and ‘Leverage’.  Perhaps note down a few takeaways that apply to your decision.

Reflection prompts

If you’re unsure whether a PhD is right for you, here are some prompts to consider.

  • Where do you envision yourself a few years after completing a PhD? 
  • How does a PhD align with your long-term goals and aspirations?
  • Are you genuinely interested and intrinsically motivated by the subject area you intend to pursue with your PhD? 
  • Have you carefully assessed whether obtaining a PhD is a necessary requirement for your desired career path? 
  • Are there alternative routes or professional qualifications that may lead you to your desired destination more efficiently, e.g. in less time/ with a better salary?
  • Have you talked to people who completed or are currently pursuing the kind of PhD you are considering?

Exercise: exploring career paths

One helpful activity to undertake could be to search for job opportunities that you find exciting. To start, do a job search (2-5 hours) and list the five most attractive options you can find. Now, check which job requirements you’re currently lacking. Do you need a PhD to get the role? Would you get there faster or be better prepared by taking a different route?

Here are some more articles if you are interested in the question ‘Who should do a PhD?’:

Reflect on your values and moral beliefs

Understanding your values and moral beliefs is an ongoing endeavour and you don’t need to have it figured out before choosing your topic. However, we do encourage reflection on this, as doing so might significantly shift your motivation to work on some problems over others. If that happens, the earlier you make this shift the better. What do we mean when we say doing good? Most people agree that they want to “do good” with their lives. However, it is worth reflecting on what this actually means to you. We recommend reading the article linked above to learn more about some concepts we think are particularly relevant when reflecting on this question, such as impartiality, the moral circle, and uncertainty. This will help you to get a better understanding of what sort of thesis topics would align with your values and what kind of problems you want to contribute to solving with your research.

Reflection prompts


This flowchart from the Global Priorities Project can help you navigate through this cause prioritisation process.

Here are two further resources that could help you with this reflection:

How to compare global problems for yourself – 80,000 Hours

World’s Biggest Problems Quiz |

Getting inspired

Now it’s time to get inspired! You can read more about how research can change the world, and how academic research can be highly impactful. Finally, have a look at our thesis topic profiles for inspiration or, if you have no time constraints, sign up to our Topic Discovery Digest to receive biweekly inspirational emails. These emails cover a range of particularly impactful research areas, along with example research questions that are recommended by our experts and relevant to many different disciplines of study. We recommend you read the 3-5 profiles that interest you the most in depth.

Reflection prompts

  • Which of the topic profiles that sparked your interest are new to you? How could you quickly get a better understanding of what it is like to work on these topics?
  • How would disregarding your current skill set change your top choices? Would you consider taking some time out to “upskill” to switch to a new area of research, if possible?
  • What are the uncertainties that, if you could find an answer to them, would help you decide between your top choices?

See here if you want to learn more about how we go about writing our thesis topic profiles and why we prioritise these topics.

Side note: Because we try to feature problems that are particularly important, tractable, and neglected, you might see some problems listed on our site that it’s uncommon to see described as global problems, while others are not featured. As an example, in our “human health and wellbeing” category, we list anti-aging research but not cancer research. We think research on widely recognised problems such as cancer is highly important. However, because so many more researchers are already working on these problems, we think that – all else equal – you will probably have a bigger impact working on problems that are relatively neglected.

Generating ideas

After reading a few of our topic profiles, we recommend that you start a brainstorming document as an ongoing way of collecting research questions you’re interested in. This will help you keep track of and develop your ideas during your idea generation phase, and make it easier for others to give you feedback later on. 

In addition to exploring our topic profiles, you could also identify questions through a literature review and reach out to your supervisor or other researchers in the field(s) you’re interested in and ask what they think some of the most important and neglected open questions are. Moreover, you could contact some of the organisations listed on our topic profiles and ask if there are research projects you could undertake that would be decision-relevant for them. Reaching out to others at this stage can also help to discard unfeasible ideas early on, before you invest too much time in them.

Some tools that might be useful during the idea generation phase:

  • Connected papers – explore connections between research papers in a visual graph.
  • Elicit – an AI research assistant to help you automate research workflows, like parts of literature review.
  • Find more resources and tools for research here.

We recommend collecting at least 20 research questions, grouped into overarching topics or research fields, and then adding some context, e.g. relevant papers and researchers, why you think this question is worth addressing, what relevant expertise you already have, and how qualified you are to work on this compared to other options. 

NB: We think that many people feel too limited by their past work, so we think you should probably lean towards considering questions and topics that are slightly outside your comfort zone.

Exercise: create a brainstorming document

Use this template to create a brainstorming document.

Comparing options

Once you feel you have collected enough research questions in your brainstorming document, you can start comparing how these research questions score on the factors that are most important to you. We recommend you take 15-20 minutes to think about which factors are key to your decision of pursuing a PhD and write them down. Here are some factors (adapted from this post) that you could consider:

  • Importance – How large in scale and/or severity is the problem your question would address? 
  • Tractability – How realistic is it that you would make progress? Is your research question concrete and manageable, and do you have a clear strategy to tackle it?
  • Neglectedness – Will others work on this question if you don’t?
  • Actionability – Would your research have a clear audience and could it inform positive actions? Will this project generate genuinely new and useful findings/data? Will it help to translate/ communicate important ideas that need more attention/ awareness?
  • Learning value – Will you learn useful things from working on the project? Will it help you build valuable research skills, build your model of how something important works, and/ or help you refine a vaguely defined concept into a crisp, important question?
  • Exploration value – Will this project help you decide what to do next? 
  • Personal fit & situational fit – Does your personal background make you a good fit for working on this question? Do you currently have or can you find support for working on it, e.g. excellent mentorship? 
  • Credentials and career capital – Will the output demonstrate your research competence? For example, if you could get a reference from a particularly prestigious researcher by working on one of the projects you’re interested in, this might be an important consideration. Will the project reflect well on you, and is it shareable with others (or could it be developed into something shareable/ a publication)? Will the project allow you to build relationships with people whom it will be helpful to know going forward? 
  • Intrinsic motivation  – Are you excited about working on this project?
  • Method efficacy – How well can a particular approach help solve the problem that you are trying to address?

Exercise: sketch theories of change for your research questions

Once you’ve considered which of these factors matter to you, take a few minutes to sketch a theory of change for each research question you’re considering. 

A theory of change is a step by step plan of how you hope to achieve a positive impact with your research, starting with the context you’d be working in, the research outputs you would plan to produce, and the short- and long-term impacts you would hope to achieve with your research. Sketching some theories of change will help you outline how your research ideas could have a positive impact, giving you something to get feedback on in the next step below.

Consider whether your research could have negative outcomes too

When you’re considering the value of working on a particular research problem, it may also be important to remember that research isn’t a monolithic force for good. Research has done a lot of good, but there are many examples of it doing a lot of harm as well. There is a long history of research being biased by the discriminatory beliefs and blindspots of its time, as well as being used to justify cruelty and oppression. Research has made warfare more deadly and has facilitated the development of intensive factory farming. Dual-use biotechnology research is intended to help humanity, but could, for example, cause a catastrophic pandemic in the event of a lab accident or if the technology was misused. While some researchers are trying to increase the chance that future artificial intelligence is safe for humanity, many more researchers are focused on making AI more powerful. 

While it isn’t realistic for researchers to foresee every way their research could be (mis)used, many researchers are trying to create frameworks for thinking about how research can do harm and how to avoid this. For example, if you’re interested in working on biosecurity or AI safety, you could explore concepts such as differential progress and information hazards. If you’re working on global health questions, it may be important to educate yourself about the concept of parachute science.

Reach out to others for feedback

At this point, we think it could be helpful to identify some experts who might be interested in talking about your collection of potential research questions, and reach out to them for feedback. Getting feedback might then help you to prioritise between questions, develop your methodology further or discard projects before investing too much effort in them. You could seek feedback via two strategies – firstly, by sending your brainstorming document to people asking for general comments, and secondly, by seeking out people who have specialist knowledge on specific questions you’re considering and asking for their feedback on those ideas.

Here are some ways of connecting with other researchers:

  • Reach out to your existing connections
  • Attend research conferences related to your field of interest and speak to relevant people there, e.g. 1-1s at EAGs could be a great place to reach out to people for feedback on research ideas on directions that we recommend
  • Are there any local student and/ or reading groups in your area that focus on a research area that you are planning to work on? 
  • Public Slack channels on your research area, e.g. List of EA Slack workspaces

When preparing to reach out to experts, keep these key points in mind:

  • Give the expert relevant information about yourself (e.g. What is your background? What is the scope of the project you’re planning to work on?).
  • Prepare a short agenda if they’ve agreed to call you and share it with them beforehand (although they might not have time to read it, many people appreciate having the option to consider topics of discussion in advance).
  • Think about what your key uncertainties actually are and what kind of feedback you want from the expert. Would you like their overall reaction? Detailed comments? Feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your research ideas? Specific suggestions to improve your ideas? Feedback on how you plan to use the outputs of your research project? 
  • Consider having a brainstorming document ready to share with them.
  • You might want to have a look at this and this for more information about how to prepare.

Exercise: creating a weighted-factor model

Choosing which factors you want to base your thesis decision on will help you to reflect on what is important to you. Once you’ve done the exercise above and gathered some feedback from other people about your ideas, think about how much weight you want to give each factor. Lastly, try to evaluate how the research questions you’re considering score on each factor. The outcome of this ranking can serve as guidance for deciding on a question and can help clarify your intuitions about which questions would be the best fit for your dissertation. Here is an example of a ranking of potential thesis questions using a weighted-factor model (WFM).

Refining your research question

Once you have settled on a research question, it is time to develop a well-scoped and viable research proposal. The purpose of the proposal is to identify a relevant research topic, explain the context of the research, define concrete goals, and propose a realistic work plan to achieve them. If you’ve already built a Theory of Change for your research question, we recommend adding detail at this stage to help you create a proposal. We also think it’s important to reach out to your supervisor or other relevant people in the field of your research interests to ask for feedback, as this will help you develop an appropriate methodology. 

Here are a few more tips that could help you with narrowing the scope of your research project or refining your research question:

  • First, make sure you have a detailed model of the problem you are planning to address in your research. Who are the different actors involved? How can research help fill gaps in our current knowledge? What are the particularly neglected approaches and interventions for this problem?
  • You will only be able to make a valuable research contribution if your project is focused. Break down goals into discrete tasks and summarise what you are actually going to do. We suggest you create a detailed plan for the first few months of your project, a less detailed but fully coherent plan for the first year, describe a direction you might take in the second year, and generate some ideas for the following years. This will help you understand how much work is involved in every step and evaluate what is feasible in the available time frame.
  • Consider practical questions. What kind of facilities do you have? Do you meet the university requirements?
  • Try to develop the smallest possible question that can be answered and that data can be collected on, then have conditional upgrades/sub-questions based on that. This can be ambitious, but each stage should be developed enough to not be overwhelming or too vague.
  • Start with a research question that’s as simple as possible and that you’re confident will be successful. From there, you can slowly and incrementally work towards pursuing more complex research questions. 

Find the best possible supportive environment

There are many different types of PhD programmes available – from 3-year PhDs to which you apply with a very specific project idea, to 6-year PhD programmes in which the first years are dedicated to coursework. It is important to find the best environment for your studies, with crucial considerations including the university and its community, the supportiveness of the supervisor/lab and the availability of funding. This section has advice on these three points and aims to facilitate you reflecting on them.

How much does the reputation of the university where you study your PhD matter for an academic career?

This is a commonly asked question among students, and we have compiled a set of key insights based on conversations with 30 of our experts. 

  • The general advice is that you should pick the most prestigious university or research hub that you can get into.
  • The importance of your university’s reputation varies across regions, with the US and the UK placing more significance on it compared to Europe or Australia. For the US especially, you will likely get a much better education and teaching quality, as well as access to resources, from a more prestigious university.
  • It is worth noting that high-quality research labs (and supervisors) can be found outside of big-name universities, as specific research hubs may exist elsewhere. 
  • It is important to note that even researchers in the most prestigious universities can be poor supervisors. 
  • Ideally, you’ll find a great supervisor at a highly reputable institution. However, if you have to decide, finding an excellent supervisor seems to be the superior consideration – see below. 
  • The significance of the university’s reputation increases if your career aspirations involve influencing government, e.g. in policy roles.
  • Outstanding research, impactful contributions to the field, and a strong professional network could potentially outweigh the importance of a university’s reputation. 

Find a standout advisor

We think it is very important to find someone who genuinely cares about your research question and who will make a lot of time to supervise you well. Further, your supervisor will influence how effective you are in your work and how much you enjoy the research, as they will be the primary person guiding you throughout your whole research process. Especially at the PhD level, your advisor’s network matters tremendously for how well- connected you are and what sorts of opportunities will be open to you. So, here are some green flags to look out for in a supervisor:

  • They care about your research question (pitch your ideas to the supervisor and see how enthusiastic they are about the potential project).
  • They have the skills to supervise your project (check if they have experience in the methodologies you want to use).
  • They truly care about mentoring you well (ask questions about their mentoring style, get a feel for how you match as a person).
  • Their previous and current students are satisfied with them as a supervisor (ideally the person has a good track record of supervising other students – arrange a meeting with at least one current or past student). 
  • They are successful (e.g. based on their citation count and general prestige).

Sign up for access to our database of potential supervisors who work on the research directions we recommend. Here are more tips on finding the right person to supervise you. 

Financing your studies

Even if you get accepted to a programme, it does not automatically mean that you get funding as well. Here are some tips if you need to apply for funding independently:

Consider a wide range of funding sources, e.g. national scholarships, university scholarships, grants and foundations dedicated to specific causes, and excellence scholarships (e.g. Gates or Rhodes Scholarships). Here is our funding database which includes funding opportunities relevant to the research directions we recommend.

Reflection prompts

  • Consider the university environment – Would you be happy to live in the city of the programme you are applying to for 3-6 years? Do some university environments offer a more stimulating environment than others? Are there other researchers with similar values or motivations to you in this research hub?
  • Do you have any hard criteria for choosing the location for your PhD? For example, would you consider moving abroad for an exciting opportunity? 
  • What do you already know about the application process? What uncertainties do you have and how can you go about resolving them?

We recommend that you make a list of the programmes that best fit your research interests and other factors that are important to you. Then, check the requirements and deadlines for each of them and write down the next steps you need to take to apply. We also recommend reaching out to people who have gone through the PhD programme(s) you are applying to to hear about their experiences.

Set out your next steps

Take a few minutes now to write down your next steps for applying to the programs you’re interested in.

It could be helpful to sign up for some accountability buddy schemes, ask friends to check on your progress, or to set yourself a hard deadline on some important next steps that you want to take. You could schedule some time in your calendar right now, or make a note in your to-do list about a task that you want to complete soon.

Reflection prompts:

  • What information do you need to get right now?
  • What are you uncertain about? 
  • What is keeping you from advancing with your project and how could you concretely resolve this?

Examples for concrete next steps could be:

  • Reach out to people for feedback on your brainstorming document
  • Reach out to potential supervisors
  • Apply to an EAG or other academic conference and make a list of people you want to speak to 
  • Reach out to people who have gone through the program you are applying to
  • Reach out to current PhD students about proposal examples

Here are some further resources that could be helpful for you:

For more general career advice, there are some other organisations that could help you with 1:1 advising. We recommend the following:

  • 80,000 hours offers one-time 1:1 advising calls about using your career to help solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. They can help you choose your focus, make connections, and find a fulfilling job to tackle important problems.
  • Magnify Mentoring pairs mentees who are interested in pursuing high-impact careers with more experienced mentors for a series of one-on-one meetings.
  • Probably Good is running 1:1 advising calls to brainstorm career paths, evaluate options, plan next steps, and to connect you with relevant people and opportunities. 
  • Lastly, please leave us some feedback. Thank you! 

Subscribe to the Topic Discovery Digest

Subscribe to our Topic Discovery Digest to find thesis topics, tools and resources that can help you significantly improve the world.

Learn more

Keep exploring our other services and content
We use cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to visit this site you agree to our use of cookies. More info