How to do high impact research

If you have good personal fit for a pressing area of research, it can be one of the highest-impact career options. Here we explore how best to do it.

What are the best graduate programs?

We cover this in our article on career capital.

What research should you do early career?

Lots of people want to do high impact research while still a graduate student or postdoc. That’s great if it’s possible, but it’s even more important to first establish your career. When we interviewed top biomedical researchers, this was a major theme of their advice.

In the current academic system, it’s very important to develop a strong publications record early, so do what you can to make that happen. It’s also important to get great training, so seek out a top research group who will mentor you, even if it’s not the area you’d ideally work long-term.

What are the highest impact research topics?

As your career becomes more established, you’ll gain more and more freedom to choose the topics you want to work on. Which should you choose?

Personal fit is especially important in research, because the most productive researchers have far more output than the median (as we argue below). Aim for a field where you have a realistic chance of being in the top 10%, and ideally top 1%. It could be worth entering a “low impact” area if you have good enough personal fit.

However, all else equal, it’s best to enter an area that’s also pressing i.e. where there are problems to work on that are big in scale, neglected and where you can see an avenue towards progress. You can use our problem framework to help prioritise.

Looking at the intersection of two fields is another method that seems to have a track record of success. You can also look at areas where new techniques are making new research possible. See more rules of thumb for high-impact research.

Among the areas we’ve reviewed so far, we’d pick the following (roughly in order, starting with the highest impact):

Some others we expect are promising but which we haven’t reviewed yet include:

  • Improving scientific practice
  • Improving collective decision making
  • Cheap green energy
  • Democratic reform
  • Developing policy to increase international migration

This list is nowhere near exclusive. We expect that there are high impact topics in most fields. Often only experts in a field can spot which topics are high-impact.

Should you become a researcher?

Research seems to be an area where the most successful people have far more impact than the rest.

  1. Some researchers publish scientific papers at a rate at least fifty times greater than others, and the distribution appears to be log normal.1

  2. This is what we would expect if publishing papers was a multiplicative function of several independent skills, which seems reasonable.

  3. The distribution of citations is very peaked: the top 0.1% of papers have 1000 citations, compared to about 1 citation per paper at the median. The citation distribution may be more skewed than the true distribution of impact per paper, because it’s exaggerated by feedback effects in which one paper becomes the standard paper that everyone cites. Nevertheless, we expect it’s still that some papers are vastly more influential than others.

  4. Senior researchers generally believe large differences in output exist. Some who we interviewed said that a “good researcher” was rare and valuable. Prof. Townsend used the phrase “worth their weight in gold.” Prof. Todd said “One good guy can cover the ground of 5, and I’m not exaggerating.” And these people were talking about researchers who are already a top lab.

This means the key determinant of whether you should enter research is personal fit. If you have some chance of being a top researcher, then it’s likely among the highest impact paths. If not, then you could probably do more by earning to give and funding research, or something else.

If you’re unsure, then continue with academia. Generally it’s hard to re-enter the academic path once you’ve left it, especially after a PhD (though it varies a bit by field e.g. computer scientists sometimes switch back and forth between academia and industry; economists switch back and forth between academia and policy). This means that if you’re truly in doubt about whether to stay in academia, it’s best to lean towards staying to preserve flexibility.

We say “truly in doubt” because continuing in academia is usually seen as the default, high-status path – at least when you’re still in academia – so probably more people do it than they should.

How can you work out your degree of personal fit?

The best indicator is you track record. Test yourself step-by-step:

  1. At undergraduate level, you should aim for top grades (a 1st in the UK, or GPA over 3.5 in the US).
  2. Try to do a research project one summer and see whether you like it.
  3. At graduate level, what was your class rank?
  4. Ideally, at the end of your PhD, you’re the author of an article in a top journal and have a strong reference from your supervisor.

Some other predictors that seem important:

  • Particularly high intelligence.
  • 2

  • High levels of grit and self-motivation, to persist for years in the face of a high chance of failure.
  • Deep intrinsic interest in the relevant subject matter.

Don’t forget non-academic positions

There are many research positions outside of academia, which can be more fulfilling because your work has more tangible impact and will involve more teamwork.

Some paths to consider include:

  • If you want to transfer into business but still do research, data science is a path we’ve seen work well.
  • There are many positions in companies that develop important technology e.g. Gilead Sciences developed drugs to treat HIV and Hepatitis; Tesla is developing cheaper batteries.
  • Think tanks if you want to enter policy e.g. the Center for Global Development has had a significant influence on development policy.
  • International organisations e.g. the World Bank.
  • Non-traditional academia – work in academia funded by 2-4 year grants, rather than by taking a traditional academic position that comes with a teaching load (e.g. the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford).

For lists of specific organisations, see our problem profiles.

Owen’s story: Owen was doing research in pure maths, which he thought would have little impact. Instead he transferred into global priorities research. He became the first employee of the Global Priorities Project, which advises policymakers about which global problems are most pressing, and which has already advised high levels of the UK government.

“80,000 Hours is unique in seriously thinking through the effects of your career on the world.”

Read Owen's story

Owen portrait photo
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Notes and references