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I'm a first year physics master student from EU currently doing a research internship at an Ivy league school in the US. It is also to fulfil the requirement of my home university to get an internship for 4-6 months.

Right now I'm wondering the possibility to find a funded research opportunity here in the US for a period of, say, one full year. (I do not want to continue with my current professor as I'm not that interested in what they do). And I'll no longer continue my second year of master and will apply for PhD next.

The reasons for this are

  1. I really don't like to go to classes. To me, self-study is much more constructive than taking courses.
  2. I found doing research is much more worthwhile and right now I have been doing pretty well with little guidance from my supervisor.
  3. Language barrier. My home university is in Paris and I don't know any French. My undergraduate is in the UK. Although it is taught in English, the communication with peer students and life in general makes me feel so restricted and uncomfortable.

Before seeking out to look for opportunities, my concern is how likely I can find a PI that is willing to fund me for one year doing research with them? Also given that I'm an international student, is this possible at all?


In regards to some answers here,

  1. is it not true that thousands of international students come to the US on a J1 visa for a short period of time, from one month to over half a year, to do funded research? (and I'm one of them, although the caveat here is that I'm holding the identity of a student...)
  2. Technically, shouldn't a good research that you do be equivalent or even more valuable than a master thesis, in terms of PhD application?
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    If you won't be a student while you are working, it's extremely unlikely for immigration reasons. If you will be a student then it depends entirely on what restrictions are for you to work on your student visa.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 31 at 5:05
  • @BryanKrauseisonstrike What immigration reasons to be precise?
    – Shefield
    Jul 31 at 17:51
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    You need permission to work in the US. A student visa may let you do some work with some limitations on it, but getting a visa to just work is not trivial and not something you get automatically for having had a student visa.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 31 at 17:57
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    To add to Bryan's comments, there really is no good reason why a professor would want the hassles of hiring a foreign person to be a non-student research assistant when they already have students to do that job. Any international students will need a student visa, which is much easier to get than a non-student working visa. Sure, apply for PhD positions starting in the fall of 2024, but your best bet to get one of those is likely finishing up your masters degree (and what else would you do with your time?).
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 31 at 18:42

3 Answers 3

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Funding of young scientists in a competitive field like Physics is difficult and channelled into certain tracks, mainly Ph.D. students and to a lesser extent undergraduate research experiences. It is unlikely to find someone who will fund you in another capacity, because they need the funding before they even talk to you. So, even if you find a PI with money to spend, they will most likely not be able to spend it on you, at least not without some real trouble. They would have better and easier ways to get their work done using traditional relationships.

Second, funding is often open only to people of certain characteristics, e.g. as part of an international academic exchange program. If you are not a US-citizen, any arrangement would also take cognizance of that, as you would only be allowed to receive funds in the US under very restricted rules. Basically, without you being a student, it would become suddenly very difficult.

You should really considering finishing your current degree and then apply for a Ph.D. slot in the US. Alternatively, you can already apply for Ph.D. programs, but jumping from an MS program to a Ph.D. program is begging the question of why you are leaving it. You would need to explain this in your application.

Make sure you have a good relationship with your current US-based supervisor, since you will need them as a source of a good letter of reference.

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There are a few issues here. I'll try to answer your question first though. This probably isn't realistic for you. It might be technically possible but practically very unlikely.

If you are working as a student you can't just start working not as a student. I'm not an immigration lawyer but I'm fairly certain that this would run afoul of some law or another - unless you found a PI and their institution to sponsor you for a work visa. This can already present an issue for many highly qualified individuals (e.g., medical doctors, professors, other professionals) looking to move to/work in the US. I would think it would be basically impossible to find a willing PI and institution to sponsor such a low level position like a Research Assistant (especially on such a temporary basis). Students and recent graduates in the US already fight over relatively limited lab spots.

Now on to a couple thoughts I have that don't directly answer your question:

  1. You say you don't like classes but if you are looking to do a PhD, you're still going to need to take them. In fact, in the US the first two years of a PhD are often basically a master's. I'm not super familiar with the university systems of any European countries you might be interested in but I'd be shocked if there weren't some requirements prior to your candidacy. Presumably, if classes aren't required during the PhD, there is an expectation that you already have a master's.

  2. Quitting a master's in the middle might be a bit problematic. Lots of people do a master's then go on to a PhD. So, in my opinion, it is stranger to have quit and "switched" degrees than to complete your master's and then advance. I would bet you'll have to answer questions about this. I'm worried that your reasoning will not convince a new PI to invest time, energy, and funds into you - especially in some countries that treat PhD spots more like jobs.

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I strongly recommend finishing off your master's program with a great thesis.

For one year research opportunities, check out pre-doctoral fellowships. You'll have to search on university websites; email hundreds of professors, etc. It is difficult but certainly doable.

If you have good relations with any of your professors, it might become much easier.

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