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It's well-known that many grad schools (especially top-ranked) require some research experience from prospective students and consider this as main criterion for accept/reject decision.

During undergraduate study I was working on my research (hadn't finished it - had solved just one particular case) - but can't say it was great research. Now I work as software developer in subdivision of national Academy of Science. My position requires only coding, no problem solving (there's no projects here requiring any fundamential research).

How can I make any research (better related to my field of interests) without being undergrad or MS student, without working in lab. Can I simply choose interesting problem (e.g. my undegrad problem), work hard to solve it and then refer to that in research statement? Who should write letter of recommendation in this case? Or I must have any advisor (who can verify my results and then write recommendation letter for me)? Can it be unofficial advisor (just researcher I know well)?

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    Not a direct answer to your question: At a minimum, write up your partial results, post them to a publicly-accessible web page, and include a link in your research statement. It's vital to remember that most research fails. The fact that you've made a credible attempt at independent research already puts you above the majority of graduate school applicants, but just claiming to have done research is not enough. – JeffE Apr 16 '12 at 13:53
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From my experience, there are three reasons why potential advisors want to see undergraduate research:

  1. Show that the student cares enough about research to actually have participated in research during their undergraduate years.
  2. Student is at least somewhat familiar with the ins-and-outs of performing academic research in a university setting.
  3. The quality of the performed research may give some indication as to how "good" of a student the candidate will be.

If you perform research yourself outside of the university settings, you'll provide a strong showing for (1), nothing at all for (2), and given that you're unlikely to publish anything, nothing of much use to the advisor for (3).

To that end, I would try to get a job as a research assistant before applying. (I'm not sure this position exists in all fields.) This is usually a paid position, and will give you an experience to work with research, help run a lab, learn about academia, and and even possibly work towards being acknowledged--or even possibly a co-author, although that's unlikely--in a paper. It should help your application significantly.

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You can consider the possibility of becoming a research assistant or research associate in the research group you want to join, before applying for Phd program.

You can try to contact the reseach group leader and ask him/her if they have possibility (i.e. funding) and willing to assume you for some months as research associate. By this way, the group is able to know you and test you; you're able to work, get paid, do research, publish papers, and so reinforce your PhD candidacy.

Them, when the Phd announcement will be out, you'll be a A-star candidate ;-)

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    Why would they take you as a paid research associate if they wouldn't already take you as a PhD student? – Artem Kaznatcheev Apr 17 '12 at 4:36
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    @ArtemKaznatcheev: It might be easier to convince one PI to pay you than to convince the entire admissions committee to admit you. – JeffE Apr 17 '12 at 5:18
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    @Artem Kaznatcheev In Continental Europe, university most important research groups often have some available funds to use to assume a research associate for some months. And, as JeffE told you, in this case, you should just convince the research team leader, while for Phd admission, you'll have to convince all the committee. – DavideChicco.it Apr 17 '12 at 7:49
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    Glad I could help @JackBauer in the 6 years since my comment I have found the answer to my question on my own: as JeffE points out, it is often different amounts of red tape involved between PhD and RA. Also, RA is a smaller commitment (they can hire you for a year) versus the 3 to 6 years of PhD and so less of a gamble for a prof. You can also have more RAs than PhDs since you can have your PhD students help supervise and teach the RAs. It is also a good idea for a student to do an RA before PhD so that they can get insight into the group. Maybe a separate question/answer pair is needed? – Artem Kaznatcheev Jun 1 '18 at 21:19

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