I am planning to take a break from industry (software) and want to work under a professor/lab on a research project for 3-6 months, computer science/computing related. I was wondering if people could give me some advice on how to go about achieving this arrangement - success tips, what not to do and the feasibility of this whole endeavour.

I'm in my late 20s. Went to a good UK school and got a decent GPA. I got what is known as an undergraduate masters (MEng), which for all intents and purposes is a BSc + MSc. I regret never undertaking a summer UROP placement while doing my undergrad. I've often wondered about doing a PhD (I kinda always thought I would) and this would be one way to get some kind of feel of what it might be like. Who knows maybe I will change my career and move into research.

I have some potential projects (though still a little vague) that I would like to work on, but I am also looking for existing projects that sound interesting to contribute to. My current plan is to reach out to professors that seem like a good fit with my research interests (by scouring their academic pages and published work). I'm yet to reach out to anyone. Actually that's a good question - would I have more luck joining an existing research project or proposing my own?

This potential opportunity is unlikely to happen again - I currently do not have too many responsibilities e.g. kids, a mortgage, etc. That and the window for me doing something like this is shrinking all the time. I want to make the most of it by going to go to what is considered a competitive school (not that I'm applying for a programme per se).

I also want to sample US university life (I have a degree from the UK), go to a new city and meet some new people.

What I hope works in my favour is I have the money to entirely fund myself - I've been working in the tech indusry for the last half decade. Hopefully this means I don't have to work within the confines of the academic calendar nor compete for funding. I am concerned about the legality of working for free - I have seen Nonpaid, volunteering position in a lab.

I understand what I am trying to do may be a little unorthodox, but if I was a professor, and there was an enthusiastic individual who has a decent academics and willing to give up 6 figures for a chance to work on something interesting to us both, then I'd like to meet them. Of course I'm nothing special and I could be a hindrance, but hopefully my work experience, previous academics and genuine interest abate these concerns. To academics reading this, imagine if it was you I contacted asking for this opportunity, what would make you consider me?

Anyway, if people could give me some kind of assurance if what I want to do is not out of the question (or let me know it is), along with some pointers on how to be successful in finding a position.

Really appreciate it, Thomas

2 Answers 2


In my field (though different from yours), 3-6 months is not nearly enough time for a novice to approach a research project.

Student volunteers (undergraduates, who may also get credit for the work so not entirely "volunteer") may take on projects of this duration, but there is little expectation that they accomplish anything concrete - they take more time to train than their research output is worth.

That said, a university has a mission to educate students, and that trade-off is okay for students - it's a service to the next generation of researchers, to make sure students get exposure to what research is like. If you aren't a student, it's harder to make a case that the time should be spent with you rather than those interested, enrolled students. Yes, you may be interested in maybe switching to a research career, but you're not nearly as invested in that exploration as someone who is enrolled in a degree program.

Additionally, there are the legal issues with what defines an employee as in the answer you already linked.

There are more issues as well involving privacy, data security, intellectual property, etc: universities have policies and agreements in place to address these concerns for both students and staff; you can't really sneak a volunteer in without going through those same processes, so it isn't quite as simple as just "showing up".

Lastly, just a bit of a caution:

an enthusiastic individual who has a decent academics and willing to give up 6 figures

does not seem to me nearly as impressive as you make it sound, especially when you've made it clear you are secure enough financially to go unpaid for a bit. Any university is full of currently enrolled students who have financial and life difficulties and yet are working towards a degree already without the security that you've built for yourself. They are enrolled and earning meager salary despite having those responsibilities like children, sick parents, and family members in dangerous situations elsewhere in the world. It's fine to be proud of what you've done for yourself so far, but I'd be very cautious in thinking that it positions you above others in any way.

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    thanks for replying - really appreciate it. I've thought about what you said, and I think I will still apply to some professors, but set my expectations low. I'm not entirely convinced that what I want to do is illegal, though it does seem ambiguous and potentially risky, and probably another reason for some departments simply not to consider it. Apologies if I came off the wrong way, and I guess it's a good thing I asked here - I actually did spend not-a-small-amount-of-time reworking things in an attempt to get a fairly balance tone but I guess I was still off. Thanks again :) Mar 27, 2020 at 0:19
  • @DoubtingThomas Best of luck. Hopefully some warning from a stranger on the internet will help you avoid saying something foolish in front of someone that can help you get where you want to be. :)
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 27, 2020 at 0:22

There are “pre-doc” research positions in many fields. If you are considering going back to get a PhD this would likely be an appropriate thing to apply for. Usually they are working on a pre-ordained project with a faculty member who has been successful in getting a grant. But they are typically a year minimum... it would probably not be worth it for a faculty member to try to train you up for just a 3 month gig.

  • aha predoctoral is an actual term. obvious in hindsight. thanks for replying. like i just wrote in the reply above, I think I will try approaching some professors, but with the expectation of being unsuccessful. thanks :) Mar 27, 2020 at 0:22

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