I finished my undergrad in Electrical Engineering at the end of 2014, and since 2013 then I've been working on a startup that is soon going to fail.

I would like to apply for a Masters in 2017, and to strengthen my research profile in my resume, as well as earn letters of recommendation (which I sorely lack), I'm considering working under a professor/ at a lab for a year or so (in a research area similar to that I worked on at my startup).

However all research assistant/research associate positions seem to be advertised only towards students currently already studying in a graduate (masters/PhD) program.

Is it common/normal/acceptable for people to work in a university lab between their undergraduate and masters, like I wish to? If so, what are these positions usually called in the US/Europe, if not Research Assistantship?

To clarify, in addition to gaining experience, my main motivation would be to have a well known professor/someone at a well known lab recommend me, since I have a only one professor from my undergrad who would be willing to give me a strong letter of recommendation. I cannot expect anything from my present colleagues. Most applications seem to require 3 such letters.

  • 1
    This answer to a related question explains why many professors may be less interested in a candidate who is not a student in their department, and how you can try to overcome that resistance.
    – ff524
    Mar 23, 2016 at 23:12
  • I'm relevant. Yay.
    – erip
    Mar 24, 2016 at 2:09

5 Answers 5


Sure, it is normal to work for a university lab with only a bachelors or masters. However, none of the people I knew did this as a transition between undergrad and grad, rather they did it to transition out of research.

The job titles range widely though, especially across fields. I have seen job titles of "Research Programmer", "Research Engineer", "Software Engineer", "Systems Researcher", etc. This is in Computer Science so other fields may have something along the lines of "Lab Technician" or other domain specific titles.

If you want to do research, then apply to graduate programs that are relevant to you and attempt to contact potential advisors.

  • Hi, I edited my question to add the last para. The reason I cannot apply for a grad program right away is that I have only one LoR, while most programs require atleast 3
    – vwooten
    Mar 23, 2016 at 23:14
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    @vwooten Contact the university/department to see if they can make an exception since you went to industry. If that doesn't work, contact old professors, even if they aren't top notch letters. I had no letters so it really just depends on the university and department. There are plenty of questions on this site about how to handle not having letters or transitioning from industry to grad school. Mar 23, 2016 at 23:21
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    I had no idea that was possible. Thanks, I'll take a look at this option too.
    – vwooten
    Mar 23, 2016 at 23:24

I know several people who have done this, but all of them worked at their undergraduate institute under a professor they knew or had worked with. It is not very common in general and I think it would be very unlikely for you to find such a position posted online. I think you would have to contact professors directly for this.

An approach I have seen work though is one where students identify a research group they are interested in joining for their graduate education and start working there as a volunteer and apply for admission to the program in the meantime. If the volunteer is doing good work during this time period it could help them in the admission process and sometimes the PI would offer to start paying a salary.


It can be rough. Hiring options for such positions can be limited, at least in the US, because hiring a matriculation student is a different process than hiring a non student - which is what you are until you start your Masters. It can be done, of course, but the faculty who hires you, as well as the department, must be willing to go to the trouble.


Often assistantship positions are used as (partial or extra) funding for graduate students (or undergraduates transitioning to graduates). This means that as a non-student you'd have to compete for (limited!) positions with them.

And then there is the hassle of hiring a non-student. Here assistantships aren't considered "work" if the assistant is a student, hiring a non-student for such a position would mean a lot of extra hassle and significantly higher costs (even if the assitant ends up getting the same money), so it won't be done (except for very, very special cases, if at all).


I think this is highly country dependent. Here in Portugal, there are (i) research grants and (ii) work contacts. Research grants require being a student except for post-docs. Contracts are typically only available in research institutes. What some people do after finishing the masters, but do not yet feel ready for a phd, is to gain a research grant and then enroll in a "fake" graduate program, just to fill the requisites.

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