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I've been working in the "private sector" since my late teens. I've gathered good web-development experience to be able to find work quite easily thankfully. I was never really interested in getting a degree, I only have a high-school diploma. I was passionate enough to study for myself and learn new things from colleagues and friends.

Web-development is still my passion, however recently I've been thinking about the actual work that I've been producing over the years for the companies I've worked for. It seems as though that even if the work is fun and challenging, I still get very little recognition for it: once the work is produced, my name is barely ever mentioned. I've been asking myself if all these things I'm building are really going to change someone's life.

Then I look at academia and research. Here people are doing things they actually love and study those subjects deeply with passion and generate new knowledge to help others within a specific field.

Has anybody ever switched from an industry job to an academic job? I'm wondering if it's possible to do research without a degree. What suggestions might you have for someone in my situation that wants to get a glimpse of the life of an academic where you can build and study something you actually love and not always do what "the company" wants.

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Just for clarification: Would you be satisfied helping build software for researchers based on their requirements, or are you looking to generate your own ideas and pursue them? –  Matthew G. Mar 8 at 18:53
    
You've really spotted my concern: I guess I'm a bit tired of working based on other's requirements (private sector). I want to generate and pursue my own ideas. –  Luca Matteis Mar 8 at 18:56
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Instead of going to academia and research, which normally require a PhD degree, have you considered go for a start-up, in which you are able to "build and study something you actually love and not always do what "the company" wants"? –  Long Thai Mar 8 at 19:33
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The startup world is exciting and certainly have thought about it. However, it's highly based on consumerism, while I'm mostly interested in research that doesn't always lend to building a product someone needs. –  Luca Matteis Mar 8 at 19:56
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Another option if you find your job tedious, is to contribute to an open source project. Of course you will still have to work to support yourself / family but it is your chance to contribute to something useful for everyone. Although chances are, that you will find out that working mostly for free (like a PHD) is not that much fun. So, do this first and if you like it, then consider research. –  Alexandros Mar 8 at 22:38

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

If recognition is your key desire, academia will only be marginally better for you than your current situation. Just because your name is on a paper, doesn't mean anyone is going to care about your work.

I feel like there's a couple of threads in your question outside of recognition though. I'll make some comments where I can.

  • To transition into academia and start working on your own ideas you'll need to probably start a degree program. Masters and PhD programs, more than anything, are training programs on "how to work on stuff".

    It seems obvious right now that you have hundreds of ideas and the skills to pursue them -- but the academic context is a bit different. Research typically fits into a larger context than a single project, and you'll need to be able to sell your ideas to people who are experts in the area; most research projects that aren't 'consumer' oriented produce papers, not projects, so you'll need to learn how to write papers. The requirement for evidence is (or at least ought to be) high, which means that you'll need to learn what kind of evidence you have for your hypothesis, how to gather it, how to present it. All of this, the politics, the nitty-gritty of putting together a paper, is what you ought to get from a degree program. You can try to do some of this on your own to be sure, but it's not an easy ride.

  • If you want to get a feeling for what working in academia is like, without getting the degree, I'd seriously look into the possibility of becoming a programmer for a university. This helps you get a feel for what the work, environment, people are like. It could be that if you find the right project, your influence will be sufficient that you can get the recognition you want, without having to get the degree.

  • Reading your question, I get the feeling of a grass-is-greener illusion. One thing that might be worth considering is: How much of the problem just your job? Could you find work at another company, in another niche, doing some other kind of programming that could be better for you? I feel like you could get 99% of your desired outcome not from academia, but from a job change. Maybe you need to go deeper into the stack; work with a company that builds the web technology you use. Maybe you need to go higher in the stack; start building client applications to the web technology you use. Maybe you need to get away from the web... perhaps start looking at transitioning into games, or hardware, or.... the list is endless.

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You're right, it's probably a grass-is-greener feeling I'm having. I'm just fascinated by the possibility of studying and doing what you want, and at anytime being able to work on other things. You set the requirements. In the private world, the clients do. –  Luca Matteis Mar 8 at 22:06
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@LucaMatteis True... but be aware, even in academia, you're going to have a boss; be that your supervisor or your funders. I wish you the best though; if academia is the dream, follow it, even if it means going through a degree program! –  Matthew G. Mar 8 at 22:42
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@LucaMatteis I believe this comic (courtesy of PHD Comics) accurately describes what you can expect from academia, with respect to "doing what you want": phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1436 –  ff524 Mar 9 at 2:44

Like Matthew, I get the feeling reading your answer that you don't have an extremely clear idea of what switching into academia would entail, and a pretty starry eyed view of what life in academia is actually like. While it's true that at its best, being an academic lets you work on exactly what you want to, pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. But it's a long slog to get to that point, and even when you're there, there are a lot of other issues at play.

Of course, if you're independently wealthy, you can do whatever you want, but for most of us, we need to have a job, and just like any other job, a lot of the parameters are dictated for us. You also often have to get outside funding. In both cases, it's true that you aren't literally assigned research projects from on high (though some days that would be a lot easier than coming up with them yourself), but you do have an eye constantly on impressing your colleagues (on various levels) who make or influence decisions about funding, promotion and hiring. Not to mention that one often has teaching or service duties which really are assigned from on high (though admittedly, I think these still have a lot more autonomy than jobs in most fields would). I'm sure you can find plenty of horror stories about how this can go awry just reading the archives on this site. And that assumes you can get a job, which is far from assured (especially if you want to stay in Italy!).

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