Hide table of contents

I'm exploring a move back to academia after ~7 years away. My background is in Philosophy and I will try applying to a few PhD programs early next year. If I am accepted, my eventual goal would be global priorities reserach.

Most programs ask for a written submission of around 5,000 words. My thinking and my areas of interest have changed a lot since undergrad. Among other things I've worked as a programmer and I think a lot more about probability, statistics, rational choice, decision theory, etc. So I plan to write my submission from scratch. 

I'm looking for help with picking a topic. I'm trying to avoid the pitfall described in this post:

In the early stage of your research career, 80-100% of your project ideas are bad. You’ll feel like your favourite project idea is great, but then years later, you’ll ask yourself: “what was I thinking?”

Executing an idea requires a large time investment. You don’t want to waste that time on a bad idea.


The OP from that post suggests solving this problem by 1) writing down some ideas, and 2) asking someone senior to rank them. So here are some of my ideas, and if you are/have been a philosopher in academia, I would appreciate your feedback!

  1. Map some motivations for RDM or robust satisficing as a research method to an interpretation of probability. Consider implications for research in this area.
  2. Analyze maximising ambition as a heuristic for decision-making when tracking progress/success using optimization of some measurable objective(s) isn't a viable approach to a problem. High-level career choice is one example I could explore.
  3. Consider the value of Bayesian updating in scenarios where finding a number for e|h is similarly subjective to choosing one's prior. I'd look at successful examples from the forecasting world where there's a reasonably low-latency feedback loop for ranking accuracy.

I wanted to post ASAP but as a result this is a short list, so I'll keep adding to it.

Initial bibliography:

My main concern (aside from are these topics good/will anyone care about them) is whether departments will consider a submission in this area as strictly philosophy.

Thanks to all for any input and advice you provide.




New Answer
New Comment

2 Answers sorted by

Hi tcelferact,

I have a PhD in philosophy, and I'm a senior research manager at Rethink Priorities. If you want to discuss PhD applications, shoot me a PM and we can set up a call. My main piece of advice is to optimize the writing sample for getting accepted to whatever programs you think are the best fit for you. Optimizing that metric might result in a much different writing sample than trying to find an actual good idea and writing about that.

Another question of course is why philosophy PhD programs are the best way to go if OP is more interested in researching robust decision making than other questions in philosophy. Not knowing too much about the field, David Manheim's dissertation for example seems pretty related. 

Yes, this would also be useful, and thank you for the link!

Thank you, PMed!

Not a philosopher, but I have overlapping interests.

  1. I'm not sure what you mean here. What's RDM? Robust decision making? So you'd want to formalise decision making in terms of the Bayesian or frequentist interpretation of probability?
  2. Again, I'm not sure what "maximising ambition" means? Could you expand on this?
  3. How would you approach this? Surveys? Simulations? From a probability perspective I'm not sure that there's anything to say here. You choose a prior based on symmetry/maximum-entropy/invariance arguments, then if observations give you more information you update, otherwise you don't.

I suspect a better way to approach topic selection is to find a paper you get excited about, and ask "how can I improve on this research by 10%?" This stops you from straying wildly off of the path of "respectable and achievable academic research".

Thanks for your suggestions! Some answers:

1. Robust decision making. And yes, pretty much, I was thinking of the interpretations covered here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/probability-interpret.

2. I think formalizing this properly would be part of the task, but if we take the Impact, Neglectedness, Tractability framework, I'm roughly thinking of a decision-making framework that boosts the weight given to impact and lowers the weight given to tractability.

3. I was roughly thinking of an analysis of the approach used by exceptional participants in fore... (read more)

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities