I am beginning to warm up to what I call the PhD Hunt.
There are two modes to approach the PhD research topic at the admission stage. (Note: This is a very broad and generalised classification, which varies across countries and universities.) In the first mode, you send your application material to a bunch of universities and figure out your research topic when/if you get admission. The second mode is when you already have some ideas about the research topics you want to work on during your PhD. This can be tricky, because the pool of potential PhD advisers shrinks proportionally with how well-defined your research interests are. Moreover, the ones you choose may not have time or interest to work with you.
PhD advisers need to gauge applicants for their research potential. Having prior research experience helps a great deal, especially in the second mode. Of course, good grades and reference letters also strengthen your case. However, before all of that you have to approach a potential adviser and express your interest in doing PhD under their supervision. Now this last part is where things get a bit interesting. Conferences present a great opportunity to facilitate the PhD hunt. During coffee and lunch breaks, start scanning for potential advisers like Barney with his predator vision. Once the target has been identified, humbly convince him/her of your awesomeness.
So this is the dilemma—and the clock is ticking, the PhD application deadline is approaching and my research proposal is still not ready! This motivated me to write two research proposals corresponding to the awesome and humble parts of me. Meanwhile, I will continue to search for a sweet spot.