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I am currently an undergraduate student in computer science, rising senior.

I have had extensive research experiences throughout college at competitive universities and research companies (but no publications).

I do not feel prepared to pursue graduate school right after college (due to burnout, health concerns, and general need to prepare for PhD requirements such as recommendations, GRE, etc).

I also come from a low income family, and I would like to take a couple of years to save money, as well as improve my math skills and explore the subfield of CS I would really like to pursue in graduate school.

I know there is some debate surrounding the role of gap years in students’ will to pursue grad school, but I am certain this is the best choice for me.

I would like some advice on what sorts of roles to pursue post-college.

The answer to this question hasn’t been so straightforward for me because I have a couple of conditions that are especially relevant to my needs and aspirations:

  1. I want something that offers a competitive salary (80k-100k a year in the Boston area)
  2. I want to start working immediately after I graduate college
  3. Unfortunately, I do not have the option of pursuing an unrelated activity for the 2 year duration (like, say, backpacking in Europe or teaching in China) due to my financial circumstances
  4. I want to remain a competitive grad school applicant

I’ve considered a couple of options:

  1. Working as a software engineer at a company

Though I have limited experience in development (because every role I’ve ever had since the beginning of college has been research-oriented), I think I can use the coming year to update my engineering skills and land a role.

Pro: This sort of role would likely offer a more competitive salary

Con: I’m not sure it would make me more competitive candidate for graduate school

  1. Working in research at a university or national laboratory

Because I have extensive research experience from college, I think I have a good chance at landing a role like this.

Pro: I think this would make me more competitive for graduate school

Con: The salary would likely not be competitive

  1. Working in research at a research company

This would be the best option, but the hardest to land.

Pros: Likely offers a competitive salary, and will likely make me more competitive for graduate school

Con: I don't think I can land a role like this easily after college, as they usually require at least a masters degree and favorably a PhD, with extensive research experience

I would just like some advice on this situation. Are there some other options I could consider? Is a software engineering role my best bet? If you've been in this situation and in this particular field, what has been your experience? What did you decide to do?

closed as off-topic by user9646, user3209815, louic, Buzz, Fomite Oct 17 '18 at 4:29

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  • Hm, $80-100k starting salary straight out of undergrad? I imagine that's possible with the right background, but it's an ambitious goal. – Wolfgang Bangerth Oct 15 '18 at 14:58
  • @WolfgangBangerth Not for someone with a CS degree living in Boston. – JeffE Oct 15 '18 at 17:42
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A software engineering position probably doesn't improve your competitiveness for graduate school, unless your graduate school wants you to code (which isn't a requirement for a PhD in computer science). Is coding something you'd be interested in? If so, then the software engineering route would be advantageous. Perhaps more importantly, the software engineering route will make you more competitive to a research company after graduate school.

  • Thanks for your answer. Yes, actually my impression was that if I pursue a PhD in CS, I would have to code at least some of the time. Are there circumstances under which this is not true (i.e. if the work is more theoretical in nature)? And yes, ultimately, I think I will end up at a research company post-PhD – kaptm555 Oct 15 '18 at 12:59
  • Coding is not a requirement for a PhD, even for application focused sub-fields in CS (or Physics or Bioinformatics or or ...). There's probably a more in-depth discussion of coding/research elsewhere on this site (I couldn't find any in-depth discussion with a single search, but I did find something), perhaps you can search for something and add a comment linking to the articles you find. – user2768 Oct 15 '18 at 13:39
  • Coding is not a requirement for a PhD — In computer science?! Unless you’re doing hardcore theory (like me), yeah, it is. – JeffE Oct 15 '18 at 17:47
  • @JeffE I know lots of graduates that didn't code in computer science... – user2768 Oct 16 '18 at 7:07
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Well, since I saw many very intelligent PhD candidates whoi did not succeed in implementing their ideas in an efficient manner, I would tend towards the software engineering solution. If you manage to do a bit research (e.g. 80% SE, 20% research), you can demonstrate that you are interested in an academic carreer.

But in fact all options are fine, and it will be a metter of luck, personal circumstances and opportunities which one is the best.

  • Thank you for your answer. Would that 20% research be within my job or outside of work? If it is within, what kind of role would provide me that balance? And what sorts of companies would offer that sort of work? – kaptm555 Oct 15 '18 at 13:04
  • It does not matter whether it's inside or outside. – OBu Oct 15 '18 at 13:13
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Try for #3, but if you can't get it, do #1 before doing #2. It might not help with your grad school applications, but it won't hurt either, and it gives you a completely different perspective. For example:

  1. You learn a new skill. Sure, doing research teaches you things as well, but this is a new field that broadens your horizons.
  2. You might decide against going to grad school completely (and who can blame you, given that $80k/year is a lot higher than whatever stipend you get as a grad school student).
  3. Even if you do go to grad school, there's a good chance you end up in industry after you finish your studies, simply because of the strong competition for academic positions. If this happens, having some industry work experience is going to count a lot for your job applications.
  4. You're further empowered to tailor your grad school experience to what you know is needed in industry. For example, you could decide to learn X instead of Y because you know from your experience that X was core to your day job while Y was much more fringe.
  • Thanks for your answer. Yes, at this stage, I feel certain that I will end up in industry after graduate school. In that case, something like #1 and #3 would be more favorable – kaptm555 Oct 15 '18 at 12:57
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You needn't attend graduate school to get a PhD, you can work at a research company and complete your PhD whilst working for them. Perhaps you can reconsider your options with this possibility. (NB: Not all research companies will offer this route.)

  • Thanks, I actually did not know this was an option. Do you have an example of a company that offers this? – kaptm555 Oct 15 '18 at 13:05
  • Just look at the large technology companies. I have several in mind, but I don't know whether they are currently offering such positions. (The technology industry is so fast paced that my information is probably already obsolete, at least in part.) A quick search led me to naturalscience.careers/… and enago.com/academy/…, they both seem relevant (I didn't read much beyond the opening sentences) regarding the general notion, rather than specific companies – user2768 Oct 15 '18 at 13:35
  • I don’t know of any companies that offer this route in computer science. (But I’d be happy to be enlightened.) – JeffE Oct 15 '18 at 17:53
  • @JeffE Microsoft. (But, as mentioned, perform a fresh search, I don't know whether they still do, especially as they reduced their R&D team several years ago.) – user2768 Oct 16 '18 at 7:06

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