Nicola Sturgeon has conceded it would be "wrong" to set a date for a second referendum on independence before a majority of Scots back the country leaving the UK.
The First Minister and SNP leader said if there is to be another vote on Scotland's future, nationalists "first have to earn the right to propose it".
She spoke out as she launched her party's manifesto for the Holyrood elections, describing the policy package as her "job application" for the role of first minister.
It is the first time she has led the SNP in a Scottish election campaign and, as she unveiled the manifesto to an audience of some 1,400 activists in Edinburgh, she said: "For me, this bold, ambitious and reforming manifesto represents my job application.
"I am asking the Scottish people to give me a personal mandate to implement these policies and make our country even better. I am asking you to elect me as your first minister."
The manifesto pledges to increase NHS funding by £500 million more than inflation over the five-year course of the next parliament, with Ms Sturgeon describing this as "part of a package of investment and reform to equip the NHS for the future".
The SNP is also promising "baby boxes" full of essentials to parents of all newborns and to double the amount of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds.
An additional £750 million would be spent over the next five years closing the gap between rich and poor pupils in Scotland, with most of that money going direct to head teachers, Ms Sturgeon said.
The party also pledged to bring forward legislation to cut emissions by 50% by 2020 and to spend nearly £20 billion "improving and modernising our national infrastructure".
However, the manifesto did not contain a specific commitment to hold a referendum on independence during the next parliament if the SNP is re-elected.
Ms Sturgeon said: "There is not a single day goes by that I am not asked if there will be a second independence referendum in the next parliament.
"My answer to that, in one sense, is very simple - I would like that, very much."
While she stressed she believes "with all my heart that independence is the best future for our country", the SNP leader added: "If there is to be a second referendum - whether that is in the next parliament or in a future parliament - we first have to earn the right to propose it.
"Setting the date for a referendum before a majority of the Scottish people have been persuaded that independence - and therefore another referendum - is the best future for our country is the wrong way round.
"So, this summer, we will start new work to persuade a majority in Scotland of the case for independence."
Ms Sturgeon has already announced the SNP will mount a fresh campaign to convince Scots this summer and she said: "If we don't succeed, we will have no right to propose another referendum."
She added: "If we do succeed - when we do succeed - if in the future there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people - then no politician will have the right to stand in the way because the future of our country must always be in the hands of the people of our country."