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I love learning and solving problems (I'm in math/ computer science) and I'm also very motivated. However, I don't have fantastic grades and so I don't expect to get into any top graduate program. This may seem like a discrepancy, but I think it is partly a personal issue (which I'm working on).

Is it possible to conduct research and therefore further any field without being in academia? This post is primarily targeting people who are doing their PhD.

I want to get the opinions of as many people as possible, so let me know if there's another place (forum) where I can ask.

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This might be relevant: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/385/… –  Speldosa Mar 3 '12 at 18:47
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As Nunoxic noted, doing research as a part of your job is possible. Also, doing research at a graduate program that isn't at a top school is possible. But doing research on your own, and hoping to bring innovations to a field... is highly unlikely to work, in my opinion.

My opinion is based on experience with a bad schooling system (undergrad and Masters in Serbia) where publication is mostly irrelevant to survival of the teaching staff. Access to research journals is also severely limited, and, as a consequence, access to international conferences, international collaboration and all that. Essentially, supervisors would offer minimal guidance, and students are always free to choose their research topic. This is still more guidance than you would have on your own.

Then I got myself into good schooling system (a second Masters - to catch up - and now my PhD studies), in The Netherlands. Neither of the two Dutch universities I've been studying at are top schools in the Shanghai sense: their rankings fall between 100 and 150. Still, in comparison with Serbia, the difference in what I've learned and achieved since being at these universities is staggering.

  • I don't spend months of my time sifting through articles in order to slowly begin comprehending which papers/names are the most relevant ones in the field.
  • I have someone to immediately tell me if a research question is worth pursuing.
  • I have someone to immediately point out similar research.
  • I have someone to immediately correct small mistakes that would prove important at the end of data collection
  • I meet important people in the field, and get feedback from them, with no cost to myself
  • I work with technology that costs a great deal of money, with no cost to myself

The essence boils down to having access to people who know what my work is about. This speeds up my understanding of the subject matter by an order of years. Science is so fast-paced nowadays that it's very difficult to make breakthroughs without collaboration.

In sum, my advice for someone in your position would be to give priority to non-top graduate schools, if it doesn't work put with top ones, instead of trying to be a solo researcher.

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Although your fundamentals are strong, Internet makes possible to do research in some areas like computer science. It is not solo research in the sense that you are in contact with other people via "virtual" social networks. Anyway, physical place and contact, and speed is much more stimulating and efficient. –  sw. Oct 30 '12 at 12:22
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I love learning and solving problems (I'm in math/ computer science) and I'm also very motivated. However, I don't have fantastic grades and so I don't expect to get into any top graduate program. This may seem like a discrepancy, but I think it is partly a personal issue (which I'm working on).

Wrong assumption. If you like solving problems and love learning, it won't be difficult for you to convince others that this is true and usually, that is one of the most important factors contributing to success of PhD students. As far as your grades are concerned, bad grades does not necessarily imply rejection at universities. See this post regarding how to get bad transcripts across. Good GRE scores (with AGRE maybe), recommendations and past research will probably negate the bad grades.

Is it possible to conduct research and therefore further any field without being in academia? This post is primarily targeting people who are doing their PhD.

You can but it depends highly on where you work. If you work at a corporation which "implements" rather than "innovates". Chances of getting a job involving research is pretty slim. Having said that, it is always possible to work around or find other jobs which will allow you to work on something new. Also, is it possible to conduct research without being in academia is somewhat misleading. A large portion of research does take place out of academia. IBM, Intel, AMD and many other companies work actively in research.

I want to get the opinions of as many people as possible, so let me know if there's another place (forum) where I can ask.

No offence but taking opinions from many people won't necessarily give you a clearer answer.

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"No offence but taking opinions from many people won't necessarily give you a clearer answer." It may not, but I'm just looking for perspective from people with experience. –  anonymous Mar 3 '12 at 9:14
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"If you like solving problems and love learning, and you are good at doing both, for an audience, it won't be difficult for you to convince others that this is true" — The omitted clauses are crucial. It's not enough to like solving problems, and it's not even enough to be good at it. For undergraduates, the main "audience" is course instructors; for academic researchers, it's other researchers. –  JeffE Mar 5 '12 at 14:04
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You can get a CS support job in a research lab. I worked as a programmer at various government and edu labs for a decade between bad grades and phd. I got my name on papers as a coauthor and helped do research.

Can be a great gig. You get to help solve problems, but don't need to worry about writing it up or worry much about funding, something PhDs do constantly.

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I'm currently working on my math PhD. I think that it's incredibly unlikely that someone without graduate work in math could do much math research (I don't know about the computer-science side, however).

Now that I have put myself out there, I should clarify my point. Is it actually impossible? Well, no. In particular, there are many combinatorial or graph theoretic problems that don't really rely on previous work to be done. Some fields of math aren't as profoundly cumulative as others (on the other side of the spectrum, I might place something like algebraic number theory or elliptic curves, both of which I find highly removed from pregraduate work).

But what I'm really saying is that it's prohibitively difficult, not impossible. It's time-consuming no matter what, and I think the greatest advantage an academic has is that research is what we're paid to do. But it is possible to get 'research-style' jobs without a PhD. But they are limited in scope.

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On some universities there are programmes to encourage more people to join the research. You might want to check them and ask (They might be called UROP, research internship etc.). In such way you can work a bit with research to try if it is for you.

Depending on your work and findings you might be coauthor of paper. At least 2 of my friends coauthored the paper in such way before they finished their undergraduate studies.

PS. I am not a PhD student (and I do not have PhD) but I participated in such programme. I would recommend you to search for one as it allows you to try it.

From what I heard it also helps getting onto PhD programme as you have shown that you have an experience with research (and know what you are doing).

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There is 'doing research' and then there is 'publishing papers'

You most certainly don't need a PhD to do research. If you want to make an advancement, like a better algorithm, then you can create your own experiments to show how your idea works better (on the problem you tested) and you have created a meaningful advancement in science. If you had a PhD you should have learned how to create solid experiments and how to analyse the results (which often leads to more experiments).

This may sound a bit jaded, but publishing papers is often about understanding what a particular field cares about (and who the influencers are) and becoming part of that community. There is definitely a clique element in most fields - by getting your PhD you are invited into the clique under the wing of your supervisor. It might not be impossible to publish coming from outside a community, but I think it is certainly harder.

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