To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I'm still in grad school.

I've been researching under one professor's wing for two years now, ostensibly shooting for a PhD (note: no topic yet), and I have accomplished nothing except write a lot of code, fill a bunch of notebooks with theorems and scratchwork, and whine a lot.

Insofar as I can surmise, my precise set of skills is good for one thing and one thing only: Solving problems that have already been solved... but only from scratch, my way. And I'm too stubborn to know when to give up.

For homeworks I go in completely unprepared and take them like a puzzle, and somehow, this usually doesn't work out too poorly (note, I am a physics student, so these homeworks are of the mathy, proofy, yet still occassionally handwavey kind). I hack and hack away at a problem unassisted for hours to days with no progress until I finally make a crack in the wall and can see the light shining through. Then I beat it eight ways to Sunday, making my solution simpler and simpler until I am satisfied that every step has both a clean form and a clear motivation. My test-taking strategy is similarly devoid of preparation, and also fortuitously manages to work out well.

As far as I can tell, my strategy works in these cases only because homeworks and tests are problems which are hand-crafted to be surmountable. In these cases, my stubbornness alone is enough to pull me through eventually. It was enough, in fact, to pull me all the way through primary and secondary school and to my Bachelor's.

But obviously, grad school isn't about homeworks and tests.

For one, I can't read academic papers in my field. Or rather, every academic paper I try to read goes one of two ways:

  • If it is a very abstract and theoretical paper, then I can't read it because I'll get too easily excited; I'll get to maybe the second page of definitions and axioms before my head is flooded with ideas and I absolutely need to pull out my notebook and begin trying to gain an intuition for them. (This seldom goes anywhere and I usually just end up tiring myself out after several hours of hacking on some theorem orthogonal to the paper)
  • If it's an experimental paper, I can't read it because it means nothing to me. There are no ideas I can synthesize from "we did X using Y and found Z." My mind races about other things as I'm reading and I can't shut it up! In the end, I don't remember a word I read.

And as far as it concerns me, computational papers and applied theory might as well be experimental, because ultimately there's a point where everything goes into a black box and the result pops out. This is a shame, because I know that these computations can expose new and interesting emergent properties of the theory; but sometimes it's just too difficult finding the ladder down from my ivory tower.

My research is going about as well as one would expect for somebody who can't read any papers!

For any problem I've ever worked on for research, I've always begun with trying to solve the aspects that stand out to me; enumerating the set of solutions to some nasty-looking equation, or devising an algorithm to compute something which is faster than the obvious brute force strategy. Months fly by and I either fail, or I successfully, unwittingly, and needlessly derive my own formalism of e.g. the theory behind HNF matrices and unimodular matrices after several strokes of dumb luck.

In all cases, papers already existed which solved these problems. I just couldn't bear the thought of having to seek them out and read them!

I've discussed various aspects of my struggles with my parents and a number of faculty (including, of course my research advisor) and everyone I've talked to has advised me to continue. I gathered from these discussions that feelings of inadequacy are rather par for the norm in grad school, and that evidently my classwork has impressed a portion of the faculty who still appear to have confidence that I can succeed... But unfortunately, as far as I can see, I am a one-trick pony.

Is there really any place in academia for somebody who is incapable of recognizing and building upon the existing work of others?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Oct 14, 2016 at 18:29
  • 3
    Read Richard Feynman's memoirs - he learned a similar technique as a post-doc after prompting from his sister, in order to master conference papers outside his core expertise. Oct 14, 2016 at 22:46

14 Answers 14


You ask if there is a place in academia for someone with your characteristics. I would like to answer a different question -- how can you channel your talents and disposition so as to get through what is needed in order to earn a PhD (in a reasonable amount of time)?

I see some things in your self-description that I recognize in my son, who has ADHD and OCD. I couldn't possibly say whether you have either or both of these conditions. One way or the other, though, some aspects of the treatment and coping mechanisms that have been helpful for my son might be helpful for you. So I will share what has helped him, and then speculate a bit about what might help you.

You described impulsive and compulsive behaviors that get in the way of your functional ability to read papers.

Part I - Impulsivity

(My mind races about other things as I'm reading), i.e. difficulty maintaining focus while experiencing distractibility

Two things help my son with his impulsivity (which is a primary symptom of ADHD):

  • A medication called Tenex. (If you and your doctor decide to give this a try, I should mention that a number of specialists have told us that the extended release version, Intuniv, should be avoided.)

  • Structure. I'll give you an example. My son is currently in 8th grade. This weekend he had to write a short memoir sort of essay for homework. Working on his own, he had written about half of the story, got distracted, lost interest, and wanted to turn it in in its incomplete form. I looked at his planning sheet with him. He explained that he had changed his mind about the outline he had made. But he didn't have the patience to re-do the outline. Okay. I had him tell me briefly his new outline, and I jotted it down at the computer where we could both see it. Then I scribed for him as he dictated the remaining part of the story. If he started to get bogged down in unnecessary detail, I reminded him of where we were in the outline, and if necessary suggested a succinct way of getting from Point A to Point B.

How would this apply to you? One idea that occurs to me is that you could assign yourself a paper to read, with the following structured activity: Write an outline of the paper. Without satisfying yourself as to every step in the math underlying the paper, simply write down an outline of the paper, in broad strokes.

If you're able to do that, great! Of course, there will be times when it would behoove you to go into a section, or a whole paper, in depth. But I would like you to be able to choose when to do that, and not feel that you have to do it with every paper you pick up.

If you're able to start doing this type of skimming reading without too much trouble, then you won't need to read Part II of my answer.

If you find skimming a paper intolerable... then we could say that perhaps you're experiencing an OCD-like symptom that's interfering with your functioning.

Part II - OCD-like symptoms

(I absolutely need to pull out my notebook; [I] needlessly derive my own formalism)

There are two things that have helped my son deal with his OCD symptoms.

  • Medication. The most common medication for OCD is an SSRI, such as Zoloft or Prozac. Note, SSRIs are slow to take effect, and it can take 2+ months to ramp up safely to the dosage levels recommended for OCD.

  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). First I will describe how the therapist and I helped my son go through this protocol, and then I will suggest how you might adapt it for your needs.

In the first treatment session, my son described specific OCD symptoms he experienced, and the therapist wrote them down. In the second session, he ranked the items on the list according to how impairing they were. These two steps together are called "mapping the OCD". In the third session they selected one of the least impairing symptoms and constructed a homework exercise. In my son's case, the first symptom chosen to work on was this: when my son walked past a dandelion flower, he felt an overwhelming urge to pick it and flick it away with his index finger. So the exercise was to go outside once a day, find a dandelion in bloom, and stand there looking at it, without picking or flicking, and record on his homework grid his "temperature", i.e. how strongly he felt the urge to perform the ritual. You record your temperature at intervals. Eventually your "temperature" starts to go down, because your body can't maintain the heightened alert state all afternoon. The grid we were given to work with suggested time points (in minutes) of 1, 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30. However, my son's inner clock runs fast, and we found that the suggested pace was too slow for him. We found that generally, his "temperature" starts to go down after about 20 seconds. Sometimes, we see that it goes up again before it really tails off -- in other words, we see a two-humped curve. But as long as we haven't bitten off more than he can chew, it really does always tail off. The key is to go very step by step in the sequence of exercises.

You go through the exercise every day. After a few days, or a week, we found that it would start to get easier. My son was usually ready to move to the next exercise in the sequence after about 10 days.

For the last four months (treatment began 1 1/2 years ago), he has been working on one of his most challenging symptoms, his spider phobia. I selected a bunch of photographs from books and the internet, and ranked them according to yuckiness. We worked on them one at a time. It would take one to two weeks for him to desensitize to each photograph. Yes, it is slow going, but he has improved remarkably. No more screaming and running away if a small to medium-sized spider happens to amble across the kitchen floor.

How might you adapt this? I will assume for the purposes of this answer that you don't have a lot of OCD-like symptoms. (If you did, then the standard protocol would be directly applicable.)

If you are able to convince yourself that the urge to discover the intermediate steps (the ones the author didn't write down) will subside if you allow some time to go by, then I think you may be able to leverage the ERP concept.

If you get evaluated and end up with a diagnosis (possibly one of my son's conditions, possibly something else), you can get assistance to help you be more successful in your studies, from the student disability office at your university.

Addition about how to find a therapist who can do ERP, if one is interested in pursuing that treatment modality (copied from the comments):

Unfortunately, there is, in the U.S. at least, a severe national shortage of therapists trained in diagnosing and treating OCD and specific phobias, but the good news for you is that it's easier to find someone who can treat adults than children. Take a look at the International OCD Foundation website.

When I was having trouble finding someone, I called up the OCD Foundation, and amazingly enough, their executive director took my call himself, and got me unstuck. One thing to watch out for: in my geographical area, at least, for every therapist trained in doing ERP, there are at least 10, maybe even 100, who will blithely say they can diagnose and treat OCD, despite never having been to a single workshop on ERP. However, ERP is the only therapeutic treatment that holds up in studies.

  • 52
    -1. Suggesting medication as an answer to this question seems rather extreme to me. Surely there are other ways to try out first?. Even if nothing else works not everyone would trade a better focus for the possible side effects of the drugs. Also advising to follow the doctors opinion doesn't seem right to me. The treatment will often depend on the doctors views, so what really matter is the OP view's on that matter.
    – Ola M
    Oct 10, 2016 at 13:25
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    @OlaM - You lost me a bit somewhere in the matter. I would like to clarify that I am in no position to suggest that OP take medication. However, I see nothing wrong with informing OP of medications that some have found helpful. Decisions are of course up to OP + family + doctor, working together. Oct 10, 2016 at 14:41
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Oct 13, 2016 at 14:46
  • Unfortunately, there is a severe national shortage of therapists----which nation are you assuming the OP is from? I assumed he or she is European, but I don't know the exact nation.
    – Dilworth
    Nov 5, 2017 at 17:55
  • 1
    @Dilworth - Sorry. Okay, I added country to my answer. It's the U.S. // I would be surprised if other countries did not face similar problems. Nov 6, 2017 at 3:44

"Is there really any place in academia for somebody who is incapable of recognizing and building upon the existing work of others?"

Before I answer, this sort of person is extremely rare and is probably not the person asking the question. It is, however, very common for student who have difficulty with something to believe they are "incapable" when there is a possibility of improvement. For these students, I would recommend seeking advice from a local expert, which might include your institution's counselling service.

The answer is no. Success in academia requires the ability to work well with others. It also requires the use of multiple strategies in order to succeed. I would guess that most professions and social groups also need individuals to be flexible in order to succeed.

  • 16
    -1 In my experience there is a lot of people who are low on some set of skills (like working with others) and as long as they have enough of other skills they are fine.
    – Ola M
    Oct 10, 2016 at 13:32
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    @Ola You can name a single physics paper of this century that contains not a single citation? (because that is what the original problem implies) I seriously doubt it. If you're not in a really, really new field there will always be some prior work that you can build on. Yes you could reinvent all of this, but in practice that's a futile endeavour - things are moving too quickly.
    – Voo
    Oct 11, 2016 at 12:56
  • 3
    Re: "Success in academia requires the ability to work well with others." -- I'll note that my communication skills are not exactly up to par, either! Oct 11, 2016 at 13:21
  • 4
    @OlaM The question is "If you cannot read papers and work with others can you work in academia?". The answer to that is no. If the question were "Can I work in academia if I couldn't read papers and work with others in the past?" your comment would apply. And I scanned through the answers here, but I don't see any reference to a paper without citation (that would be incredibly weird in physics!), just post the name or link itself.
    – Voo
    Oct 12, 2016 at 9:37
  • 2
    You don't have to read papers to cite them... You can just redevelop the background and then cite the person who has priority. You also might be expected to throw in a bunch of background that you never used or cared about just to get published. Oct 16, 2016 at 20:10

As a fellow Ph.D student in a field close to yours, it seems to me you are underselling your skills too quickly; it's not clear why you are so confident that the skills you mention cannot be applied to real research, or why you have effectively given up on reading papers. An ability to reinvent interesting and non-trivial wheels is a great ability in fields close to mathematics (as physics is).

That said, certainly you will need to develop some kind of way that you'll be comfortable reading papers in a productive way if you want to be a good researcher, it seems. I suppose a strategy that might work in your case is to focus on some particular open question (that is not extremely difficult, as judged by, say, your advisor) that interests you, and then attempt to solve it. You could get such an open question from your advisor, or from some other faculty, for example. Ideally, you should be able to come up with open questions from studying other papers, but perhaps in your particular case it may be helpful to get this help from someone else as a way to "kickstart" your research.

About reading papers, this should not present much more difficulty than reading textbooks, and surely you have read some (portions of) textbooks in the past, right? Perhaps a good strategy would be to approach paper reading as textbook reading. In the very unusual case that you don't read textbooks at all, I suggest the following approach to reading papers: Lock away your notebook and pencil; print out the paper, and go read it in a park, or some place you have no quick access to writing tools. In this case, it is possible that you may be better able to "force yourself" to read through the paper, even if ideas are flowing in.

In any case, the problems you mention having with reading papers are good problems to have in my opinion. You just need to control your excitement, and artificial ways of doing it (as mentioned above) might be useful at the beginning. Best of luck!

  • Heh, same problem applies to textbooks, pretty much. If I'm "just reading" then I get nothing out of it, and if I read with any sort of goal, I eventually start to get this "racing" feeling that feels like... some sort of adrenaline rush? Whatever it is, it is not particularly conducive to reading! Oct 10, 2016 at 3:09
  • 7
    You have to start changing your perspective on how you think about acquiring knowledge, if you want to become a good researcher. You say you get nothing out of it, but perhaps that is because of the way you have conditioned yourself to feel when you approach reading a paper. That is, my guess at this point is that your problems are entirely psychological, and could be dealt with if you get some sound advice from a professional, which I am not.
    – Lentes
    Oct 10, 2016 at 3:31

While I am not myself an academic, I have just been reading Metamaths by Gregory Chaitin (about Chaitin's constant and his approach to research), and in it he says:

I don't think that you can really understand a mathematical result until you find your own proof. Reading someone else's proof is not as good as finding your own proof. in fact, one fine mathematician that I know, Robert Solovay, never let me explain a proof to him. He would always insist on just being told the statement of the result, and then he would think it through one his own! I was very impressed!


I think there are three things one should think about:

  1. research area
  2. advisor
  3. future aims

Research Area

In science research, there are fields which are more "theory based" and fields which are more "problem driven". I worked both in differential topology and applied discrete optimization: While my topological research required a huge amount of reading (during which I often proved things I later found hidden in some paper), the applied discrete optimization allowed you to find a problem, grab a tool and start hammering on it: And you often really found something new because there is a huge range of possible problems and possible tools to apply (and improve). So I would ask myself: Is my area of physics really the right subject for me?


Advisors have vastly different expectations and can be extreme helpful or just the opposite. If you have an advisor that gives you a problem for which he knows that it is unexplored (may it be far away from the main line or not) and you can put your effort into it, it may be the right thing for you. If your advisor expects you to read much and find your own problems, he/she may not be a good fit for you.

Future Aims

What are your options besides an academic career? Would you be happier working in some company where you face concrete, manageable problems every day? To say whether it is a good idea to get a PhD depends largely on the alternatives you have in mind.


Tell me, do you want to be in academia or not? If not, then leave academia even if you are the most suited personality for it. If yes, then stay in academia even if people like you are not welcome. When the place for people like you isn't carved out in academia, cut one out for yourself. Follow your curiosity. Curiosity has its own reason for existingTM.

Your weakness is your strength too. There is a positive term to describe that "stubbornness" of yours - Academic Guts - which means going into a problem and not giving up on it.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I'm still in grad school.

We deserve the place we are at, whether moon or gutter. You are in grad school because you earned it.

I've been researching under one professor's wing for two years now, ostensibly shooting for a Ph.D. (note: no topic yet), and I have accomplished nothing except write a lot of code, fill a bunch of notebooks with theorems and scratchwork, and whine a lot.

Writing a lot of code is something. Just in case you like writing code, think about becoming a Software Engineer or a Computer Scientist. "Filling notebooks with theorem" is how an outsider would describe your work. I, too, have filled a lot of notebooks (even though I'm a Software Engineer), and my manager never liked it in the first two years. I paid heavily for that - denied promotion and on the brink of getting fired. But after two years, finally, the results came, and those filled notebooks helped design the best possible solution to the team's problems... Solutions that were good enough, that when my manager formed a new sub-team to solve a critical issue, the sub-team was composed of only Senior Software Engineers plus me.

You can stop whining - it never helps.

Why are you shooting for Ph.D.? What do you want to achieve through Ph.D.? Do you know what you want to do? If you don't have an answer, give yourself some time and think about it.

Insofar as I can surmise, my precise set of skills is good for one thing and one thing only: Solving problems that have already been solved... but only from scratch, my way. And I'm too stubborn to know when to give up.

You concluded that your skills are suitable for solving already solved problems because you re-solved the research papers. In other words - you like attacking problem statements. Always those problem statements come from research papers in your case. Go to a professor and ask him what problem (s)he is working on. That way, you will get a problem statement to attack, and another researcher would not have already solved the problem. Working on an unsolved academic problem sounds like Ph.D. to me.

I can't read academic papers in my field. [Either] I can't read it because I'll get too easily excited [Or] I can't read it because it means nothing to me [and] my mind races about other things as I'm reading.

It is a sign that you don't have a clear goal. You probably need to focus your field further down. When reading papers, your mind races everywhere because you have not fixed the purpose. Fixing purpose is more important than improving focus. If your goal is fixed, where can your focus go?

Stop reading just any research paper. Fix your domain. Analyze yourself and see what kind of problems you like to solve. See what specific fields you like in Physics. If you like too many, pick one and do well in it rather than scattering the power of your mind all over the place.

I want to share an anecdote with you from my own life:

I could never fix my field of study in life (even when I was done with my undergrad). I always thought that if I kept doing something in field X and never touched field Y, I would miss all the fun in field Y. With this, all my life until undergrad, I neither thoroughly enjoyed Xs nor Ys. I was like an oscillating pendulum - suffering initially with severe mood swings and later with severe depression. I lost my friends, and they often left me with suggestions of seeing a psychiatrist.

Totally fed up with my life, I took a year off after my undergrad. During that year, I went through a lot of self-help material, and whenever I had any insight into my life, I wrote it down in a diary. However, the turning point came when I met one particular farmer.

This unsuspecting farmer had the answer to my every single question (Not kidding at all - He discussed Math, Physics, Politics, Life, Death and even told me the limit of the universe!). Regarding my indecisions, he said to me that when all his friends chose to become industrialists, politicians, engineers, and whatnot, he left his home searching for peace and studied life. He then decided that he would continue with the profession of his ancestors - farming. Now, after almost 37 years since he chose to be a farmer and live a happy and prosperous life, those friends of his often come to his place and in the evenings relax in his fields, saying - "We have been fooled. You are the only one who is actually living the content life."

The simple point - Do one thing and do it well. Even if you want to become a good farmer, you will need to be educated about almost everything. Pick one field for yourself, and soon you will realize that to be good in your area, you will eventually need to know everything because everything is connected. However, when your field is fixed, your awareness of everything will expand in a controlled manner, unlike how it is happening with you now when your mind just races.

If I have to show it with a drawing, below is the depiction of a mind whose purpose is not fixed. This mind jumps all over the place - races faster than light - and doctors call it ADHD. (The line shows the location of your thought.)

enter image description here

Below is the pictorial representation of another mind. This mind has its purpose fixed. This mind commits no mistake because it is entirely focused on the task. This state of mind is also called Meditation - all the attention focused on the one point.

enter image description here

...ultimately, there's a point where everything goes into a black box, and the result pops out. This is a shame because I know that these computations can expose new and interesting emergent properties of the theory. Still, sometimes it's just too difficult finding the ladder down from my ivory tower.

You are right - there are exciting things to be discovered in those "black boxes." I can understand you when you say that it is just too complicated. The fact is, everything worth doing takes effort. Do you want to stay on the surface and do simple things? Or do you want to delve deep and do difficult things that can cause paradigm shifts?

Even better - how about not worrying about the ease or difficulty of the problem and just solving them because you enjoy solving such riddles? That is the only way forward where you will be happy. Let me tell you another story -

In my grad school, I decided that I would master "Data." During that time, the word "Data" meant nothing more than "Databases." Everyone, including professors, TAs, and classmates, told me that there is no sense in studying Databases as it is a very static field. There isn't much growth and not many avenues to explore. It was upsetting and slightly discouraging that the area I chose for my study after the year-long break after undergrad was not considered good by people.

Little did everyone know what was going to happen. I invested my entire Master's in studying the ins and outs of Data. I took every course with the word "Data" in its title - even against everyone's recommendation. When I was just about done with my Masters and beginning to look for jobs, thanks to Google's work and white papers, this new term called "Big Data" was hugely hyped, and industry was abuzz with it. One of the top three jobs at the time of my graduation was Data Scientist. The same set of people who disagreed with my choice earlier later told me that this field has a lot of scope.

Is there really any place in academia for somebody incapable of recognizing and building upon the existing work of others?

The answer is simple and has already been given at the top - If you want to do something, do it. Honest efforts never go to waste. Hard work will surely pay. Don't be tied to the materialistic dividends of hard work. The immediate result of honesty and hard work is peace and satisfaction. Good things take time. Your habit of doing things by yourself will show its effect in some time. After hundreds of self-solved research papers, for example, you will get so familiar with the proofs that you will not just read the equations; instead, you will visualize them. That will be a gift unique to you. Who knows what beauty will come out of that Pandora's box?

Update (Dec 3, 2022): I came across this beautiful article today that explains my point from another perspective. People complain of attention deficit. This person was hyper attentive.

Some readers have an objection to me stating that the behavior of a person with an unfocused mind, with their thoughts jumping all over the place, is (the root of) ADHD. I have been provided links to three research papers that seem to substantiate the same. Below are specific sentences from those papers:

1. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is not a single pathophysiological entity and appears to have a complex etiology. There are multiple genetic and environmental risk factors with [a] small individual effect that act in concert to create a spectrum of neurobiological liability.

2. The structural aspects include changes primarily affecting but not limited to the prefrontal cortex, corpus striatum, and cerebellum [...] Larger studies should be conducted to have a better and definitive understanding of the pathophysiology of the disease.

3. At this stage, no definitive conclusions can be offered regarding the utility of meditation-based interventions for children with ADHD and/or their parents, since the methodological quality of the studies reviewed is low.

In response to the linked papers, I have the following points to make:

1. It is pretty obvious to me that our actions are a direct result of our thoughts. You can evaluate the same yourself. Ex: A person who has chosen to live kindly and makes conscious efforts to be kind in thinking, is incapable of performing a cruel action. Simply because the basis of being cruel is missing in them.

2. Not a single one, out of the three papers given the link to, makes a clear or authoritative statement that the brain's structure is the primary cause of ADHD. I think it is completely fair to expect that if the understanding of ADHD, or any disease for that matter, is clear, then the paper would have strong statements about the same, rather than soft statements like the three stated above.

3. 'Fuzzy logic' is no logic. When there is logic, there is no fuzziness. And even further, correlation is not causation. Some humans may be prone to exhibit hyperactivity, just like some people have long strides because they have longer legs. But, in the absence of a clear demarcation of the physical and conscious aspects, the solution of a non-physical "disease" is impossible. And to be even more clear, 'attention' or its deficiency is conscious/non-physical; 'activity' or hyper-ness of activity, is physical.

4. I wish to emphasize once again - Meditation is not a treatment of ADHD. Meditation is the opposite of attention deficiency. The root of the definition of meditation is - 'Focus one's mind for a period of time.' and that is the literal opposite of attention deficiency.

  • 2
    I like this answer, but you may have misconstrued "ADHD" a bit. It is not a state of mind. It is a physiological condition that affects some people which could be described, in part, as making them much more prone to certain states of mind than the majority. This does not mean they cannot turn "races faster than light" into "meditation", it just means in order to do so there are some issues they must deal with that the majority of people do not, and that approaches which work for the majority may not work for them and vice versa.
    – goldilocks
    Oct 14, 2016 at 16:30
  • @delicateLatticeworkFever: Attention deficit is a result of lack of purpose. When the purpose is fixed, the attention stays fixed too on the purpose. For the condition I was in, I had to take a full year off (as I mentioned in the answer). I was lucky that I didn't go to a doctor. Doctors, in general, treat symptoms and repair human body while mind is not even a part of body (Brain is). The most striking thing i learned was - Whatever a person does not understand about life, he has a mental "disorder" in it. Of course every individual needs different treatment because people have ... Oct 14, 2016 at 17:13
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    Mind/body dualism is a philosophical opinion I don't share, and not worth arguing about. In any case, it certainly doesn't prove or disprove the existence of ADHD as a physiological condition, unless you happen to believe your mind does not require a body to exist. Which is an even more tangential opinion. Like global warming, there is a pretty high degree of scientific consensus and evidence here, e.g., regarding unusual levels of dopamine re-uptake. Anyone who wants to go to the library and do their own research is free to do so. I am not arguing for or against any particular treatment.
    – goldilocks
    Oct 14, 2016 at 17:22
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    "We deserve the place we are at, whether moon or gutter." This statement is so out of touch with reality. So children living in poverty don't deserve to go to university because their parents can't afford it? And children of millionaires deserve guaranteed acceptance to top schools despite academic records just because their parents paid for it? Oct 11, 2021 at 3:23
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    @displayName Did you ever get around to reading the links I provided? I'm curious to hear if it has changed your perspective.
    – JS Lavertu
    Nov 10, 2021 at 22:09

Obsessiveness, independence, originality, and a compulsion to work things out for yourself seems to summarize your self description.

These sound like ideal properties for a wannabe researcher to me. The biggest problem in getting students to transit to original research is their lack of these qualities, since passive learning has been too rewarded in their undergraduate studies.

Progress is made by getting a different understanding of a topic to other people. The best way to get that is to work out the details for yourself.

One approach to learning new material is to find out the main results in a topic and then work out the proofs of why they are true for yourself. You can just treat them as big homework problems. Do this enough and you will get to the edges of what is known and then prove some new things.

As others have said, you might be best working in a young area eg combinatorics, computer science, information theory, Ramsey theory.

  • Excellent point about working in a young area: there's less to reinvent and more to simply invent. Apr 13, 2018 at 16:29

Assuming you want to stay in academia I would not give up because of the reasons you described in your question.

Firstly, many scientists have very much ‘their ways’ to approach problems. This might be more acceptable in academia than in some other workplaces where you’re expected to do what you’re told.

Secondly, I think you underestimate how difficult it is for other people to stay focused on scientific papers. It seems better to me to lose focus because you’re so excited about the paper then because you start to think about a different topic. At the same time you might be underestimating your talents (you know about https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome ?)

If academia is not right for you most likely it will become clear in the form of external cues like missed deadlines on your projects. Or you will start to feel you are wasting your time. But it is also likely that you will find ways to leverage both your own talents and work of others.

Some examples that come to my mind are Edward Hallowell who has ADD and is very successfull in his field (I read some other of his book, not the ones about ADHD/ADD, but remember that he said he learned how to compensate for his traits). It’s a bit different area, but I remember reading how Richard Branson said having dyslexia really helped him to run his businesses, as he would not get bogged down by details.


You seem to enjoy doing research and you seem to be productive, at least in terms of results in you notebook, not yet in terms of publications. So I think academia is a good place for you.

However, you feel some obstructions with acquiring other's results: You feel distracted by your own thoughts about the things they mention and you don't feel attracted by certain fields of publications.

A solution to the latter is to specialize in a different field, as already suggested.

A solution for the former is to actually learn how to learn from other's writings. This is different from learning in lectures. In lectures, you get small chunks of information, didactically prepared. You can reproduce these chunks in the exercises, exams and own thoughts. This is one thing.

Learning from publications is a different way of learning. It is naturally more challenging. There is a greater distance between you and the authors: They (and their referees) might find some information straightforward, so they omit them. Also, they might use slighly different conventions than what your lecturers used. For proper understanding, you have to fill these gaps, e.g. find some textbooks that follow the same notational custom, answer yourself the question, why an assertion, that is called straightforward by the authors, is actually true. Also read their references; maybe not thoroughly, but try to understand why they cited them!

This is hard, unpleasant work. We feel better with the light bulb moment. So at the beginning, you are tempted to get distracted by things that promise you a more instant feeling of success. This is a usual burden. It disappears as you get more experienced: You get used to the gaps, you recognize more and more gaps you have already bridged. So reading becomes less painful.

Also, your distractions can be your friend as you are in the happy situation of "related distractions", not the stuff usual procrastinators do (housework, answering on stackexchange). So write your thought down, but not into your notebook but on a sticky note at the margin. Then try to rediscover your thought somewhere (or in one of its references). Found it? If not, put your sticky note in your notebook for later thinking, because at the moment, your objective is to read a paper, not to solve own toy problems. If you have recognized it somwehere, stick the note there on the margin. Then continue reading.

This is for dealing with the "micro structure", the proofs, the definitions, the details. There is still the "big picture" a publication is intended to convey. Try to get some impression of the big picture prior to focusing on the details. Do not try to read a paper word by word from the first to the last page.

Read the introduction first, especially the outline of the content. Then browse the paper: Does each section actually deal with the issues promised by the authors in the outline? What is the "story" that links them? E. g. can you tell "in prose" in one sentence the story that links the issue of sequences, the real numbers and differentiation in your calculus course? Write your own abstract about what is happening in the publication. Learn to identify which parts of a paper you can safely ignore. Then dive into the details with your pen and your sticky notes, not earlier.

  • I am unsure what you mean by "try to rediscover your thought somewhere", can you rephrase? Oct 14, 2016 at 20:35
  • If you need a lemma in your thesis, you should try to cite it from some other publication, even if you can prove it on your own. This keeps your own publication brief and digestible for the readers. Also, citing is faster than TeXing. So you have to keep track about what and who did something related to your work, especially who already had your ideas. It's also cool to write something like "J.D. proved something similar, but I need a more general case of the lemma which I prove subsequently". Oct 17, 2016 at 13:15

Based on

In all cases, papers already existed which solved these problems. I just couldn't bear the thought of having to seek them out and read them!


If it is a very abstract and theoretical paper, then I can't read it because I'll get too easily excited; I'll get to maybe the second page of definitions and axioms before my head is flooded with ideas and I absolutely need to pull out my notebook and begin trying to gain an intuition for them.

it seems like you are trying to understand the paper in a very extensive way, which is greatly commendable. In my opinion, you fit well into the area of research, you just have to make use of your behaviour and strengths:

Step 1: Narrow down the field of physics you are really interested in.

As mentioned in your question, you need some time to work through the papers and problems because you learn and work in detail. You need to concentrate on one particular field in order to keep a focus in a wider sense.

Step 2: Work through the latest important papers on the chosen research field and - despite your post - finish them, even if it takes months.

As you work on the papers and try try "to gain an intuition on them", you have to go back to the paper after "tiring yourself out after several hours" and continue. After completing a paper you will certainly have an understanding about the theory behind it. Additionally, you will certainly encounter some (theoretical) problems. This is where the next step starts:

Step 3: Start building your own work/dissertation upon the encountered problems in current scientific knowledge of the chosen field and the (maybe quite small number) of papers.

If you really chose current research topics, you will have encountered problems that others have, too. Furthermore, you simplified the (current) work of other researchers and maybe you also have solved non-trivial problems on the way. Build on that and stay in contact with your dissertation supervisor about the work you have done.

For any problem I've ever worked on for research, I've always begun with trying to solve the aspects that stand out to me; enumerating the set of solutions to some nasty-looking equation, or devising an algorithm to compute something which is faster than the obvious brute force strategy.

If focused into the right direction, this can be very helpful for others and you will definitely will solve problems that others don't already have if you work on current problems. Any research field stops at some kind of state-of-the-art where your simplifications can be worth its weight in gold for further improvements in this particular field. Additionally, your work is your work. You stated that you "couldn't" bear the though of having to seek" papers out that already solved a problem. When you solve a problem your way, you don't necessarily have to search for a paper that did just the same thing. As long as you didn't plagiarize, write it into your dissertation, if it has something to do with your chosen topic.

With your method of reading papers you can be an expert in one particular field, you just have to choose wisely regarding what papers you pick.

And as always: Ask your supervisor for a "push" in the right direction. Use your motivation in your favor and you will produce great results.


Solving in a better way problems that have already been solved leads to solving unsolved problems. This was exactly my experience in math. I completely reconstructed something from 30 years ago without ever seeing it, but I found something they missed. That was my dissertation. Then I developed a framework for working with a concept from 80 years ago (still in current use) that looks nothing like it but is equivalent. The advantage is that my theory is coherent, and that led me to solve another unsolved problem.

In some ways reading other papers too much can be a disadvantage because it stifles your creativity. But whenever you find something new (at least new to you), you are obligated to look it up and see if someone has done it already. It can be painful to see that the work has already been done, but I've found that I always end up doing it slightly differently, and sometimes it's possible to combine the two versions to get something better.

Anyway, the moral is that a person like this does have a place in academia provided that in the end they've played the game and cited everything relevant.


I also do not like reading papers. In graduate school, I managed to read two papers from one end to the other; in total they amounted to less than 20 pages. The following things allow me to nevertheless be a functional academic.

(1) Google.

Note: you often don't have to read the whole paper to learn whether or not it solves your problem.

(2) MathOverflow (I assume there's a physics version)

(3) Walk down the hall and ask someone who might know

(4) Attend seminars and ask questions, this is a good way to accumulate information

(5) By working with collaborators, you can borrow their literacy.

There are also some advantages to not reading very much. One is, you don't have your head clouded with all the failed attempts at solving a problem, and can just try something new. Sometimes the ability to try something too simple to possibly work is just the thing, this has happened to me at least twice.


Hopefully, the situation you describe is a bit of an exaggeration, or idealization. While it's good to have curiosity and not want to simply take "authorities'" pledge for the truth, it is crushingly inefficient to not be able to benefit from prior work by other (often very, very insightful/smart) people.

It is certainly true (in my experience, in mathematics, in the U.S., ...) that much of the "published literature" is not written to help beginners, nor, perhaps, to help anyone at all. In our contemporary situation, the main point of "publication" is to secure incrementally greater status for oneself, in the eyes of university (and funding agency) bureaucrats. The incidental benefit-to-others is not really a fundamental criterion.

So, yes, much of the literature is not at all helpful, and is not written-up in a friendly way. So, small wonder if you find it difficult to extract anything useful from it. Bingo.

Nevertheless, perhaps more "hidden" due to professional pressures, people have come up with many good ideas, which you'd be sorry to have missed out on...

E.g., the patent unhelpfulness of much of the "refereed literature" must not deter us from pursuing insights written up by capable people with similar interests.

Yes, it is tricky to find congenial sources. Some on-line forums are friendlier than "the refereed literature", for sure.

So, if you're an independently wealthy hobbyist, sure, do whatever you want. But if you are fatally enamored of your subject, in addition to your own reflections on it, you'll really want to be able to benefit from the insights of other people in your field. Again, yes, much stuff is badly written. Unfortunate, yes. But/and part of the skill-set of the best professionals is being able to see through dubious presentations to the underlying idea...

That is, in mathematics in the way that I most like to think of it, the written documents are narratives of an idea, rather than being the idea itself. Thus, even if a thing is clumsily portrayed (from some subjective viewpoint), one can/must "see through" the clumsy narrative to the underlying idea. (Don't let yourself convince yourself to ignore great ideas of others that may be badly narrated...)


You are doing everything right. No need to question yourself. The problem is not your attitude towards knowledge and problems but the general laziness of the todays research approach in physics. Most papers are plain bad and/or wrong due to the high stress researchers feel to publish and show "results" of their work. If you struggle to read to the end of any paper, that's probably not your fault. Currently, there is no major spirit in the physical community to "work up from scratch". It's accepted to continue from some high level statements that are not very well understood. Fundamental understanding has never emerged from such doing and that's probably why most (theoretical) research is rather "technical" today, e.g. calculating some minimal corrections to cross-sections. Although, this level of extreme specialisation has been very important for large-scale experiments due to the need to manage the huge workload, it sometimes lacks the aspect of creativity.

This is ultimately boring for someone like you, that seems to strive to understand everything in detail. I advise you not to stop on that approach and to keep being passionate about physics. Sooner or later your fundamental understanding will give you a lead.

  • 6
    -1 for dismissing a whole field as lazy, "plain bad and/or wrong", while simultaneously being too lazy to give a citation for your plain bad and/or wrong claims. Oct 11, 2016 at 12:02
  • To possibly shed light on his opinion, the answerer linked some videos in comments on the question, which were largely about biases in experimental results (e.g. publication bias, p-hacking). This stuff doesn't really come as news to me, though I am uncertain that the similar claims can be said for theoretical papers. Oct 11, 2016 at 13:08
  • Or rather, I get the impression that most physicists do put effort into verifying/rederiving formulas before using them. But they perhaps are a bit more pragmatic about it, whereas I always end up going whole hog. Oct 11, 2016 at 13:12
  • @ObviousThrowaway - One of the people I have learned the most from about my son's OCD is the former clinical director at a center for Tourette Syndrome and OCD in London, Ontario (leakybrakes.ca). She told me she has OCD, and when she is able to harness her perfectionism, when she's editing and proofreading, it's a strength. But when it slows her down and prevents her from functioning effectively, that's a different matter. My hope for you is that you learn how to choose when to go whole hog. The in-depth work you know how to do is a strength. Oct 11, 2016 at 17:38

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