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I recently earned an undergraduate degree in computer science*. I had no interest in going to grad school, so I focused purely on coursework. I have no research experience.

I am now more open to the idea of further education, and I think life will be more fulfilling if I produce knowledge than if I just apply my knowledge in developing a product.

How can I get started on research in a way that will (1) let me know if it is something I want to spend my life doing, and (2) pave the way to a PhD in CS if I decide it is something I want to do? (I ask this question under the assumption that applying for a PhD is off the table for now because I do not yet know if I even like research, and even if I did know that, I have no research experience to show off and no one to write letters of recommendation that vouch for me as a researcher.)

Could I...

  • Get a master's degree? (Tuition and moving out of state are a steep price to pay just to see if I like something. Plus, I doubt my potential to get into a good program due to a lack of CS professors who know me well enough to write a letter of recommendation for me.)

  • Enroll in a post-baccalaureate program with a non-CS major (e.g. math) just to be an undergraduate again and have professors to do some research with, even if I do not intend to complete another undergraduate degree?

  • Get an entry level software development job and move from there into R&D?

  • Get a job as a research assistant for university faculty? (Or volunteer to do it for free?)

Whatever the answer, I need the opportunity to prove myself to someone who can write a letter of recommendation that is taken seriously for PhD admissions. (I originally titled this question "How to get LoRs with no undergraduate research experience" until I realized the scope of my question was much wider than how to get into a PhD program. Getting LoRs is still essential, though -- if I decide I want a PhD, then I need to have a shot at it.)

*Or rather, I will in six months -- this question is from a future perspective. I am also considering the options I have before graduating, but those are for another question. The point of this question is: if none of those options work out, then what other options will I have left?

  • @MadJack I am looking at undergraduate research opportunities, but six month is a very short time, and there is barely any undergraduate CS research at my school. I want to know what other options I will have. – Jordan Dec 26 '15 at 4:21
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    Is it expected that you have research experience before applying for a PhD program in CS? It isn't in math (in the US), and many people leave after a master's if they decide research isn't for them. – Kimball Dec 26 '15 at 16:20
  • @Kimball I don't have a particular source to cite, but I have read hundreds of Q&As on this site and several articles/blogs by academics. They are pretty much unanimous in that (1) I should not apply for a PhD unless I know from experience that I love research, and (2) a successful application requires at least 1 letter of recommendation from a reputable professional researcher that says I would be an excellent researcher. I can't imagine how to do that without doing actual research with a real profesional. (Which doesn't mean publishing a paper; it just means attacking a research problem.) – Jordan Dec 27 '15 at 0:17
  • We all started that way... – vonbrand Dec 27 '15 at 0:24
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One method you can try is to delay graduation by one year and start working on a research project under the guidance of a faculty member in your CS department. If no such undergrad research program exists in your department, it may be possible to arrange something with individual professors (under the name of senior thesis, independent study, or on-campus employment, etc.) who are interested in taking on a student. Another good option is to find an internship or research assistant position in another university after you graduate. However, even such opportunities usually come with the expectation that you have some research experience to begin with. So a more realistic approach may be to start doing research now in your undergrad institute as a stepping stone while you are still a student, and then apply for an external internship/research assistant position with the help of your research supervisor.

Getting a master's degree is a possibility. If you choose this approach make sure that you are not getting a terminal master's degree that is intended to prepare for professional work in, for example, software development, rather than to prepare for further PhD studies. Finally, getting a job in software development is probably not a good idea, because usually the practical experience you get has little direct bearing on the content of a PhD study. Spending one or two years coding does not help to develop your ability to do theoretical research.

No matter which approach you take, the key to a meaningful internship is to find someone who is 1) well-established in the academia and 2) good with mentoring. Ideally, you want to spend 1-2 years in this person's lab, so that you have enough time to grow as a researcher and demonstrate your ability (and potential) to consistently produce good research work. You may want to talk with some professors who are familiar with you for recommendations, or talk with students in your prospective mentor's lab to get to know the professor's reputation. Remember that it is not enough to simply spend 2 or 3 months in a lab just so that you can pad your resume with some extra fluff.

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    very good answer! also applicable to other fields. – SSimon Dec 26 '15 at 5:07
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How can I get started on research in a way that will (1) let me know if it is something I want to spend my life doing, and (2) pave the way to a PhD in CS if I decide it is something I want to do?

I get that you only recently determined that you may want to do research. However, the fact that you haven't already sought out some research projects with faculty at your school may suggest some degree of a lack of seriousness on your part about really finding out if research is right for you or not. That said ...

You are still enrolled in your undergraduate program, and you have 6 months left until you graduate. So I think a logical first step would be to talk to professors at your school now to see if they have any projects you could work on for the remainder of your time at your undergrad institution. While you may or may not obtain any research breakthroughs during a 6-month time frame, this will be a great way to learn very quickly if research is right for you, and could even help you narrow down your areas of interest. Time is of the essence; don't let the last 6 months of your undergraduate career go to waist!

Looking beyond your undergraduate career, there are a few options to consider. Some of the options that you mentioned in your post don't really make a whole lot of sense to me. As I see it, here are the two main, logical options that you have going forward:

  • Get a job related to your subject area in a city that has a decent graduate program in the field you are interested in, and enroll into the grad program as a part-time Masters student. If being a part-time student while working full-time doesn't appeal to you, check with faculty to see if they'd be willing to work with you as a non-student. Either way, get involved with those faculty who are doing the types of research that you find interesting.

  • Skip going into industry and go straight into a full-time Masters program. Don't get caught up into the same cycle you are in now, where you are only focusing on your coursework. Be very proactive with the faculty and try to scope out a project where you can really get exposed to research and what it is all about.

For either of the above options, so long as you do good work, and if you decide that research is what you want to do, then obtaining quality LoRs for admission to a PhD program should be a no-brainer.

The key decision that needs to be made is whether you should go into industry after graduating with your undergrad degree or not. This is a very personal decision, and nobody can make this decision for you.

I did my Masters degree part-time while working full-time. It's not easy, and nobody said it would be, but it was the way forward that made the most sense for me at the time. In my case, I felt like I needed to do some industry work before I did any research to

  1. acclimate myself to where my subfield was going, and
  2. figure out how I could plug into that.

Whether to go the part-time or full-time Masters degree route is a very personal decision, and the right path for you depends on your preferences and the particulars of your situation.

In the comments, you wrote:

I am looking at undergraduate research opportunities, but six month is a very short time, and there is barely any undergraduate CS research at my school. I want to know what other options I will have.

Again, I am concerned that you are not quite up to the challenge of really finding out the answers you are seeking; stop looking for excuses and start attacking the problem now.

In the end, I can't stress the following enough:

There is no substitute for being very proactive and highly motivated to find out for yourself if research is really right for you or not.

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