What is Physics?
Physics is a fundamental science, the range of which stretches from the subatomic particles that make up matter, to huge black holes in outer space, and beyond! At its heart, is the desire to find out how the world works, by studying it through experimentation, and attempting to describe it through the language of mathematics for the purpose of creating physical models. As physicists, it is important to choose the correct physical model for the situation. This is never an exact match to reality, but we choose a model that provides us with the desired level of accuracy and conforms with experimental data yet is simple enough for further predictions to be made...
The flip side of this, however, is that a theory which does not make testable predictions is not really that useful to us as physicists, however intellectually intriguing it may be. This is known as "positivism". A controversial example is string theory - it has been made relatively famous by television programmes and books, but it's predictions are as yet untestable. Only with the new generation of particle accelerators that will appear in the future (starting with the LHC particle accelerator at Cern), will we possess instruments powerful enough to test the predictions of these theories.
Studying Physics at University
Generally in the first year you will study much of the maths you will use throughout your degree, you will also study classical physics and some elementary modern physics. In the second year you will finish learning the maths needed for your undergraduate degree and progress onto more modern physics such as quantum. In the third year you will learn no new maths, however you will have to do lots of difficult modules which encompasses quantum mechanics so don't feel too smug. To find out the content for accredited physics degrees see the IOP site
Life as a Physics Student
Physics students generally have a high number of contact hours. This usually comprises of 10 hours of lectures, 5 hours of lab, and 5 hours of computing, tutorials and seminars, and totals around 20 hours. You are expected to prepare/read around lectured subject matter too - for about 2 hours per lecture. Most universities also require students to complete weekly problem sheets which take a few hours to do. So altogether you should be doing approximately 40 hours work per week to be sure of attaining a first class honours degree.
What can I do with a Physics Degree?
A physics degree is a good foundation for most careers - it shows that you are numerate, can use a computer, and have been taught to think through and to solve problems logically. Most graduates however go onto further research, whether this may be an MSc or doctoral studies, such as a PhD. However, there are graduates that use their degree in a non-degree specific field and many can be found in banking, scientific journalism, patent law etc. This is due to the fact that a Physics degree is a varied degree and can be applied to many careers. With further study, it is certainly possible to get into Engineering as well. See physics.org for examples of careers from physics.
Choosing a Course
BSc Physics or MPhys, MSci Physics
There are now two alternatives for those who want to do an undergraduate physics degree in the UK. You can either do a bachelor's degree (designated BSc), which is three years long, or an undergraduate master's (designated either MPhys or MSci), which is four years long. The undergraduate master's degree has courses at masters level studied in more depth in the fourth year, and is aimed at students wanting to pursue an academic career.
It is better to apply for the longer course, because transfer between the two is possible only until the end of the first or second year, and transfer to a three-year degree will cause less problems with your student loan and LEA funding than a transfer to a four-year degree.
Entry requirements for the BSc courses are often at least a grade lower than for the MPhys or MSci courses.
Universities offering Physics
There are over 40 universities offering a varied choice of Physics degree programmes. For a full list of physics courses see the Institute of Physics website. Another useful site is What Uni where you can enter your likely A level grades and get a list of appropriate Universities. Its also useful for seeing what combined subject courses ('Physics and ...') are on offer.
Offers range from A*AA A level grades to 240 or lower UCAS points depending on the University. Foundation degrees are available for those without adequate grades (Swansea as an example) or for applicants who did the 'wrong' A level subjects (Southampton as an example).
How important is 'Russell Group'?
This report from the Institute of Physics reveals that the career destinations and salaries for graduates in Physics from Russell Group and non-Russell group Universities are not dramatically different (see Section 7). It's actually the class of degree that makes the difference, not the University attended. And that this is the only section of the report that even mentions this issue should also tell you something about the insignificance of 'Russell Group' amongst intelligent professionals in your intended field. In other words, it doesn't matter.
Should I take any notice of League Tables and 'rankings'?
Most league tables are of limited use to an applicant for an undergraduate degree - they measure research funding and a whole raft of other things that will make no difference to your time at Uni. This article is useful for explaining exactly what League Tables are all about - and why they are no way to choose a University course.
Joint honours Physics courses
What is a joint honours course?
Joint honours courses are degree programmes in which students study two or more subjects as part of their degree programme, but in the same time period as a single honours degree programme. Consequently, students on joint honours courses may learn more subjects, but they will learn them in less depth. They are popular with students who enjoy two subjects equally and are unable to restrict their study to only one of these. They are also popular with students who have a vague idea as to what they would like to do after their degree, but want to keep their options as open as possible. Required grades are often lower for combined or joint subject courses - simply because the demand for these courses are lower than for a single subject degree. Therefore, these make a good choice for an Insurance course.
Types of joint honours courses
There are two main types of joint honours courses. They are:
- Major-minor degrees: In these courses, you would major in one subject and minor in another subject. Three-quarters of the degree would be spent studying the major subject, with the other quarter for the minor subject. Thus, if you were study Physics with Theoretical Physics, you would major in Physics and Theoretical Physics would form a subsidiary component of your degree. Thus, when your degree is awarded, your grades in Physics modules will have more weighting than your performance in Theoretical Physics.
- Joint honours degrees: This is a joint honours degree in the true sense of the word. In this course, you would major in two subjects, but to a lesser extent than you would major in your main subject in comparison to the previous type of joint-honours course. This is because half of your degree would be spend studying each subject. They would thus have an equal weighting in your final degree mark. An example of a joint honours course would be Physics and Mathematics.
Physics joint honours courses
The central role of Physics within natural science, computer science and mathematics, combined with its broad range of different fields of specialism, makes it a very popular choice for joint-honours courses. However, it is most likely that the other discipline in any joint-honours course will be highly useful to the study of Physics. For the full list of Physics and Physics-related course offered at universities across the UK, refer to the the IOP web-site myPhysicsCourse or UCAS database.
Examples of subject combinations: Popular (and more common) subject combinations include Mathematics, Theoretical Physics, Astronomy, Medical Physics and Computer Science. However, Physics as the most fundamental science has a surprisingly common role in the arts and humanities also. Therefore, more unusual subject combinations include Philosophy, Finance/Economics and Musical Studies. You can search for course by subject combination at myPhysicsCourse.
Career prospects of joint honours courses
Studying joint honours courses has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of a joint honours course is that when you graduate you are reasonably proficient in two academic disciplines, which gives you a broader range of career prospects, ideal for someone who is not fully certain in what sector they would like to work once they graduate. On the other hand, if you already know the profession you would like to work in once you graduate, and if this profession requires a specific degree, employers would prefer a single honours course. This is because in a single honours course, you have studied your subject of choice in much more depth, rigour and difficulty. This will display a greater knowledge in your academic discipline to employers.
It would also be advisable to read the online prospectuses of universities, to see which universities you would like to study at. Academically, you should look at the course structure and content of each university's Physics programme, seeing what areas of Physics the department specialises in, or is reputable for, or the flexibility of the course. With respect to living conditions, one may wish to consider whether they would prefer to live in a city like London, or opt for a campus lifestyle.
To read Physics or any related course at university, A2 Mathematics and A2 Physics are usually considered compulsory.
Grade requirements vary significantly across universities. At A-level, top universities will usually ask for A*A*A-ABB. For candidates studying the International Baccalaureate, it is estimated that grade 6 in Higher Level Mathematics and Physics would be necessary for entrance onto the course; although it is always best to check with the universities in question. Entry requirements for individual courses and institutions are available from the IOP web-site myPhysicsCourse.
Useful or Recommended Prerequisites
Further Mathematics A-level will certainly help your application, and is an advantage it if you are applying to either Oxford or Cambridge Universities, especially since both universities have shorter 8-week terms, and so you will have less contact time. However, many schools either do not offer it, or promote it overly to students, and not having it will not disadvantage your application to the vast majority of universities. Studying it will give you a slight headstart over students who have not, but all the content that will be required will be covered during the course of your degree. Candidates studying the International Baccalaureate should not be concerned about not having an extra Mathematics qualification.
Chemistry is also sometimes considered useful preparation for reading a Medical or Chemical Physics degree (especially if the student is not studying Further Mathematics), as it is the other main physical science offered at A-level, and in some areas it overlaps in content with physics. However, this is more because candidates applying to read Physics at university tend to have studied Chemistry to at least AS level. It is very important to note that Chemistry is by no means essential - not studying it at A level will not hinder your learning at university, with regard to learning the physics or mathematics. However, if your chosen university offers any first-year courses which border on physical chemistry, it may be of use. Students who studied the International Baccalaureate may consider studying Chemistry to Standard Level, or preferably even to Higher Level.
It is worthwhile joining the Institute of Physics (IoP) as an affiliate member. Membership is free for anyone aged 16 to 19 and studying physics via the IOP 16-19 scheme