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I'm currently a M.S. student. My supervisor give me freedom to choose thesis topic. Since it is so hard for me, I decide to ask another professors whom I consider to be their PhD candidates in future. I have written an email to ask them. Is it a good idea to do so? And is my email appropriate for this purpose?

Dear Professor xxx,

I am a M.S. student at University of xxx-the most prestigious university in xxx- with a major in information technology- multimedia systems. I will graduate on September 2016.
I had the chance to read your publications and some of your articles. I really enjoyed them, and it gave me many ideas for my future research. Due to my strong interest in your research area and considering the experience I have gained from my relevant courses, I believe I can be a beneficial part of your research group, if I get a chance. Since I haven't chosen the topic of my M.S. Thesis, I prefer to ask you to give me some information about the topics you are currently working on, in order to get a higher chance to be your PhD student in future. I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.

Thanks very much,
Sincerely,
xxx

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    I am a M.S. student at University of xxx- the most prestigious university in xxx. I have very serious problem with this. You have too much ego. I tend to downvote this question just because of this sentence. (I haven't done it yet.) – scaaahu Mar 31 '15 at 9:37
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    "...and it gave me many ideas for my future research". If you have so many ideas, pick one of those to work with your current supervisor or suggest this as a topic to your "new" supervisor. But since I suspect you do not really have that many ideas and you really need a professor to suggest a topic for you, do not state otherwise. – Alexandros Mar 31 '15 at 10:28
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    Could you elaborate on your educational system, please? In arrangements I know, someone can become your supervisor by the very action of giving you a Master thesis topic. Conversely, what is a supervisor/how is there a supervisor when you have not yet chosen a particular topic (which would be supervised by a particular person)? – O. R. Mapper Mar 31 '15 at 10:32
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    Don't know whether doing a masterthesis on a subject increases the chances per se. I've seen people swapping from one lab (AI) to another (Electrical engineering) without much problems. The ability to learn something new is most of the time more useful than knowing an entire subject's library by heart. – Willem Van Onsem Apr 1 '15 at 8:21
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    And about the email, it makes a rather generic impression: you can send it to any professor. There is not much "personal" in it in the sense that you don't show you have actually read any work of that person. Some of your articles is rather vague: all supervisors have evidently written articles. You can perhaps be more specific. – Willem Van Onsem Apr 1 '15 at 8:23
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I do not think it is a good idea to ask this other professor to give you your thesis topic, either asking by email or in person. If you want to be this professor's PhD student in the future, the best thing you can do is do a good job on your thesis and complete your Masters degree. Doing your thesis on a topic of his choice does not increase your chances of being his PhD student, and may decrease your chances because you aren't demonstrating independent judgment.

Both Masters and PhD students should do the work to pick their own topic. (Narrowing down my dissertation topic has been a multi-year exercise -- working part-time.) As a Masters student, you don't have to break new ground or advance the state of the art. But, by picking a topic that is at the state of the art, you demonstrate that you understand, in general, where the state of the art is.

Instead of asking some professor to hand you a topic, you should investigate why picking a topic is hard for you. Do you lack ideas? Do you understand what qualifies as a good idea? Do you have trouble selecting from alternative ideas? Once you've pinpointed the problem, you can ask your adviser or anyone else for help on this aspect of the problem.

  • Yes it is hard for me and my supervisor gives me too much freedom. My major is information technology and I'm focusing on multimedia systems security which is my own interest. But it looks like an unlimited subject for me! I have read some articles but still can't choose a topic for my thesis after 6 months. :-( – Hanna Mar 31 '15 at 10:02
  • @Hanna: I don't think students always having to find a topic alone is generally true, or at least the way it turns out. I know plenty of examples of supervisors who essentially provide a topic for their students. Among those again, some will co-author, others just give you a topic - I assume as they have more ideas than they can follow up on. If you struggle to find a topic for an MS, before signing up for a PhD, I would recommend to do some research on which of the above types your potential future PhD adviser is. – gnometorule Mar 31 '15 at 15:39
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I occasionally get emails along these lines, and I am almost never thrilled. The sole exception where I would consider this case is if I know (a) the student personally and think (s)he is good, and/or (b) I know the advisor personally, and (s)he recommended the student this model. In all other cases, my response would be negative.

What you need to be aware of is that a master student who is actually somebody else's student, and who presumably even sits physically remote, is a risk on so many levels. You have no idea how good the person is. You have no idea whether (s)he actually works or is just procrastinating between status updates. You have basically no leverage, so if you assume the student is not working hard or is involved in unethical behavior (e.g., rigging the data), you can do pretty much nothing except pull out of the cooperation. You have no idea whether the person's actual advisor is fine with this, or will start sabotaging the agreement when (s)he figures out that her/his student is actually working with somebody else. It is even unclear what the implications for the student are - maybe her/his university does not even accept a thesis primarily supervised by somebody outside of the institution. And even if all goes well, you are still supervising a student in somebody else's name (i.e., doing the work of somebody else).

All these things considered - would you invest one of your good ideas, or, even worse, your limited time supervising such a student?

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    The OP has not asked you to supervise them, but to suggest a topic for a Master's thesis. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 31 '15 at 15:57
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Insted of

"...and it gave me many ideas for my future research"

how about

"... and it gave me idea X for implementing Y in manner Z. I am considering working on this idea for my master's thesis here at University W with Prof. V. Since this idea comes from your paper, could I please first ask if any of your current students are working on it, and also solicit your opinion on whether this idea sounds promising to you?"

You should make it clear, not so much by saying it explicitly, as by wording your e-mail with this in mind, that you do not expect any sort of commitment from the person to whom you write. This will lead to pretty decent chances for an interesting and useful reply.

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It depends on the academic system where you are from. For instance, if you are in a country where there is a strong hierachal system, going to another professor behind the back of your supervisor might sour your relatonship with him/her.

My advice is to consult your current supervisor about your what topic/bias you think might work for you and then let him/her refer you to another supervisor if it is beyond his/her scope. That way you will get advice and guidance from both sides without rufling any feathers. In academia, the politics sometimes plays a very important role in the success of your thesis and you should always take it into consideration.

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