What do we mean by this strategy?
Some people are especially good at and interested in research – attempting to create new knowledge. If this is you, and have you have the opportunity to work in a field that seems particularly important, tractable and neglected, then this could be a way to have a large impact.
Most often, this strategy is carried out within academia, though it could also be in business, government, think-tanks or non-profit research institutes.
What’s our evidence this strategy is promising?
There are many areas of research with great humanitarian importance, and some researchers are many times more productive than others.1 This suggests that someone with high potential as a researcher may be able to have an outsized impact. Some additional evidence includes:
- Many of the most apparently high impact people in history were researchers, such as Norman Borlaug and those in this list.
- New knowledge is a public good, so it’s difficult to capture the gains for yourself. This means people are generally under-incentivised to build do research (it’s a market failure).
- Since the chances of success are low, people are also under-incentivised to pursue it in order to gain personal status (though it’s unclear how much weight to put on this).
We think it’s important to focus on particularly ‘high-potential’ areas. That’s because although every field of research has something to contribute and it’s difficult to predict where the next crucial discoveries will be made, some areas seem to offer significantly more potential for impact than others.
Which options are best within this strategy?
We think it’s important to keep your options open, since we’ll have better information about which areas are most promising in the future. This favors entering disciplines that develop strong, transferable skill-sets that are in demand, such as statistics, programming and machine learning. This suggests starting your career within applied maths, physics, economics or computer science if those subjects are a good fit.
It’s important to bear in mind the job prospects. Fields vary dramatically in both the difficulty of getting an academic job post-PhD, and in the difficulty of finding jobs outside of academia. Within philosophy, for example, there are more new PhDs than academic jobs, and a philosophy PhD doesn’t naturally build skills relevant for other sorts of career. This makes it hard to become an academic within philosophy even if you have a PhD from a very good program. In contrast, within economics the number of academic jobs matches the number of applications more closely, and economics PhDs are well-regarded within policy and business.
Another important consideration is the extent to which one can have an impact outside of academia. Again, economics PhDs are well-regarded within policy and business, to a much greater degree than philosophy PhDs are. This is a point in favor of applied maths, economics, certain types of psychology and computer science.
After you’ve done your PhD, you can start to focus more on your immediate impact:
Consider entering fields that will allow you to contribute to high-potential causes. These are fields that seem particularly important, tractable and neglected, thus hold more potential for impact than others.
Within a field, how can you pick the best research question? We’ve listed some ideas for heuristics, and asked this question to four senior biomedical researchers (upcoming).
Is this strategy for you?
We think those who are a good fit for research have:
- Particularly high intelligence.
- 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.
- Our impression from interviewing people in the field (for instance our interviews in biomedical research) is that the idea that some researchers are many times more productive than others is regarded as common sense within science. Another strand of evidence is the power-law distribution of citations per paper. ↩