I graduated with a Masters of Engineering, concentrating in digital signal processing, in particular medical and audio, almost two years ago. I've always been interested in research, but due to personal circumstances I could never commit a lot of time to working on a research project with a professor, and obviously didn't get a chance to publish anything. Now that I'm more settled and have much more time on my hands, I started getting involved in some open source projects and reading some technical literature (engineering, mathematics) that I couldn't get to before. However, I'd still like to find someone to to collaborate with on a research project who is already established in the field and publishes papers. Part of the reason I want to do that is to be able to eventually apply for a Ph.D. program in a good school, and having publications would be a great thing on my resume.

What I'm trying to find out is how I can work on a research project similar to those graduate students work on as a part of their studies if I'm not a student anymore? Should I contact my old professors from the university? Is it possible to find some "open research" team that accepts collaborators from outside? Do I have to do it on my own (quite frankly I'm not sure I can give myself a good enough quick-start)? In short, I'm willing to volunteer my time in exchange for a possibility of publication in the future. Can I do it, and if yes then how?

  • 1
    +1 for a good question, which has generated a variety of responses!
    – TCSGrad
    Commented Feb 22, 2012 at 3:43
  • 2
    How could we contact you? Your profile could fit our research lines Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 20:44
  • @flow [email protected]
    – Phonon
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 2:09

7 Answers 7


It's certainly possible, though admittedly somewhat harder outside the framework of a university. Some potential avenues, answering generally - not all of them might apply to your particular circumstance.

  1. Academic/Business partnerships. These are a new hot topic, and in some fields quite active. Universities love them because they're a revenue stream. Businesses like them because its harder to get closer to the cutting edge than at a major university. Look for companies that do this as potential employers? They're good for both dabbling in research, and also as a springboard into the research side of things - I've met several "private sector refugees" in my time.
  2. Research-oriented companies. Quintiles, RTI, Westat, RAND, etc. all come to mind. There are tons of these companies, and many of them both pay quite well and actively publish. Are there any that serve your particular field?
  3. Consulting. Research groups occasionally have funding for outside contractors of one sort or another - and if someone really wants to work with you, they may write such a position into a grant with you in mind. For example, I have some grant support for a freelance programmer. I've known other people hired for a particular expertise, or just "a warm body who isn't a student". This is probably the path you'd end up going down if you both contact your ex-professors and want to get paid.
  4. Volunteering. Academics are cheap. It never hurts to ask if they've got some side project you might be suited for collecting dust in the back.
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    With regard to #4, you may find some resistance to volunteers (at least in the US). My group has a policy of not having anyone working in the lab who is not paid. The two big concerns seems to insurance and potential future liability for "exploiting" the volunteers. Anyone paid (which runs through the university) is covered by the university's insurance, and there have been court rulings that went against departments that made heavy use of "volunteers". Commented May 13, 2012 at 22:31
  • @dmckee---ex-moderatorkitten This resistance to volunteers working in the lab makes sense for the reasons you mention, but what's bewildering if that there is also reluctance to onboard volunteers that do theoretical work. I.e., folks who are passionate, don't need/want to get paid, and don't even require a desk as they could work from home would still get rejected when approaching researchers for potential side projects. The reason is: why, oh why!? Do the same at the industry and they'd take you (almost) right away.
    – Tfovid
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 8:23

The short answer is yes, you can.

There is no need to be in a university, a research lab to work on a research project. There is also no need to have a PhD or any other specific degree/position. This is however somehow unusual. But, there is a bunch of people in industry that publish on a regular basis some serious research work.

If you have no idea of the problem you want to address, or at least a broad domain, this will be even harder. I can only advice you to offer your manpower to people who are established researchers. For that purpose, you can go to seminars, you can maybe, if this is possible where you live, lurk into some graduate lectures, etc. After a while you will be able to talk with people and offer your services. However, the simple way is to work with relatives. For instance, my brother is an entrepreneur, and he wrotes two papers with me (one is published, the other will be soon I hope). Of course, it was simple: I described one of my problem on a sunday lunch at the parents house, He had some ideas, we worked on it...


It is possible to take part in a research project, but your situation is not that common.

Many labs have paid positions for Research Assistants, where you will assist with managing all aspects of the research except for defining the problem to be solved. Details of the position will vary from lab to lab, but you will often be very involved in the research. Usually research assistants are not authors on publications, so you would need to discuss the details with the professor managing whatever lab you're interested in.

Also, many labs will take on undergraduate student volunteers to assist them with their research. Your having completed an undergraduate degree may make you eligible for these positions, on a case-by-case basis. You would want to speak with individual labs to see whether they would be amenable to this sort of arrangement. Note that position would almost certainly not be paid. Also, note additionally that there may be insurance issues which would preclude you from following this path... you'll have to look into this for yourself.


The best thing for you to do is almost certainly to just start emailing professors who do things you're interested in.

Especially if you mention that you're interested in eventually pursuing a PhD, they may be sympathetic. Most researchers have a sizable number of problems on their personal back burner that they'd be willing to share, but in my experience, it's better to just go ahead and email a number of professors who do work that interests you.

Be prepared for a number of rejections, or even just to have your email ignored -- so you may want to email many different professors -- but it's not unlikely you'll find a professor interested in working with you.


Yes - totally. Just think about this: a lot of professors even allow high school students to take part in research. Since you have some more experience, they won't have to spend as much time training you, so they are often totally willing to let you join in (after all, it's free labor).

You may have to be somewhat flexible (and to be prepared to accept unpaid work), but it can work if you're living with family/flexible friends [1]/relatives.

[1] Basically, some friends are willing to let you stay with them for free as long as you make their life more interesting (I'm willing to grant this favor to others since my life is rather bland at the moment), or if you can share in with the cooking/other chores.

  • "A lot of professors even allow high school students to take part in research" Really? Never seen that in computer science. What's the field/some examples? Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 23:28
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    Well, some students get high school research and are able to present it at science fairs like Intel ISEF. Though I think the research is probably more likely to be done with their postdoc/grad student. CS is a bit harder to make progress in with HS knowledge. It's more common in areas like biology and astronomy. Commented Apr 27, 2014 at 0:51

It's not clear, based on your letter, what discipline you're working in, but I would assume that it's something somewhat "portable," since you don't make any mention of moving to the site of the collaborator's laboratory.

The main obstacle I would see would be how to credit your work. Technically, unless you're funded with or directly affiliated with a research group (for instance, with a university ID, etc.), there may be liability issues associated with your claiming their affiliation. Also, the collaborators in question may be leery of the same.

That said, there are still options. One possibility is that you create a startup-like business that allows you to represent yourself as "Company X"; coupled with an academic or research affiliation or two, this should be enough to get you started.

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    Why do you need an affiliation at all? I've seen several (math) papers that simply list the author's private mailing address.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 22, 2012 at 5:12
  • @JeffE: In math that's probably OK, but in a field like the hard sciences which typically requires either laboratory work or access to "heavy" scientific computing, having a private address screams "mad scientist in basement," and is very much stigmatized. (I've never seen that for papers in chemistry, physics, materials science, or engineering.)
    – aeismail
    Commented Feb 22, 2012 at 6:20
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    Hmmm. I see plenty of "mad scientists" with academic credentials, too. Is it really too much to expect scientists (of all people) to judge papers by their content? (Also: A fair fraction of chemistry, physics, materials science, and engineering is really just math.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 22, 2012 at 21:15
  • @JeffE: I don't disagree with your assessments—at all. (The Andrulis affair lends credence to your claim.) However, that doesn't change the fact that journals in those fields severely frown on "unaffiliated" scientists.
    – aeismail
    Commented Feb 22, 2012 at 21:32
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    Downvoted: You start by assuming the OP is not doing lab work (which makes lots of sense), then you discuss the importance of affiliations because it's important in sciences doing lab work. I think you could edit the answer to explain that in some disciplines affiliations count. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 23:35

there are 2 options

  1. go to your nearest junior college and talk to a professor in the subject of your interest and see if they would be willing to let you sign up for an independent study course in their subject and be willing to guide you. You might have to take one of their formal course first to prove yourself and learn some modern techniques. In any case for this option you would need to have some idea of what research project you want to do. Junior colleges have much easier and faster admission and the professors are much friendlier, more dedicated to teaching, and much better scientists than at a university, so this could be a good option, many have their own research projects going with students that you might be able to join. The ego and bureaucracy at a junior college will be much less and the standards of learning, teaching and creativity much higher than a university.

  2. you can do the same at a university. Almost all universities offer the opportunity to enroll in coursework without being formally admitted, they are usually called open courses, extension or some other name. In this case you are not a degree seeking student but can pay tuition to take a course. This is a good way to investigate their program, meet professors and decide if you would like to apply there as a degree seeker. It will be more expensive than a junior college and more paperwork because you are dealing with the huge bureaucracy and egos that are the university machine. You can also apply any coursework you take to a later degree if applicable

I have done both of the above and am now finishing up a doctorate, although I cant say that I recommend the doctoral program if you are pure and passionate about your subject and currently enjoy it.

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