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I am applying to a PhD program in a few weeks, and I am also going to give a presentation at an upcoming international academic conference. I heard that a group of researchers from my dream school is also going to present their work at the conference, and at least one of the researchers might be a member of the admissions panel. I would like to introduce myself to them, but I don't want them to think that I am trying to win their favor just to increase my chances of getting accepted.

I recently had an informal Skype meeting with a potential PhD advisor, and she agreed to supervise my research if I get officially accepted. She does not belong to the research group and she is probably not attending the conference.

Could you give me some advice on how to talk to them in an ethical and appropriate way? Would it be fine to let them know that one professor is already willing to accept me to their program? (The conference will take place before the deadline of the application.)

[EDIT] Thank you @ReinstateMonica for your answer. As (s)he pointed out, there was inconsistency in what I wrote. My potential advisor is willing to take me in, but she is not the one who will make the final admission decision. (My understanding is that my application will be assessed by her and one or more other professors.)

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That is called networking and it is about getting to know people and people getting to know you. It will increase your chances and that's exactly the point.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, immoral, or illegal with it, by the way, it is a necessary skill for all professional careers. Conferences usually have intermissions for that exact purpose, with snacks, refreshments, etc.

The "standard" way of doing that would be to walk over, politely introduce yourself (don't go all formal), from which school you are and briefly, very briefly, what you are working on. Don't be pushy, don't force the conversation. It is easier if a common acquaintance introduces you (for instance, another researcher that knows you and them). Bonus points if you are familiar with their work/field.

It's easier after they see your presentation, but that's not entirely necessary. The most 'busy' researchers don't usually attend the whole conference, so don't waste chances.

More importantly: forget dream, don't be starstruck. They are just people, it is a school, just like countless others. Something I saw people do wrong: don't get stuck talking shop, especially if you have more time (as in the formal dinner some conferences have). Again, professors/researchers are people, they do more with their lives than just research and certainly have some other interests.

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    I would add: attend their presentation if it isn't at the same time as yours, and afterwards or when you spot them at a reception or in the lobby you can say that you thought it was interesting. – Elin Oct 21 at 0:51
  • @FábioDias Thank you for your advice. May I ask you a follow-up question? If I introduce myself to them (or any other conference attendees) saying that I am a second-year master's student, they might ask me about my future academic plans. In that case, would it be fine to let them know I want to apply to their PhD program, or should I just say I still don't know where to pursue my doctoral studies? This is the first time I attend an academic conference so any advice is highly appreciated. – MYKD Oct 21 at 17:15
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    The truth is usually a good policy: you can/should say you applied to their school, even that you contacted professor X that agreed to supervise you, but you also applied to Y and Z (if true). Don't overthink it, and don't be pushy, that's all. – Fábio Dias Oct 21 at 22:24
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Would it be fine to let them know that one professor is already willing to accept me to their program?

I see no ethical issue with your general desire to network with potential advisors and make a good impression. However, be very careful that you do not misrepresent what you have been told by that professor. In your previous sentence you say that "she agreed to supervise my research if I get officially accepted". That is not the same thing as saying she is willing to accept you into the program. Now, maybe you did not describe what she said properly the first time, but if you are changing the content like this, it may mean that you are not exactly clear on what she actually represented to you, and you should be very careful in recounting it to others.

There are certainly some ethical issues here, but the main practical issue is not to piss-off your potential advisors by misrepresenting conversations you have had with them. If you go to other staff and tell them that this professor has promised to accept you to the program, they will then go and ask that professor, and that professor will say, "No, that is not what I said", and then she will probably get the shits with you. That is just the kind of thing that could sink a promising PhD application.

So, be careful when you describe any assurance given to you by a potential supervisor --- make sure you do not accidentally misrepresent what you were promised.

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