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Thank you very much for the detailed response. I do want to get into a masters program first so that I can gain some research experience. 

So, the bottom line is that I need some research experience before I can get into any PhD program. I either do that by going for masters or working as a research staff at some lab or my alma mater.

This helped. Thank you once again.

I am currently a software engineer and have been out of school for 1.5 years. I want to eventually work on AI safety as a researcher. So to achieve this I plan to get into a grad school first. 

My grades aren't stellar and I lack research experience. This is due to my youthful immaturity back in college. Since college, I am spending significant time learning about the AI safety field (reading papers, writing articles, experiments with code etc.)

What else can I do to best improve my profile as a grad school applicant?