Research Experience for a PhD
One question I hear frequently from folks who are considering grad school: “How do I get research experience for a PhD?”
“Well,” I reply, “it depends on what you mean by “research experience”.” Do you mean “How do I get work experience doing research that I can employ for a PhD program?” Or do you mean “How do I get experience with the standard research steps that are part of a PhD program, like writing papers, presenting those papers at conferences, presenting a research plan to my committee, and defending my dissertation?”
If you’re in the first boat, first think about the PhD program you’re interested in. If you’re looking for a job right now, look for places that do the research you’re interested in. How do you find these companies? Odds are there are a few you’re already familiar with, but perhaps they aren’t hiring. One idea: look through relevant research publications and note the companies of people putting out these publications. You’ll likely find some places you haven’t heard of before.
If you’re already at a particular company, and thinking about going to grad school for a PhD, look around and see if any research is being done that is relevant (and could give you a leg up come grad school and especially for fellowship applications). Once found, talk with your boss about shifting to that work ASAP.
If you do pull off finding relevant research in your work, that can pay tremendous dividends in terms of experience, valuable industry contacts for future collaboration both during and after grad school, and perhaps most importantly: ideas for publications that are ultimately what you need to graduate.
For the second question, in general the answer is to go through the PhD program! I know that sounds trite, but in general you’re not going to be able to replicate those experiences outside of just doing the PhD program. One tip though: there are plenty of grad school guides and resources available out there, so I recommend looking for those. In particular, look for guides that are most in line with your research field: engineering, literature, social sciences, etc.