doing research as a non-student

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doing research as a non-student

Postby krilvyn » Fri Dec 18, 2009 1:54 am

Brief background: I finished undergrad back in 2002 (Physics + Computer Science), been working as a software engineer since then, now planning to try and go to grad school probably in fall 2011

Because I've been out of school for several years, I'm worried about my lack of recent research experience and not being able to get letters of recommendation from professors. I did do a semester of astro research as an undergrad, haven't kept in touch with the professor, but if I could get hold of him he'd at least remember me. My other recommendations would have to come from employers.

Since I have roughly a year before applying to grad school, I was wondering if it would be possible to get some new research experience in that time and hopefully get to work with some professors. But as a non-student I'm not sure how to go about it. Would professors even consider working with someone that is not currently a student? Are they even allowed to? I'd be willing to do it on a volunteer basis since my whole goal is to get the experience and networking opportunities, as well as confirm that I actually enjoy the research and want to dedicate the next several years to this.

Is it worth sending emails to astro/physics profs at nearby schools and asking them about this, or is it pointless and they'd just think I was a weirdo? If this isn't viable, what else would you recommend someone in my situation do to improve their chances of getting into a top school (other than studying a lot for the physics GRE)?

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Re: doing research as a non-student

Postby nathan12343 » Fri Dec 18, 2009 11:38 am

If you think you can manage the time commitment to get involved with a research project, I'd say there's probably no harm in seeing whether local profs would take you on as a research assistant. Since you're not a student, you're probably more expensive to them if you get paid, so it might be easier to find a position if you can work in a lab without pay.

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Re: doing research as a non-student

Postby geshi » Fri Dec 18, 2009 1:43 pm

I'm not entirely sure if this will work, but I'll suggest it anyway. Some (public) universities will allow you to take courses if you're not a student (you can take any course, not just the "continuing adult education" garbage). Usually undergraduate research is listed as a course. You could try talking to a faculty member about letting you do a research course with him/her. You'd have to pay money to sign up for the course though. You could also sign up for a couple physics classes as well. Technically you'd be a student doing this, so I guess this doesn't really answer your question.

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Re: doing research as a non-student

Postby krilvyn » Sat Dec 19, 2009 10:57 am

Thanks guys, I'll give it a shot and see what happens. I'm gonna see about taking classes as a "non-degree seeking student" first - if they'll let me do that then that will make it a lot easier to get involved with the department. If I can't take anything spring semester then I'll try emailing some profs directly and see if they'd be interested in having me help out on a volunteer basis.

One other potential option is that there is a masters program in applied math that looks fairly easy to get into, doesn't even require gre scores or letters of recommendation. That would give me the chance to get back into school, make some good grades in grad courses, and doing a thesis would give me some research experience and get to know some profs well. But even if I could start in fall '10, it would probably push my PhD apps back a year because I'm sure I'll have to take some pre-requisite courses and couldn't go full-time unless they gave me an assistantship. Anyway, I'm looking into that as well and will see whether it makes sense as an alternative.

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Re: doing research as a non-student

Postby noojens » Sat Dec 19, 2009 11:40 am

Don't sell yourself short - the combination of programming skills and knowledge of physics is a rare and valued one. You have a unique skillset, so present yourself as such. I see no reason why you couldn't get hired to work in a research group - theorists and experimentalists alike almost always have need of a good coder, and often have discretionary funds to pay non-students. You won't be doing pure theory, and you won't be designing experiments, but you'll be rubbing shoulders with physicists and cutting your teeth in the research community.

I suggest you play to your strengths, both in looking for research jobs and in your PhD applications.

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