[ Question ]

How to get up to speed on a new field of research?

by Denis Drescher4 min read1st Mar 20212 comments

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Research methodsRethink Priorities
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Introduction

I used a recent Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) of Rethink Priorities to ask a series of questions about research in general (not limited to Rethink Priorities).

I’m posting these here severally to make them more visible. I’m not personally looking for more answers at this point, but if you think that readers would benefit from another perspective, I’d be delighted if you could add it.

Question

I don’t know what I mean by “field,” but probably something smaller than “biology” and bigger than “how to use Pipedrive.” If you need to get up to speed on such a field for research that you’re doing, how do you approach it? Do you read textbooks (if so, linearly or more creatively?) or pay grad students to answer your questions? Does your approach vary depending on whether it’s a subfield of your field of expertise or something completely new?

Holly Elmore

I can answer [this], as I’ve been doing it for Wild Animal Welfare since I was hired in September. WAW is a new and small field, so it is relatively easy to learn the field, but there’s still so much! I started by going backwards (into the Welfare Biology movement of the 80s and 90s) and forwards (into the WAW EA orgs we know today) from Brain Tomasik, consulting the primary literature over various specific matters of fact. A great thing about WAW being such a young field (and so concentrated in EA) is that I can reach out to basically anyone who’s published on it and have a real conversation. It’s a big shortcut!

I should note that my background is in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, so someone else might need a lot more background in those basics if they were to learn WAW.

Alex Lintz

I just do a lot of literature review. I tend to search for the big papers and meta-analyses, skim lot’s of them and try to make a map of what the key questions are and what the answers proposed by different authors are for each question (noting citations for each answer). This helps to distill the field I think and serves as something relatively easy to reference. Generally there’s a lot of restructuring that needs to happen as you learn more about a topic area and see that some questions you used were ill-posed or some papers answer somewhat different questions. In short this gets messy, but it seems like a good way to start and sometimes it works quite well for me.

Michael Aird

I don’t know if I have a great, well-chosen, or transferable method here, so I think people should pay more attention to my colleagues’ answers than mine. But FWIW, I tend to do a mixture of:

  • reading Wikipedia articles
  • reading journal article abstracts
  • reading a small set of journal articles more thoroughly
  • listening to podcasts
  • listening to audiobooks
  • watching videos (e.g., a Yale lecture series on game theory)
  • talking to people who are already at least sort-of in my network (usually more to get a sounding board or “generalist feedback,” rather than to leverage specific expertise of theirs)

I’ve also occasionally used free online courses, e.g. the Udacity Intro to AI course. (See also What are some good online courses relevant to EA?)

Whether I take many notes depends on whether I’m just learning about a field because I think it might be useful in some way in future for me to know about that field, or because I have at least a vague idea of a project I might work on within that field (e.g., “how bad would various possible types of nuclear wars be, from a longtermist perspective?”). In the latter case, I’ll take a lot of notes as I go in Roam, beginning to structure things into relevant sub-questions, things to learn more about, etc.

Since leaving university, I haven’t really made much use of textbooks, flashcards, or reaching out to experts who aren’t already in my network. It’s not really that I actively chose to not make much use of these things (it’s just that I never actively chose to make much use of these things), and think it’s plausible that I should make more use of these things. I’ll very likely talk to a bunch of experts for my current or upcoming research projects.

David Bernard

I’m a big fan of textbooks and schedule time to read a couple of textbook chapters each week. LessWrong’s best textbooks on every subject thread is pretty good for finding them. I usually make Anki flashcards to help me remember the key facts, but I’ve recently started experimenting with Roam Research to take notes which I’m also enjoying so my “learning flow” is in flux at the moment.

Jason Schukraft

I can’t emphasize enough the value of just talking to existing experts. For me at least, it’s by far the most efficient way to get up-to-speed quickly. For that reason, I really value having a large network of diverse people I can contact with questions. I put a fair amount of effort into cultivating such a network.

(If one of the answers is yours, you can post it below, and I’ll delete it here.)

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2 Answers

I just realised that, during the AMA that spawned this post of yours, I forgot to mention a comment I wrote last year explaining roughly how I got "up to speed" on EA ideas more broadly. This isn't quite an answer to the question you asked, but seems similar, so I'll copy it below. 

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I can't remember in great detail what I did (and especially the order and causal attributions). But here's my rough guess as to what I did, which is probably similar to what I'd recommend to others who are willing/keen to invest a bunch of time to "get up to speed" quite thoroughly:

  • I started mainly with the 80k career guide (now the "old career guide"), problem profiles, career profiles, and other 80k articles I found via links (including their older blog posts)
    • I'd now recommend the Key Ideas article rather than the career guide
  • I listened to every episode of the 80k podcast
  • I started going through the sequences (Rationality: AI to Zombies) on LessWrong, mainly via the "unofficial" podcast version
    • But I only finished this around February this year [2020], after getting a job at an EA research org, so the latter parts probably weren't key to my journey
    • But I'd still definitely recommend reading at least a substantial chunk of the sequences
  • I watched on YouTube basically all the EA Global talks since 2016, as well as a bunch of other EA-related videos (see here for where to find such videos)
  • I started listening to some audiobooks recommended by Wiblin, Beckstead, and/or Muehlhauser
    • I selected these based on how relevant they seemed to me, how highly the people recommended them, and how many of those 3 people recommended the same book
    • I've now listened to/read 30-38 (depending on what you count) EA-relevant books since learning about EA, most of which were recommended by one of those people. I should probably share my list in a shortform comment soon.
      • ETA: I've now made that shortform comment and then adapted it to a top-level post, putting the books in roughly descending order of perceived/remembered usefulness-to-me.
  • I read a lot of EA Forum and LessWrong posts
    • I think I basically bookmarked or read anything that seemed relevant and that I was linked to from elsewhere or heard mentioned, and then gradually worked through those bookmarks and (separately) the list of most upvoted posts based on what seemed most relevant or interesting
  • I looked at most major EA orgs' sites and read at least some stuff there, I guess to "get a lay of the land"
    • E.g., FHI, Center on Long-Term Risk (named FRI at the time), GPI, Charity Entrepreneurship, Animal Charity Evaluators ...
  • I started listening to some other podcasts I'd heard recommended, such as Slate Star Codex, EconTalk, and Rationally Speaking
    • I found the first of those most useful, and Rationally Speaking not super useful/interesting, personally
    • See also this list of podcasts
  • I subscribed to the main EA Newsletter
    • I now also subscribe to the EA London newsletter, and find it useful
  • I read everything on Conceptually
  • I read some stuff on the EA Concepts site
  • I applied for lots of jobs, and through the process learned more about what jobs are available and what they involve (e.g., by doing work tests)
  • Probably other things I'm forgetting

I think this process would now be easier, for a few reasons. One that stands out is that the tagging system makes it easier to find posts relevant to a particular topic. Another is that a bunch of people have made more collections and summaries of various sorts than there previously were (indeed, I made an effort to contribute to that so that others could get up to speed more efficiently and effectively than I did; see also). 

So I'd probably recommend people who want to replicate something like what I did use the EA Forum more centrally than I did, both by: 

  1. reading good posts on the forum (which are now more numerous and much easier to find)
  2. finding on the forum curated lists of links to the large body of other sources that are scattered around elsewhere

(I expect more sequences on the EA Forum will also help with this.)

Thanks for turning these sprawling threads into nice, organised posts!

Skimming through this again, I spotted that I'd said:

Since leaving university, I haven’t really made much use of textbooks, flashcards, or reaching out to experts who aren’t already in my network. It’s not really that I actively chose to not make much use of these things (it’s just that I never actively chose to make much use of these things), and think it’s plausible that I should make more use of these things.

Turns out that the flashcards part became outdated within weeks of me writing that comment! In January, I started making Anki cards as I read/listen to books, audiobooks, podcasts, articles/posts, and videos (like talks), and sometimes after meetings I have. I've made ~525 cards so far.

(See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it.) 

I also now post my cards about a book to the Forum once I'd finished the book, as something like a very low-effort book summary. (See here for an example and for discussion of whether this is worthwhile.)

I also now make brief notes of "key updates" as I read books, and include those updates as part of my Anki card posts. This is both for my own later reference and for other people. (See here for an explanation and example.) 

I now plan to do these things indefinitely. I guess this has been a significant change to how I learn. 

I think that many EAs would probably gain from and benefit others by using a similar process - i.e., making Anki cards and noting "key updates" as they read books, and then posting the cards and updates to the EA Forum and/or LessWrong. 

I should note that I think this is relevant both for getting up to speed on a new field and for learning more about a field one already knows a decent amount about. 

(This comment is adapted from a section of my post A ranked list of all EA-relevant (audio)books I've read.)