Leaving Academia While Still Contributing to Physics Research

• Physics

Main Question or Discussion Point

There is a Theoretical Physicist by the name of Garret Lisi. He gave a ted Talk on one of his unified physics theories that received a lot of attention. The reason why I am bringing him up is because he left academia after he finished his phd and moved to Maui. During his time there he found part time gigs just to get by but didn't want to make big commitments because he feared it would take away too much time from his research. I believe now he's financially stable and is able to contribute successfully to Physics without being in Academia. I guess what I'm trying to ask is: do you really need to be in academia to be a successful theoretical physicist ( not experimental), since they don't work in labs. In today's day and age, it is easier than it has ever been to make passive income as a result of the development of technology, social media etc. I recently completed a double major in mathematics and physics and plan on pursuing a phd program in theoretical particle physics and want to live the lifestyle of Garret Lisi.

Answers and Replies

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George Jones
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Garret Lisi shows that this is possible, but, unfortunately,the set $\left\{ \mathrm{Garret ~ Lisi} \right\}$ is not a statistically relevant sample.

Orodruin
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Garret Lisi shows that this is possible, but, unfortunately,the set $\left\{ \mathrm{Garret ~ Lisi} \right\}$ is not a statistically relevant sample.
It also suffers from selection bias...

Thank you Dr. Jones and Oruduin for your replies. You're certainly right that the example I gave is not statistically significant. But if a theoretical physicist hypothetically found a way to financially support themselves, then what is the added benefit of going into academia if you can conduct the research on your own. If you found a way to get passive income that doesn't demand as much time as the administrative and teaching duties of a professor then wouldn't it be better to avoid academia if you can still do research on your own?

Choppy
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It's probably worth asking the question - if it's so great, why aren't there more people doing it?

I think one factor to consider is that "passive income" is either not as passive as it sounds, or doesn't provide much in the way of reliable, steady income.

Secondly, even if you're a theorist, it's quite challenging to do research in a vacuum. Consider journal access - a lot more of a challenge if you're not affiliated with a university. Simply having other people to have passive hallway conversations with can have an enormous influence on your work too. Ever have an idea that sounded good in your head, but then fell apart as soon as you started explaining it to someone? Without being around other academics, those ideas might get all the way to a journal submission before someone checks you.

Think about colloquia-speakers coming in both from around campus and from other universities to share their work. How will you gain access to those kinds of ideas on your own? And what about conferences for that matter?

Students, particularly graduate students can often be a lot of help too. They challenge you, force you to reinforce your own knowledge and re-examine foundational ideas in your field. And they bring new ideas and enthusiasm with them.

There is also the question of how you'll handle it when research isn't going well. When you're on your own, it's a lot easier to shrug it off and do something else. When you've got collaborators counting on your contribution to a grant proposal, you push through even when the personal motivation isn't there.

That's not to say it can't be done, doing research on your own, but it's rare for people to do it successfully and I think there are a lot of reasons behind that.

WWGD
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Well, Wyatt. now you know the cavets so you can plan ahead see if you can build around them and see if you want to stick with it.

Vanadium 50
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I think you need to take a closer look at Lisi before you try and emulate him.
1. The reason that the press ran with this story is precisely because it is unusual. ("Man bites dog" and all)
2. Lisi's impact on the field is not nearly as large as the press might have you believe. His most cited paper has 54 cites, with very few "big names" citing it: Bjorken says it's interesting and Distler says it's wrong. (I'm an experimenter who has written a few theory papers, and my theory publication record is stronger than Lisi's)
3. Even Lisi writes with collaborators, and in fact, his citation count for papers with co-authors is higher than that he wrote alone. (That's kind of why we do it)
If you want to do this because you want to do this, great. Have at it. But if you think you are going to make a huge impact doing this, you might want to rethink this.

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gleem
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@wyattbohr I think that when Lisi was at your point in his education he had no idea that he would be where he is today. If it were not for an investment break he might not be in Maui today. His work and interest is controversial so remaining in academia might not have been something of his choosing. His creation of a science hostel may indicate that he may feel a need or recognize that closer contact with fellow researchers has advantages. Communication via the internet is clumsy and not spontaneous as compared to direct face to face interactions nor as stimulating.

....and want to live the lifestyle of Garret Lisi.
I believe this is poor focus for a potential PhD candidate to have.

Dr. Courtney
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Most of my publications were authored at times when I did not hold a college faculty position, including everything I've published in the past 5 years. It is mostly meat and potatoes work in blast physics and ballistics. So yes, I am making contributions to physics, but nothing earth shattering. So, it's certainly possible.

But since I rarely publish solo papers, interactions with students and colleagues is essential to my creative process. I've managed to cultivate and maintain these relationships without holding a faculty position. But it takes more work and an intentional approach. I may not publish any papers in 2019, because of a lull in collaborative activities. No worries though, I'm already working on several projects with colleagues that will be ready for publication in 2020 and/or 2021.

ZapperZ
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Thank you Dr. Jones and Oruduin for your replies. You're certainly right that the example I gave is not statistically significant. But if a theoretical physicist hypothetically found a way to financially support themselves, then what is the added benefit of going into academia if you can conduct the research on your own. If you found a way to get passive income that doesn't demand as much time as the administrative and teaching duties of a professor then wouldn't it be better to avoid academia if you can still do research on your own?
But as a "researcher", you could have easily do a research on this. For example, if this is statistically significant, then MORE Garrett Lisi would have been around and more of them would be prominent.

You also have this idea that one does "theoretical physics" in a vacuum. The support of an institution is often necessary to (i) get access to the latest publications, etc... (ii) to go to conferences where many ideas get hatched, developed, regurgitated, washed-and-spun-dry, etc.... (iii) establish new contacts/network/etc.

If you look closely, there are very few theoretical papers with only ONE author, or without much support and interactions. The fact that places such as Institute for Advanced Studies, and Perimeter Institute exist and became successful and useful is an "experimental data" that even theoretical physics need institutional support and external interactions.

And I haven't even gotten to areas of theoretical physics that require huge computational support to produce simulations and results. What individual do you think have such facility in his/her garage?

Zz.

It is possible, but also extremely challenging and publishing takes more time, since you literally have to find the time. I myself have taken this path and I actually finance my own theoretical research from my profession as a medical practitioner. Software licenses and literature access are granted to me freely by having ties with a university department by remaining friends with a few of the staff, occassionally publishing together with them and helping them and their students with research, e.g. guiding students and advising w.r.t. methodology and technical aspects of research.

Also you should worry somewhat but again not worry too much about performance indicators such as having high citation indices; these indices do not necessarily measure what they are aiming to measure, namely how you and your work actually compare to your peers and their work. It is important to realize that such measures were invented for intended usage by administrators in order to systematically select, hire and pay researchers while giving the illusion of doing this in a scientific manner i.e. it is almost irrelevant for someone outside academia.

Moreover, in contrast to popular belief there are in fact many cases where different kinds of works and workers are actually incomparable, e.g. technical work focused on short term progress within a mature research programme as opposed to conceptual work focused on long term progress within a novel research programme, as well as the likes of Newton, Gauss or Grothendieck in comparison with their contemporaries: mathematical skill is not normally distributed!

Conceptual work is usually characteristic of the kind of original research that outsiders do, including Garrett Lisi and Julian Barbour, i.e. when one is not merely doing technical research but also doing foundational, conceptual and/or non-technical theoretical research. This kind of work usually tends to not be capable of being easily done by simply replacing oneself by someone else if that other person lacks the necessary idiosyncratic background, insight, creativity, vision and persistence required for this type of work; in such cases, citation indices are completely misleading metrics, practically of no use whatsoever a priori, perhaps only useful a posteriori.

From my own experience and academic circle, most recent graduates I have met in academia simply lack the creativity, drive and boldness to actually do real foundational work while the majority of graduate students are simply incapable of entirely creating and running their own original research programme at a sophisticated level; instead, they opt for lower hanging fruit and a safer career path. Only a few of them become capable of doing this somewhat later in life and even then they tend - due to their training - to be more proficient at being a specialist, while what is required for such work is the mind of a generalist.

Historically, there are loads of big names to be named for which the above characterization was true, and it is usually more true for theoreticians and mathematicians who do more creative mathematical work constructing new foundations both in physics and in mathematics; think of the likes of Newton, Euler, Gauss, Riemann, Lagrange, Hamilton, Ramanujan, Einstein, Poincaré, Feynman and so on who tended to be guided more for deeply personal reasons than by what academia and the contemporary literature wanted. Notice how the founders of QT are not on this list; this has alot to do with the current foundations of QT still being an embarrassment and I maintain that completing the research programme of constructive QFT is the only way out for QT, but I digress.

As I have mentioned, foundational work actually requires creativity, but creativity while necessary is not sufficient. One has to also be trained in doing academic research, i.e. know how to effectively read the literature, find reviews, critical appraisal of topics, mastery of certain techniques, familiarity with certain theories and so on; this skillset is most effectively learned by staying within academia, but again that is not necessary especially if one has a mentor, close friend or family member who is in academia and can guide them through such hoops.

In any case, with sufficient discipline this can be self-taught as well but it is alot of work and there aren't (m)any guides available i.e. you have to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps and (re)invent this for yourself; this is why these skills are best picked up by shadowing, emulation and osmosis of the day to day activities of active researchers.

PAllen
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Most of my publications were authored at times when I did not hold a college faculty position, including everything I've published in the past 5 years. It is mostly meat and potatoes work in blast physics and ballistics. So yes, I am making contributions to physics, but nothing earth shattering.
Seems like it could be earth shattering ...

Dr. Courtney
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Seems like it could be earth shattering ...
Most of my theory work in blast and ballistics has focused on injury mechanisms and exposure thresholds for causing injury. My experimental work in blast and ballistics has focused on inventing laboratory scale devices for creating experimental blast waves without the expense and handling difficulties of using real high explosives.

Over the past year or two, my personal motivation has shifted from "contributing to physics" to "training the next generation of scientists." So most of my "best ideas" get shelved until a student or colleague comes along looking for a project. I see my "best ideas" as the most fertile training ground for younger scientists. My resume does not need much more enhancement.

For example, with the increases in computer speed and memory over the past 25 years, it would be a simple matter to dust off my old atomic physics codes and crank out a few papers for Physical Review A (or similar). These would be relatively modest contributions to a field known as quantum chaos. But this would all me much more meaningful for some younger scientist than for me. I have a steady stream of students knocking at my door wanting help with research (and I welcome them). The trick is matching their interests and abilities to the available project ideas. That gets harder if I carry out my best project ideas as a solo act.