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I'm confused by what the term "research experience" actually means in a PhD application. The following examples come into my mind:

  • working as research assistant with university professor
  • publishing research papers in conferences
  • work in R&D division of company (industry research)

Do all examples of the list above count as research experience? Or which ones do? If so, what are they?

Which ones are more important and provide competitive advantage for getting accepted to good university?

  • 3
    I can confirm that RA experience and published work counted as research experience when I applied to my PhD. – dgraziotin Jan 11 '14 at 11:28
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I would say all of those count as "research experience". Which ones will be most valued depends on the nature of the program you're applying to, and the exact nature of the work you did. In general, though, the more independent your work was, the better, and the more generic it was, the worse. So if you were a research assistant but all you did was photocopy documents, that will not earn you many points. If you were a research assistant who, e.g., conducted experiments, did fieldwork, participated in lab meetings, whatever, those will be worth more. If you actually contributed to the writing of papers or presentation at conferences, even better.

As a rule of thumb, the more that what you did was something other people could not have done (i.e., it required your special expertise, not just "more hands'), the "better" it is.

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Most of the applicants for PhD positions (after bachelor, different for master) don't have much research experience or have even written a paper as first author, more common would be poster at a conference. So if you have to show something here over average, list it in your application.

As professors get sometimes over 100 applications for PhD positions, more importantly list in bullet points what you experience handling distinct scientific methods is (technical terminus and usage time, e.g. electron microscopy on biological objects for one year or matlab scripting on neural networks for 6 months). As soon as you have worked for several weeks with a distinct technique, list it as research experience (name - object - duration)

This profile of your expertise is in the end to my experience more important to a professor/distinct position than a higher number of posters/papers of a distinct candidate, because it depends more on your team/advisor/co-workers if you publish before PhD a lot

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It means during your undergraduate or after your undergraduate or in masters (if you are going for a PhD program), what did you do that counts as research.

In PhD application, the committee is looking for whether you already have warmed up for research or not because PhD is about taking a problem and doing research which only you could have done.

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