I am thinking strongly about going back to school to get a master's in computer science (machine learning) and possibly continuing from there to a PhD. Before I start the master's I'll need to do a number of semesters of undergraduate prerequisites.

For the last 10 years I have been working as a self-taught software engineer, since my undergraduate degree is in Government (Political Science). I have found that I really like 1) learning, 2) digging very deep into problems to figure out what's really going on.

As a side note I think this probably hinders my work performance, because instead of finding the fastest answer I often find the "right" answer. I continue doing this even though I know I could get higher ratings the other way, because of the pleasure I get out of doing it, and the anxiety I feel when I haven't looked at all possibilities. I have OCD but I think it's also just my personality and intellect.

Anyway, all this makes me think that I might be very well suited to research. But before I pull the trigger and leave my job, I wanted to ask around to see if I could learn more what it's like. What's a good way that I could learn more about what it's like? Would it be similar to anything I might already have done?

PS: One point that might occur to you is, "Why not just continue learning on the job, taking Coursera (etc) courses, reading textbooks and wikipedia, etc?" That's a big separate question, but ultimately 1) I think I could get up to speed much more quickly by working on it full-time, 2) I think I'd end up with more expertise this way, 3) If I actually want to do research then it isn't an option. I've been taking Coursera courses but the math was hard for me (even though it was basic calculus), and that experience is part of what's pushing me in this direction. I want to learn it more deeply.

1 Answer 1


The best way to learn if you would like research, is to try actually doing it (under the supervision of an expert researcher).

You mentioned that you will need some undergraduate-level prerequisite coursework. You can start by taking one evening class at a local research university (without giving up your job), and look for undergraduate research opportunities at this university. You can also approach professors in this department and ask if they would be willing to supervise you in a research project. This research doesn't necessarily have to be in the subfield that you want to do eventually do your PhD in, even research in other subfields will help you get a sense of what it's like.

(Also see: How can I get research experience in between degrees?)

(Note that research is about developing new knowledge and using it to advance the state of the art in your field, not just about acquiring personal expertise by learning what is already known to others. I mention this just because you talk a lot about wanting to learn "more deeply". Depth of knowledge is often a prerequisite for making a new contribution to a field, but that's not what research is.)

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