Are there positions for recently graduated bachelor or masters students with a record of research to work as a researcher before committing to their PhD?

TCS has a culture of post-doc positions for recent PhD graduates to do research before attempting to apply for a faculty position. Is there a similar mechanism in place for Bachelor or Masters students to do research before applying for a Ph.D? In particular, if they have a research record already (say a few published papers). I have heard of such positions, but usually they are through your current or future supervisor. Are there other options in industry or at universities/research-centers that are more formal than these personal connections?

The goal of such a position is to work within your field or at an institute you are considering for PhD before committing to it for a longer term.

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After a number of answers, I'd like to emphasize the interest is in having an analogue to a post-doc in that it is purely (or almost completely) a research position. Programs where you take courses to ready for a PhD application are not interesting, since the goal is not to prepare yourself for a PhD application as much as it is to do research to make sure research is what you want to do for the long term.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm a visiting predoctoral fellow right now. They exist at least at Northwestern. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 13:52

7 Answers 7


My answer only applies to Japan, I don't know about other countries. There is a special position termed "Research Student". I did that for 6 months before my masters .

I know that in general any student (foreigner or japanese) can do this. However, it is very common for foreigners to do this before starting the masters or phd program. It gives you adaptation time, and you also start studying the basics of your future research. Most student also start preparing for admissions.

During my time as a research student, I worked as a research assistant for my current advisor in different projects. I also took the time to really study quantum computing, which at that time I had 0 intuition for quantum mechanics. That was perfect for me, before doing any serious stuff.


Q: Are research student positions elusively research positions (i.e. no mandatory coursework)?

A: There is no mandatory coursework for research students. However, there are a lot of things you can do. In my case, I started directly doing research (mostly learning the basics), prepared myself for admissions, and colaborated in some projects. I also attended group seminars, school seminars, etc. You gain access to all activities in the university. You can also attend classes if you want, but that doesn't count for coursework in the graduate course. Another example is when you come from another university (from anywhere in the world) and you want to learn the tools of the trade in some field. So you talk with a professor, and if he agrees you can spend some time in his group as a research student.

Q: Also, are you expected to then stay for a Masters/PhD at the institute where you held the research student position?

A: No, you can change universities if you want. I have a friend that did exactly that. This is a position that doesn't give you a degree nor a diploma or anything, besides the experience.

It is very important also to note Okamoto-sensei's comment below. Specially, note that you don't get paid for doing this, unless 1) you have a good scholarship, like MEXT's scholarship; or 2) you get some funds from a company or a professor looking for phd students.

To give you and idea, I post a couple of links explaining the requirements to be a research student. The first link is from my own university, and the second is from the university of Tokyo:

1) http://www.naist.jp/en/international_students/prospective_students/admission_information/research_student_applications/index.html

2) http://www.s.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/admission/research-students.html

You can also find more information here


  • $\begingroup$ this looks really interesting. Are research student positions elusively research positions (i.e. no mandatory coursework)? Also, are you expected to then stay for a Masters/PhD at the institute where you held the research student position? (Also, links -- if you know any off the top of your head -- would make this answer even more awesome!) $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Let me make some remarks (I'm Japanese, working in Japan). (1) A research student is not usually paid. (2) Research students are not obliged to take a course. (3) Universities and institutes in Japan start their academic years in April. These days, several Japanese graduate schools admit students to start in October or other months, but April is the most common. A research student position is frequently used before you start to fill the gap of time after finishing your bachelor or master until you start the next step. (4) A research student can start at any time of a year. $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2011 at 2:40

EPFL in Switzerland officially had a pre-doc program in CS, which was basically like a short Masters with fewer courses and more research. I don't think they still offer this program. Unofficially, there are research assistantship/internship opportunities for pre-doctoral students here and there. If the institute you're considering for a PhD offers a Masters program, that can be a good opportunity to do research as well.


In the US, for current undergraduates, there are plenty of summer programs called "REUs" -- Research Experience for Undergraduates. These are research-only positions, usually paid, for 3 months during the summer. Often times faculty mentors will already have well-defined projects that they want their REU students to work on, since undergraduates are usually not yet fully mature researchers. Often these programs will take a dozen or so students in a summer, and have a formal application process.

For people who have already finished their undergraduate degree, things are much less structured. If you have a particular professor you would like to work with, you can contact them, and in some cases if you convince them you would be interesting to have around, they can support you with grant money. But there tend not to be full research programs for post-bacs of the sort you are describing.

Of course, something that is very much like you are describing is the PhD program itself! At many schools (e.g. CMU) you can begin on research immediately in your first year, and although PhD programs do have some course requirements, at schools like CMU you are not required to take any of your courses in your first year. So you can always take the first year to explore research, and drop out of the program if you do not.


I did two four-month stints as a research assistant before starting my MSc. The first was in industry between my third and fourth years as an undergrad. The second was between my undergrad and MSc at a university with a professor who later became my PhD supervisor.

The two positions were very different. The first one I got in a pretty straightforward manner through the co-op system at Waterloo. I did a co-op degree so I did six internships, but this one was the only one that was really research-based. The second I got by simply emailing a professor out of the blue and asking if I could be a research assistant for the summer.

I'm Canadian, and both positions ended up being funded by the NSERC USRA program. I would assume similar programs exist in other countries.

I would say if you're interested in trying out an institution, the best thing to do would be to contact some potential supervisors directly. It might improve your chances if you find out what funding might be available; you can mention these possible funding sources in your email.

  • $\begingroup$ yeah, the NSERC USRA is a great program, but unfortunately only available to students who are in undergrad. I did the cold-calling too in undergrad to get two research positions. That worked well, but somehow I suspect it to be less effective when you are not an undergraduate student, since it is not as standard. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ I suspect it to be less effective when you're not an undergrad because funding may be more difficult to come by. Then again, there are always professors with a little bit of unspent money in their grants who might be willing to support a research assistant for four months. Just not that many of them. $\endgroup$
    – James King
    Aug 17, 2011 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ The USRA is only for those still engaged in undergraduate studies, but some of the more established outfits may offer plain, pure NSERC grant money to those who have just graduated. That's how I did a USRA just after my 4th year. $\endgroup$
    – RJK
    Aug 19, 2011 at 8:44

I am not really sure that I understand the question well.

If you are asking about a pre-doc student position I guess you can do some kind of research internship before the PhD (maybe as a supplementary year of your master program, or with a hiatus in your curriculum).

But if you ask for a research position without PhD, yes it exists in many countries. I guess this is call research engineer or research officer. You can start a PhD afterwards, or even in the context of this position (it can be an easiest way of finding funding).

Most researchers have a PhD because this is the best way to become a researcher, and probably the only (almost surely) way to enter academia. But the ability to conduct (good) research is not correlated to the fact of having a PhD (this is my opinion ;)).

  • $\begingroup$ thanks! For positions as a research engineer or research officer (or even at the pure research positions at places like MSR; which I understand occasionally hire from Masters). How much does your research resemble the kind you do as a Masters/PhD student or Post-Doc? Also does the company expect you to stay for the long-term, or is there a culture similar to Post-docs where you are there for a year or two and then move on? $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ I am in France, so maybe it is different in other places. We have permanent research engineers and we have contractual ones. Some have PhD, some does not have PhD. Most of them are on the applied side of our research. The pressure is different: publishing is not the issue since they are supposed to give assistance to full, asso. or assistant prof. Mostly, the difference is that they follow the directions of the team, where others can decide the directions. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 22:31

Formally, such a thing exists and is called a postbaccalaureate program. It is common, for example, before medical school, but one can really do this for anything. Some universities allow students who have already completed their undergraduate degrees to enroll, take some courses, and interact with faculty to prepare themselves and strengthen their applications for graduate school / work / whatever they feel the need to prepare for.

I don't think it's common to do before a CS Ph.D., but I'm sure it happens.


Also, I'm not sure I understand the point of looking for a "predoc" before starting a PhD program. A PhD program prepares you to do research; you're not supposed to already know how to do it before starting on a PhD. Similarly, while a PhD program is a long-term investment, nothing terrible happens if you realize midway through that research isn't for you -- then you can drop out.

It seems to me if you like research, and you think you want to do a PhD, just go for it. The only reason I see to do a "predoc" is to try to get into a better PhD program than you otherwise could.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this really answers the question since most postbaccalaureate programs are course-programs and quiet the opposite of a research position. The desire really is to have a research position. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ I see - thanks for the clarification on your edit. I've put an edit of my own in my answer that's a bit tangential. $\endgroup$
    – Lev Reyzin
    Aug 17, 2011 at 23:17

In the US, at a research level university, a masters program usually fills this role.

Often (but not always), one gets support for the masters doing software or sysadmin'ing for a research group. You are most likely not doing research for the group but are contributing and you attend the research group's meetings. It is somewhat like interning at a company which you hope later hires you.

How easy it is to move on to a PhD from a masters in this way depends on the institution (sometimes you need to reapply, sometimes there is the implicit option to continue with a PhD in the same department, etc).

As to a post-masters, pre-doctorate position, in the US there's no credentialed, degree-bearing program, but it is possible to get a paid non-student job that is attached to a research group. But that is not a formally recognized thing, though the group you work for may very well make it politically easier to apply successfully to the PhD program that you want.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this answers the question since the goal is to have a research position not a student position. It also doesn't answer it at all for the Masters graduate... $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2011 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Artem: I elaborated; hopefully that will help. Though a masters is a 'student' position, it can lead directly to a PhD with the same group. If you already have a masters in TCS then I think that would logically stand in (for everybody) for the kind of pre-doc situation you're thinking of. $\endgroup$
    – Mitch
    Aug 17, 2011 at 19:21

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