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###### Oxford Physics or Cambridge Maths

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2 years ago

Hi, I’m interested in specialising in Theoretical Physics in the future. I plan on doing a PhD in Theoretical Physics, hopefully in the field of GR & Cosmology or high energy physics. Obviously, these are just aspirations. I know that part iii is known to be the best preparation for a PhD/research in theoretical physics. Cambridge clearly states that if you want to do a PhD at DAMTP, you should definitely take part iii.( it’s my dream to do a PhD at DAMTP and I definitely plan on doing part iii). Which undergraduate course is better preparation for theoretical physics, Cambridge maths or Oxford physics? I’m very confused about which uni and course to apply to. I was pretty set on applying to Oxford, but I recently found out that the Cambridge maths course has a lot of theoretical physics. The Cambridge course covers topics like analysis and topology, differential geometry and integrable systems which have applications in theoretical physics. It covers more maths in general, as you would expect. The Oxford physics course covers topics like thermal physics, some more classical mechanics, particle physics, condensed matter physics and optics. (Btw, if I do apply to Cambridge, I will apply for the maths with physics course and then continue with the mathematical tripos).

Concerns with Cambridge -

Maths tripos is known to be incredibly hard and the pressure is very high

Will have to give STEP(I was planning on doing some step problems to improve problem solving skills, but if I apply to Cambridge I’ll have to prepare seriously for it and I know it’s incredibly hard)

I’ve never visited Cambridge, so I don’t really know If I like it

There are lots of stories about a lot of mathmos struggling and that you pretty much have to be a genius, which I certainly am not.

Will miss out on some general physics and don’t know if I will like the pure maths courses

Even for the theoretical physics courses, the Cambridge exams have a lot of proofs and less applications as such. Oxford physics exams have some proofs, but most of the exam consists of applying physics to real life situations and systems, which is obviously very important to be a good physicist

Whilst the Cambridge course does cover more maths, I don’t know how much of it is useful in theoretical physics

Harder to achieve a first

Concerns with Oxford-

Will miss out on some important topics like differential geometry and topology which have quite a lot of applications in modern physics

Lots of lab work

I’m worried the BA course might not be suitable prep for part iii at Cambridge

There might not be enough maths to learn more advanced topics in theoretical physics

Not as many international undergraduates (I’m an international student)

I know it’s very early to think about these things, but I just want to know. Which is more important, some of the more general physics or some more advanced maths topics? I would really appreciate it if anyone can help me. Thanks!

Concerns with Cambridge -

Maths tripos is known to be incredibly hard and the pressure is very high

Will have to give STEP(I was planning on doing some step problems to improve problem solving skills, but if I apply to Cambridge I’ll have to prepare seriously for it and I know it’s incredibly hard)

I’ve never visited Cambridge, so I don’t really know If I like it

There are lots of stories about a lot of mathmos struggling and that you pretty much have to be a genius, which I certainly am not.

Will miss out on some general physics and don’t know if I will like the pure maths courses

Even for the theoretical physics courses, the Cambridge exams have a lot of proofs and less applications as such. Oxford physics exams have some proofs, but most of the exam consists of applying physics to real life situations and systems, which is obviously very important to be a good physicist

Whilst the Cambridge course does cover more maths, I don’t know how much of it is useful in theoretical physics

Harder to achieve a first

Concerns with Oxford-

Will miss out on some important topics like differential geometry and topology which have quite a lot of applications in modern physics

Lots of lab work

I’m worried the BA course might not be suitable prep for part iii at Cambridge

There might not be enough maths to learn more advanced topics in theoretical physics

Not as many international undergraduates (I’m an international student)

I know it’s very early to think about these things, but I just want to know. Which is more important, some of the more general physics or some more advanced maths topics? I would really appreciate it if anyone can help me. Thanks!

Reply 1

2 years ago

Anyone who can help me?

Reply 2

2 years ago

Please

Reply 3

2 years ago

They're probably about equal if you do the MMathPhys for final year at Oxford. Of course then you would need to go on to do the MASt for Part III at Cambridge to do a PhD there normally anyway, so just going to Cambridge in the first place is probably the most straightforward option. Also strictly speaking for the areas you're interested in you would cover I think enough physics to go into them, and the other maths topics you would cover that you might not in the Oxford course I imagine would be very useful to have studied in some areas (e.g. functional analysis for quantum theory I gather).

Note that the Cambridge maths course is quite unusual in it's structure which lets you pick fairly widely among options as they have "compendium" examinations where no matter how many lecture courses you follow (whether you plan to answer exam questions or not on them) you get 4 exams at the end of each year and between these there are questions from all possible options. Naturally it's not possible to answer all of them so you're expected to answer (as fully completely as possible to get the highest marks) a selection of them based on whichever lectures you did attend. It is I gather possible to "pick off" easy questions from other lecture courses you didn't attend but can answer based on what you did go to as well.

Beyond that you can take options in pretty much all core physics topics in the Cambridge maths course, you just won't do any experimental work after first year normally. You'll certainly be able to take more than enough to prepare you for the relevant options in Part III (it would be a bit silly if their own course didn't prepare their students for the fourth year of itself!) and hence a PhD in the department, in theory anyway. There are also lots of relevant pure maths options as you note; apart from the obvious geometry options there are also the functional analysis options (although neither is actually called "functional analysis" and I think students have indicated the second one is very hard) and maybe representation theory or measure theory. The fluids options may also be relevant for astro work, depending on exactly what you go on to work on later.

That said I don't think it's unknown for physicists from Oxford to go on to Part III at Cambridge (I gather it's actually not uncommon for the PhysPhils to go that route for example) and they do have their own MMathPhys course which is similar in some respects to Part III and should provide a suitable background I would imagine. It will also give you a more "well rounded" background in physics which might be useful if you end up not wanting to pursue HEP/GR/cosmology. I don't think you will be "hurt" by going to Oxford rather than Cambridge for your goal, it's just maybe less hyper specific to it. But that may in fact be a good thing!

Note that the Cambridge maths course is quite unusual in it's structure which lets you pick fairly widely among options as they have "compendium" examinations where no matter how many lecture courses you follow (whether you plan to answer exam questions or not on them) you get 4 exams at the end of each year and between these there are questions from all possible options. Naturally it's not possible to answer all of them so you're expected to answer (as fully completely as possible to get the highest marks) a selection of them based on whichever lectures you did attend. It is I gather possible to "pick off" easy questions from other lecture courses you didn't attend but can answer based on what you did go to as well.

Beyond that you can take options in pretty much all core physics topics in the Cambridge maths course, you just won't do any experimental work after first year normally. You'll certainly be able to take more than enough to prepare you for the relevant options in Part III (it would be a bit silly if their own course didn't prepare their students for the fourth year of itself!) and hence a PhD in the department, in theory anyway. There are also lots of relevant pure maths options as you note; apart from the obvious geometry options there are also the functional analysis options (although neither is actually called "functional analysis" and I think students have indicated the second one is very hard) and maybe representation theory or measure theory. The fluids options may also be relevant for astro work, depending on exactly what you go on to work on later.

That said I don't think it's unknown for physicists from Oxford to go on to Part III at Cambridge (I gather it's actually not uncommon for the PhysPhils to go that route for example) and they do have their own MMathPhys course which is similar in some respects to Part III and should provide a suitable background I would imagine. It will also give you a more "well rounded" background in physics which might be useful if you end up not wanting to pursue HEP/GR/cosmology. I don't think you will be "hurt" by going to Oxford rather than Cambridge for your goal, it's just maybe less hyper specific to it. But that may in fact be a good thing!

(edited 2 years ago)

Reply 5

2 years ago

Original post by artful_lounger

I don't think you will be "hurt" by going to Oxford rather than Cambridge for your goal, it's just maybe less hyper specific to it. But that may in fact be a good thing!

The OP could also consider a track that starts with Physics at Oxford, then a specialised Masters like QFFF at Imperial which is very much targeted at high level students wanting to move on to a PhD in something heavy on the theory side.

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/theoretical-physics/postgraduate-study/msc-in-quantum-fields-and-fundamental-forces/

Original post by Mr Wednesday

The OP could also consider a track that starts with Physics at Oxford, then a specialised Masters like QFFF at Imperial which is very much targeted at high level students wanting to move on to a PhD in something heavy on the theory side.

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/theoretical-physics/postgraduate-study/msc-in-quantum-fields-and-fundamental-forces/

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/theoretical-physics/postgraduate-study/msc-in-quantum-fields-and-fundamental-forces/

Yes, agreed! I think the MMathPhys final year course was introduced at Oxford to rival that course and Part III at Cambridge particularly, and if their undergraduate physics course can lead to that I should expect the QFFF or Part III at Cambridge should be an option (either after the MMathPhys year itself or just supplicating with the BA, although I think the latter would be unusual...)

Reply 7

2 years ago

Original post by artful_lounger

They're probably about equal if you do the MMathPhys for final year at Oxford. Of course then you would need to go on to do the MASt for Part III at Cambridge to do a PhD there normally anyway, so just going to Cambridge in the first place is probably the most straightforward option. Also strictly speaking for the areas you're interested in you would cover I think enough physics to go into them, and the other maths topics you would cover that you might not in the Oxford course I imagine would be very useful to have studied in some areas (e.g. functional analysis for quantum theory I gather).

Note that the Cambridge maths course is quite unusual in it's structure which lets you pick fairly widely among options as they have "compendium" examinations where no matter how many lecture courses you follow (whether you plan to answer exam questions or not on them) you get 4 exams at the end of each year and between these there are questions from all possible options. Naturally it's not possible to answer all of them so you're expected to answer (as fully completely as possible to get the highest marks) a selection of them based on whichever lectures you did attend. It is I gather possible to "pick off" easy questions from other lecture courses you didn't attend but can answer based on what you did go to as well.

Beyond that you can take options in pretty much all core physics topics in the Cambridge maths course, you just won't do any experimental work after first year normally. You'll certainly be able to take more than enough to prepare you for the relevant options in Part III (it would be a bit silly if their own course didn't prepare their students for the fourth year of itself!) and hence a PhD in the department, in theory anyway. There are also lots of relevant pure maths options as you note; apart from the obvious geometry options there are also the functional analysis options (although neither is actually called "functional analysis" and I think students have indicated the second one is very hard) and maybe representation theory or measure theory. The fluids options may also be relevant for astro work, depending on exactly what you go on to work on later.

That said I don't think it's unknown for physicists from Oxford to go on to Part III at Cambridge (I gather it's actually not uncommon for the PhysPhils to go that route for example) and they do have their own MMathPhys course which is similar in some respects to Part III and should provide a suitable background I would imagine. It will also give you a more "well rounded" background in physics which might be useful if you end up not wanting to pursue HEP/GR/cosmology. I don't think you will be "hurt" by going to Oxford rather than Cambridge for your goal, it's just maybe less hyper specific to it. But that may in fact be a good thing!

Note that the Cambridge maths course is quite unusual in it's structure which lets you pick fairly widely among options as they have "compendium" examinations where no matter how many lecture courses you follow (whether you plan to answer exam questions or not on them) you get 4 exams at the end of each year and between these there are questions from all possible options. Naturally it's not possible to answer all of them so you're expected to answer (as fully completely as possible to get the highest marks) a selection of them based on whichever lectures you did attend. It is I gather possible to "pick off" easy questions from other lecture courses you didn't attend but can answer based on what you did go to as well.

Beyond that you can take options in pretty much all core physics topics in the Cambridge maths course, you just won't do any experimental work after first year normally. You'll certainly be able to take more than enough to prepare you for the relevant options in Part III (it would be a bit silly if their own course didn't prepare their students for the fourth year of itself!) and hence a PhD in the department, in theory anyway. There are also lots of relevant pure maths options as you note; apart from the obvious geometry options there are also the functional analysis options (although neither is actually called "functional analysis" and I think students have indicated the second one is very hard) and maybe representation theory or measure theory. The fluids options may also be relevant for astro work, depending on exactly what you go on to work on later.

That said I don't think it's unknown for physicists from Oxford to go on to Part III at Cambridge (I gather it's actually not uncommon for the PhysPhils to go that route for example) and they do have their own MMathPhys course which is similar in some respects to Part III and should provide a suitable background I would imagine. It will also give you a more "well rounded" background in physics which might be useful if you end up not wanting to pursue HEP/GR/cosmology. I don't think you will be "hurt" by going to Oxford rather than Cambridge for your goal, it's just maybe less hyper specific to it. But that may in fact be a good thing!

Hi, thank you for your reply! I know the MMathPhys and QFFF courses are excellent, but Cambridge is really strict about doing part iii if you are considering doing a PhD there. I’ve heard of some students doing a BA at Oxford and then doing part iii. It’s not like the BA at Oxford is not good enough to do part iii right? I guess I’ll decide between BA Physics at oxford or maths at Cambridge later on, depending upon predicted grades, AS results, difficulty of STEP, etc. I’m thinking way too early about this, who knows if I’ll even do well in my a levels or if I’m even good enough for these universities and a career in theoretical physics. So it’s not like the Cambridge undergraduate maths course will be much better preparation than the Oxford BA right? I assume the difference will be minute. Correct me if I’m wrong. Just one last question, how does the Oxford physics course compare to Cambridge natsci physics? Are they pretty much the same? (I’m only talking about the physics and maths content in natsci, I am well aware that you also have to study other subjects). Does the Cambridge physics via natsci cover more maths? Is it considered better for Theoretical physics? (In comparison to oxfphysics not cam maths). Is it considered harder(just the physics and maths content, I know natsci is harder overall because of the other requirements). Is it as in-depth as Oxford’s physics course? Thanks once again!

Original post by Anonymous(

Hi, thank you for your reply! I know the MMathPhys and QFFF courses are excellent, but Cambridge is really strict about doing part iii if you are considering doing a PhD there. I’ve heard of some students doing a BA at Oxford and then doing part iii. It’s not like the BA at Oxford is not good enough to do part iii right? I guess I’ll decide between BA Physics at oxford or maths at Cambridge later on, depending upon predicted grades, AS results, difficulty of STEP, etc. I’m thinking way too early about this, who knows if I’ll even do well in my a levels or if I’m even good enough for these universities and a career in theoretical physics. So it’s not like the Cambridge undergraduate maths course will be much better preparation than the Oxford BA right? I assume the difference will be minute. Correct me if I’m wrong. Just one last question, how does the Oxford physics course compare to Cambridge natsci physics? Are they pretty much the same? (I’m only talking about the physics and maths content in natsci, I am well aware that you also have to study other subjects). Does the Cambridge physics via natsci cover more maths? Is it considered better for Theoretical physics? (In comparison to oxfphysics not cam maths). Is it considered harder(just the physics and maths content, I know natsci is harder overall because of the other requirements). Is it as in-depth as Oxford’s physics course? Thanks once again!

I think it would probably be more common to do the full MPhys (or MMathPhys) anywhere and then do Part III as a standalone masters, than to do a BA/BSc in physics anywhere and go straight to Part III at Cambridge.

As far as I'm aware the physics content of both Oxford physics and Cambridge natsci physics are similar. However Cambridge natsci astrophysics Part II/III has a fair bit of overlap with the maths course there so I imagine may be somewhat more mathematical. They're probably about similar difficulty though.

Reply 9

2 years ago

Original post by artful_lounger

I think it would probably be more common to do the full MPhys (or MMathPhys) anywhere and then do Part III as a standalone masters, than to do a BA/BSc in physics anywhere and go straight to Part III at Cambridge.

As far as I'm aware the physics content of both Oxford physics and Cambridge natsci physics are similar. However Cambridge natsci astrophysics Part II/III has a fair bit of overlap with the maths course there so I imagine may be somewhat more mathematical. They're probably about similar difficulty though.

As far as I'm aware the physics content of both Oxford physics and Cambridge natsci physics are similar. However Cambridge natsci astrophysics Part II/III has a fair bit of overlap with the maths course there so I imagine may be somewhat more mathematical. They're probably about similar difficulty though.

Hey, I don’t know if you can answer this, but perhaps you know someone else who can. Are the applied maths and theoretical physics courses under the maths tripos taught in a very proof based manner? Do the exams mainly test proofs? Or do they also consist of application based questions and how the maths relates to real life physical systems? Do students from NST Physics do part iii maths? Is it unusual? Do they find it very hard? And is the maths tripos actually much better prep than say NST Physics/Oxford physics for a career in theoretical physics?

(edited 2 years ago)

Original post by Anonymous(

Hey, I don’t know if you can answer this, but perhaps you know someone else who can. Are the applied maths and theoretical physics courses under the maths tripos taught in a very proof based manner? Do the exams mainly test proofs? Or do they also consist of application based questions and how the maths relates to real life physical systems? Do students from NST Physics do part iii maths? Is it unusual? Do they find it very hard? And is the maths tripos actually much better prep than say NST Physics/Oxford physics for a career in theoretical physics?

I think people can move from NST Part II Physics to Part III Maths (and likewise Part II Astrophysics to Part III Maths - this latter route may be more typical). I think it's not uncommon, I wouldn't be surprised if there were at least one or two people every year going that route.

I'm not a student at Cambridge so don't know exactly how the exam questions are done. From what I've read from current/former students and in examiners reports for the tripos papers is that the "applied" courses tend to be more problem based than proof based (and consequently apparently it's harder to get the highest marks doing mostly applied options because some of the work can be quite long winded, whereas clever pure focused people can smash out a lot of bookwork proofs quite quickly I gather).

In terms of whether they are "application based" that will probably depend very much on the particular questions being answered and which course they correspond to (see above comments about the compendium style exam; you can also read about this on their website). For things like the "principles of quantum mechanics" course I expect they'll be as "applied" as any QM questions are, likewise the other "theoretical physics" options, which I expect would just be quite mathematical sophisticated physics exam type questions. For stuff like fluid mechanics I get the impression it isn't applied in an engineering sense but much more mathematically abstract.

Whether it's "better" preparation might depend somewhat on exactly what area of theoretical physics you want to go into. For theoretical condensed matter physics, probably debatable (pretty much all the condensed matter work at Cambridge is based in the physics department). For astrophysics related things, maybe, although the NST Astrophysics course borrows several papers from Part III (and maybe Part II) Maths. For theoretical HEP and quantum field theory related things at Cambridge the maths tripos might be a better option than NST. In all cases with the MMathPhys now available at Oxford I think Oxford physics is probably comparable to Cambridge maths or physics for most fields (and arguably better for some, e.g. I get the impression quantum information/computing is a much bigger thing at Oxford anyway). Then again I don't think you will be in a "weak" position applying to theoretical PhDs from NST Physics at Cambridge; it might just be that the wider and deeper range of maths covered in the maths tripos might be useful in the PhD and afterwards.

Reply 11

2 years ago

Original post by artful_lounger

I think people can move from NST Part II Physics to Part III Maths (and likewise Part II Astrophysics to Part III Maths - this latter route may be more typical). I think it's not uncommon, I wouldn't be surprised if there were at least one or two people every year going that route.

I'm not a student at Cambridge so don't know exactly how the exam questions are done. From what I've read from current/former students and in examiners reports for the tripos papers is that the "applied" courses tend to be more problem based than proof based (and consequently apparently it's harder to get the highest marks doing mostly applied options because some of the work can be quite long winded, whereas clever pure focused people can smash out a lot of bookwork proofs quite quickly I gather).

In terms of whether they are "application based" that will probably depend very much on the particular questions being answered and which course they correspond to (see above comments about the compendium style exam; you can also read about this on their website). For things like the "principles of quantum mechanics" course I expect they'll be as "applied" as any QM questions are, likewise the other "theoretical physics" options, which I expect would just be quite mathematical sophisticated physics exam type questions. For stuff like fluid mechanics I get the impression it isn't applied in an engineering sense but much more mathematically abstract.

Whether it's "better" preparation might depend somewhat on exactly what area of theoretical physics you want to go into. For theoretical condensed matter physics, probably debatable (pretty much all the condensed matter work at Cambridge is based in the physics department). For astrophysics related things, maybe, although the NST Astrophysics course borrows several papers from Part III (and maybe Part II) Maths. For theoretical HEP and quantum field theory related things at Cambridge the maths tripos might be a better option than NST. In all cases with the MMathPhys now available at Oxford I think Oxford physics is probably comparable to Cambridge maths or physics for most fields (and arguably better for some, e.g. I get the impression quantum information/computing is a much bigger thing at Oxford anyway). Then again I don't think you will be in a "weak" position applying to theoretical PhDs from NST Physics at Cambridge; it might just be that the wider and deeper range of maths covered in the maths tripos might be useful in the PhD and afterwards.

I'm not a student at Cambridge so don't know exactly how the exam questions are done. From what I've read from current/former students and in examiners reports for the tripos papers is that the "applied" courses tend to be more problem based than proof based (and consequently apparently it's harder to get the highest marks doing mostly applied options because some of the work can be quite long winded, whereas clever pure focused people can smash out a lot of bookwork proofs quite quickly I gather).

In terms of whether they are "application based" that will probably depend very much on the particular questions being answered and which course they correspond to (see above comments about the compendium style exam; you can also read about this on their website). For things like the "principles of quantum mechanics" course I expect they'll be as "applied" as any QM questions are, likewise the other "theoretical physics" options, which I expect would just be quite mathematical sophisticated physics exam type questions. For stuff like fluid mechanics I get the impression it isn't applied in an engineering sense but much more mathematically abstract.

Whether it's "better" preparation might depend somewhat on exactly what area of theoretical physics you want to go into. For theoretical condensed matter physics, probably debatable (pretty much all the condensed matter work at Cambridge is based in the physics department). For astrophysics related things, maybe, although the NST Astrophysics course borrows several papers from Part III (and maybe Part II) Maths. For theoretical HEP and quantum field theory related things at Cambridge the maths tripos might be a better option than NST. In all cases with the MMathPhys now available at Oxford I think Oxford physics is probably comparable to Cambridge maths or physics for most fields (and arguably better for some, e.g. I get the impression quantum information/computing is a much bigger thing at Oxford anyway). Then again I don't think you will be in a "weak" position applying to theoretical PhDs from NST Physics at Cambridge; it might just be that the wider and deeper range of maths covered in the maths tripos might be useful in the PhD and afterwards.

Hi again @artful_lounger. I don’t know if you can answer this, but is the mathematical content of Oxford Physics and Cambridge natsci the same? The Cambridge website has a very detailed specification of the content on the course but Oxford doesn’t seem to have this. One thing I know is that after 1st year, only 20% of the second year is maths at Oxford, whereas at Cambridge it’s still 1/3rd of the year. But it also seems like the physics courses in Oxford are more mathematical than the ones at Cambridge. Essentially, does Oxford physics have enough maths?

Original post by Anonymous(

Hi again @artful_lounger. I don’t know if you can answer this, but is the mathematical content of Oxford Physics and Cambridge natsci the same? The Cambridge website has a very detailed specification of the content on the course but Oxford doesn’t seem to have this. One thing I know is that after 1st year, only 20% of the second year is maths at Oxford, whereas at Cambridge it’s still 1/3rd of the year. But it also seems like the physics courses in Oxford are more mathematical than the ones at Cambridge. Essentially, does Oxford physics have enough maths?

They're essentially the same, assuming you do Part IB maths. Remember that in natsci you will also do two non-maths, non-physics papers so it evens out in that sense. You do a bit more other sciences and a bit less physics in the first two years at Cambridge (which sure, you do more maths by itself, but I expect at least some of those maths topics are embedded in other papers in the first two years at Oxford in physics), while at Oxford you just focus a bit more on physics from the get-go. By the third and fourth years your physics and maths background is going to be essentially pretty similar.

Part II/III Astrophysics at Cambridge might be slightly more mathematical than the base physics course at Oxford, since several of the papers in that tripos are borrowed from the mathematical tripos. However even that is somewhat marginal as a difference, especially with the Oxford MMathPhys final year which lets you do similar work to Part III Maths (i.e. the applied maths and theoretical physics options) continuing from physics there (at Cambridge it is possible to swap into Part III Maths in principle but you need a 1st in third year and support of your DoS to do so, whereas I think for the MMathPhys the "requirements" to swap into that are slightly lower).

It's worth noting Oxford physics students often go on to do Part III Maths (specializing on the DAMTP side - and possibly on to PhDs in DAMPT) and vice versa with Cambridge students (maths or physics) going on to do graduate work at Oxford. Both also commonly go into other strong physics graduate programmes in the UK (and abroad). The differences between them in terms of overall prospects and ultimate undergraduate background knowledge in physics and maths specifically are really splitting hairs. The more notable difference is Cambridge natsci grads will have some experience of other science fields from their first year - this might not be that relevant for many but might be useful if they specialise in e.g. biophysics, condensed matter, plantetary science, geophysics, etc, and took relevant options in first year. Won't make or break anything but is probably nice background to have before the PhD rather than picking it up in the process.

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