Stir your inspiration and make your research useful

How to choose a research topic

As you arrive at this website, you’re probably thinking “What is the best way to choose my research topic? What I should be guided by when choosing?” Here are some suggestions and ideas:

When choosing a topic there are two sources of information you can draw from - internal (your own impressions and feelings) and external (what other people say and suggest). First, let’s discuss the internal.

Useful considerations for a topic choice

We think it is good to select a research topic based on your interests. This is because being genuinely interested in a topic will motivate you and will help you develop your research taste, which might be a powerful intellectual tool for orienting in complex and not yet defined waters. However, there are two other considerations we think are important.

First: How valuable would an answer to your research question be? What would the consequences be of having that question answered? Would it have any effect at all? Are there any questions that may elicit more valuable answers? Is there a question that could solve more important, larger, and more neglected problems? How much would answering this question improve the world? By “improving the world” here we don’t necessarily mean doing something applied - you can improve the world by testing interventions and finding answers to very applied questions, but you can also improve the world by improving the theoretical understanding of fundamental parts of some problem. Importantly, however, the extent to which this increased understanding is actually valuable may vary significantly depending on the topic. Gaining an internal sense of how valuable the answers to various questions would be is especially important when you want to make progress on open, not yet defined questions and in early-stage fields (which are often very interesting and provide opportunities for greater progress and discoveries).


The second factor is your personal tractability - do you feel that you would be able to make progress on this topic? Even if it is in general possible to make progress on it, are you a good fit to do so? It’s often good to spend about 10 % of your time testing your fit with a project, rather than fully committing to something right away.

These factors are also important to keep in mind when assessing external sources of information. Look at what topics the most prominent researchers are interested in, and listen to what other people and communities think is valuable to work on—paying close attention to their reasoning behind it. Experienced researchers and other well-informed individuals can also be useful resources when determining tractability.

How to compare information from external vs internal sources

Generally, we think it’s good to start with and get inspired by external sources of information, but ultimately let the internal sources have the last word. For example, we think it might be good for you to choose a field/general topic that others have a good reason to say is valuable and that may improve the world more than other fields. Then you can let yourself be guided by your internal impressions on what specifically within this broader domain/general topic feels interesting and tractable.

To give you a head start, we have put together a list of general topics/domains that seem to be very valuable to make progress on from an impartial welfarist perspective (i.e., promoting wellbeing, with every entity’s wellbeing counting equally). Dive in and get inspired!

Explore and get interested

There are several research directions we think might be especially high impact in making the world a better place. If you get interested in any of these topics, we can connect you with researchers working in these fields or provide other types of support (scroll to the bottom for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching. Our list of prioritised research directions is not exhaustive, so there may well be some other high impact research directions that we have not yet covered. However, we aim to select impactful topics, so that chances of any of the topics we covered being highly impactful are higher than chances of average/randomly selected topic that we have not covered. If you know about research directions that could be similarly impactful to those we have covered, please, let us know.

If you're pursuing a law degree, we also encourage you to watch Cullen O'Keefe's presentation from the 2020 EA Student Summit on Doing the Most Good with a Law Degree.

As a lawyer, you are probably well-placed to get into government and policy or earn to give. Consider these options alongside the research paths mentioned below.

The Legal Priorities Project

A team of legal scholars led by Prof. Christoph Winter has set up a research organization that focuses on legal priorities research. Their work is heavily influenced by the longtermism paradigm (see Greaves and MacAskill, 2020), i.e. they focus on cause areas and research projects that, in expectation, positively shape the far future. They aim to publish their research agenda at the end of 2020. The agenda will be divided by cause areas and will contain a list of promising research projects for legal scholars. So far, these are their selected cause areas (note that the list only contains examples; it is non-exhaustive and unsorted):

  • Law and governance of AI—Artificial intelligence (AI) could significantly shape the long-term future. On the one hand, it could pose existential risks for humanity (Bostrom, 2014; Russel, 2019; Ord, 2020). These risks include accident risks (Amodei et al., 2016), misuse risks (Brundage et al., 2018), and structural risks (Zwetsloot and Dafoe, 2019). The law could help to reduce each of these risks (e.g. by banning certain AI applications, or by requiring developers to implement certain safety measures). A particularly promising topic in this respect are publication norms, i.e. norms that govern when and how to publish research in a way that minimizes harm (Solaiman et al., 2019; Ovadya and Whittlestone, 2019; Whittlestone and Ovadya, 2020; Shevlane and Dafoe, 2020; Partnership on AI, 2020). Another approach could be drawing lessons from other dual-use technologies already deployed (how they were deployed legally, reactions of the international lawmakers) and creating specific examples of regulations that would also be useful. On the other hand, AI could bring about benefits of astronomical scale. The law could help to distribute these benefits, for example, via contractual obligations (O’Keefe et al., 2020).

  • Climate law—There is considerable research on the science of climate change. Climate change is also an important focus in the field of (international) environmental law. However, the challenge that the climate crisis represents for the law is extremely multifaceted and requires interdisciplinary research in a wide variety of legal disciplines, including tax law (Aldy, 2020), refugee law (Atapattu, 2018), and geoengineering regulation (Fecht, 2018).

  • Improving judicial and institutional decision-making—Judicial and institutional decision-making is not always rational. Various cognitive biases and heuristics may cause irrational decisions, leading to undesired outcomes. These biases may include scope insensitivity, naturalness bias, omission bias, and neglecting the interest of future generations or non-human animals. Improving decision-making by overcoming these biases could, therefore, have long-lasting benefits (Winter, 2020).

If you are interested in working on one of the above-mentioned cause areas, or Legal Priorities Project itself, we can help you to find a high-impact research topic. Feel free to reach out to Jonas Schuett for further questions about this project (and also let the Effective Thesis know in the form below).

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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Other topics that Effective Thesis considers promising:

Animal Welfare

Why is this important:
Animal agriculture has many negative effects:

  • Animal Welfare: Each year, the current production of animal products subjects over 70 billion of thinking, feeling animals (9 times more than the population of humans) to lives of extreme confinement, painful mutilations, and inhumane slaughter. Most farm animals experience serious levels of suffering evaluated as "better dead than alive".
  • Environmental Degradation: United Nations scientists state that raising animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” The animal agricultural sector is responsible for about 15 % of global greenhouse gas emissions and 75 % of recent Amazon deforestation.
  • Global Poverty and Food Security: Growing crops to feed them to farm animals is vastly inefficient, driving up the price of grains and legumes, and entrenching global poverty. Also, more than three-quarters of agricultural land is used to support cows, pigs, and chickens, but animal products provide only 18% of global food calories and 25% of protein (Mottet et al. 2017). By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world to feed, and global meat demand is expected to grow by 70%. To produce enough food for 9 billion people by 2050, we will need a more efficient system.
  • Human Health and Antibiotic Resistance: About 80 per cent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to farm animals. Overusing antibiotics leads to a faster spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is according to the World Health Organization one of the biggest threats to global health. Also, red meat consumption is shown to correlate with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, and higher cancer mortality rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, tens of millions of Americans get sick every year from eating contaminated meat, and thousands die.

How to tackle this:

  • False advertising and animal agriculture - e.g. survey on what people actually think “natural” or “humane” means and what the courts have said about these kinds of issues in the past
  • History of the development of animal cruelty laws and how these laws were enforced
    - e.g. these laws are most often applied to pets, not farmed animals, there are very few cases when it was applied to farm animals - finding a way how to apply it to customary farming practices might be useful
  • Drafting the legislation for a specific political group (e.g. for the Netherlands" Party for the Animals)
  • Research about the right to rescue farm animals from extreme suffering
  • Assessing the effectiveness of various policies - e.g. were there any prosecutions after the laws enabling prosecuting animal cruelty passed?
Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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Global development

Why is this important:
"In 2013 nearly 800 million people were living under the international poverty line.[1] This has a huge negative impact on health[2] - each year, millions of these people die from preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhoea.[3]

This immense suffering is easily preventable, but is nevertheless neglected - as of 2017, members of OECD's Development Assistance Committee spend on average just 0.31% of their GNI on foreign aid." (Whittlestone, 2017)

How to tackle this:

Got inspired? We can connect you with other people working on this or otherwise help you - get in touch.
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If you get interested in any of these topics, let us know. We can:

  • Connect you with researchers working in these fields who can provide feedback on your ideas
  • Help you develop more specific topic ideas
  • Connect you with other students working on the same questions
  • Help you with publishing your thesis

This service is free and paid for by grants from charitable foundations. There are no terms and conditions connected with this service. We only want to help talented students have more impact with their research and support research on the most important problems.