I just finished an MBA in the UK. It included a research dissertation (about 18,000 words) and a research methods module and adviser to go with it. However, my adviser made it clear during my research that it was my project and my responsibility and not his. It was clear that he was happy to mark my dissertation but didn't want to be bothered by actually helping me to learn much about research.

In the end, I did the research on my own and got distinction on the paper, which I was happy about. However, now I'm thinking more and more about pursuing a PhD, perhaps in intercultural management, and I feel like a highly respectable school would not consider me because I do not have much research experience.

So, my question is: What can I do to gain research experience, now that I've finished my MBA, with an eye towards getting into a good school for a PhD?

As I have read, publications will help a lot but I feel like I don't have the experience to do the kind of research to get into a good publications. I really think I need to build my research skills...and would like to know how to do that.

Another related problems is when doing business research (I get the feeling most people here are from the science/math side of academia) is gaining access to companies (to gather data) and I'm not sure how to do that without an adviser.

I have read this, this, and this question but I think my question is different from each of them.

  • IMO, I don't think students in management are required to have much research experience, in contrast with more academic fields such theoretical physics and maths, which need much more advanced and a vast reserve of knowledge, to begin research. – user2734 Mar 5 '13 at 15:16

I am only familiar with the UK system, but here are some points about getting research experience in the UK.

1) Find a supervisor for your PhD.

A lot of UK departments prefer to admit PhD students who has found a faculty member who is willing to supervise and has a research proposal written together with that member. If doing a PhD in the UK is part of your goal, you could start by looking at departments/people you want to work with and contact them as a prospective student.

Some patience is required as they might not be looking to supervise a student at the moment. But I have found that most are willing to give prospective students a research project to work on before admissions or while working on the proposal. In fact, all those who were willing to supervise me ended up offering me a research project.

2) "Cold calling" for projects.

You might find that some professors, lecturers, postdocs or research fellows etc are very happy to have students with the experience to work on their projects. You can try emailing people with a very short version of your academic CV, asking for research opportunities. I have successfully gotten projects this way too.

3) Official Internships/Studentships.

Some UK universities have official internships or studentships for someone to work on a research project for 3-6 months. These may not be advertised so you need to do point 1) and 2) or simply ask. I have successfully gotten these before and they were willing to at least help pay the rent (400-500 pounds I think) or given you a token sum. I cannot be more precise about the pay because I turned down the payment in order to keep my part time job. Do note that getting paid or being in an official position will come with the requirement/expectation that you report to work daily and stay in the office for some minimum number of hours.

4) General advice.

Academics are incredibly busy people, especially famous tenured professors. Also, they might have a steady stream of students to work with. I think I was quite lucky to get around 30-40% respond rate when emailing people asking for research experience. Most of them are because I am asking as a prospective student. So please do not be too disappointed that people don't get back to you. And don't spend all your time trying to get just 1-2 famous faculty to give you research opportunities.

You should be prepared to travel and meet them, paying for all the travel fees yourself. You should also not talk about reimbursement/payment first. In my humble opinion, you need to be prepared to work on a project for free, making it clear that you want the experience on your CV and a possible paper. Then, they might arrange for payment for you. It is your responsibility to show that you are serious and trustworthy and not a waste of their precious time.

I think it helps a lot (with regards to funding) if you are from the EU as funding in the UK is usually restricted to EU citizens.

I hope this helps.

  • +1 to Nr 1: The first thing you need is someone to take you under their wing, in order to begin "fixing" your lack of publishing/research experience (although, if you get a "distinction" in your presentation, you might not need that much of a fix, since they don't "give out" such achievements to everyone). – Ricardo Segovia Feb 28 '13 at 16:29
  • I would also like to add that generally, "going solo" and trying to do publishable work by yourself is not likely to succeed. Although it could be an interesting learning experience on why going solo is bad (I spent around 1 month trying, failed miserably, and learned a lot). – Legendre Feb 28 '13 at 16:35
  • @Legendre Excellent. Thanks! I had considered going solo but I'm looking for a little guidance/mentoring/someone to bounce ideas off of, etc. – Sam Mar 11 '13 at 14:55

This is not an immediately short term solution and would require some time:

Try to get in touch with a professor who does what you like to do for your Phd. Like here clearly explain your situation. If you get a response continue the discussion, you might be offered to go and visit the lab or if after a couple of exchanges you feel it’s the right time offer to go and see them.

Try to see if you can do some work for them part-time. If they say day don’t have money etc. if you can offer a day or two of part-time unpaid if it works for you from home/weekend etc. If you get lucky they might offer you paid work if they get money later. From the beginning discuss publications and research experience and hopefully over time you can get a paper or two under your belt and get recommendation letter as well.

Who knows they might offer you a Phd position after some time as well if you work well together. We have done this before and in fact this happens a lot. Someone with a master does some paid or unpaid work and if we are happy with him or her and money comes in later we will get in touch and ask if they are interested. Now that I think about it is quite common with many of the PhD students we have.

  • 1
    When you try to get in touch with professors, do not mass email them - personalized emails specific to their research projects shows that you have done your homework and you indeed are interested in their research work. – Theresa Liao Mar 5 '13 at 20:59
  • @TheresaLiao thanks for highlighting that! That should always be assumed as a given... when I see generic emails alarms automatically go off! – blackace Mar 6 '13 at 2:14
  • Correctly personalized emails might make people care (addressing PhD students as professors in an otherwise non-personal email, not so much). Non-personalized ones are not as bad as random YouTube comments, but still won't get attention. – Blaisorblade Oct 12 '13 at 2:28

I feel like a highly respectable school would not consider me because I do not have much research experience

In terms of research experience, there is a big difference between much and none. Most grad schools I know of are wary of applicants with no research experience, but do not go so far as to require "much". Yes, more is generally better, but some is often enough. I would generally classify an MBA with a research dissertation as being enough to be considered, especially one awarded distinction.

The best way to get more experience is to volunteer in a research group. Most research groups need someone to do data entry/analysis and general lackey work. You need to be prepared to enter as low man on the totem pole and do some boring tasks to get access to better tasks. Even boring and menial tasks in a research group can be good experience.

  • Good point. Can you tell me how I could find a research group remotely? That is, if I am looking to join a group in country X but currently live in country Y, how could I do that? – Sam Mar 8 '13 at 2:02
  • @Sam that sounds like a new question (although you should check to see if it has been asked before). – StrongBad Mar 8 '13 at 17:43
  • Thanks for the idea. I've just posted it here. – Sam Mar 11 '13 at 15:06

If your MBA dissertation had some scientific method to validate the research results, then leverage that in your PhD application. Try to publish the results on your own in a peer-reviewed conference or workshop. To me, lack of that kind of culture is the big risk when taking on a non-research master's student for a PhD.

Research methodology courses are mandatory for research master's students at my university, and PhD supervisors can force PhD candidates to take this course if they didn't get it elsewhere. There are some decent textbooks on the subject. See if you could audit such a course someplace. However, to make up for the experience of a research master's, you will need to focus the methodology on a specific area of expertise (few textbooks do a good job explaining this, and it's where a supervisor is crucial in my opinion). From your original question, it almost sounds like you did this already, but with little guidance.

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