Doing Research without a Job?

1. Nov 15, 2011

Opus_723

Wasn't really sure whether this belonged in academic or career guidance. I just have a question that's been bugging me after reading so much about how hard it is to end up in an academic research position.

If someone has an education and knowledge set rivaling the average research scientist, what is their ability to do useful scientific research without a paid position? Say you support yourself financially, but not as a scientist. Is it possible to do useful research on your own without the advantage of working at a university or national lab?

This might sound crazy, but I was reading the other day about an amateur astronomer who collaborated with a research professor on a paper and was published, using public data from NASA. So it's clearly possible to some extent. Can people do cutting edge science like this if they have the time, or was this a fluke?

I understand that the experiments and observational studies in modern physics require ridiculously expensive equipment, and no one's gonna let you play with it if you don't work there. But a lot of the data from these experiments is made public. And the data is what's important for drawing conclusions.

However, research teams won't publish their results until they've reached their own conclusions, so any data you have access to has probably had most insights picked out of it already.

I don't know much about the research process though, so I'm wondering what other people think.

2. Nov 15, 2011

chrisbaird

In principle, anyone can contribute meaningful original research without having an official research position. There are many areas that don't require expensive equipment (theory, computational modeling, etc.) But you won't have much success throwing together chemicals in your kitchen without doing a few things (all possible without an official position):

- Get a graduate level education in the relevant field. You don't have to necessarily have to get the degree, you could be self-taught, but if can't comfortably do homework problems in graduate level textbooks, you are not going to understand the science enough to do meaningful research. (I talking actual original research. In the areas of invention and design, you can get away with some lack of fundamental understanding if you work hard and are clever, but not in basic research).

- Regularly read academic journals in your field of interest (and understand them). Pop-sci magazines like "Scientific American" do not count.

- Have a mentor in the field who is well published

- Be involved in the scientific community: attend conferences, university seminars, etc.

All of this will be hard if you have little money and are trying to keep an unrelated day job, but it's not impossible.

3. Nov 15, 2011

ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
Data, without understanding the theoretical aspect of the phenomenon, is nothing more than stamp-collecting!

For example, what if I give you the data that is shown in my avatar. This is the raw data that I obtain from an angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy on a highly-overdoped high-Tc superconductor. Will you be able to do meaningful analysis on it without understanding the first thing about (i) Fermi liquid theory (ii) the physics of superconductivity (iii) the nature of the experiment itself (especially on the resolution of the instrumentation) (iv) the physical meaning of the quantities being measured?

It is a myth that all you need is data. People who analyze data without understanding the physical significance of what they are doing do not work in science, they work in the financial market!

Zz.

4. Nov 15, 2011

Opus_723

And for some reason you need to be paid in order to understand those things? I'm not asking if people can do research without an immense knowledge of physics, I'm asking whether it can be done without being employed to do so.

5. Nov 15, 2011

ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
Really? Note that you said the following:

And that was what I was addressing.

In any case, unless you are unemployed and can devote huge chunks of time to do the work, then yes, I don't see how you can do such a thing full time without being employed to do it. Being employed to do such a thing means that you employer also either will provide you with the necessary infrastructure, or can send you to places that have the necessary infrastructure. And I don't mean just hardware. I also mean personnel support. It takes a lot of manpower not only to do research, but also to support those who do research, everything from IT personnel to engineers to office administrators, etc. It is naive to think that one has no need for such a thing.

Zz.

6. Nov 15, 2011

cmos

Although perhaps a bit pessimistic, ZapperZ is right in the sense that you don't want to underestimate the amount of resources afforded to a professional researcher. Perhaps the most important is easy access to the technical journals. Without this, it is almost impossible to stay current in your field. The majority of "breakthroughs" that you read in the newspapers or even in Scientific American will have a paper trail in the journals that go back at least five years.

But.... it's always nice to remember that Einstein was working as a patent clerk (i.e. not employed as a researcher) when he formulated Special Relativity, the Photoelectric Effect, and Brownian Motion.

7. Nov 15, 2011

ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
It is also nice to remember that one needs slap of reality that the world today is significantly and profoundly different than what it was back during Einstein's days! One should also not use an exception and think that it is probable.

Zz.

8. Nov 15, 2011

PAllen

Julian Barbour is a current example of success as a theorist while doing other jobs for money.

9. Nov 15, 2011

twofish-quant

Difficult. You are likely to be working 60 hours/week, then you go home and have to deal with kids. After all of that you don't have enough energy to do anything on your own, and you don't have either the social networks to do research. For example, if I wanted to attend an academic conference, I'd have to get permission from my boss, I'd have to pay my own way, and I couldn't do it too often without losing my job. If I can't attend academic conferences, then I can't network.

Also, academic research isn't set up for crowdsourcing. For example if I post something to this forum or if I do something on wikipedia. I spend 15 minutes and then I've gotten something useful. In order to write a paper, I have to block out three months, and no one will co-author with me if it looks like I may drop out.

Now the good news about all of this is that none of these are fundamental laws of nature, and so someone clever might be able to think of a way around them. One thing that will happen in a few years, is that I should have enough money saved in the bank so that I can retire, and then my kids will be in college. At that point, check back to see what I'm up to.

Curiously the problem isn't money. It's time and social networks.

One thing that amateur astronomers have going for them is that they have a very well developed social network, and they can crowd-source. If you do variable star observations, you can get things published with the AVASO, and the amount of money that you need in order to do "serious observation" is about $10K. Don't know. I've never had the time. You can get a lot of observational astronomy done for$10K. Also, the CPU requirements to do theory aren't seriously huge. Hardware is not the problem.

Data reduction is hard. So probably not. The problem is that you need a lot of context to be able to handle the data. That takes time.

I know a lot about the research process, and so I can tell you want the barriers are. None of them are fundamental laws of physics, so if you can think of a clever way around them, feel free to go ahead.

10. Nov 15, 2011

twofish-quant

That's one good thing about astrophysics. All of the technical journals and preprints are available online. One thing that's good about astrophysics is that the journals are run by the professional societies which have no interest in keeping the data hidden.

Things are very different in other fields of physics (namely biotech) in which the major journals are run by for-profit publishers that are fighting like hell to keep the information closed.

The problem in astrophysics is not access to journal articles. The problem is access to networks, and even there it's not that people are unfriendly. It's that science requires relationships, and those take time to build, and then one thing you don't have is time.

11. Nov 15, 2011

twofish-quant

But then you have to look at what is different. Also if the world is different and it's bad, then you need to look at where to change it back.

One thing about getting a job as a patent clerk is that it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to get that sort of job. One thing that is the case with Einstein is that he was a government bureaucrat, which meant that he worked from 9 to 5, and then went home and talked to his research network. He worked for eight hours. Researched for eight hours. Slept for eight hours. Also his personal life was somewhat of a mess.

The problem here is that in high technology, 9 to 5 jobs do not exist. Most high technology jobs are salaried, and since the employer is paying you a fixed amount, you are expected to work around 60 hours/week. The types of jobs where you do punch a time clock, are not those which you can make enough money to do external research.

Also I should point out that in the 1960's, you had major industrial laboratories which did do basic research. The people that won the Nobel for finding the big bang were employed by Bell Labs. The problem is that in the 1970's the structure of the US corporation changed, and so basic corporate research got killed. One thing that I'm trying to do is to recreate Bell Labs.

Then there is the mistake that I made. Once I got my Ph.D., I was quite angry and ashamed that I wasn't going down the post-doc route so I didn't make an effort to keep my research networks going. This was a problem because it took me about three to five years to "get over this" by which point my research networks had gotten cold.

12. Nov 15, 2011

PAllen

Actually, you provide a bunch of hints here.

Don't have kids. This will help make it possible to make do without a 60 hour/week high tech or finance job (they absolutely exist; they just pay less and are less interesting; ).

Not really recommending any course of action, but Twofish does lay out some choices here.

Note, Julian Barbour did not work in 60 hour/week type jobs.

13. Nov 16, 2011

twofish-quant

There is a reason why Catholic priests are not allowed to marry.

But a lot of this involves "what do you want to do with your life" questions. I'm a romantic so if the choice is between physics and falling in love and having kids, then I'm going to choose the latter.

Also none of this is set in stone. Technology and economic changes will change the choices that are available. We couldn't have this conversation in 1985.

14. Nov 16, 2011

PAllen

The choices are not so binary. My wife's best friend and her husband agreed never to have kids for the specific purpose of having freedom to pursue non-standard life choices. They started out with marketing and high tech jobs, respectively, but then quit after a decade to pursue writing. He went back to a boring 9-5 software job for about a year, but otherwise have been making it work as writers. Still together after 30 years pursuing their dreams.

15. Nov 16, 2011

Locrian

These recent posts make me miss the "Alternative Theories" or whatever subforum. That place was two tons of fun - well, assuming you weren't a moderator.

Anyone remember its name?

16. Nov 16, 2011

boomtrain

What killed private basic research? What's changed about US corporate structure since the 1960s?

I also find it interesting that several Bell Labs researchers left to create their own companies. I'm not sure if that would happen today with Non-Compete agreements!

17. Nov 16, 2011

ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
Corporate bottom line!

When AT&T had a monopoly, there was very little to answer to the corporate bottom line. Bell Labs was left alone to almost do whatever they please. So it was a breeding ground for a lot of innovative ideas that had almost no obvious applications at the time that the ideas were conceived. They could do that because there was little pressure in producing marketable products within a short period of time. So long-term research and risky ideas with no guarantee of an outcome were not something that was prohibited.

But once AT&T split, and Bell Labs/Lucent becomes an entity that needs to produce products into the market, such luxury goes away.

This is why governments cannot be run like a business, because no business with that kind of financial bottom line can invest and sustain such long-term research into areas that have no obvious guarantee of a marketable product. What business entities would invest in high energy physics, for example? Yet, the by-products of such a research has produced an astounding number of spin-offs that resulted in a dazzling array of useful products and outcomes.

Zz.

18. Nov 16, 2011

Locrian

Companies also don't see much reason to double up on things the gov't might do for them. Since everyone thinks research is great and should be publically funded, why would a company choose to invest in basic research instead of just allowing the public to fund it?

It just makes more sense to only research what a company has to. For many tech companies there are things they have to do in-house, but they tend to be the most practical.

It's the same with education and training.

You could make a less critical argument that goes something like this: if society is relying on the private sector to do basic research, then we end up with a large number of firms all doing the same research. It makes more sense to have basic research done publically for all to use, but have more application based technological research done by the companies creating the product. I'm not sure I buy this argument, but I think it carries some weight.

19. Nov 16, 2011

ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
This is not justified considering that Bell labs and the National labs were running at the same time. So that situation itself falsifies what you wrote. Certainly AT&T (and IBM for that matter) felt that fundamental research was important even when the govt. was also contributing research in those areas.

The advantage for a company in doing such a thing is that the discovery belongs to them! Bell labs not only got the credit, but it has something that many facilities aspire to, the prestige that allowed them to attract even more talented minds. It was self-feeding, and during its glory years, it was THE place to work at! It is of no coincidence that this was when they were the most productive.

What company does not want that?

Zz.

20. Nov 16, 2011

Opus_723

So it sounds like the most important limitations are time and social networks. So if you finish grad school but take a non-research position, how hard do you think it would be to maintain and grow those social networks, assuming you had spare time?

edit: Also, as far as attending science conferences and keeping up to date and such, what kind of money would that take? twofish mentioned around 10k for equipment to do useful observational astronomy, what other investments need to be considered?

Last edited: Nov 16, 2011
21. Nov 16, 2011

Choppy

It's hard to answer the first question because you'd be coming from a completely different environment. In academia you would be have outside academics coming into your institution to give departmental seminars. You would be able to walk down the hall and chat with people who are interested in similar problems. If someone sees a paper that you might be interested in, they might pass it on to you so you wouldn't miss it. Students can also be a great help. Sometimes a very basic question that no one in the field really asks anymore can lead to some really interesting work.

Working in your basement, you wouldn't have all of this and attending one or two conferences per year isn't likely to replace that. On the other hand you would have some advantages. For example, you wouldn't have to sit on committees, attend meetings that are 95% junk and 5% important, prepare lectures, or deal with the politics of academia. Your time is your time and you don't have to answer to anyone for how you spend it.

As for conferences, a lot can depend on how high you roll. For me to attend some of the conferences I go to it's about \$2k a shot in total, once you add up a week of hotel fees, airfare, registration, and whatnot. That could be cut down though. I could downgrade to a lesser hotel, share a room with someone, drive instead of fly (sometimes), etc. But really, it's like you're taking a vacation, only with less time at the beach and more time in lecture halls.

22. Nov 16, 2011

Locrian

No it doesn't. I never said that you only had one or the other, and I can't imagine why you'd think so. You'd have to compare total spending between government and private sources to get an idea of whether it makes sense. It's going to get hairy since the line isn't always easy to draw. The resulting graph will make it look like my statement holds weight, but there are some very good counter arguments.

Suggesting that the existence of those two labs falsifies my statement is completely absurd. But the fact is I haven't really presented any evidence for my assertion. I bet if you think it through you'll find that's a better place to start. It could even result in some interesting discussion.

Though I doubt it.

23. Nov 16, 2011

ZapperZ

Staff Emeritus
Er... so you don't care about supporting anything you say? And you expect this to result in an "interesting discussion"??

Oooookay.. I'm checking out!

Zz.

24. Nov 16, 2011

ParticleGrl

The rise of financialization in the US is probably the biggest culprit. When the supply for high-yield ("junk") bonds Mike Milken and others began pushing the idea of the 'leveraged buyout'. The idea was that you borrow a bunch of money, and use it to buy a company you think is either undervalued, or poorly run. You then use the companies profits to pay off the loan.

In practice, what happened is that a 'corporate raider' borrowed a ton of cash, bought a company and then looked for ways to turn company assets into quick cash to pay back the loan. When the incentive is for short-term quick cash, long-term departments like R&D quickly get cut, which is exactly what happened.

The other big killer of private research is the long term shift away from manufacturing.

25. Nov 16, 2011

mayonaise

Indeed. A lot of of the "hi-tech" manufacturing is not in the US. Samsung in Korea is the leader in LCD/LED displays and DRAMs and probably android smart phones. Taiwan has world's largest silicon chip foundry, TSMC. These places do invest in private research and heavily hire PhD's.

However, I think there's still private research in the US in software fields, such as Pixar/Disney Research, MS Research, Adobe Labs, Autodesk Research...

How about everyone share their knowledge of research-ish private sector jobs? The ones that physicists might be interested in?