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I'm an engineer from the US at a large tech company who had to cease their undergraduate studies due to family complications. Previously, I was an assistant in a CS research lab during college, and in industry I've been able to work on engineering problems within the same CS sub-field for the past 4 years. I was a co-author on a published paper while working with the research group, though the professor I worked under has since retired.

Increasingly frequently, I have been reading papers, emailing authors, and desiring research related work again.

If I want to work towards a research career again in this sub-field, and don't want to complete a bachelors degree, what would be the easiest or most realistic path forward - entering a research role at big company without a graduate degree, or beginning a graduate degree without a bachelors? What are possible long term drawbacks of each path?

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    Where are you? Country? – Buffy Feb 28 at 13:55
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    Entering a graduate degree without an undergrad is possible though not easy. The best path there is to accomplish something on your own and attract the attention of somebody with influence. It would need to be substantial. – puppetsock Feb 28 at 14:30
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    If you are concerned about long-term advancement, income, respect, being "one of us", etc., then get the degree. It's obviously not like this everywhere, but in many places there will be an (often subconscious) attitude that you are different, and expectations will be different. Compare it with being a female employee in an all-male department. – Ray Butterworth Feb 28 at 15:06
  • @Buffy US, thank you for the ask, I will add it to the post. – academiaThrowaway Feb 28 at 15:20
  • I appreciate the insight @puppetsock, my professor may be able to recommend me when applying to a program, but I am doubtful his recommendation would cover an edge case like mine. There are other SE questions about doing entering a graduate program with no bachelors, but none seemed to lay out actionable advice other than how exceptional it would have to be. – academiaThrowaway Feb 28 at 15:21
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I don't think there is a good yes/no answer to this unfortunately, and by that I mean different companies and university have vastly different rules/traditions/standards as to how they hire/admit people to programs.

I would say the easier of the two would be entering a research role at a company with just a bachelors degree. The reason I say that is because what is more important (in my experience) at corporations is relevant work history/experience.

I would note that in my experience companies can be very wary about hiring people without at least a bachelors degree because they can be seen as a liability.

I have never heard of a CS department admitting someone to a research role without a bachelors degree. I would guess that this is because it is rare having someone want to research without a bachelors and on top of that it is already rare to award graduate degrees to people who don't already have a bachelors. Like I said in the beginning though, you may find a program willing to accept you.

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Having a BS/BA is not your issue, actually. Even in industry, great research organizations are staffed with PhDs and equivalent. What you want, if you feel the need to leave your present employ, is a doctorate. That will make you desirable. But you may have worked your way into a comfortable niche and it may continue to work for you without further action.

But if you want to gain the ability to move about freely in the world of research, either in academia or elsewhere, then you need to find a way to get a doctorate. I would suggest that you try to do this without going back and starting with a Bachelors, especially in the US. You probably already know whatever it is that a bachelors will teach you. This is especially true of knowledge required to do a job, but may be missing some theoretical parts of CS. The missing pieces may be more or less important depending on which sub-field you wish to focus on.

My suggestion is that you go and visit a few places, after making some appointments. You want to talk to a few faculty members. You want to explore your options with them. They can tell you what you need to know to start out with a combined MS/PhD degree program. You can tell them what you already have skills with. Perhaps they match up well.

Such a program in the US normally starts out with quite a lot of advanced coursework. It assumes the knowledge of a bachelors, but not much else. If you can handle that coursework then there is no issue about your suitability. The coursework leads to comprehensive (qualifying) exams. If you can pass those, you are considered ready to do research.

Any program that would accept you would be one that is fairly large, but not so large as to be required to fall back on rigid rules of entry.

You might also be able to convince some place to accept you through a small number of exams. Perhaps oral exams in which someone explores your knowledge. This could also give you a way to learn what actual holes in your education are required to be filled to be accepted into a full doctoral program.

But I think that completing a BS/BA is not necessary and would be the longest path to getting the needed credentials as a researcher. You would find much of it boring.

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In industry, with your background it sounds like you are just as well-positioned to succeed as someone with a bachelor’s degree. But if your hope is to get a “research role at big company”, that sounds very unlikely whether or not you have a degree, because industry has very few (almost none in fact) true “research roles”. They might have roles that involve one or another thing they call “research”, but since you mention wanting to work towards a “research career”, I don’t think what they usually mean by “research” is what you’re thinking of. (True story: a recruiter once called me up trying to get me interested in a “research” job on Wall Street, and had a hard time understanding why I wouldn’t be interested in switching from a “research” position in academia to a “research” job in the private sector that pays much more - after all, research is research isn’t it...?)

As for academia, the answer is also probably not what you were hoping to hear. Without a graduate degree, you have zero chance of finding an interesting job in academia that has a significant research component. (In fact you’ll have a hard time getting any job without a bachelor’s degree - academia is kind of conservative/snobbish about degrees.) And without a bachelor’s degree, you’ll have only a very small chance of getting into a graduate program - certainly not large enough to make this a reliable plan for career fulfillment, although if you wanted to try anyway, Buffy’s answer has some interesting suggestions for how to go about it.

TL;DR: if you want a research career, finish your bachelor’s degree and then go do a PhD like everyone else who wants a research career does. It sounds like you have the talent and abilities, so hopefully you can find a way to make it happen. Good luck!

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  • Is the comment on industry research true for all of CS? Aren't there big companies that do serious research and publish in top venues in fields like machine learning for instance (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.)? – GoodDeeds Feb 29 at 19:12
  • @GoodDeeds I didn’t say there aren’t any research jobs in industry. There are just very few of them. And I suspect most of the researchers who “publish in top venues” at those companies actually have a full time job doing practical engineering work, and publish papers in their spare time or as a very small portion of their employment time. But I am open to being corrected by someone who’s more knowledgeable about such things. – Dan Romik Feb 29 at 19:21
  • I believe they have dedicated wings that focus on and hire people solely for research (e.g. Google AI, Facebook AI, Microsoft Research). Some of the researchers hold dual appointments as professors at universities. They have also made major breakthroughs, like Resnets in computer vision. – GoodDeeds Feb 29 at 19:26
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    @GoodDeeds there is some truth to that. That falls in the “very few research jobs” category. And as you come close to saying in your last comment, many of those jobs are roughly equivalent to academic faculty positions, and require the same sort of qualifications to be competitive for. So I wouldn’t advise OP to bank on getting such a position without a graduate degree. It won’t happen. – Dan Romik Feb 29 at 19:34
  • Yes, I agree with that. – GoodDeeds Feb 29 at 21:51

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