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Whether in history, math, computer science, physics, law or other sciences can someone without a doctorate or an undergraduate degree do research in any of them? I am an undergraduate student in math and I am interested in other sciences as well but I have found some difficulty getting my degree. I think my memory and problem-solving ability are not bad; I think they are okay. I thought of a path for myself to have at university, but eventually I figured out that I think I do not want it. I want to contribute in sciences.

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    It may also help to specify the problem. Is your concern about finding a paid, full-time research position? About publishing as a "layman"? About finding PIs who will let you contribute for free? But check our archives, most of these have already been asked-and-answered.
    – cag51
    May 7, 2023 at 21:47
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    Comments have been moved to chat. Many of the now-moved comments reiterate my comment above: it is unclear what you are asking. Normally I would close the question until the OP clarifies, but there are already five answers, so I'll leave that to the community. In any case: before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments.
    – cag51
    May 9, 2023 at 2:42
  • What about money?
    – yarchik
    May 9, 2023 at 11:20
  • I think you actually meant being paid for doing it or occupying a professional position. May 9, 2023 at 13:43

9 Answers 9

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An undergraduate degree gives you background understanding in a lot of different areas. It's a foundation to build all your other knowledge on.

A PhD is a specialized degree in training for research. It includes learning both how to conduct research as well as training in the academic norms in your field, such as how to communicate your work with others. If you can't communicate your work, there's little point in doing it besides self-satisfaction.

While technically you may not need a particular degree to do research, research is exceptionally difficult. Many people with all the training still struggle. No one should expect themselves to be able to be successful without the training. I'm not saying there are no counterexamples, I'm saying that a few counterexamples out of billions of humans is not a very convincing argument.

I would focus on at least what is blocking you from getting an undergraduate degree. Without an undergraduate degree, your job prospects will be very limited. I don't think you should assume that the world on the other side is any easier.

Life-long academic jobs are extremely limited for people with degrees. For the vast majority, without a degree you aren't even approaching consideration.

Even so, there are certainly jobs where you can contribute to the overall production of research without advanced degrees. Many of these jobs come with low pay but they are absolutely critical for research to function. Animal care technicians are one example.

In industry, there may be more opportunities but a lack of degrees will still limit you. I worked in industry R&D for awhile and many of my coworkers did not have bachelors degrees (most at had at least a 2-year degree, though). This tended to limit their responsibilities, though: their job titles were typically "Technician" and they would work under the guidance of someone with at least a bachelors degree and some years experience. They would have input in conversations about research directions, but most of the job was following instructions and performing repetitive tasks. Certainly many of the people with those jobs were capable of doing more, especially as they gained experience, but it was difficult to advance without a degree. It was often fun work, though, and people could see directly the impact of their work in products used in health care, including their own family members.

In the US, some more technical jobs are available with a short 2-year training program. That would include histology (that is, preparing tissues on microscope slides for observation; most jobs are in hospitals doing diagnosis, but research positions exist as well), counseling and nursing jobs (again, these jobs are typically focused towards patient care, but these roles are needed in research administration as well), various mechanic jobs (relevant to maintenance of machines used in research), etc. Again, these are not the traditional "academic research" careers, but they are important ways to contribute.

All of my examples have biomedical research in mind, because that's the area I've worked in, but if you want to explore this or other areas, I would try to get in contact with people currently working in that area, and ask them what sorts of jobs people do with or without a degree in that field. That may help you find a target that suits you. I suspect you'll have more opportunities in areas where research is a group effort among many people, because those areas are often in need of extra hands, whereas in areas where research is primarily an individual effort, you would need to rely on your own personal credentials and history of research output to be funded, and you won't be able to obtain those without following the traditional education path.

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  • I don't think a 2-year nursing degree will get you very far in nursing/hospital research and administration. May 11, 2023 at 3:32
  • @AzorAhai-him- Not into designing and running studies but there are lots of roles in research to be filled.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 11, 2023 at 3:43
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The answer to the literal question you ask is "yes". If you have a good idea and follow it to a good conclusion and it's interesting enough to attract attention in the field then you have "done research".

In practical terms, without formal education in a field you will not be able to do "research": because you will not know what is known. Even knowing that, "memory and problem solving ability" may not be sufficient to address the unknowns and create new knowledge.

It's hard for me to imagine how you might carry out significant research without the basic knowledge you get at university.

You can always contribute as a citizen scientist,

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    There are other things one might do without a degree in the field, e.g. various citizen science projects, or becoming so expert in some niche that researchers ask you about that niche. An example of the latter is this AI paper: arxiv.org/abs/2009.04374 One of the authors, V. Kramnik, is a former world chess champion that presumably doesn't have a degree in AI. Of course, it's way easier to get a degree in AI than to become world chess champion ...
    – Allure
    May 8, 2023 at 9:46
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This depends, to some extent, about what you think "do research" means.

If your meaning is that a person that "does research" holds a tenure-track faculty position where a certain amount of their time is for research endeavors, then I think there are some obstacles, at least one of them may be insurmountable. Many job descriptions demand an advanced degree -- a PhD or equivalent. Establishing equivalence to a PhD for someone with no advanced degree may well be a bridge too far for many university HR departments, who may simply refuse to hire you. Deans and Trustees may also have issues with the idea. Funding organizations may also need to buy in. IMO, the goal of establishing a career doing completely independent research funded by granting institutions will be difficult to reach without a PhD.

However, if "do research" means sort of a spare time side gig where you do some work and get it published, this is probably feasible.

To others "do research" might simply mean "earning a career while working in a lab" (as opposed to directing a lab). This is also approachable. There are certainly lab managers without advanced degrees that have a ton of responsibility -- but the ultimate authority about what research they get to do often belongs to someone else.

Further, a lot of surprising career directions can happen in industrial environments, where your job history and performance can eventually get you placed where you want to be, but you wouldn't necessarily be applying for such a position -- they just happen because you're the natural person to take on the role (because you've made yourself that person). This isn't a very predictable career path, though, it just happens sometimes.

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There have been examples, especially in Mathematics, of "amateurs" being consistently productive. But I cannot think of an example were the amateur was not accomplished in the field in which they made their living. The "amateur" scientist is usually working in a field where no extensive knowledge or equipment is needed, such as graph theory where some questions are very difficult, but an answer is not based on the work by others. Some scientific work is now crowd-sourced. Think for example of the bird population counters which are local bird-watchers or amateur astronomers who occasionally find a new comet.

If you have trouble getting a degree, you probably have no future as an "amateur" researcher, as you would be lacking the training and the knowledge, but sometimes you can still help with research.

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    Think for example of the bird population counters -- In light of some recent bad weather in my area (damaging storms 12-13 hours ago, and a tornado came within 1 km of where I live on March 31), a similar example that occurred to me is that of storm spotters. May 8, 2023 at 11:15
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    IIRC, Darwin was technically an amateur.
    – Buffy
    May 8, 2023 at 14:10
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    @Buffy Darwin had an extensive university education and had close relationships with several research mentors before producing any useful research himself. While he did some of his work "on the side", his Beagle position for example was a paid scientific position. He also worked in a time when most of the well-known names in the field were "amateurs" of a sort, with personal wealth freeing them to scientific pursuits. So, perhaps, "technically", but with important caveats for anyone who thinks to mirror that path today.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 8, 2023 at 14:51
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    @Buffy The backdrop of bioscience in Darwin's time was alchemy... where people literally believed that life was spontaneously created. This was before Louis Pasteur's discovery of micro-organism. Any random modern child would know more biology than the general public back then if said child is taught to wash their hands and not eat dirt.
    – Nelson
    May 9, 2023 at 5:09
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    @Nelson so then it is important that: you could, but all the low-hanging fruit has already been done, and it's not usually very useful to duplicate what someone else has already done
    – user253751
    May 9, 2023 at 10:57
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You mentioned law specifically. As a practicing lawyer (Nevada) that does some academic research on the side I can address that part directly.

Theoretically, the answer is yes, you can do research in law without needing any qualifications whatsoever. Arguably, the barriers to entry are in fact lower than many other fields since (despite the way it can seem sometimes), most academic legal researchers and most judges actually make some effort to write in a way that is broadly accessible.

However, as a practical matter, the answer is generally no. If you do not have some sort of relevant credentials, you will find it very difficult to get the attention of anyone in the legal academic research community.

Notably, I mean "some sort of relevant credentials" somewhat broadly in the legal field and does not necessarily mean a J.D.. Mike Masnick for instance is a writer and editor who has made something of an impact in legal academia. I have personally cited his work more than once in more than one law review journal article. However, while he does not hold a J.D., he does hold an MBA and while he absolutely does work that can be called legal research, I do not believe he has published in any traditional law review journals. But while it does not necessarily have to be a J.D., I suspect someone without some sort of serious credentials will find it very difficult to break into legal research in a meaningful way.

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I think having no undergraduate degree is really pushing it for STEMS. I don't know about history or law since they are softer fields but I do not imagine it is much different. Once you finish your undergraduate degree you realize how little it actually teaches you. It's not even the theoretical or practical fundamentals.

Even having an undergraduate degree would be like an elementary school student learning the four basic arithmetic operations. You cannot expect them put it to practical use by doing something like filling out tax forms, and research would be more like understanding and writing tax law.

I have only a Bachelors and assist in private research funded by a private patron. In this position, I have participated on research led by someone without a degree and led by someone with a PhD. Let me tell you, the difference is very pronounced. The PhD doesn't know everything they need; It is research after all, so you can imagine the gaps in knowledge and questionable approaches of the other. There's virtually no low hanging fruit remaining.

I want to contribute in sciences.

From my above real world example, it is clearly possible to do research without an undergraduate degree. You just need money.

Thus, the primary barrier to the "doing" part is how to get funding when you have no qualifications or history. I hope you're really charismatic and meet the right people, but I'm guessing you don't really want to be a snake oil salesman which is basically what you would be selling with no qualifications, experience, or history.

But merely doing is not the same as doing effectively, and actually contributing? In my experience, I think you might be asking too much for too little without an undergraduate degree, or even without a masters. Or in the absence of a degree, without in-depth, long-term practical experience in what it is you are researching on.

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Yes, science is all about falsifiability and peer review.

If you practice sound, reproducible science and can communicate it well, then that is legitimate research which is to be taken seriously.

Degrees technically don't matter.

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    I mean, you can also be a tightrope walker with no training whatsoever, so long as you can walk across a thin wire suspended high in the air. The problem is that you can't get to that level without training. This seems like saying even someone who never practices can be a violin virtuoso, if they just play the right notes. May 9, 2023 at 15:52
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    @NuclearHoagie I have seen people do legitimate research without formal training simply by having a high IQ and arguing from first principles. May 10, 2023 at 12:33
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To use a sports analogy, I guess if a kid in college started playing basketball for the first time and demonstrated that he had what it took to go to the NBA be being physically big and strong enough, and he was skilled enough, then yeah, he's going to The League. But I'm pretty sure this has never happened. College teams get the best high school talent, and the NBA the best college talent. In other words, your competitors have been playing literally since they were like 4 years old.

In the academic case, people have usually been in their fields in some stripe since they were 18 or in their early 20s. They've spent and spend all day thinking about their with (sometimes), almost always with the backing of a professional university and years of training to help them do research. They think about these things in the shower, while they walk their dogs, while they get their nails done, it is literally what makes some researchers so good at their craft, years of training and experience.

If you can compete with them without having a degree (if you wanna go for tenure), then go ahead, but it's super unlikely. Presumably other avenues of doing research exist, it just wouldn't appear in academic journals more often than not.

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Yes. One does not need even expensive equipment. It is about the content you produce. In my university in Slovakia, every doctoral student is expected to publish one paper without any help from a supervisor. To lower the burden, one may publish in other languages than English.

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