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Advice for the struggles of an independent scientist

  1. Sep 6, 2015 #1

    hopefully some of you on this forum get where I am coming from and can help with this.

    For the people here working outside of academic institutions or money paying jobs, people who do proper academic-level science off there own back.....how do you find satisfaction with it? Feel like you have achieved anything?

    I am struggling with where I am going, finding no gratification in this is hard, having no academic environment around me is hard, getting nothing for the hours I put in is hard. I feel like nothing I produce will be looked at, and so I just end up thinking what is the point?

    Have any of you got any pointers? How do you cope? What are some of the things you do in order to function as an independent scientist / connect with the academic community?

    I want there to be an output of all this thinking and effort and hours I put in.

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 6, 2015 #2


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    If you're not enjoying it, why are you doing it? You are correct, if you are doing things on your own outside of academia or industry, you're just doing it for fun.
  4. Sep 6, 2015 #3
    The research is the satisfaction itself. The material I study and understand better is rewarding in itself. Sure, many parts of research is very boring. But ultimately, the desire of understanding the world somewhat better should be rewarding to you. If it isn't, then perhaps research isn't for you.

    Sorry, but this is not how research works. It's a very nonlinear process. I'm often stuck on a problem and I try many different techniques. None work, and even though I've spent months on the problem, I've got nothing to show for it. This happens regularly. On the other hand, it might happen that I crack a problem the first time I see it. It's definitely not so easy as "the more effort I put into it, the better my results will be".

    The worst part of research is figuring out something and then somebody finding a crucial mistake. That is really soulcrushing. But that's just how research works. If you don't have a hard shell, it's not for you.
  5. Sep 6, 2015 #4


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    I see the problem being here.
    You claim to do this for yourself, on your own time. This would imply you have a reason to do so, it is perhaps 'fun' for you or you see purpose in it.
    If it's not fun for you, or if you see no purpose in it, then give it a break, find some things that you do enjoy working on.
    If it is fun, just enjoy it and try different approaches to get more noticeable, but really -- just enjoy what you are doing.

    If you are truly skilled and have remarkable results, you will be able to get in. If you do not have results, you will not get noticed.

    The key here is to do what you enjoy and do not limit yourself by outside society.
  6. Sep 6, 2015 #5


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    I quit reading your post when I got to this paragraph. You may never get any gratification if getting recognition from your work is what you're looking for. And getting discouraged by thinking, "what is the point?" is irrelevant IMO. When you are old and look back on your lifetime experiences, you'll get gratification that you didn't expect. Just sayin'
  7. Sep 7, 2015 #6


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    Heh, been there (plenty of times).

    It helps a bit to tell myself: "Be grateful that you have been corrected, and thus learned something".
  8. Sep 7, 2015 #7


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    Sounds like an exercise in masochism. I agree with evo, seems rather pointless.
  9. Sep 7, 2015 #8
    What exactly is an "independent scientist"? Outside of perhaps mathematical theory, what work could you possibly be doing that is relevant to anyone, without the necessary resources of academia? Do you even have any scientific training? How do you expect anything you produce to be looked at if you don't publish it in a scientific journal?

    I find the premise of your question bizarre... I'm not sure you understand how science is actually done.
  10. Sep 7, 2015 #9
    I get you, and it is quite likely the OP thinks of an independent scientist as somebody without scientific training. But I just want to make clear it doesn't need to be so. I think it is very possible to be a good scientist and still have no position at a university or other academia. The classical example is Einstein of course who had no academic position when he published his theories, but he did have a PhD in physics. There are other examples: recently we had somebody publishing a very neat proof on prime twins, and he did have a PhD in math, but had no academic position. So I think it is definitely possible to do nice scientific work while not being in academia formally. Of course, that does not mean that somebody who has never been into academia or academic studies can do this.
  11. Sep 7, 2015 #10
    That's why I said other than mathematical theory (which I also meant to include theoretical physics). However, you still need a good knowledge of the literature in your field, which if you haven't done a PhD, is not going to be easy to get.
  12. Sep 8, 2015 #11
    Barely had a PhD, completed his thesis on April 30, 1905, just minutes before the annus mirabilis papers. Funny how this accomplishment is not often included in that miracle year.

    Take it from a mostly "independent researcher" myself. Here's how it goes. If your research/theoretical paper stinks, and you try to solicit the affection/responses of those who have inspired you or those who you think could help you get a legitimate career in academia, or the publisher of an academic journal, your likely response is to be one of "faint praise" of your work with no "action plan" to follow this. If your research/paper is remarkable and well crafted, you are likely to get a harsh assessment of it and a condemnation from them for wasting their time. The bottom line is that, as ugly as it sounds, in my experience, the scientific community isn't as objective as they like to portray themselves to be. There is as much social and professional backstabbing as there is anywhere. I've sent really good papers to notable scholars in the neuroscience field which were basically papers glorifying their work, and they weren't interested in working with me. It's a very competitive thing; at the end of the day, nobody wants competition. If you don't have a PhD, it's very easy for them to justify sweeping you under the rug and get rid of you, and that's what they usually do.

    So I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the majority of the posts above that say that if you don't have a PhD, you can't write a legitimately good paper, I'm just saying that that's not the only obstacle you have to overcome as an independent researcher. In fact, in my experience, it's the lesser obstacle you have to overcome. The social/professional obstacle is the much greater obstacle. The myth is that all every scientist wants to know is the "truth" and that if you present a great and well-crafted model, then everyone will appreciate you for that, give you a pat on the back, and give you a Nobel prize. The reality is that the pats on the back are almost always given out reluctantly after the vanquished is forced to resign after years or even decades of obstructionism. I came up with a saying that reads, "There's a thin line between envy and admiration, and your job is to cross it." That's basically how how it works, in science as in everything else, it's like a hill; if you're on the left side of the hill, everyone is trying to pull you back down the hill. Everyone is crawling all over themselves to pull you down, no matter who you are are what your credentials are. However, if you somehow make it over that precipice, that saddle point, that bifurcation, then the opposite happens, everyone wants to support you and join the bandwagon.
  13. Sep 8, 2015 #12
    Thanks for taking the time to respond...especially Dipole and DiracPool - you both seem to understand I am not struggling with the question "why am I doing science?" but the question "How do I do science (independently)?"

    I think what I was trying to get at is better framed as the following question "How do you become an independent scientist?" in the sense...how do you get your papers reviewed, form collaborations, have contact with the academic community etc if you are independent? Is there any grant systems for independent scientists?

    Cheers guys.
  14. Sep 8, 2015 #13
    I have to apologize. Looking back on my last post it looks a little "preachy." It didn't really address your main concern. In order for us to really help you, you need to tell us the field you are working in and at least a general idea of what you are working on. But in the meantime, you need to find a journal that not only is in the field that you are doing your work in, but, more importantly, publishes papers at the level you are working at. You really need to look at the manuscript you just wrote and match it to the published articles extant in the literature. I referee articles principally for two journals, one is a psychological journal and the other is a cognitive science journal. Typically an article will come in and the editor gives it a quick run through. He or she just basically looks to see if the article is written right side up or upside-down and if the graphs and figures look correct (it's a bit more than that, of course). Then he or she sends it out to 2-3 referees to review it. (Typically they send me the garbage papers because I don't have a PhD but I digress). Then what happens is that we send in our reviews, which in the old days could take up to 3 months via "snail-mail" but today they want a response in 3 weeks via an interactive computer interface. The nice thing about the new computer interface, though, is that you can read the reviews of the other referees, which we really didn't have access to in the 90's or 2000's.

    In any case, back to your principle question, find a journal that your work is on the same level as and send it to the editor. As I said, I was a little preachy and may have been over-harsh. What I said earlier is correct, in the "instructions for authors" section at the back of every journal issue there is typically no provision that says, "you have to have a PhD in order to submit and article." But the undercurrent is clear. They don't require it but there's "fill in the blank" sections (without the asterisk) that ask you for your affiliations and credentials. Just find a way to work around those. And if they dog you, then just move on. Here's another saying I invented, "Every scientific article gets published at some point along the line." Meaning that most researchers that write articles will just continue to keep submitting their work to more and more esoteric journals until they find someone that publishes it. So maybe that's what you need to do. But don't get in the trap of thinking your work is so important that you are going to pay someone to publish it. There's a number of predatory publishers out there. That's kind of where you draw the line.

    I just recently published an article in an Elsevier journal, and I think they have an advertising staff that want you to purchase a certain number of reprints, and they also send you these really pretty portraits of your article heading with the abstract framed in some fancy setting, on a poster, or whatever. They have more concessions that a Justin Bieber concert. But I have to tell you, when they frame your article with a wooden border around it (virtually, of course), it looks really good. And yes, they sucker me every time to get the poster and about a half a dozen volume issues. I think you get like 20 free reprints, but nobody uses reprints these days, it's all about emailing PDFs.
  15. Sep 8, 2015 #14


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    It would help to know what level you're starting at. Are you speaking from the point of view of a PhD who has left academia but still wants to remain involved answering a particular problem? Or are you speaking from the point of view of someone who has no formal academic training?

    If you're in the latter category, the best way to start is to enter the formal process. Once you're a student, if you have some ideas and a clear project that you want to work on it shouldn't be too hard to find a professor to take you on and mentor you - even at the undergraduate level. Generally speaking professors are a lot more open to mentoring students who have a sharp understanding of the field and come to them with a project that they want to try (as opposed to the much more common experience of students for whom a project needs to be designed).

    Without entering the formal process, you will have a lot of obstacles ahead of you. Not only do you have to learn the fundamentals of the field, but you won't have anyone to mentor you through all of the "soft skills" that are also needed to become a scientist - like academic writing and presentation of results, what journals to read, what conferences to attend, which grants to apply for etc. There aren't a lot of grants available for people outside of academia (with the possible exception of "venture capital" type funding). And even if there were, the academics are, as a group, very keen at sniffing out funding and as someone outside of academia you would be facing the challenge of convincing a grant committee that you're in a better position to conduct research than someone with a PhD in the area and an established track record. On top of that, academics also have very good ideas and are excellent at articulating them in a language that specifically targets what the grant committees are looking for.

    If you're in the former category, then it becomes a lot more likely (although still challenging) to be an independent researcher. You build on the relationships that you established while you were in academia. You attend conferences and present your work and try to affiliate yourself with an established group.
  16. Sep 8, 2015 #15
    Well, I think Choppy has upstaged me here. There is a post of wisdom that can direct you. A lot of it really is about the "soft skills" you can't really access as an independent researcher which includes the access to grant money.

    But if you're an independent researcher, who needs grant money, right? You are happy just propagating the science and if you have to milk cows or review patents part time in the mean time, well...

    Well, I think I addressed the "how do you get your papers reviewed" part. As far as the "form collaborations" part and "have contact with the academic community" part, I hate to break the bad news to you, it's probably not going to happen. Again, not because your work is substandard, but because the "academic community" and the "collaborations" that are formed within most often require the covercharge acceptance of some sort of academic degree. Why? Because that's the dues they had to pay and they expect you to do the same.

    Again, it's mostly a social thing. If you're an independent, you really have to have an Einstein-like breakthrough to breakthrough that. And as Micromass said, even Einstein had a PhD prior to his annus mirabilis 1905 papers.
  17. Sep 8, 2015 #16
    I don’t see ... any point that someone ... just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize —
    I’ve already gotten the prize.
    The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things.

    - Richard Feynman (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out)
  18. Sep 9, 2015 #17

    Ben Niehoff

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    I'm not sure why you are so intent on doing research "independently". Why can't you do it the normal way?
  19. Sep 9, 2015 #18
    Thanks again guy, I feel as though I am starting to get somewhere with this.

    It would be very helpful for me, and (I think) for anybody else now or in future looking at this post who wants to be an independent researcher, if you could keep advice as constructive and tangible as it can be - like for example DiracPool's very grounded comments on getting a paper published in a journal. This isn't a criticism of any of the other posts or posters, just this is the information that could really help me and other people.

    So with that in mind...
    • What are the actual names of bodies that would give grants to independent researchers?
    • How would you hear about a conference if you are not part of the circle of researchers within your field of study? Would I be allowed to sign up to conferences as an independent? Do you always need an affiliation to sign up for a conference or are all welcome and your only barrier to access is the required conference entry fee?
    As you asked...I have formal training in science and have been a part of the academic community as well as industry. My skillset is not an issue as I see it, it is more I am wondering whether it is actually possible to become a functional contributive independent researcher in this day and age.

  20. Sep 9, 2015 #19


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    I'm afraid that you are overlooking the issues you are faced with. First, what makes you think you deserve to call yourself a scientist? What are your academic credentials? We have actual scientists here that have earned the name and to just call yourself a scientist seems to be disrespectful of those that actually earned that honor. What 'research' are you doing that does not require a lab or equipment?

    You are not 'in the loop' about the most up to date research unless you are collaborating with scientists working in this field. You appear to be ignoring the honest answers that unless you are collaborating with actual researchers and have access to the most current information and equipment, you may very likely be wasting your time on things that have already been considered and thrown out. We don't want to give you false hope. It is extremely unlikely that you would get published in an accepted journal, you don't seem to be aware of which journals would even apply to what you are doing. This is not a good sign.
  21. Sep 9, 2015 #20
    As much as I'd like to disagree with Evo, she's absolutely correct. Sometimes Evo dishes out strong medicine that goes down as smooth as cod liver oil. But if you swallow it, you're likely to be better off. As I said in earlier posts, I thought I was so smart I didn't need a degree. I mistakenly thought that all that really mattered was what was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Which, at the end of the day is true. 100 years from now, nobody is going to care about any of the social politics, the paper stands on its own. But there's a big price to pay today, for you personally, socially, if you're an independent researcher. I think Evo outlined some of those consequences adequately.

    That said...

    None. Zero.

    That's easy, these conferences aren't secret, just look them up online.

    It depends on your field of study, which you still haven't told us. There's no barrier at all to attending any public conference, as far as I'm aware. If you want to give a talk, however, the procedure is to submit an abstract of your talk. Which typically is simply one paragraph. Are they not going to accept you because you're an independent? Not necessarily. Typically the bar on acceptance of abstracts to be presented at conferences is much lower than the standard you need to meet to get a paper published in a scholarly journal. In fact, I don't even think these abstract submissions are even refereed. I think the director of the conference and his assistants make that decision basically capriciously. Again, though, typically you're instructed to give your credentials and affiliations "as a matter of standard practice." It's never a requirement, again, to have these credentials, but they do implicitly ask for them. And can you blame them?

    I remember writing a great abstract for one of the ASSC (Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness) sometime in the late 2000's that got rejected. I was furious. I was sure I got rejected simply because I didn't have a university affiliation. So I wrote a scathing letter to the director of the conference telling him how my abstract was far superior to most of the previous years abstracts and that his is job to judge the work on its merit and not on my credential (or lack thereof). I got the standard "blow-off" form letter but I also did get something of an apology. So my letter got through. My abstract the next year got accepted for a talk and I met with the director and we laughed about it, so it all worked out well.

    So I would definitely recommend trying that immediately. Write up an abstract and send it in. It won't cost you any more than postage, or not even that these days, you just email it. What's the worst they do? Not accept it? I'd go to the conference anyway. A lot of times if you're a newbie submitting an abstract and they don't know you, they'll schedule you for this thing they call a "poster session." This is basically an affair where you pin up your abstract and figures on a bulletin board. At the Tucson consciousness conference, they hold this in a huge auditorium. There's literally hundreds of poster presenters there. They'll take just about anyone that can form a sentence. Anyone from hard-core scientists to "gypsy" presenters, as I call them.

    The best thing about conferences, though, is access. If you are very passionate about the field you work in, then those notables in that field are like heroes to you. They are like rock stars. I remember the first conference I attended was the ASSC in Memphis in 2003. I looked it up online and saw that a few of my heroes were presenting there. I though, jeez, I can just fly down and show up for this? My biggest hero was Walter Freeman, as I've stated in many earlier posts. He was giving a 4-hour workshop at the conference. It was held in an ordinary classroom. There were only about 20 people there. I couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe the access I had. You have to realize that I was so sycophantish of my neurobiology heroes at that time, that, literally, if Paul McCartney were giving singing lessons in the classroom next to Walter Freeman, I would hands-down rather spend my time with Walter. So there you have it.

    That's basically it. If you're a student, though, it's typically pretty inexpensive. I think the ASSC and the Tucson conference is like $200 or so if you're a non-student and half that if you're a student. Or maybe even 50 bucks. I haven't been at either in a few years. Most of the time they don't even check, they take your word for it. However, sometimes they'll check your student ID. I'll typically ask them "off the record" if they're going to check my ID before I buy my plane ticket. The only time I think I got "carded" was at the brain connectivity conference at FAU in Boca Raton, FL in 2005. They did ask me for my ID there. I was prepared, though, and I wasn't actually a student anywhere at the time. But it was something like $400 dollars for non-students, and like $125 for students. So I went down the street to Seattle University and enrolled in, get this, a wine tasting class. That's all it took to get a student ID. The class cost me $50 and the ID cost me $5. The class was one 4-hour session at a hotel in downtown Seattle. We had a great time. This really cool lecturer giving us the history of this and that and the proper way to sniff and taste wine. I think we tried about 2-3 dozen different wines. A few of us got so loaded that we took the party across the street at the local bar after the class ended. I think I got an A in that class, if I remember correctly :biggrin:
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2015
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