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I need some advice about how to gain research experience when I have been working in the industry for about 10 years.

I was recently rejected by all the graduate programs I applied to. Granted, they are all very competitive. I am glad I got some interviews and was waitlisted, and I would really like to try again.

I realized that I do not have much recent research experience and my LORs were all written by professors I knew 10 years ago. I wonder if there is any way I can gain more research experience by volunteering to work as a RA. I heard it's common in the labs, but sure of how it works in humanities. Any advice will be most appreciated! Thank you.

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    Don't volunteer to do research. If you're working, you should be paid. Commented May 11, 2023 at 11:24
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    What field? Generally, speaking, there are much fewer RA positions in the humanities, because there are fewer tasks to delegate. After all, another person can't understand something for you! Commented May 11, 2023 at 17:30

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It is common to "volunteer" as a research assistant in my field (not humanities), although this is generally something undergraduate students do. I think whether or not these "volunteers" should be paid is outside the scope of your question.

At some point, by the graduate level, I would expect compensation, whether you are an employee or supported via a stipend. But your situation is a bit unique. You are returning to school and it is not clear how independently you could work as a researcher. You may well only be able to function at the level of an undergraduate student i.e. this would be a learning experience for you rather than a productive job.

With that in mind, before you make any decision I think you should determine if your lack of research and old references are actually holding you back. If that turns out to be the case, I think your options are to:

  1. Apply to other programs that may be less competitive or may be more forgiving of your lack of research experience.

  2. Look for a paid RA position. It isn't uncommon for departments to prefer known internal applicants for graduate programs, especially if there is funding on the line. Obviously you also gain relevant experience. This may not be possible if these positions are not common in your field.

  3. Decide for yourself if a "volunteer" position allows you to reach your goals. This would almost certainly not require a full-time commitment but you may consider enrolling as a non-degree-seeking student. It is easier to set up this sort of arraignment if you are already in the university system and have access to campus and faculty.

  4. Assuming you are applying to PhD programs, you could first apply for a Master's at your target institution. These may be less likely to reject you for a lack of research. Then, as with option 2, you would be a known quantity at that university. The downside here is that MS degrees are usually not funded, if that is a consideration for you. This could also add time, although I would expect any credits to transfer within the same institution.

I want to reiterate that before making any decisions you should try to confirm that your lack of research/old references are actually the major reason you were not accepted. Most of these options requires commitment of significant time and effort. Poor interview skills, lukewarm references, mediocre grades, or a weak personal statement/CV could hold someone back from a competitive graduate program so it is in your best interest to spend your energy where it will have the greatest impact.

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  • Thank you!! These are really good advice!!
    – OceanO
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 7:26
  • It never occurred to me that I need more research experience and maybe different professors to write LoRs for me. However, after I got rejected, one of the three professors wrote to me that I should make some connections and find someone else to replace her. And my advisor said she did not think I could get into a program even if I try again this year. Although I know they put in good words, these all made me think that I maybe need to find someone in academia who believes in my ability to be successful in pursuing a PhD...
    – OceanO
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 7:33
  • This is interesting. Your question makes it seem like you specifically needed research. It sounds like you really need a supportive advisor/mentor/advocate. I think the 3rd and 4th options I listed are more relevant in light of this information
    – sErISaNo
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 15:38
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    Looks like I need both...thanks for clearing that up for me! I thought it's a miracle that the professors from 10 years ago still remembered me..and was super grateful for their support. but I do need to see it for myself that I can do solid research now..
    – OceanO
    Commented May 13, 2023 at 7:05
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Not an advise but a question. Can you turn your supposed weakness into a strength?

Having spent 10 years in industry, can you not impress your potential advisor by proposing a study that would utilise your observations of some demographic or sociological aspects of the industry where you have been employed? Or some psychological issues related? Then you will have to look for departments, or particular scholars, whose research overlaps with these topics. To them, you could then be a valuable acquisition.

If you are not aiming at demography or sociology, you still can enrich your application package with an essay on the history of your industry, or on the professional jargon used in it.

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    The questioner is trying to work in the humanities. Commented May 12, 2023 at 2:41
  • @AzorAhai-him- Sociology, psychology, linguistics, or history - are they not humanities? Commented May 12, 2023 at 5:02
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    are they not humanities? -- Typically, at least in the U.S. (maybe different elsewhere), there are three major academic-study/research classifications -- natural sciences, social sciences, humanities. Sociology and psychology are well within the social sciences classification. Linguistics and history are borderline between social sciences and humanities -- each of these two fields has, for each of these two classifications, nontrivial subfields belonging to that classification. Commented May 12, 2023 at 7:16
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    Thanks for the input! Yes I tried to focus on my "real-world experience" in my SOP but it did not get me very far...In the aftermath of all the rejections, I wonder if maybe the PoIs that I chose this time were not such a good match...? I'll do more research and reach out to more professors. Hopefully someone in the academia might find my experience and connections are "valuable acquisition"...
    – OceanO
    Commented May 12, 2023 at 7:42
  • History is, but you didn’t mention it in your A. Commented May 12, 2023 at 13:12

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