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Note on applicability of this question to others

I’m aware of this post, which was closed for being too individual-specific. I’ve included information specific to me, but I wrote my questions to be general enough that answers could be helpful to others.

Background

For various reasons related to my mental health, I was not as good an undergraduate student as I could have been. I now have my mental health under control, but my personal problems have lost me precious experience and time and have left me with some lackluster qualifications for my graduate applications:

  • My GPA is not disqualifying, but it is below average for the best schools for my field, which is either computer science with a focus on human cognition or cognitive science.
  • I have a couple major (>6 month) research projects under my belt, as well as an independent study.
  • A research project that has carried over after I graduated in May (set to wrap up this December) may result in a paper with my name on it sometime in the next year, but this is not certain.

My plan for overcoming these mediocre qualifications is to take two or three gap years to buff up my application before applying to grad school for either the Fall 2023 or Fall 2024 cycle. (I will apply for the 2023 cycle no matter what to “test the waters”.) The ideal situation is that I could find a way to do research that would produce a paper, and if that can’t happen, to at least do research that I (or someone else) could cite as experience. Seeing as I am “university homeless” for the time being, I see three possibilities: working in a lab, working in industry R&D, and doing a master’s program.

Questions

  • How might I seek out jobs or labs which would give me a chance at getting published, or at least provide me with good research experience?
  • How would a master’s program look (and function) as opposed to a job?
  • I am, obviously, new to this. Is there something I’m missing, or anything else that I should know (or that you should know)?

I am committed to getting into as good a graduate school as I can — my long-term goal is to become a research professor in a cognitive science or cogsci-adjacent field, so I want to correct my shaky start as soon as possible, and I would appreciate any advice for how I can do so.

Edit: One more question

An extremely helpful comment has made me aware that some master's programs give stipends, which would make a two-year master's starting Fall 2022 a possibility. I have recommenders lined up, but unfortunately I don't have their letters yet, as I expected I wouldn't need them until much later. Asking professors to write me a letter of recommendation in a week makes me cringe, but if that's what's to be done, then there it is. Given the above,

  • Can doing a master's take time off of a Ph.D., either via coursework or research? 22 + 2 gap years + 2 master's years + 5 Ph.D. years would have me finishing my Ph.D. at 31, which is less than ideal for an aspiring research professor. If the answer is yes, I would be more comfortable applying to a two-year master's starting Fall 2023 if a master's is the best shot I have at getting into a good Ph.D.
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    You might find this (inexhaustive) list of research-based CS Master's programs useful (some funded some not): cs.princeton.edu/~smattw/masters/masters.html
    – CSSTUDENT
    Nov 25 at 4:57
  • Wow, this is incredibly useful; I can't thank you enough. Admissions for these programs are all within the next month, some as close as next week — I have some thinking to do, and I hope answers to my question can help with that.
    – fibonaccho
    Nov 25 at 15:25
  • You have also made this question extremely personal and specific, like the earlier one.
    – Buffy
    Nov 25 at 16:35

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