Test-in or backdoor into research and/or higher education?
March 28, 2007 5:28 AM   Subscribe

As an "outsider", how do I find a back door in to a school or institution of research? Is there any way to "test in" to such a program - or to a degree?

I've heard a rumor that MIT and/or Media Laboratory has a back door somewhere where you can test in and interview to apply as a sort of guest or probated student. Does it? Do any other similar schools or institutions have such progams?

Or, to sum: Is there any way for a self educated outsider to enter post-grad level work, experimentation or research without grinding through the undergrad gristmill?
posted by loquacious to Education (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Well, unlike undergraduate programs, where admissions are handled centrally, postgraduate admissions are handled within the department itself. I'm not an American, but I think that GRE scores are use as well. If you were to have:

a) very good GRE results

b) outstanding resume (highlighting experience equivalent to their usual undergraduate requirements)

c) a very well thought out cover letter stating exactly what you want to do (if possible with whom) and how you are uniquely qualified to do it.

Then you might be in with a chance.
posted by atrazine at 5:53 AM on March 28, 2007

MIT doesn't use GRE scores. The MIT Media Lab says in their admission guidelines that non-orthodox backgrounds are, in fact, looked upon kindly.

From the horse's mouth:
All applicants are expected to be proficient at computer programming (e.g., JAVA, LISP, C++) and/or hardware design (e.g., electronics, microfabrication). Beyond that, it is fair to say that many successful applicants have academic backgrounds that are variously described as unorthodox, innovative, or self-generated. Their backgrounds are emphatically not narrowly technical, but instead anticipate the mix of disciplines found within the program; some of them come from art schools, some from engineering schools, and some from both or neither.
(I've been considering applying there for about the past 7 years, and I pored over the site for my undergrad application, though I was not accepted)
posted by mkb at 5:58 AM on March 28, 2007

I should add that the EECS grad program is publically less inclined to accept those without bachelor's degrees.
posted by mkb at 6:00 AM on March 28, 2007

I knew someone who got into a Harvard program through a "back door," but he already had an undergraduate degree. The trick was that he signed up for a special summer program taught by Harvard faculty; the admissions process for that program was much less competitive than for the graduate program, but the summer session gave him a chance to get to know several Harvard professors and impress them with his work. When he applied for admission to the graduate program, he asked a few of them to write recommendations, which went over big with the admisisons board.
posted by junkbox at 6:03 AM on March 28, 2007

Am not American either, nor do I have experience in Media Lab. But I know a little about universities, so I'll throw in my two cents...

It is within a University's power to allow anything it likes. But it requires the endorsement of the right people. This isn't necessarily as much of a struggle as it sounds. If you find a supervisor who is impressed with your resume and (more importantly in my experience) your enthusiasm, they will often do everything they can to get you into some sort of position.

That being said, the policies and bureaucracy of higher education institutions can be very restrictive at times (especially if you don't have a bachelors degree), and it may not be possible. Well, at least right away.

In such a case, you might have success getting a position as a research assistant. This has a number of benefits, not the least of which is actually getting paid. You get exposure and experience in the field, which will have real weight if you decide to get work doing something similar in the private sector (in my field, biomedical research, it is not unheard of for research assistants to be better paid and more highly-sought after that post-docs). Some degrees will take prior experience in the industry into account when granting student positions. Also, it is possible to study the undergraduate degree while working in that field. I've known a few people to do that. And when they get to the post-graduate stage they completely breeze through from their work experience. The downside is that research assistant work can be boring and monotonous (though not always).

Oh, and summer scholarships, as junkbox alluded to, are a classic entry means by which you can get recognition by the right people. Again, happens in my field all the time.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:24 AM on March 28, 2007

You could also talk to admissions officers at some colleges near you about transferring in some of your acquired life/work experience as "life credit" towards an undergrad degree. An older gentleman I knew in grad school did this and only ended up having to take a few credits to complete a Bachelors degree so he could go on to get his Masters.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:43 AM on March 28, 2007

1) Avoid the big name programs (they spend most of their time trying to keep people who are attracted by big names away).
2) Start a dialogue with someone whose work you admire, preferably at a degree granting institution in your neighborhood (but not a big name program, in any case).
3) Ask to meet said person face-to-face to discuss entry into a program. A phone call is sometimes good enough.
4) Explain your situation and what you want.
5) Follow directions given to enter the program, or instructions on how to get in touch with someone else (all interviews should end with "To whom should I be talking?").

There you have it.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:51 AM on March 28, 2007

MIT does have "special student" status that allows people not enrolled in degree programs to take classes. It is, however, freaking expensive.

Taking classes and getting to know professors is probably the best way to approach getting into a program if you don't have a strong traditional background. That said, I think you are going to have a hard time finding someplace that will accept you into a grad program if you don't have an undergrad degree. If it is just that you have an unrelated undergrad degree, take some classes, impress some people and demonstrate that you have a deep understanding of the material and I think you would have a shot.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:20 AM on March 28, 2007

Just adding on to Lazlo's comments, the impact of lacking an undergrad degree likely depends on context. It's one thing to have had your stellar years at a great school interrupted by serious real-world issues, but another to have failed out or dropped out or to never have taken a single college class.

Any way you cut it, though, you'll need an overwhelmingly strong case to convince a school to invest time/money in someone unwilling to complete basic prerequisites. It can be done, but...getting an undergrad degree will likely be a faster, easier, and lower-risk route.
posted by backupjesus at 7:51 AM on March 28, 2007

When I decided that I wanted to explore doing science in the field, I contacted a professor at my undergrad institution about getting a parttime job for her. We had met a few times and gotten along, and she said that she couldn't hire me but she could pay me to be a grad student. The end.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:45 AM on March 28, 2007

Many people have joined biomedical labs by first starting as a lab tech, then getting "sponsored" into the graduate program. We've even taken undergrads on for a summer appointment, but you'd need a undergraduate degree to get accepted full-time.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:07 AM on March 28, 2007

I'm a first year masters student at the media lab, so I can provide some limited and potentially wildly inaccurate responses.

The bit in the admissions copy about "diverse experiences" should be read more as "we're not picky about which disciplines people come from" not as "we're flexible about different kinds of academic and professional preparation." I don't know (offhand) anyone at the lab who doesn't have a formal bachelors degree. I do know people who do things totally unrelated to their undergrad degrees, though. I get the impression it is possible to get in without an undergrad degree, but that it's pretty difficult.

The Lab has a very quirky admissions system that I don't really understand. What sets it apart is tribal nature of the lab's groups. If you can sell one professor on why you'd be a great fit, you're in good shape. You don't have to conform to some department-wide picture of what a good applicant looks like. All the advice earlier about getting into faculty's good graces is all relevant and accurate. It's going to be hard to do summer programs/etc as a non student, though. I know at least one person has done the special student trick (and paid quite a bit of money in the process) to spend a semester at the lab to build connections with faculty. Otherwise, there aren't a whole lot of good options for getting in front of faculty. You can always visit after applying (or even before), but I'm not sure how effective that is.

Feel free to email if you have more questions. Applying to the lab is a really weird and disorienting process that isn't alleviated at all by the crappy website. I'm happy to talk at more length about whether it's the right place for your interests/style, whatever.

Good luck!
posted by heresiarch at 7:27 PM on March 28, 2007

I did research at the media lab for 2 or 3 years, with 2 very different groups. Everything hereisarch says above sounds right from my time at the lab and elsewhere around MIT. It's also possible that the rumor may have been more true Back In The Day when the lab was truly filled to its top fourth floor with soft green money of its corporate sponsors.

Then there was this dot com problem, some readjustment something, some accounting errors, and lo their planned new building on Ames Street is still a vacant lot, and there's a lot less free food. (Things are going up again though, it seems - apparently the new building is really going to happen now soon we promise.)

Anyway, if you're talking about the Media Lab in specific, try to scope out when the different open seminars and colloquia are, crash some open houses, etc., to get time to listen to, chat with, and debate the professors. These get a good number of regular-irregulars that aren't part technically part of the Lab community, and are a great way to get to know people.
posted by whatzit at 8:57 PM on March 29, 2007

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