Advanced PhD students Pick themes that represent central inspirations and prerequisites for your dissertation research.
Young PhD students If you have a rough direction in mind for your dissertation research, consider two approaches to picking themes. First, consider strengthening your understanding of the niche in which you wish to work, especially some of the old pieces of work, which are often overlooked and under-appreciated. Second, look into completely alternative areas to broaden your perspective of our research area.
One possibility is to allow curiosity to guide the choice. Here are some examples, formulated as questions:
how did HM type inference come about, succeed and fail?
does garbage collection work? work well?
what is the background of Rust’s ownership/affine type system?
Another one is to study the evolution of a programming language itself.
You have to access these proceedings with your Northeastern/CCIS credentials. Proceedings of previous HOPL conferences are rarely of interest, though I know of some exceptions. The ACM organizes a conference entitled "History of Programming Languages" every ten to fifteen years. I was on the program committee for the 2020 version—
an undertaking of three-and-a-half years— and the proceedings explain the themes of several highly interesting languages. Picking one of those is a feasible starting point though you will need to dig out works that influenced key decisions.
Warning Some of these papers are essentially short books.