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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 paths 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 down for more info). If you would appreciate more tailored advice, you can try our thesis topic coaching.

Civilization collapses

Why is this important:
From the long-termist perspective, the most value that humanity can achieve lies in the future. From this standpoint, it's crucial to ensure that long term trajectories of humanity are as good as possible. One thing that could disrupt these trajectories and prevent us from achieving the extraordinary amount of value waiting in the future is a global catastrophe that humanity would not be able to recover from. We don't have a clear picture of how likely these catastrophes are and, especially, how likely is humanity to recover. Trying to get a better picture of how society reacts in cases of large scale catastrophes, how likely is it to recover and how to improve these chances further would, therefore, be very valuable.

How to tackle this:
We can approach this problem from multiple angles.
In looking into how likely is civilisation to recover from a global catastrophe, we can try to find such catastrophes in the past and explore how survivors deal with situations after the catastrophe.
Taxonomy or categorization od such catastrophes would also be useful, as the scenarios for various catastrophes leading to civilisation collapse may differ a lot. Our best guess as of now is to focus on scenarios including anthropogenic risks like nuclear winter or pandemic outbreaks, rather than naturally occurring risks.
We can also take a look at civilisations that actually collapsed and explore further how that happened, what were the main factors causing the collapse, what could have been some preventive factors, and again how survivors dealt with the situation after the civilisation collapsed.
Looking into the future, are there any factors that may prevent the global civilisation to recover (e.g. lack of resources that would be crucial for recovery)?

Understanding the impact of social movements

#social movement theory #internet sociology #sociology of organizations #macrosociology #social network theory #social movement studies #digital sociology #new social movements

Why is this important:
Building social movements is a strategy often used in an attempt to change the world for the better. Some mass social movements like the anti-apartheid, civil rights, women rights, animal rights, LGBT rights and environmental movements have already achieved changes. Learning more about how this strategy of changing the world works could help current and future movements to maximise their impact.

Social movements include but are not limited to mass movements. Much attention has been paid to mass movements, but it may be impactful to study smaller, more niche movements (like neoliberal or effective altruism movement) and understand in which situations these kinds of movements may be the best strategy.

How to tackle this:
A big problem in this field is the lack of systematization. Right now, the most immediately useful things would be to answer these questions for specific scenarios or cause areas, but do it in a way that others can build off of this knowledge.

  • Which factors cause social movements to decline?
  • What are the largest successes one can attribute to social movements? What were the trajectories and crucial events for past successful movements?
  • What kind of impact do successful social movements produce (e.g. changing the public opinion via advocacy, activating people to directly work on a given cause, setting up new institutions)?
  • What does a successful social movement look like for its given goals (e.g. what is the structure, size, coordination mechanisms)? See one of the examples here.
  • How are the internet and other new information technologies change size, structure, coordination and other important features of social movements?
  • What is the healthy vs unhealthy fluctuation of people in successful social movements and how does it work?
  • Challenging or improving commonly cited techniques like the 3.5% rule (e.g. one can argue that this rule assumes that having growth happen as rapidly as possible is optimal, which does not have to be the case for some movements, especially niche and intellectual movements)

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Mario Diani, Sidney Tarrow, JC Jenkins, Yochai Benkler, Manuel Castells, Charles Tilly, David Snow, Jacy Reese, John C McCarthy, Elinor Ostrom
*the thanks for the help with building this profile go Vaidehi Agarwalla

Sociology of long-term stability and change

Why is this important:
From the long-termist perspective, the most value that humanity can achieve lies in the future. From this standpoint, it's crucial to ensure that long term trajectories of humanity are as good as possible. However, it's unclear whether or how can we influence the long term trajectories of humanity today. Thus, researching the causes of long-term stability and conditions under which more stability in achieved might give us a better idea of how to go about improving the long term future.

How to tackle this:
Why are some values, institutions, and organisations extremely durable, lasting hundreds of years (e.g. academia), whereas others change frequently? What are the social mechanisms that explain this?

Another angle that one can take is to explore issues around increased surveillance, which seem more feasible with technology development and might influence the long term future positively or negatively, e.g. via reducing the existential risk or making totalitarian regimes more sustainable.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Nick Bostrom
*the thanks for the help with building this profile go Toby Shevlane

Improving institutional decision making

#political sociology #law and sociology #organisational sociology

Why is this important:
Large institutions in our societies, most notably governments, have vast resources and power to change the world both, for the better or for the worse. Yet decision processes used in these institutions are often not optimal or rational. If we could improve these processes even by a little, the expected positive value that would be created is very large. However, we often lack knowledge of how to go about improving these processes. Read more here or watch this talk.

How to tackle this:
From a policy perspective, you can start from looking into Administrative behaviour and the new policy sciences.
Alternatively, looking into case studies on how better practices have been implemented in organisations historically or historical analysis on what happened badly in the event of some big important decisions (for example, the decision to invade Iraq - what were the system errors and what were the individual ones, etc..) might also bring more understanding of how to contribute to improving institutional decision making.
Here is a possible framework on how to think about questions related to improving institutional decision making.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Herbert Simon, Cairney & Weible (2017)

Improving voting methods

#public policy #political science

Why is this important:
In a democratic system, the voting method ultimately determines who decides to run, what ideas get heard, and who writes and carries out policy. The current voting system that many countries use (first-past-the-post) seems very suboptimal from many perspectives. There seem to be a couple of other proposed voting methods that seem to generate better results. If we could reliably test and deploy better voting methods to our institutions, we might benefit from the cumulative positive effects over the large range of domains perhaps for a very long time, including future generations. For more information, listen to this podcast episode.

How to tackle this:
Case studies of attempts at creating voting reforms may bring more understanding on how to go about changing voting systems.

Who are some of the people already working on this:
Pippa Norris; William Poundstone; David M. Farrell; Douglas J. Amy; The Center for Election Science

Other potentially promising directions:

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.