In the comments on yesterday's post, there were some excellent suggestions of ways to email a potential advisor about getting together at a conference.
I can of course speak only for myself in terms of what I would like to see in an email of this kind; it's possible that other, nicer professors would be happy just to see a student (however naive) showing interest, and other, crankier professors would not want to be emailed at all.
For me, the best approach is simple and direct. See examples below; brackets indicate optional text.
[Brief first sentence, if necessary, explaining who you are.] I will be at the Z conference next month and would like to meet with you if possible to discuss my [possible] application to your grad program.
I will be giving a talk/poster at DAY/TIME. Would it be possible for us to meet at/after that?
Serious Science Student
[Intro sentence if necessary, as above.] I will be at the Z conference next month and saw that you are giving a talk/poster on [topic]. I'm very interested in this topic and, if possible, would like to meet with you at the conference and discuss graduate/postdoctoral research opportunities. [Mention possible days/times, especially if you are also giving a presentation, or ask if there is a good time to meet].
Serious Science Person
I like short email messages that provide the essential information and/or ask the most essential questions.
Potential advisors are not (all) going to examine your email in great detail for hints of laziness and instability. Even so, you don't want your email to give the wrong impression, so it would be best to avoid the following:
(1) Do not ask for information you can easily find out yourself, e.g.: asking "When is your talk/poster?" to a potential advisor.
(2) Do not assume that you will meet; ask first. I have had students write to me and say "I'm going to find you immediately following your talk in the X session". The difference might seem subtle, but it would be better to write and ask "Do you have time to talk after the X session?".
(3) Don't ask for personal information. I realize that professors can be elusive and, even with a prior appointment, it can be difficult to separate an individual professor from the conference herd, but I don't like it when appointment-seeking-students write to me and ask me where I'm staying at the conference, what my cell phone number is etc. I'm happy to set up an appointment to meet during the conference, but I don't want to be stalked.
I suspect that a more common problem, however, is that some students are too timid to approach a professor for a conversation. The best way to deal with this is to send a pre-conference email, either to set up an appointment or just to announce your existence. It is mutually beneficial for prospective students and advisors to meet, so as long as the email is not obnoxious, this is an excellent way to make sure you both have that opportunity.
16 minutes ago