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I would like to have advice on how a software engineer with a decent (>10 years) of industry experience can join a team doing academic research in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology or climate science. I am curious if there exists software engineer positions in these types of projects without having domain-specific knowledge or an advanced degree.

Is it necessary to be pursuing an academic degree such as a Masters/PhD or to have one already?

As I have never worked in academia before, I am looking for an insider perspective on this.

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    Do you need a paid position, or are you just interested in doing this for the "fun" of it while employed elsewhere? – Buffy Feb 25 at 19:43
  • I would like a paid position, but if that's not an option I am open to doing something part time / volunteer, as long as I feel passionate about it. – driangle Feb 25 at 20:21
  • Please don't volunteer for a specific group. People try to make their living in academic research and volunteering is unfair to them. However, there are many open-source projects you could look into (I don't know those areas very well) and contribute your skills there. – Azor Ahai Feb 26 at 20:39
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Yes, it's possible, though the opportunities are likely to be somewhat rare, and might require specialist knowledge within software engineering just like you'd expect in your industry jobs.

Your work would likely be in more of a support role, though. Rather than driving the research project you'd be using your software expertise to write custom software or manage data. I disagree a bit with @Buffy on the scope of project that would hire software engineers; there are much smaller projects that can make use of programming skills, and in the past my small research group has had a share of a programmer's time.

I would recommend you start by looking at job postings at universities near you (or where you would like to live).

Expect salaries that are below what you would expect for your level of experience outside academia, and that many positions will be fixed-term.

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    I agree with this answer but wanted to add that such positions are becoming more common. Look for the term 'Research Software Engineer' (at least in the UK, see jobs.ac.uk for examples), though not everyone uses that. In addition to the lower salaries, the jobs are usually contract rather than permanent. This is because a researcher will have been awarded funds for some research project and will employ a software engineer for that specific project. – JenB Feb 26 at 16:56
  • @JenB Good points, especially as far as the positions being contract/fixed-term (not sure about the UK, but in the US contract may suggest 1099/independent contracting; in a university the position would almost certainly be a fixed-term W2 position. The same is true for post docs and other research staff). I'd still argue that these positions are fairly rare, though the same is true for almost any narrow industry focus. – Bryan Krause Feb 26 at 17:01
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I think that for most projects there is little hope unless you get in to a doctoral (or maybe masters) program. The sort of work you envision, is mostly done by students and forms an integral part of their studies. Many projects in the sciences consist of testing hypotheses (made by students) by building things, again by those same students.

But if you are near some monster sized national or international lab in which a large number of specialists from different fields collaborate on things, then you might find a position. But we re speaking of CERN level projects, or TOKAMAK sorts of things. Or things related to astronomy or space exploration. These aren't typical projects in scope. I also can't predict what sort of career you could have doing such things as experiments eventually finish and people go on to do new things. But these are the sorts of things that require government (and grant) funding.

But if you want to get your feet wet, go to some local (large) university and ask there whether they can use some help, paid or not. This could help you decide if this is an avenue you really want to explore and also make the contacts and get the experience that could get you into some degree program. Having a doctorate is the normal path to an academic career. There are few other doors.

And if you can make a few contacts, it isn't impossible that a position might be written in for you in the next large grant proposal. But, that, again, is only a temporary solution. Grants end, though some are renewed.

However, there are also industrial labs, say IBM or Google, where the research isn't a lot different from that done in university labs. It is more applied at the current time (product focused) rather than pure theoretical research, but the organization of some of them is similar to that which you find in academia. Not all such places are very supportive, of course (think Dilbert), so you need to do some explorations before joining them. Some of the pharmaceutical companies still do real science.

And it would be a big plus in many projects if you are skilled in statistics and, maybe, mathematical modeling.

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  • There are many extra-university research institutions that hire large numbers of software engineers. CERN or the tokamak-facility ITER are just two examples. In the US, there are also the national labs who have thousands of software engineers working on research. There are also labs such as NREL, NOAA or USGS facilities, NIH bioinformatics facilities, and many more. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 25 at 22:33

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