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Would it still be possible today to go from relatively unknown to a respected figure in physics by writing some spectacular papers being outside the academia? (Just like Einstein did)

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    Does being a researcher in a corporation count as outside academia? – Pierre B Aug 8 at 16:39
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    "Just like Einstein did" Don't misrepresent the history here. Einstein had been educated by the establishment and was known to many of the leading figures of his day. They just though he was a unexceptional physicist in an age when only the most promising got hired as researchers. He was, in short, an ex-academic. – dmckee Aug 8 at 20:33
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    Yitang Zhang (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitang_Zhang) is an interesting example. He wasn't exactly "outside academia" since he was a lecturer, but his job did not involve research. Of course he did have a Ph.D. and was trained as a math researcher, but Einstein also had a Ph.D. – Noah Snyder Aug 8 at 21:32
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    The first step to becoming a successful researcher is to define what it means to be a successful researcher. Only after you define what it means to you to succeed, then you can answer the question "can you succeed outside of academia?" – emory Aug 9 at 0:12
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    As far as I remember, Nikola Tesla was a researcher on his own, outside of academia. – Galaxy Aug 9 at 22:23

11 Answers 11

54

My impression is that the likelihood of this is proportional to how theoretical the field that you have in mind is. In math or theoretical physics, it's at least imaginable for an outsider to produce an important new discovery. In High Energy Physics the idea alone seems outlandish.

That said, even in math the ratio of cranks (deluded amateurs who are convinced they have made an important discovery without having actually done so) to actual amateur geniuses is almost infinite to one. If you want to do research, in any field, the winning strategy is to study under a respected member of the community and learn how to produce, evaluate, and communicate your ideas in this way.

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    the winning strategy is to study under a respected member of the community and learn how to produce, evaluate, and communicate your ideas in this way. Yes. Just like Einstein did. It’s true that he is an example of what OP is asking about, but the myth that he was a complete outsider to academic research has a lot less truth to it than people realize. – Dan Romik Aug 8 at 8:03
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    @DanRomik It is funny that Einstein, of all people, is somehow seen as a role model of amateur contributions - a scientist with a PhD who, aside from a 6-year gig at the patent office, spent his entire career in academia. – xLeitix Aug 8 at 8:11
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm Well, Annalen der Physik didn't do peer review as we now know it. In fact Einstein was later annoyed finding out that Physical Review used such a procedure. On the other hand, his four 1905 papers were reportedly handled by Max Planck, and it's hard to imagine a more knowledgeable and suitable person to scrutinize them. Anyway, for more crank points, note that the special relativity paper doesn't cite any references. – Anyon Aug 8 at 12:31
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    @Anyon OK, OK, but we need to use the real crank test: was it written in Microsoft Word? – David Richerby Aug 8 at 17:30
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    @DavidRicherby no, but it passes the REALEST crank test: Microsoft Word was written in special relativity. – Blueriver Aug 8 at 21:13
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There is nothing that prevents you from doing so. It's just very hard for a couple of reasons:

  • Without working at an academic institution (or something similar), you lack the environment to exchange and work on ideas with peers.
  • Similarly, you need to discuss recently published results with peers to develop timely and relevant research directions.
  • Every field of research has a certain publication culture. Without any advice on it, publishing is much more difficult. While you could get help from elsewhere, it's certainly a lot easier to get it from your advisor if you have one. If your results are obviously break-through and you know roughly how to write understandable scientific documents, this may not be so relevant, though.
  • In case of experimental research, you often do not have access to the necessary laboratories and its equipment.
  • Funding may also be an issue. In the experimental sciences, you may need to buy equipment or consumables for experiments. As another example, in computer science, you may want to publish at conferences, which comes with participation fees and travel costs.
  • A good institution name can help to get you in contact with other researchers more easily.
  • Access to publications is often easier as many universities have subscriptions.

There are probably many other reasons which I forgot.

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    In short: possible - yes, likely - no. – xLeitix Aug 8 at 7:07
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    To add to the "funding" problem: It usually takes time to get the idea for a great paper, do all the experiments, write it up, prepare a presentation, etc. Unless you have infinite energy, this can be quite hard next to a full time job. Then again, if you have infinite energy, your famous physics paper is already mostly done. :) – Dirk Aug 8 at 7:25
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    "Without working at an academic institution..." Get in at the start of something new, and big, that wasn't invented by academics. 20th century example: finite element methods in numerical analysis. Academics only hijacked the topic and turned it into an unintelligible (to engineers!) sub-branch of functional analysis after all the key early papers were had been published by people in industry... – alephzero Aug 8 at 15:04
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    ... I worked for one of those guys who had a string of publications in the International Journal of Numerical Methods in Engineering, and had one of the important concepts that he discovered named after him. He didn't even have a degree - he left full time education aged 16, and started his working life as a riveter building aircraft. – alephzero Aug 8 at 15:05
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    The title is general, but the question focuses on physics where I'd say the ability of an outsider to keep up to date and to contribute (and generally just earn respect by demonstrating your genius) is probably much greater than a lot of other fields. – A Simple Algorithm Aug 9 at 7:44
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I am not sure about the other fields, but with respect to Computer-Science/Engineering/Security-Research, you can easily do something on your own and become established. My personal path was somewhere along those lines. I dropped out of University to take a position doing research for the government full-time. It is worth noting that there seems to be a shortage in the field at large and so it isn't such a big deal to not finish college before you start working professionally. Not sure what the "ecosystem" of other fields of study are with regards to commercial vs academic.

  • You're absolutely right. You don't need "the system" to succeed. – Galaxy Aug 9 at 3:54
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    Aside from absurd cost, there is nothing wrong with the academic route at a good school. Personally, I have come to realize most institutions that proclaim to provide quality higher education are really just businesses. They are not concerned with creating minds anymore, just generating profit. In the field of computing as long as you have a machine coupled with an autodidact learning style you can skip the hefty price tag. Some might claim you aren't paid as well without a bachelors, but if you prove valuable you can make just as much or often than a graduate. – in70x Aug 9 at 20:56
  • @in70x: The problem is getting that first job, which (other than internships) is not all that easy without a degree. – jamesqf Aug 11 at 18:06
  • @jamesqf like I said I can only speak from personal experience, in my field it was not at all difficult. Now I am in somewhat in a niche, but even the field at large I am not sure I know of any company that really requires a degree if you have the skills they want. I was able to do govt. work which for years meant a degree was 100% needed, no exceptions. That changed with the advent of cyber warfare I guess. – in70x Aug 20 at 13:29
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Everyone's hedging, but essentially the message seems to be "not really." I say go for it. Research can help you find yourself, can sharpen your skills, and if it fails can lead you on new paths -- or if it succeeds can lead you to the next plateau, or to a resting place until you can figure out where to go next (if anywhere). Research is a luxury in that most people can't afford to take the time to do it. If you have the time and money, there's nothing stopping you. In fact, it's probably better than academia because there's no funding pressure or restrictions -- besides those you impose on yourself.

I think whether inside academia or out, research is a form of therapy. If you can stick to your objectives and not get sidetracked (or get sidetracked in a way that's constructive), I think you can discover much about the world. You shouldn't be looking for recognition, though. It should be about pure discovery. If you can get published, treat that as a bonus.

There's always the option of becoming a part of academia to further your goals. If you can afford to conduct research, you can afford tuition, and if you have the makings of a first-class scientist, you should have no problem getting into the college of your choice. I think this might be the most realistic option. Even if you're older, better late than never.

If you have money you can set up a foundation, to pay others to do the type of research that you think is important. You get name recognition that way. You can also donate to universities, provided they accept your patronage.

7

Bell Labs researchers have won, collectively, nine Nobel prizes for work done outside of academia.

If a Nobel prize winner doesn't count as a "successful researcher", I don't know what does.

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    +1 Several of the strongest (academic) mathematicians I know spent many years publishing papers while working for Bell Labs. There are similarly strong researchers working at places like IDA and the NSA. – Ben Linowitz Aug 10 at 1:46
  • And IBM Research is not far behind with five Nobels: ibm.com/ibm/history/reference/faq_0000000511.html – jamesqf Aug 10 at 17:28
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    I think it's good to point out the legitimate contributions of Bell Labs, and there are other modern respected research institutions outside of academia (though it's worth noting that many of those institutions, even if funded by philanthropy and industry, are also funded by many of the same government institutions that fund academic research). However it should also be recognized that most (I think all?) of those scientists first earned academic PhDs, even if their fame came later they did not skip academic training. – Bryan Krause Aug 10 at 23:18
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    @Bryan Krause: But the question is not about skipping academic training, it's about working outside academia "Just like Einstein did". Einstein did get a PhD, and in fact held academic positions until his fame (and the acts of the Nazis) made both unnecessary and impossible in his native Germany: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein#Academic_career – jamesqf Aug 11 at 5:13
  • @jamesqf Yes I know, but I'm not certain OP recognizes that either. – Bryan Krause Aug 11 at 15:07
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Yes, it is possible. There are enough people in the scientific community who actually value great ideas that, if you have one, won't care what your background is.

Of course, the idea would have to be new and useful, logically valid, and either theoretically compelling or backed up with plenty of evidence. There are a lot of skills required to do this with sufficient rigour. And it might take a lot of communication skills and perseverance to gain traction.

Would it still be possible today...

Have a look at The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Science goes through phases, spending most of its time in "development by accumulation", but very occasionally being completely shaken by left-field ideas or solutions to confounding problems.

Development-by-accumulation typically needs very in-depth knowledge of a topic and often access to specialised equipment/resources/etc. But creative new ideas often don't rely on precise details of the old way of thinking. In fact, approaching things from an outside perspective can be an asset.

I don't agree with the "chances are tiny" way of thinking about this. If you selected someone at random then yes, the chances are negligible. But you're you, and need to be judged on your own drive and skills. Just don't have illusions. There is a reasonable chance you won't succeed.

One last thing—if you don't find that you frequently succeed at coming up with ideas about topics that you're not an expert in, you probably don't have what it takes.

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I think it is possible just like it is possible to win the lottery. Unfortunately, the odds are so massively stacked against the possibility that it is unimaginable.

To author some "spectacular papers" whilst being outside of academia would require some knowledge of the field itself? Otherwise, how are you to know if it has been done or examined before?

Being frank, I would say this is more of a fairy-tale or a future movie rather than a reality.

1

Actually, it is much more suitable today for an "outsider" to contribute than before. Via the internet, the tools of information technology, the processing power of personal computing technologies, global and open access to scientific data and opinions, fairly inexpensive and reliable transportation. If you have the means to add time and finance to those, there is a real possibility of spectacular contribution in science.

That kind of achievement is easier/more probable in some particular fields like biology and geology. In these kind of fields, the size of the research area is huge and you can make invaluable contribution on a relatively small and less influential topic (small and less influential in regard to the whole field).

But that kind of achievement is less probable in some fields of science like physics, as you will need access to specific, sophisticated instruments and/or raw data. Even not impossible, it will be very hard.

But, necessity of instrumentation doesn't affect theoretical works and assessments on the data which are provided by other researchers. Because of the open nature and architecture (in general) of science, every researcher is like a colleague of others. As long as you can access necessary data and raw data when needed (obtaining raw data isn't very probable in most situations), you can do original research.

I feel a personal connection with your question, because of my similar thoughts and assessments on biology years ago. guess that either you don't want to be in academia for various reasons or you don't have the personal means (time, money) for this. I didn't want to be in academia in my country and hasn't finished master's degree program.

I think, for a special scientific contribution at last, you have to start with small steps and aim a research that will produce a synthesis of previous research (think a review paper). We can't ignore the possibility of a breakthrough research done by a researcher which isn't a part of the academic establishment.

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    I don’t think this is true. All the low hanging fruits you describe have very likely already been picked. Even from a computing power perspective, institutions have access to collaborative computer clusters ar the national or transnational level, with power that vastly outcompetes “individual” resources. Access to instruments and technical resources makes individual efforts uncompetitive in most fields. If you can find a niche problem in a newer or emerging field, then you have a chance as all the previous advantages are nullified. – ZeroTheHero Aug 12 at 0:52
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    @Zero If there were no relatively low-hanging fruit anymore, no one would be able to still get a PhD. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 12 at 15:41
  • @ElizabethHenning not quite what I implied. Rather: of course a PhD student usually does have access to the latest resources in terms of lab equipment, computing power etc. so she/he is in a much better position than someone from the general public. – ZeroTheHero Aug 12 at 17:03
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    @ElizabethHenning, (and ZeroTheHero, but I know there'll only be a single ping), the seeming paradox about impossibility of any more PhD's is (in my opinion) an analogue of the impossibility of making money on the stock market without insider information, which is illegal unless you're in Congress (!?!). In contrast, the point of having a good advisor is effectively to get insider information on various intellectual endeavors, and this is not only legal but productive... although, yes, it creates problems for "outsiders". – paul garrett Aug 21 at 22:15
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It does happen albeit very rarely, and the relatively recent story of Lubos Motl (a noted contributor to Physics SE) comes close to what the OP describes.

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    I see what you're saying about his early work, but I think all his papers were written in academia (the later ones at quite prominent places, and no new ones on arxiv or Google Scholar since 2007). He also has a... let's call it mixed... reputation. So overall I think he's not that good of an example of what OP is after. – Anyon Aug 10 at 16:15
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If I became financially independent and wealthy (say by winning a few million pound in the lottery), and decided to spend my time learning physics and writing papers, even if I had considerably more talent than I have, my chances would be slim. You might look at a financially cheaper subject, like maths or computer science. The chances are somehow better there. And in these subjects, the limit is your imagination, not the real physical world around you.

But you asked “outside academia”: You may find a company that pays you well to develop products, and some might lead to papers that make you well respected, without being in academia.

And if you asked say the population of the U.K. for the name of a well respected astrophysicist, I think the name “Brian May” might be quite close to the top.

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I does not matter how great the paper's discovery is. What matters is where you are publishing and how many publications you have. It doesn't matter if you have 20 revisions of random data, what matters is that you have 20 published papers.

Academia and publications have become full of negative incentives, and not being part of it will make things difficult but not impossible.

Why do you want papers in the first place? why not publish to trade magazines and businesses? Or where do you want to perform research? How would you measure success? You ought to think on that first.

  • I don't see how any other researcher would notice anything published in trade magazines. Trade magazines are certainly not (IMHO) places where one would publish research. Also, I fail to understand the main theme of your answer. >" It doesn't matter if you have 20 revisions of random data, what matters is that you have 20 published papers." You seem to be emphasizing 'publish or perish'. – Tejas Shetty Aug 11 at 8:52
  • The research is published along the result, but what matters is exactly the result. The question asked was about becoming a successful researcher while outside of academia. The way a researcher's success in measured nowadays is by number of publications. The answer is perfectly pertinent. – deags Aug 12 at 15:18
  • If anyone disagrees and downvotes, do explain why, please. – deags Aug 12 at 19:44

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