If a person studies and/or does experiments at his/her own home or laboratory because of some reasons, is he/she still allowed to compete with others to get a prize like Nobel Prize, Field Medal, etc?

More precisely, from the beginning he/she never gets educations from formal institutions (schools, colleges, universities).

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    Yes, there are no formal criteria in this direction. The results, their significance, and wide acceptance count. But I do not thik this question belongs here.
    – abatkai
    Mar 2, 2012 at 7:12
  • @abatkai: So do I have to delete this question? Mar 2, 2012 at 7:41
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    Might be related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/385/…
    – user102
    Mar 2, 2012 at 12:49
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    @DamienWalters Dreaming of getting such prizes may be not the right approach (and most likely lead to frustration), see xkcd.com/896 containing But you don't become to be great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it hard so that you become great in the process. Mar 4, 2012 at 11:10
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    The question is in my opinion meaningless. These prices are not awarded on a competitive basis. Candidates are nominated by others and are selected by a committee. See e.g., here. Anybody can be nominated.
    – walkmanyi
    Apr 22, 2013 at 11:40

4 Answers 4


Allowed - yes. Have any reasonable chance to compete - no.

(But to learn university-level things, given the determination - yes.)

There are two separate issues:

  • you won't learn stuff abut the current research lines and you won't be able to attract others to your results,
  • in academia things like degrees and university/advisor name do matter.

First, you can learn a lot of stuff by yourself. However, it is hard to get to research-level. Moreover, now most research requires a lot of collaboration. A century ago it may be still possible to invent something in one's private workshop (but still a lot of knowledge and infusion was required). Now it is not true anymore. Also, you need to know the tools and which problems are open, solved or seems to be dead-end. Moreover, you may end up solving problems which are difficult but not of the interest of other academicians.

See also from Gerard't Hooft, How to become a good theoretical physicist:

It so often happens that I receive mail - well-intended but totally useless - by amateur physicists who believe to have solved the world. They believe this, only because they understand totally nothing about the real way problems are solved in Modern Physics. If you really want to contribute to our theoretical understanding of physical laws - and it is an exciting experience if you succeed! - there are many things you need to know. First of all, be serious about it. All necessary science courses are taught at Universities, so, naturally, the first thing you should do is have yourself admitted at a University and absorb everything you can. But what if you are still young, at School, and before being admitted at a University, you have to endure the childish anecdotes that they call science there? What if you are older, and you are not at all looking forward to join those noisy crowds of young students ?

Also: almost all Nobel prize winners had advisors, which were also well-know and are from first league universities.

Second, the academia is less meritocratic than it seems to be. While certain skills and knowledge are essential, they are not the only factor. It does matter if you have a certain degree*), from which university you are and who is/was you advisor. Many contacts are within a clique, were you need to have a recommendation by people they know.

*) In science no matter how smart you are, you won't have chance without a certain degree, while in programming your skills and experience are more important than if you have a PhD degree or not even a BSc.

Nevertheless, finding enough skill and determination to do experiments in one's own home may be a good predictor of later success in science or engineering.

  • But internet can help him/her to know subjects in which most people are interested, to make a lot of collaboration with others, etc. Mar 2, 2012 at 10:50
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    @DamienWalters In principle, yes. In practice - it is very hard. (Even being in 'mainstream' science I tried many times to get into collaboration with people I don't know in person and I never succeeded; at best there was a longer and interesting conversation that was never promoted to sth like a collaboration.) Also: there is a reason why Wikipedia did not come not from the academia. And why e.g. theoreticalphysics.SE does not flourish. Mar 2, 2012 at 10:53
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    "in academia the world is way less meritocratic than it sounds" this should absolutely not be understated.
    – Amy
    Mar 2, 2012 at 22:03
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    Modern science is a social institution, not just an abstract set of standards for discovering and evaluating knowledge. While in principle the abstract standards leave the door open for contributions to come from anywhere and anyone—and this is a good thing—the social organization of science means that such Robinson Crusoe fantasies are almost never realized in practice. They persist partly because of the mythos that grows up around individual scientific geniuses. A consequence, as the 't Hooft quote shows, is that scientists in many fields have drawers full of correspondence from cranks.
    – Kieran
    Mar 3, 2012 at 13:06
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    One part about "in academia the world is way less meritocratic than it sounds" is that, contrary to what we (pretend to) believe, when we judge one another (e.g. for hiring purposes, or prices), we do not measure one's strength, but one's successes, which rely a lot on chance, good connections and other factors (although one do needs some strength and background to seize the opportunities given to oneself). May 28, 2012 at 10:06

The important factor here is that these prizes are awarded for making a significant contribution to knowledge. This cannot generally be assessed at the point at which you had the idea, and it is for this reason that prizes are usually awarded for contributions which are decades old.

For example, John Forbes Nash, Jr. was awarded a Nobel prize in 1994 for work done as a graduate student in the late 1940s.

It's only after many years of further research, by the originating researcher and the community as a whole, that the importance of an individual idea can be understood in that context.

A corollary of this is that only research which is published, presented at conferences and generally publicised in the research community is likely to attract sufficient attention and further development to be considered for such a prize.


It's certainly possible, if you're a genius on the order of Srinivasa Ramanujan and can invent an entirely new, provable/repeatable, and productive field from first principles.

Likely for a mere mortal? You've probably got better odds of winning the Lottery, being struck by lightning, or fill-in-your-least-likely-scenario-here. Not because there's any prejudice against autodidacts, but because the odds of someone selftaught actually finding something new -- and being correct about it -- are just not that great.

Go for it. Just don't expect recognition of that kind until you have produced work with is widely agreed to be truly revolutionary.

(Except, as noted, for the peace prize. Which is sometimes given based on hope rather than achievement. Even then, you'll probably have to be someone who has worldwide recognition.)


A person is nominated for a Nobel Prize by someone familiar with his work, and the Nobel Prize committee judges it for its originality, depth, and service to mankind.

It's barely possible for someone to make a highly original contribution to a field outside of the usual academic circles. In the unlikely event that this occurs, the Nobel Prize committee will consider it on its own merits.

For instance, the Nobel Prize was awarded to a new finance concept called microlending, developed by a banker, not a professor. Admittedly, it was the Nobel Peace prize, but it could have been awarded as the Economics prize.

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