I've applied to several graduate schools in the US for a physics PhD. As I currently have some free time, I'm willing to travel around and visit graduate schools that I've applied to. My current research advisor (who is also one of my letter writers) can possibly establish contact between me and some of the people I have expressed interest in at different schools. My question is that whether in your opinion this is something that can actually boost my chances of getting admitted (provided a meeting with a person of interest goes well). Could pursuing this plan be advantageous?
It may not give you an advantage at being admitted, but it could help in other ways. I visited my first-choice program (also in physics) around Thanksgiving of my senior year, and scheduled meetings with two PIs I wanted to work with. The first stood me up, but the second took several hours to meet with me and show me the lab, and at the end of the visit he told me "If you get in and want to start early, let me know and I could probably give you an RA for the summer". This ended up being a big help -- the visit made clear who would be better to work with, and also helped me get started with research shortly after graduating.
It depends when you are visiting. At my department, we welcome visits in the Fall semester -- before the applications are due. I'm not sure if these visits are that useful -- a few times, I've been much more intrigued; but many more times I've been convinced that the applicant is not suitable after an in-person visit. If you do come, come well prepared (i.e., knowing which faculty you want to talk to, what questions you want to ask, and what impression you are seeking to make). (see FN1)
In the spring semester (after applications have been handed in) we tend to disincline visits initiated by candidates. (See FN2 and FN3)
FN1. I do think that campus visits are very useful for candidates. You get to meet faculty and see what they're like and more importantly - talk to other graduate students. In many cases, you can glean insight about the department that can help improve your application.
FN2. We interview all candidates by skype or telephone in the third round. We tend to fo2llow the same protocol for all such interviews so as to keep the playing field equal.
FN3. After we have made offers to finalists, we then again welcome visits so that we can convince them to come to our program.
Yes! Most definitely seeing your potential supervisor will effect their decision. Also, it might effect your decision in later stages, when more than one will accept your application. Remember, to also look at their environment they conduct the research in; as well as having a talk with one/two of his/her current Ph.D. students.
During my last semester of undergrad, I happened to be driving by a department I was applying to on the way back from an out of state trip, and decided I'd stop by to check out the digs. The administration evidently saw this as me gaming for admission, and were not very welcoming. They promised me a tour and then left me in a waiting room for a couple hours, before finally telling me that the advisor did not have time and I should go home.
I ended up going off on my own and meeting some of the professors there who I would have wanted to work with. That part was fun. I got to have some cordial conversation with legends in my field. One of them had heard through the grapevine that I'd just published a paper with his coauthor, and requested a preprint, which I emailed to him later. I think this may have improved my chances for admission; however, the experience of networking with these professors was surely of greater value (and non-conditional).
After hanging around for a few hours, I ran into a couple of grad students, and took them out for a beer. They told me that the cold and dismissive treatment I'd gotten from the staff was actually just how they acted all the time. I learned that, internally, the department refers to itself as an engine in a factory school, and that many of the TAs felt undervalued and exploited, rather than just "roughing it" on a low stipend.
The whole experience painted a picture of a department that has abandoned common courtesy and respect, which I personally place a lot of value in, so by the end of the day, I decided I would turn this school down, if admitted. And as it turns out, I never had to, because they never sent me a decision letter one way or another! (I did call to ask check my application status once, just out of curiosity, and was put on hold until the system hung up on me. Go figure.) I might have been very upset by this if I'd never stopped by, but since I had, I felt free to accept an offer from another school without concern for this loose end. So, sometimes it can be very worth it to visit a department, whether it improves your chances or not.
One of my students (I think my top undergraduate student ever) did, indeed, visit his top choices of graduate departments (all of which had already accepted him and offered financial support). I think that the three departments even paid airfare for him to come.
So, I guess, this was not about improving chances of being admitted. This was those departments trying to improve their chances of getting the student.
The answer depends a lot on the department. A POI at one department explicitly said that, at his particular department, visits had little to no effects. Then again it's an Ivy League physics dept, top-20 in the US; I wonder whether there is a correlation between program prestige and the impact of a visit.