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Is it possible to become an independent physicist?

  1. Oct 18, 2009 #1
    Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    Greetings all. I've read lots of threads on here about "old" guys (the poster is usually 29 or 30) going back to school to study physics, and I've digested the oft-repeated issue of no jobs in academia even for young guys, let alone oldsters. However, I'm in a position where I want to study physics BUT I don't need to get a job when I'm done. I am fortunate enough to have already covered myself in the financial area of life. Now it is time to learn and expand my mind and skills in new ways that I've only thought about for over 20 years.

    My primary question is: is it possible to be a "working", independent physicist outside of academia and industry? Can a sufficiently trained person work at home, doing "research" (quite clearly theoretical work or work involving simulations) and be part of the broader academic community, submitting papers to journals, being published, possibly teaching as an adjunct professor, etc.? Does the physics community allow for the "gentleman" scientist any more?

    A bit of background on me:

    *44 years old
    *BA in biology from Brown 22 years ago.
    *20 undergrad hours in physics (18 years ago)
    *24 undergrad hours in math (18 years ago)
    *taught high school math and science for a few years (15 years ago)
    *financially independent (sorry, but it is true!)

    My notion is to give myself a thorough refresher course introductory calculus and physics using textbooks and MIT Open Courseware. Next, I plan to return to college and take courses to have the equivalent of a BS in physics. As I'm in the Bay Area, San Francisco State is the obvious choice, starting next fall. I'm a bit tied to the Bay Area, so that means that if I want to go beyond the equivalent of a BS, that means an MS at San Francisco State or (gasp!) a PhD at Berkeley or Stanford.

    My further questions:

    1. Do I have a snowballs chance in h**l of getting into grad school? The MS at SFSU seems possible, but the PhD at Berkeley or Stanford? Is that even a possibility, or would they blow me off in a New York minute? Even if I had all the attributes of a successful applicant (grades, research, publication, GRE), would my age be an automatic "no."

    2. Would the best path be to do an MS to gain some research experience before applying to a PhD program?

    3. Is a PhD even necessary? Does one need the credential? Or would the foundation of an MS allow me to do what I wanted to do since I don't need the PhD for employment purposes?

    Thanks in advance for the responses.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2009 #2


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    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    It is possible, yes, although not too common these days. The PhD would be your ideal goal if you ultimately want to do research. It's not so much of a "credential" thing, rather, you will learn how to go about conducting research properly, the formalities of putting together papers, responding to reviewers, not to mention getting a solid grounding in your field of choice so that you don't end up spending years on a project that's already been solved or is unsolvable. It also will give you contacts in your chosen field.

    1. I've never known age to be a limiting factor to graduate admissions committees.
    2. A "best" path is different for everyone. The advantage of the MS is that it gives you a shorter committment and can act as a stepping stone to position yourself more ideally for a PhD project.
    3. See above.
  4. Oct 19, 2009 #3
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    The days of basement physics are long gone, while there is no rule against such activity, it is in general very difficult to keep on top of new research without being in an academic environment (or a corporate research environment akin to Bell Labs... which was really academic at its core.) simply becuase there is SO much information flowing in, you need people around you to manage it all with you.

    In terms of publishing, it depends on what you are trying to publish. You can search google for hours and find literally hundereds (maybe thousands) of self-publication journals that are full of absolute tripe. The common theme among the authors are they are self-proclaimed 'gentleman' physicists (I like how you put it ;) ). However as you analyze their work you find they make silly mistakes and assumptions that no one with any formal training in the topic would make. Its a very common thing, and you will find that the biggest problem with publishing as an independent physicist is that people will not trust your ability to perform the work correctly.

    For example, every year I am forwarded at least one paper where someone claims to have derived plancks constant from classical theories. What you find is their understanding of the topic isn't necessarily faulty, its that they have made a simple mistake in their assumptions. The most common one is using a numerical value for the measured electron magnetic moment they found on a website, or a paper. The problem is this is an intrinsically quantum mechanical result (dependent on [tex]\hbar[/tex]). So while their mathematics are correct, they are deriving planck's const using a value which is dependent on the value of planck's const.

    It isn't that people don't believe that you would be incapable of understanding the material on which you are writing, its simply that experience has shown that most basement theories are not rigorous becuase the author doesn't have experience in how to conduct research. Part of the reason it is so difficult to get a PhD anymore is becuase it requires you to go through the motions of learning HOW to conduct research. Most of the time in grad school is spent framing the problem of your thesis, the actual research aspect usually comes quickly once you completely grasp the concept of how to conduct the research you are attempting to perform.

    The point is simply to say that without the credentials people tend not to take you seriously.

    That said, no one is going to prevent you from thinking about whatever you want to ponder.

    Of course you have a chance, age is less of a factor in getting into grad school. The real thing is going to be having the paperwork to support your ability to do research. Most people who don't come directly from undergrad into grad school have spent time in industry getting publications/patents/etc... If you go back to get a BS/MS in physics or something it will help, just so they know you actually do know some physics.

    Yes, absolutely. The more experience you have under your belt the more likely they will trust you to be able to do research. In fact its very unlikely that Berkeley/Stanford would accept someone who hasn't studied physics in 20 years into their PhD program. The philosophy surrounding physics has changed considerably over the past 20 years, and trying to jump in head first will be difficult to say the least. They won't be inclined to risk the investment. Of course... if you fund yourself, then they probably wouldn't mind at all =P.

    But the MS is probably the best route, the more experience you have getting comfortable with physics the better.

    I think I answered this above, but I will reiterate here a little. The credentials will help more than you could imagine when it comes to being taken seriously about your work. Also you will find that getting the PhD will give you a toolset that is far beyond anything you will get in just a masters program.
  5. Oct 19, 2009 #4
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    Yes, I can see that. I hadn't thought of it that way, but even just exploring the topics on this forum is a bit mind-boggling. Still, though, from all that you've said in this reply, with the proper training, it is still possible to be a participant in some sub-field of physics, but difficult to do.

    Hence the need for credibility of the PhD, and quite likely even colleagues at a major university, which a PhD program would help establish. Hmm...

    Bottom line certainly seems to be: if it is research you want to do, then a thorough grounding in research is necessary, and the route to that is a PhD. Got it. Thanks. Credentials can be important in all fields, as I know from experience. For instance, who wants someone as their physician who hasn't been to medical school and has an MD (or DO or DC or whatever)?

    Ah, but that is the key to why I want to go back to academia. I've been pondering many things for a long time. I want to do more than ponder: I want to discover and contribute. I want to understand these things in ways that I have never understood them before. I don't know about you, but really getting a grasp on the struck of the Universe is kind of thrilling, yes? And being a part of pushing the boundaries of our knowledge about it is even more thrilling still. I know, I sound like a 9 year old kid who just saw a star for the first time in a backyard telescope. But still.... :-)

    Good to know. Thanks.

    Ah, excellent, you've confirmed what I had been wondering from other threads I read. The real key is "can you do physics research?" That's why I had seriously considered repeating all the courses I took 20 years ago after intro physics, and the rounding those out with the equivalent of a BS. That really does seem like the only way to go. I had planned on spending at least 2-3 years taking undergrad courses.

    You've confirmed the other thing I've gotten from reading threads here: get some research experience, whether as an undergrad or in an MS program. Whatever it takes, but prove you can do the work.

    LOL. I just saw an interview with a psychologist studying privileged children. While not too common, some parents of these kids actually admitted to the psychologist that they would mail the kids application to Harvard with a check attached, not for the $200 application fee, but for $1,000,200. Whoa. I'm not naive, but the brazenness of such an approach is incredible.

    Any faculty members at Stanford or Berkeley who would like their research funded for 4 years? :-) Yes, I'm only joking.

    Excellent. Thanks again. Step 1 is to actually renew my acquaintance with intro physics and calculus. Step 2, undergrad courses at SFSU. Then we shall see, but an MS is an excellent idea.

    Yes, my interest in a PhD is far less about the credential and far more about the learning, or as you call it, the toolset. Being immersed in the research seems necessary, almost essential. Again, thank you, keniwas, for all your comments.

    Nice to see that both responses I've gotten mirror each other quite well. Excellent to hear that age is not a factor. Also, the information you've both given about the necessity of learning research is duly noted. I remember from my undergrad work in biology, and the research that I did then, that doing research is a whole different animal than simply doing coursework. It is a process to be learned. Thanks, Choppy, for your reply.
  6. Oct 19, 2009 #5
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    The fact that you're willing to do these things already puts you head and shoulders above the sort of crackpots who claim to be "gentleman physicists."
  7. Oct 19, 2009 #6
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    While on the one hand I knew there were a lot of amateurs out there dabbling in science and "research", I had no idea the extent of it until I joined this forum. The rules merely for posting in the "Independent Research" section are stiff, but clearly necessary. I hesitate to call them crackpots, but, well....

    The key to me has always been education and knowledge. While I have over the years read many popular science type books on quantum phenomena, I always knew as I read them that I didn't have the faintest idea if the ideas presented were valid because I couldn't do the math and read/comprehend the original papers that sometimes were cited. The issue for me was how did I know these ideas were valid? Maybe they aren't because the author didn't really grasp the ideas or their implications. Often as not, the only way to have an certainty was to check the credentials of the author.
  8. Oct 19, 2009 #7
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    An amusing anecdote about bribing one's way to college: my former educational advisor told me that she once asked the (former?) Harvard dean of admission how much someone would have to pay to be accepted no matter how poorly his or her grades are. The applicant would have to pay enough to build a new building/lab.

    I'm talking about undergraduate admissions, by the way.
  9. Oct 19, 2009 #8
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    You could always be a 'gentleman mathematician'. No lab equipment needed. You could probably teach yourself a great deal of material after a BS and spend the rest of your life trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis. At least you would always have a goal (unless Gregori Perelman solves it).
  10. Oct 20, 2009 #9
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    I think the golden age of "gentleman researchers" is just starting. The internet is making it easier to keep in touch with new research, and all of the astrophysics papers are now online. Also, it's not hard to get involved in a community of researchers. Plane tickets are cheap and so is e-mail. As far as theory goes, the amount of computing power that's available to the layman is truly scary.

    The one thing that is really missing are the social networks, but with linkedin and internet forums, those will be there so enough.

    The *only* thing that is keeping me from doing professional level research in astrophysics is the fact that I have a day job with a rigid schedule. If I could take three to six months off each year, then that's all I need.

    And you can to into any physics library and find hundreds of papers that are absolute tripe, but the math is so complicated that few people can call them on it. There's absolutely no need for a amateur researcher to publish in a professional journal now for astrophysics. Just get an account at the Los Alamos Preprint Server.

    If you want to be taken seriously as a research, stay away from "crank magnets." There are certain topics that for some reason or another attract nutty theories (I'M GOING TO EXPLAIN EVERYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE). Curiously there are topics that don't seem to attract nutcases. It's not going to be that hard for your to get to the point where you can say something decent on the r-process or combustion physics or cellular automata or turbulence.

    Since your background is biology, I don't see it as too difficult for you to find some topic in biophysics that you can do decent research in.
  11. Oct 20, 2009 #10
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    I'm rather surprised that it's that high. The way that most universities handle undergraduate admissions is that they put applicants in different queues, and if you have made a donation to the school or you have a relative that's an alumni, you get put into a priority queue. Presumably if you have enough money to donate a building, you can also find a way to pay for tutors to get someone up to some level of competency.

    Graduate admissions are different. Most physics students are paid to go to school by NSF grants, so they need competent people to pull in grant money and teach students. Also, if you have money, it's trivially easy to attend Harvard physics graduate school. Just show up.

    Get yourself an apartment in Cambridge, and just keep going to seminar after seminar at Harvard/MIT. Once you network with professors and end up being generally competent, it's not hard to get recommendation letters.
  12. Oct 20, 2009 #11
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    Getting a Ph.D. is sort of orthogonal to getting credibility. Personally, I really don't care if you have a Ph.D. or not, and there are people with Ph.D.'s, who I think are cranks. (Heck, there are people with Nobel Prizes that I think are cranks.)

    No. No. No. You get your Ph.D. after you do research. There are lots of second year grad students that can write decent research papers.

    It probably also won't work. There is an ettiquite to this sort of thing. Having said that, if you have $1M in cash, and your want your kids to go to Harvard, they are going to end up at Harvard (they might be talking to their therapist about the experience later).

    In fact, if you want to work with Stanford or Berkeley faculty, it's not that hard. Go to their websites, find when their next seminar and journal club is, and just show up, you can get some free pizza in the process. Once you have enough knowledge to be useful, then you aren't going to find it difficult to have people to talk to you.
  13. Oct 20, 2009 #12
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    I've been thinking about the same situation as well. It is in my priority to take pure mathematics up to PhD level and then work my way up to become a professor, become a leading expert in one particular field (say, number theory) and hopefully bag myself a Field Prize or two. However, in case I don't get a job in the academia I would regress to my "backup" careers - either working as an actuarist or a computer programmer - while at the same time doing research on my own. Periodically I would visit the universities and be able to use some of the resources in the library or discuss with the professors on the paper I am writing. Just wondering whether this is still plausible.
  14. Oct 20, 2009 #13
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    One thing that you do have to realize is that to do something really spectacular, you need some dumb luck. If it turns out that the key to the universe isn't where you are looking, then you aren't going to get the Fields Medal.

    However, it is surprisingly easy to be the world's leading expert on some obscure topic.

    Possible but really, really hard to do. The trouble is that full-time jobs are very inflexible when it comes to time, and if you have a family then that means that you don't have much time to think.
  15. Oct 20, 2009 #14
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    Check out Julian Barbour to see how and why he became independent & respected.

  16. Oct 21, 2009 #15
    Re: Is it possible to become an "independent" physicist?

    Thinking too much about space and time and deep abstract mysteries of the universe is exceedingly dangerous if you want to do productive research. The problem is that it's very easy to fall in love with your own ideas, and without the discipline of experimental results or logical consistency, it's really easy to go off the deep end, and not get anything productive done. There are a lot of cranks talking about the big bang. Surprisingly few in ocean or atmospheric physics or even in semiconductors. Turbulence and CFD has as many puzzles as quantum mechanics, but curiously fewer cranks.

    I think the reason for that is that you can say pretty much anything you want about Planck's constant, it's not obvious that you are wrong. However, if you say something about the ocean currents in San Francisco Bay that's silly then everyone will know, but the fact that that you can see San Francisco Bay is probably why you are much more likely to get productive research done there than in thinking about quantum mechanics.

    Also in your situation, I think you'd be better off, instead of applying for a Ph.D. position, to find some staff position at Berkeley or Stanford. Look at the want-ads to see if they are looking for lab assistants, math tutors, or system administrators. Anything that will get you a library card, and in the department.

    The other thing is don't worry too much about publishing in journals, since in some fields no one read journals for the latest research. If you are doing anything astrophysics related then just upload what you've written to the Los Alamos server, and you are done.
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