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I have a strong desire and determination to contribute to society by expanding the knowledge in my field of interest, but I feel that I am failing to get into a position to fulfill this dream. This is mainly due to being a high school dropout who now gets his bachelors through distance studies. How can I improve my chances to go along the path to become an academic?

My background: I failed high school mainly due to my learning disability, dyslexia, but depression and social anxiety also played a role. Two years after dropping out I secured a placement for a mathematical and technical software development apprenticeship which included a vocational school with mathematics at an undergraduate level. I finished the apprenticeship as the best regional apprentice. My teachers also recognized my ability, but in the end I was unable to attend a normal university because I did not have the required high school degree.

I decided to start a part time distance BSc (Honours) degree with The Open University which does not have formal requirements. When I had enough money to fund my degree I quit my job as software engineer, to study full time and do some independent research in a mix of deep learning, high performance computing and mathematical optimization applied to natural language processing.

I could graduate July/August next year and probably score an upper second-class degree (first-class and lower second-class are possible). My research so far did not yield any significant results. I was able to improve on algorithms that are in the literature, but the improvement was only very marginal. I gained a lot of experience through my failures though, and I might be able to publish a paper about the some new but mediocre result and also give an overview over the small niche I worked on to help researchers to not tap into the same mistakes as I did.

My Problems:

  • My degree does not have a bachelor thesis where I could show off my ability of doing research

  • I do not have contacts with other academics that work in my area (The Open University does not do any research in my area of interest, and it is difficult to get people interested to work with someone who has a background like I do)

  • I will have good to great letters of recommendation in industry, but not in academia (a letter of recommendation from a professor/tutor at the distance university will be rather weak)
  • My field of interest is rather narrow; Master placements or PhD programs at the universities that do work in this area are very competitive, and it is unlikely that I will succeed with my current work/background/connections to secure any such placement. I do not know if I can work on other topics in mathematics or computer science with the same motivation and determination as I do now in my current area of interest.

One advantage of doing distance studies is that I can work and do internships at the same time as studying. I could spend an additional year on my bachelors and do some research in the meantime to graduate with some papers. But I am 27 already and I feel that I cannot spend much more time on my bachelor’s degree.

There is already some good general information on academia.stackexchange concerning how to improve an unfavorable background. But I feel that my situation is rather different as a distance student. I mainly feel that I failed to create a social network within academia because there is so little opportunity for me, and more specific information how to overcome this isolation from other academics would be appreciated. For example should I try to publish a paper first and then reach out for interships in research, or should I should try now without anything research related results in my hands?

To put the question in more general terms, what can a socially isolated student with weak background do to extend his or her chances to enter academia?

If I continue to finish my degree next year, rather than doing an additional year, I will need to apply for a masters quite soon. What kind of masters should somebody with potential but weak background chose? How can I polish up my application for such masters? One simple thing which comes to my mind is to blog about my attempts of doing research – does this make sense to invest time into?

  • Conferences are one place for people in industry can easily and casually meet academics. Look for conferences in your field of interest over the next year in your country, or where you manage to travel. For CS the main two associations that would sponsor such conference are IEEE (IEEE Computer Society and IEEE itself) and ACM. For Math/CS there is also SIAM, and likely several I am not familiar with. – mctylr Aug 8 '14 at 18:40
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First of all, before you even think of anything, you need to change your attitude towards yourself. I have a feeling that you underestimate yourself and use yourself as an excuse for not doing something.

It doesn't matters if you have a substantial research background to apply to grad school. Usually Masters programs do not even put too much weightage on that. Plus, you have great recommendations from industry professionals. May be that was what you always liked, and that is what the admission would be based on. The department would see your interests and how you have put them to good use. They pay much attention to your personal statement and letters of recommendations, along with your undergraduate transcripts.

To successfully get admitted, do not day dream! Research on the institutes. Decide on them based on your profile and the kind of profile those universities look for. Keep practical expectations. Show them the interest in grad school. Show them that you would be able to get something out of your grad studies and that they are not wasting their resources.

Do not get disheartened if you don't get your dream university, there are always future chances.

Oh and did I mention, have atleast 4-5 universities in mind, when you plan to start applying to grad school.

Without a research experience, PhD might be tough to get in to, but not impossible. But masters is the safest bet.

Good luck!! :)

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