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I'm about to embark on a research project in complex systems on my own spare time. It seems like the idea I have is a good one. However, it would be better, for obvious reasons, to have an experienced person guide me. What are the chances that a university professor would agree to guide me while I try and churn this out? (Obviously, I want it to be as professional as possible).

If I don't get anyone on board, what are my chances of publishing, or at least getting a pat on the back from admissions committees when I apply for graduate school? Do they appreciate this kind of thing?

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    Are you enrolled as a student in an institution in which there is a professor who conducts complex systems research? That would greatly increase the chance (but in no way guarantee) that you could get a professor's support behind your project. – kleingordon Mar 29 '12 at 7:36
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    If you are enrolled on a Masters program you should be able to discuss with a professor your project. I would call it maybe "private" or "independent"research, rather than "amateur". The latter does not inspire confidence. – anna v Mar 29 '12 at 10:42
  • And what is your current educational status? – Piotr Migdal Mar 29 '12 at 17:18
  • Possibly related (not similar) questions: academia.stackexchange.com/q/306/102 academia.stackexchange.com/q/385/102 – user102 Apr 26 '12 at 8:55
  • Often university professors serve as research mentors for high-school students interested in doing research. I don't know whether they will do it for someone who is out of school. But there is no harm in asking. Maybe contact the appropriate department and ask if they have someone willing to do it. – GEdgar Apr 16 '16 at 16:31
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You've mentioned that you intend to apply to grad school. It would be helpful to know where you are in the academic process: high school, started university, finished university?

Regarding asking for help, I see two distinct phases:

  • If you have not yet started the project (and you are not currently a student somewhere), then I think most professors and professional researchers would be very wary to spend any time helping you. Complex systems, is, in particular, a field that attracts a lot of crackpots, and even the most well-intentioned projects of interested amateurs usually fizzle. I think the best bet would be to find someone you already know to provide early consultation, rather than cold-calling a professional at this stage.

    If you are enrolled in a university of some kind, then the story is different: the faculty has something of an obligation to talk to eager students. (-:

  • If you have already made significant progress and have specific technical questions, I think almost anyone would be wiling to help.

One other piece of advice: don't worry too much about talking about your idea. Many 'amateurs' get obsessed with the secrecy of their amazing idea -- this is the road to crackpotdom. I think it would be quite reasonable to state your idea on a site such as mathoverflow and ask whether it is a credible research proposal.

If you can cite recent publications in refereed journals that indicate active interest in the area of your proposed work, then this is a good sign that you have both done your homework and identified an interesting subject of investigation.

That said, even if the thing you are investigating turns out to be interesting only to you, it could still be worth continuing. It might lead somewhere more interesting later, and you would certainly develop useful skills in the process.

If I don't get anyone on board, what are my chances of publishing, or at least getting a pat on the back from admissions committees when I apply for graduate school? Do they appreciate this kind of thing?

A successful independent project, especially one resulting in a publication, would be great material for your grad school app. If your project does have interesting results, it should not be too hard to publish, regardless of your credentials.

Even if it turns out that your work is not publishable in a refereed journal, it might find a home in your school's "journal of undergraduate research" (or something similar), which would also be a nice resume bullet during the grad school application procedure.

Finally, it's probably best to simply avoid the word "amateur".

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    I largely agree and would simply underscore the point that it is best to avoid cold-calling or spamming professors who are not part of an insitutition at which you're enrolled. Without any prior information about you they will most likely ignore you entirely or, for the brief moment they pay attention, categorize you as a crackpot (simply because so many crackpots are the ones doing the cold-calling and spamming in the first place). Always work through local channels first, build contacts and references in personal interactions, and then use those references to reach people farther away. – kleingordon Mar 29 '12 at 8:59
  • @kleingordon I agree in principle, but I disagree that cold-calling is categorically hopeless or disrespectful of a professor. Public outreach is part of many acadimic missions,especially at a public university even more so at a land grant university. But starting by contacting an extension program is probably a good place to start. – Abe Mar 31 '12 at 20:59
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If you have no research experience, it will be hard to convince any professional scientist to invest in you. Perhaps there is a team of enthusiasts in your community (or even online) who are happy to embark on projects?

Today's networking opportunities increase your leverage massively in finding like-minded people on the net, via blogs, joint software development etc. At some point, you may try and visit workshops of relevant topics, even just for visiting and meeting people and there you may find some suitable contacts.

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I am an undergraduate student, and my experience with attempting research has been frustrating at best. Science is a political ballpark like any other profession. Tact and suave are your best friends when it comes to wooing a potential mentor in academia. Hard work is necessary as well, but hard work alone will only get you so far in the modern socioeconomic landscape. If a professor senses that they can get away with ignoring you then they probably will. This is especially true of large institutions with thousands of students.

All you can really do is just talk to people and hope for the best. Make sure you talk to a number of people, and don't put all of your hopes in just one researcher or professor.

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    "If a professor senses that they can get away with ignoring you then they probably will" - that's an unfriendly way to put it. People have constraints and a massive load of duties. They must balance how they invest their time, no differently as students at a party or on Facebook, except that the stakes are higher. – Captain Emacs Apr 16 '16 at 14:21

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