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I am undergraduate student, applying to be a research assistant for a relatively new professor.

During the interview, after discussing the research project he was currently working on, he made the comment that "this is hard stuff" and asserted that the research would be worthy of a PhD dissertation as well as saying that none of his previous assistants were able to produce anything of substance. It's worth noting that this university does not offer a PhD in this subject, so there are no PhD students to work with him and no chance that the work with him would lead to a PhD.

I believe I have a solution to solve one of the early, relatively easier, problems that we discussed. This piece would be integral for all further research for this project. I had considered writing proof-of-concept code to submit to him to show that:

  1. I know what I'm doing and can produce results without needing him "hold my hand" through it, and
  2. I am interested in working with him and on his project

My question is two-fold:

  1. Why would a professor ask for research assistant applicants for an incredibly complex project worthy of a PhD at an institution that does not offer one?

  2. As an undergraduate student, would it be a worthwhile investment of my time to develop the proof-of-concept for essentially an interview boost if the advising professor is certain that the project would be far too complex for an undergraduate student?

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Why would a professor ask for research assistant applicants for an incredibly complex project worthy of a PhD at an institution that does not offer one?

I think you’re answering your own question. The professor really wants to work on project X; no PhD programs are available, so he’s taking in research assistants.

As an undergraduate student, would it be a worthwhile investment of my time to develop the proof-of-concept for essentially an interview boost if the advising professor is certain that the project would be far too complex for an undergraduate student?

I’m fairly certain nothing magical happens to students once they start their graduate studies that makes them suddenly capable of working on complex problems. If you’ve done well in your undergraduate studies and are curious/handle failure well, you can do graduate work. What would raise red flags for me is that other RAs worked on this problem and failed. I would ask the professor for more details and perhaps see if the problem can be broken down a bit so you can successfully manage it.

Showing good results in an RAship is much more than an interview boost. It’s an excellent way of checking whether you like research work, getting a very warm reference letter and maybe even a decent publication or two! Good RAships can get you into top grad school even if your undergraduate degree wasn’t amazing.

Good luck!

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