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In my home country, it is common for people to work at a research lab/group with titles such as "Research Assistant" after their Masters before their PhD.

Do such positions exist in the UK, and do they pose any visa troubles for international students?

My field is computer science and statistics.

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    Which field are you interested in? In physics I don't think this is very common. Visa rules are in flux due to Brexit, and I would worry that such a position would not pay you enough to qualify as a "highly skilled worker", and nor would you be eligible for a student visa if you're not studying for a degree. Better to just apply for PhD positions.
    – astronat
    Jul 30 at 15:28
  • @astronat Field: CS & statistics.
    – léloipa
    Jul 30 at 15:30
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There exists research positions in the UK for people with an MSc but no PhD, which are not necessarily meant for acquiring a PhD while employed. Such positions are rare however, and definitely not a natural stepping stone on the way to a PhD.

I suspect that the pay of these positions will be insufficient by itself to make you count as "highly skilled worker". Moreover, most of these positions I have seen in CS are very short term (eg 6 months), and it would surprise me if universities would be overly keen to go through the visa process for this.

While PhD funding in the UK is not particularly accessible for foreigners either, I'd recommend applying for a PhD in the UK, or doing a PhD elsewhere and then coming to the UK as postdoc/lecturer if your goal is an academic position in the UK.

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In my field - broadly molecular biology - such positions do exist, but they are no where near as common as Postdoc (officially known as Postdoctoral Research Assistants) positions. Part of the reason for this is that grant holders here are very constrained in what they are allowed to spend grant money on. Most grants will have postdoc listed, and so a pre-doctoral assistant or technician is seen as a bonus position. But our department will high one or two of these each year, probably on 1 or 2 year contracts.

I would broaden your scope to take in research technician positions as well. At least in my field, techinicans and pre-doctoral research assistants are treated more or less interchangably - the only difference being that research assistants are planning to do this for a couple of years before doing a PhD, while technicians are regarded as more long term things (althgouh contracts are generally the same in both cases - the length of the grant).

As has been pointed out, the salary for the such positions will not be high enough to qualify you for the "highly skilled worker" visa, so you'd have to find a different visa route. One thing to do is to check if your field is listed on the shortage occupation list.

EDIT: I was wrong, the rules have recently changed. The criteria for the skilled worker visa can be different if:

You can be paid between 70% and 90% of the usual going rate for your job if your salary is at least £20,480 per year and you meet one of the following criteria:

  • your job is in a shortage occupation
  • you’re under 26, studying or a recent graduate, or in professional training
  • you have a science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) PhD level qualification that’s relevant to your job (if you have a relevant PhD level qualification in any other subject your salary must be at least £23,040)
  • you have a postdoctoral position in science or higher education

If you just finished your master's degree in the UK, you are eligable to work here for 2 years anyway. Or you'd be eligable if you accompanied a partner or other family member who had a visa.

Its also no longer true that PhD funding is not accessible to international students in the UK - the rules changed this year so that each government funded PhD program can take upto 20% of their students from overseas. However, the government program will only pay the home fee rate. So either the university must agree to waive the increased overseas tuition fee (many are doing this), or the student has to find a way to cover the difference.

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