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I'm a computer science master student, and I'm planning to graduate in spring 2022. In Finland, doctoral programs specifically state that applicants need to find a supervisor before applying. The supervisor has be be willing to mentor the applicant, and the research proposal, which is submitted with the application, also has be approved by the supervisor. I know that writing a decent research proposal takes a significant amount of time, which is why I have to get in touch with prospective supervisors well in advance. The question is when? My studies are approximately 30% completed, by the end of this academic year I will be done with everything except for my thesis. I don't have any solid idea about my future thesis yet. However, I have certain academic interests in machine learning and robotics.

Should I wait until I know the topic of my master's thesis next fall? Or should I start contacting doctoral programs next spring? The messy thing is that some universities have rolling admissions, while others have application periods once or twice a year. I have also been hopeful that by contacting professors at home university I could get to write a master's thesis connected to their research, would it be appropriate to ask them about such opportunities? I have taken several courses with some of them but I'm unsure they remember me since we normally have anywhere from 50 to 100 students in each course.

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To me it seems early to be contacting potential advisors (caveat below). You don't yet have firm ideas about your research goals and it is quite a long time until you start applying.

You should be communicating more intensively with your local faculty, however, so that (a) they remember you when it comes time to assist you and (b) so that you get a better idea of what kinds of research might be open to you.

However, if you reach the point where your research interests start to become firm, you could ask for guidance from people. It would be fine to ask potential supervisors if a potential research direction might be fruitful and if they might be willing to guide you in graduate study. And, you need to be sure that your ideas match the sorts of things that they actually do. You can do that by reading some of the literature, of course, and that will also help you find a research direction.

But a blind reaching out to people you don't know this early isn't very likely to get you anything. But make sure the local faculty knows you well enough to help. Asking for a short term research project might be fruitful. So might joining any local research seminar.

A few months (1-3) before applications open should be time enough and you will probably have better ideas then.

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  • Thank you for your answer! I guess I could contact local researchers about a short term research project already this spring and see where it leads me. – pinkbaddzzle Nov 27 '20 at 19:47
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I’ve supervised Masters for 20 years, and my advice is to think about what really interests you, not just these disciplines, but to think how they can be used. That list may include solutions to observed or perceived problems, it may also include blue sky research. The thing is, firstly, you don’t need a Masters to do a PhD, though if you do have one, it might make sense to follow up on your Masters thesis. Having a chat with a good supervisor with no commitment may offer you insight into what you want to do.

Secondly, you should think about your endpoint. Do you want to stay in acadaemia or are you looking for a commercial outcome? I worked at one of the top places for applied research. This particular University was solely postgraduate and focused purely on commercial outcomes having a worldwide reputation for its research and its students, and its contribution to the world. For example, the mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope (the Hubble replacement) were made in its precision laboratories.

If you are looking at becoming an academic, then that will determine which type of university you might apply to. If you are looking to create a foundation for a career, you must also select wisely. My advice would be to decide which it is academic or commercial outcome. A piece of further advice would be that if you’re a practical person, you should be involved with an applied research institution rather than the purely academic type.

Lastly, research proposals are exactly that. They are only what you propose....what you’d like to do. They rarely match up to the finished thesis. Research is a living animal. It evolves, it changes, it matches its environment. The beauty of real world research is that you can point to something and say “I did that”. It’s your legacy to the World. You will go down many routes when you start to research. You will be faced with dead ends, you will have to re-trace your steps. So don’t get hung up on the proposal. A good supervisor will allow the exploration and nudge you gently in the right direction.

See which Universities are active in your specific interests. Then, check which supervisors have a track record in what you’re interested in. The supervision process is no different whether you’re doing astrophysics, chemistry, engineering or English. Methodologies and methods vary, but a good supervisor will always demand rigour. Good luck.

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    This doesn't address the question, did you mean to answer a different question? – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 27 '20 at 18:23

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