This article was jointly written by David Janku and Jan Kulveit from the Czech EA Association.
For those interested in contributing, such as EA-aligned researchers, or even just anybody with a great research topic idea, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Effective Thesis is a project that directs students’ research towards EA causes by offering them EA-related topics for their final dissertations and theses. The aim is to deliver three valuable outcomes:
- Changing student trajectories at a particularly crucial juncture in their lives
- Generating additional research in EA cause areas, with little cost to EA funding sources
- Making current academics (students’ supervisors and committees) more familiar with EA perspective and EA topics
Our hope is this could be potentially high-leverage, even more so than usual career coaching, as we are focusing on a particularly crucial juncture.
In most European universities, a dissertation is a compulsory part of any bachelor's, master’s and doctoral degrees. People spend hundreds to thousands of hours working on it (dependent on study discipline and course requirements) and refer to it as the greatest challenge and achievement in their studies. Yet, most of them experience a huge struggle when trying to find the right topic. The quality of dissertations differs very much by university, course, supervisor availability and individual students’ factors. All students also have their own supervisor advising them throughout the research process and the academic quality of the dissertation is in the end checked by a committee who reads it and decides on the mark the student receives.
Since dissertations are compulsory for many students, they invest much time and effort into them, they have academic support in increasing the quality of their research but often struggle to find a topic, so we had an idea to utilize this process by offering students EA-related topics.
To make it multiplicative, we have decided to ask EA orgs for these topics and agreed they will provide students with consultations to ensure that students’ work will be of best use to EA orgs. Consultations also serve as a motivator for students and should increase the quality of their work and, in a broader sense, should help to align academia and practice.
We have decided to create an online platform to make this project more scalable. We have created a website where people can read about why some problems are more important than others and see the topics filtered by their study discipline and interests. For each topic profile, we have put together descriptions, explaining why the topic is important and including sources to start with when the student is interested in the topic.
Reflections on the project development
We have put about 1500 hours into the project. So far, we have 12 students working on some of our topics and we estimate that each of them will invest about 200-300 hours into their theses, resulting in approx. 2400-3600 extra research hours. Up until now, the project budget was £5400, so each trajectory change cost roughly £450. From interviews with 2 students who have already finished their dissertations, it seems that our project helped them realize that they could do a dissertation on an EA topic and it also helped them to find sub-disciplines and specific problems to focus on within the EA problem areas. Both of them worked on AI safety problems and are now are looking for a job in this field, although the counterfactual influence of dissertation on their long-term career plans is difficult to evaluate since both of them also consulted with 80k and were in contact with other EA organizations and information sources.
Since we operate online, one of our main marketing venues was an AdGrants Google account enabling us to spend $10.000 per month on AdWords. We got together with the marketing company Brainslab who offered help to EA projects and who took care of our account and increased its quality. However, after several months, it seems we still don’t have a good way to reach the right students, since it hasn’t brought us a single student who would like to work on some of our topics. We are now changing the strategy from using general keywords (like “thesis topic”) to using titles of well known and important papers and concepts specific to each study discipline. The most effective strategies so far seem to be posting in EA facebook groups and promotion by word of mouth. Interestingly, the strategy which may become several times more effective was to google our biggest competition in search results and ask them to promote our website. Since our main competitors in search results are blogs advising students on “how to choose a thesis topic” but not offering specific topics like we do, they can improve their content by linking us to their articles and we might get a great deal of relevant traffic from their websites. This idea came about from interviews with marketing professionals who we reached out to, and is a good example of non-zero-sum mindset.
Since we offer topics via our website, success depends heavily on how the website is designed. We didn’t have very much experience with web development and design and therefore it took us longer to make changes, with results being sub-optimal. However, we managed to create and run the website much more cheaply than if we paid professionals and improved valuable skills (website development, project management, teamwork) along the way.
Steps that proved valuable included letting parts of the project which don’t require a deep understanding of EA be managed by professional organizations, who now take care of areas of it for free as a part of their CSR programme (as we did with AdWords). Another useful step was to consult with other individual professionals who we found via websites connecting nonprofits and skilled short-term volunteers (here is the list of such platforms we found).
As we reflected on the project development, we found that current model of working via EA orgs is not optimal. Some of the top EA research organizations are heavily time-constrained, and unable to spend much effort on proposing thesis topics, so the current topics selection;
- Doesn’t represent the whole EA research landscape well (with more emphasis on wild animal suffering, for example, because the respective research organization was more cooperative in providing topics - a great help!)
- Many topics seem to be highly interesting, but likely not tractable within the scope of masters or even doctoral thesis.
- With many topics, it may be difficult to find an appropriate advisor.
In addition, the students, in general, do not have a comparative advantage in choosing topics, typically having neither previous experience with dissertation writing nor a very good overview of the research landscape.
Therefore, we have recently launched a different approach: individual Thesis Topic Coaching, a deliberative process in which we try to understand each student’s needs and opportunities, and suggest tailored topics or research directions. When students choose one of our topics, we will try to find them consultants focusing specifically on their topics and will share their work with relevant organizations. The change should result in an increased uptake of our services and the quality of final research pieces. This will also enable us to focus less on web development, which took a significant proportion of the time we devoted to the project.
Another thing we are considering doing is to reach out to current academics with topics relevant to their expertise and asking them to start offering these as dissertation topics for their students. This might potentially be a more effective way of addressing students than an online website since consulting with teachers is a default option for most students searching for dissertation topics. At the same time this would allow academics to explore and become more familiar with EA topics via their students.
We would like to encourage anyone interested in this path to contact us.
Request for help
As the project is ultimately trying to create a two-sided marketplace, it depends on the willingness of EA aligned researchers and research organizations to share promising research ideas and to offer the students consultations.
We want to ask EA aligned researchers for cooperation in this respect - if you have the capacity to help, please contact us. It does not have to be a particularly costly process and does not create a commitment on your side.
We also have a funding gap for 2018 sized circa 12000 USD, which we hope to cover mostly by grants, but individual donations are welcome and important - if you would like to donate, you can do it via Czech Effective Altruism Association in a tax-deductible way
- We are still convinced that choosing a dissertation topic is an important branching moment in a researcher’s trajectory, which may not only generate hundreds of hours of additional research on an important topic, but may influence a researcher’s long-term career.
Even in case of students planning non-research careers, working on an EA thesis topic can lead to deeper engagement with the ideas and community, generating more knowledgeable EAs and making current academics more familiar with the EA perspective.
We are less sure that letting students choose for themselves from a list of topics proposed by EA research institutions is an effective way to utilize this branching moment.
David Janku manages the project and put in most of the work. The web development was mainly undertaken by Dan Hnyk (programming) and David Horák (copywriting), helped by many other volunteers. Jan Kulveit suggested the initial idea of steering research by promoting EA aligned theses topics and the direction change to thesis topic coaching.
The project was financially supported by Greg Colbourn with the help of the volunteers Pär Flodin, John Lidiard, Ronke Bankole, Nikita Hayward, Jiří Nádvorník and others, and uses an AdWords grant from Google managed by Brainlabs.