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, 2012 at 18:47
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    Short answer: Possibly in computer science, definitely not in math.
    – anomaly
    Jul 17, 2016 at 22:44
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    Yes, of course it's possible, even in math. You want to do math research? Just do it. The only thing preventing you from publishing a paper in Annals is an Annals-worthy result. Sorry, what's that? Oh, you actually want to get paid to do research? Well, that's an entirely different question!
    – JeffE
    Jul 18, 2016 at 0:07

9 Answers 9


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, 2012 at 12:22
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    How is doing research on your own different from doing research at grad school - industry? Besides group/lab projects, research is essentially you and yourself figuring things out.
    – gented
    Nov 23, 2016 at 12:46
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    I think at the end of the day it depends on the person, but I would like to generalise that for most people doing research on your own is both harder and more time consuming than being able to bounce ideas with fellow colleagues within the same field of research, cause at the end of the day you're writing an idea to expand the field, so from the above post it is arguing for proximity.
    – chutsu
    Jul 25, 2017 at 14:15

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, 2012 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, 2012 at 14:04

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.


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.


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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    If wanting to get admitted to a specific institute for a PhD, would it help to ask a PhD or Professor from this institute to have a look at the self-conducted experiment description and collected results, to summarize it in a paper and publish it together, so that one is not unknown anymore in the institute when applying later?
    – Lucas
    Apr 13, 2016 at 0:13
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    @Lucas - sure, that sounds like a good idea! and if they say no, then it can also be interesting to get feedback on your idea. most likely, they would want you to refine the experiments before putting their name on it. Apr 15, 2016 at 17:58
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    I like this answer. If one comes up with a great enough advancement, then it is not at all unreasonable to assume that PhD or no PhD people will listen and take notice. A PhD is merely a certification to show you learned certain skills. It doesn't mean one cannot possess them on their own or just get lucky and have a break-through. After all, considering how long the concept of "PhD" has been around... 90% of all mathematicians who did research over all these centuries had absolutely no certification.
    – user64742
    Nov 23, 2016 at 6:06

I'm a former professor. I could no longer stand the elitism, tiresome institutional structure, and narrow mindedness of working in a university. After quitting the ivory tower, I still desired to continue my research, and discovered the pros and cons of being an independent researcher.

The most obvious plus is that I can research whatever I want, whenever I want, and publish in whatever publications I want. No more colleagues frowning on my choices. No more administrators denying my funding requests based on personal bias. No more crappy vanity research in unethical publications to stroke the egos of a tenure and promotion committee. It feels a bit like being in grad school again, where my creativity and personal curiosity can shine - only with more maturity and structure as guidance.

The cons are painful, though. Gone are the days I can submit 30 interlibrary loan requests for materials in a day. My public library only allows three requests at a time, which is practically useless. I'm spending a lot of time and money buying materials and traveling to libraries to get at resources. But, the traveling is fun at least. Even though it's all on my dime (that travel budget as a professor was a privilege I took for granted!), true research freedom is priceless!

Besides a lack of access to materials, the major con is lack of access to respect. Filling out a form - be it for access to an archive or submission of a publication - I'm always asked for my "affiliated institution." Well, I don't have one anymore. They aren't interested in where I used to work, or my publication history, or even the quality of research I do now. It's a major hurdle. Academics are often fueled by their egos, and they often only have respect for others at their perceived level. Don't have the right letters after your name? Go away! Aren't on the payroll of a university? Get lost! Urgh. I saw serious independent researchers get turned away and mocked frequently by these elitist pigs.

It is possible to make progress in your research without the credentials of an academic, even while being under scrutiny of many academics you'll come into contact with. You'll have to be a more efficient researcher and do everything the hard way, but it will be rewarding!

In the hard sciences I imagine it would be costly, too, to gain access to equipment you might need. It all depends on what your goal is. But give it a try, and live your dream! You have nothing to lose.

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    The original post asks about doing research without a PhD. Perhaps you can edit your post to comment on that. Presumably you earned a PhD before starting your unaffiliated research; do you think your work as an independent researcher would be better/worse if you hadn't?
    – ff524
    Jul 17, 2016 at 21:15
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    I like this answer.
    – ruben
    Nov 24, 2016 at 1:07
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    @ff524 The post might have asked about research without a PhD, but researching without being at an institution is a closely related topic that offers critical insights. This answer is extremely helpful.
    – JDG
    Mar 14, 2019 at 22:28
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    Indeed, this answer is still really useful, as an undergrad trying to get into research I face the same hurdles as described there, so that's quite on point even if you don't already hold a PhD Feb 26, 2020 at 3:19

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).


I am doing research outside of academia because being in business shows where the real problems are, because being given a job assignment is what motivates me to take action, because my research is very far outside the mainstream, and because I wanted to develop my thinking very far outside the mainstream. I would prefer to be in academia but for these four things. I have made slow but steady progress in my area of research, and if I had to make a guess, I will have something useful to present about five years from now. I do not recommend doing research outside of academia unless you have some serious reasons to do so, as I have such reasons but most researchers do not.

On the other hand, now that I have developed my research focus and direction over the last 20 years in a way that is solid and unique, I am now starting to think seriously about starting a Phd program. With a strong direction to my thinking and research, I can now interact with other academics without being lead outside my research direction. We'll see what happens.


Philosophical issues with no right or wrong. Bottom line, for me, after masters level is doing research that brings innovations whether for social or academic or personal reasons. Fame should be attached to success in life, career etc. not necessarily to acquisition of a 'prestigious' title.

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