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Does anyone have any information, either formal or anecdotal, about being a research assistant as a nondegree student, specifically with the aim of getting published?

In particular, I am referring to a situation where someone with a bachelor's degree takes coursework as a nondegree student and tries to participate in research in preparation for graduate study.

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Ask the school. Some have programs which give undergrads the chance to work in research labs, with the actual jobs being determined by the researcher's evaluation of their skill level. It may just be cleaning cages and washing bottles or the equivalent, it may be more seriously assisting the research protocol, or it may start with the former and grow as you demonstrate that you have or can acquire the needed skills. It all depends on what that particular researcher is looking for and what you can offer them.

If this program exists, they'll be able to give you a list of who's currently looking for what. It's then up to you to contact them and interview for the position.

Some versions of this offer an academic credit or two; some pay at on-campus-undergraduate-job rates.

Again: only your school knows what's available at your school. First step is to ask whether it exists. If you're not sure which office might be in charge of this, I've found that the administrative assistants in the department office usually know just about everything about the school, or know who to ask.

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This wouldn't work for me as an employer of research assistants. Undergraduates and random people off the street rarely have technical sophistication to be able to participate in my research projects. I'm pretty sure that in most cases I'm beholden to my NSF grant terms to pay a PhD, a postdoc, or a student to do the work, since this is what we said we'd do in the grant application budget. The people may be more or less interchangeable to the granting agencies as long as the work gets done, but I believe there's more to it than that.

I don't think a non-degree-seeking person can be a/an (graduate or undergraduate) research assistant under my university's HR rules either since they must be currently enrolled as an undergrad or graduate student to have either of those titles. Also, I'm basically not allowed to have an unpaid research assistant nor am I interested in such a person. First, it's probably illegal in the US, and second, it's a bit off-puting to me that you would come, do some research, and then leave once you've gotten the publication that you think will get you into grad school. I prefer to have a deeper, longer relationship with my research collaborators than what it takes to get one good publication out the door.

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  • Those are some good, practical concerns. However, I think the legality issue, and perhaps the HR consideration, too, could be avoided if one were to be classified as a "Research Assistant Volunteer", or something like that.
    – d0rmLife
    Oct 2, 2015 at 23:59
  • @d0rmLife, that title doesn't exist at my university to my knowledge. Also, I don't think the Dept. of Labor cares what figleaf you put on it via a bogus title. Uncompensated work is still illegal.
    – Bill Barth
    Oct 3, 2015 at 2:40
  • I'm not sure why you are so hostile about this. If I want to volunteer my time and skills to help someone else, while trying to further my career, I see that as entirely acceptable, both ethically and legally.
    – d0rmLife
    Oct 3, 2015 at 18:50
  • It's ethical, though generally not welcome in my experience. Volunteers have a reputation for flaking out and not completing their assignments (generally speaking), so having something like a salary or other incentive (like a degree or course credit) to keep them motivated seems to be the norm. A non-degree seeking student may have trouble finding a prof. to work with even if a research course is available for them to take.
    – Bill Barth
    Oct 3, 2015 at 20:24

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