I'm a recent graduate of a major university in Ohio, but recently moved to the DC area for my job (full-time software engineer).
I plan to go to grad school for computer science in the next few years, but I'd like to get involved in some research to find out what I do and don't like about research (and, more importantly, the research topics) before I apply.
I'd love to volunteer my skills to a professor in the area as an RA. There are obviously major universities in the area with research undertakings that interest me, but without rapport how can I let them know I'm interested in working with them?
As someone who hires research assistants in my own department, here are some concerns I would have about such an offer.
So for me to consider taking on a research assistant in your situation, you'd have to assuage some of those concerns.
Tell me what skills you already have that will help me and my students advance our current research efforts in the short term. (This obviously requires that you do your homework and know what my group has been working on recently.)
For example, when you say "I am interested in learning about X, which your students are currently doing," I hear "This is someone who I or my current students will need to spend a lot of time training to do X - which we don't really need, because we already have students capable of doing X - and who may or may not stick around long enough for it to pay off."
On the other hand, when you say, "I already know a fair bit about Y, and I think it could advance your research in Z that your students are currently doing," I hear "This is someone who offers a promising risk - benefit ratio. We won't have to spend a lot of time on training, and he/she will bring something useful to the table immediately."