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Programs How much effect does undergrad university have on choice of PhD uni (UK)?

  1. Aug 27, 2008 #1
    I am just coming into Year 13 in the UK and I need to choose which universities to apply to, at AS Level I got 5As in Maths, Further Maths, Bio, Chem and Physics so I have a free choice as far as entry requirements go with the exception of places like Oxbridge and maybe even Imperial where there is never a guarantee of a place regardless of grades.

    My dilemma is that I am applying to Oxford, but only 25% of applicants are offered a place and in the (in that light rather likely) event that I am not offered a place I need to decide which other universities I should apply to. I stayed at Exeter University for a few days this summer and it is in a nice area, with friendly staff and is only rated one research grade lower than Oxford so it would seem like a good choice.

    But it is not as prestigious in Physics (It's entry requirements are only ABB) as say Durham and St. Andrews (both have AAA requirements) so would that affect my chances of being able to study for a doctorate at a good university (perhaps even abroad) upon graduation?

    This problem is only made worse by the fact that as I live in the south of England, it is difficult to go and see Durham and St. Andrews as they are both in the far north so it will be hard to know what they are like before I apply.

    I guess it boils down to whether I should apply to a university that is still good and seems to suit me quite well, or a university that is seen as more prestigious.

    I apologize for my unnecessarily long post, but I am not terribly good at writing concisely. Any advice will be greatly appreciated, thank you in advance.

    In short: If I choose to goto a University that only has entry requirements of ABB as opposed to AAA despite having high enough grades to go to the more difficult one(although they both have the same research score), will these affect which universities will consider admitting me for doctorate study? Even if I want to study abroad(such as USA) where presumably international fame and prestige of my undergrad uni will be even more important?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 27, 2008 #2


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    I can't really speak as to UK schools, but in general, I think students tend to place far too much weight on school reputations. I think this factor is more significant in business studies and the like where networking is a major factor in your personal success.

    What matters is that the school you choose has an honours undergraduate physics program that is recognized by the institution that you're applying to for graduate studies, that you have good marks in your core physics and math courses and good reference letters. Also, it's important that the program you apply to offers courses that you want to take. (It's much easier to take classes you're interested in, rather than classes you think will look good on a CV).
  4. Aug 27, 2008 #3
    Well Durham was one of the only university I went on an open day to and it is a nice area and a nice university. You shouldn't overlook the issue about which university, granted that you go to a reputable university (top 10 for your subject or example), the only thing that matters is what you graduate with. Thats why you should choose somewhere that suits you. If you hate cities (as I do) don't apply to London. If you hate your enviroment your grades will drop and you will start loosing focus.

    Entry requirements don't really tell the whole story, some universities will make AAA requirements but will accept ABB! Oxford should be your number one choise (I would have gone or Cambridge but hey) but don't be too upset if you don't get in. You'll be compeating with people that have the same grades as you. I don't know much about physics (I do Maths) but I thing that top uniersities (in my field at least) are Oxbridge, Warwick, Bath, Bristol, Durham, Imperial, UCL and Southampton (which a lot of my physist friends went to). You can visit most of these, I recomend Bath because Bristol I thought was horrid and Bath is a nice city with a lot of tourists. I may have a slight bias here:rolleyes:

    When you are at university you realise that A levels mean jack all. University education is compleately different and your A-level grades don't usualy give any indication to how well you do. So just try to find a university that you can imagine yourself living in, and good luck.

    PS. You should move away from home, its much more fun!
  5. Aug 27, 2008 #4


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    The choice of ugrad matters less in the UK than the US - all UK unis are effectively state collages and the content and exams (at least in science) are quite tightly regulated.
    There aren't as many places that offer physic courses (or chemistry) anymore so the ones that are left are all pretty much good.
    Ignore what the offer is, it's purely based on how many applicants they think they will get for the places - it's nothign to do with the difficulty of the course. As Focus said A levels are not a good indicator of degree performance, especially nowadays where 99.9% get A grades.

    Whats important is will you like living there!
    Do you want somewhere in the big city - UCL/Imperial
    A nice small town - Durham, Bristol
    A campus - York, Sussex

    ps. You really do want to live away from home.
  6. Aug 27, 2008 #5
    If you want to stay in the south of England, Bristol is a great uni. I don't think may people would call it a second choice.

    I hate London, so I wouldn't suggest Imperial etc.

    As long as you stick to a Russell Group uni, you'll be fine. They are all strong research unis.
    But go to visit the campuses. It really does matter a lot if you like the area or not.

  7. Aug 27, 2008 #6
    Thank you for your advice, it certainly feels less stressful now that I know the decision won't hang over me all that much.

    I had already decided that I was definitely going to move away from home, even if I study somewhere really close like Sussex. I agree with you about London as well, its a shame because Imperial looks like a nice uni, but the living costs in London are huge and I don't like big cities at all.

    I guess I should try and check out Durham as a lot of people have recommended it, it will be a pain to visit but it is a decision for four years so I suppose it is worth the trouble. Still, living so far away from home (over 300 miles) would be weird.

    I have considered applying to Bath as well, it's very close to Exeter and Bristol, and both Bath and Exeter look nicer cities than Bristol. Bath seems to have a substantially higher cost of living than Exeter though and is not as highly regarded in Physics (It's research score is surprisingly lower). I can get scholarships at Exeter too, so that is another bonus.

    Also, why does everyone seem to think that Cambridge is better than Oxford? The NatSci Tripos seemed a bit confusing whereas Oxford just do straight Physics although the opportunity to study CompSci for a bit could be fun.

    Slightly off track, but if any of you are UK Undergrads what is it like trying to live off of the Maintenance loan etc.?
  8. Aug 27, 2008 #7
    As it happens, I go to Durham! I love it there, although it wouldn't be for everyone, and i would strongly recommend visiting for an open day. That being said, if you don't like big cities Durham would certainly fulfill that criterion. The other thing it has to recommend it is the collegiate structure, which effectively takes what could just be halls of residence and gives them pastoral support systems and (most importantly) an identity. Feel free to PM me if you'd like to know more!
    As far as oxford vs. cambridge goes: I can honestly say that (as far as I can tell from the internet!) that the education I've had is at least comparable to what I would have had if I'd gone to Oxford. I could in no way say the same thing about Cambridge. The sheer volume of what they expect from their students scares me.
    You cannot (unless you receive an additonal means-tested grant/loan) live off your maintenance loan. It's about £3300, and my college bill in 1st year was £4100- so you need to find £800 to simply cover the essentials of a roof over your head and food. I aim to supplement my loan each year with £1500 earned from paid work (and although I've never counted, generous grandparents probably push that nearer to two grand, although I do try and set aside a little money as well).
  9. Sep 1, 2008 #8
    Note the Russell group misses out some highly rated universities. Lancaster had 5* for physics in the Sunday Times guide, beating most of the group. The Sunday Times is essential for working out the best places to go to.

    Many students in the South seem afraid of crossing the Watford gap, an affliction you seem to be suffering from, therefore great Northern universities are easier to get into than their equivalents in the South.

    It's also time to ask what you are *really* interested in. Then you should consider which is the best research university for what you are interested in. For instance, if you are interested in the more applied areas of "space science" then Leicester is great, but Sussex might be better for theoretical cosmology. Durham is great for particle physics, Imperial for quantum field theory, and so on, ...

    There is trickle down from research to teaching, so if a university is tops at an area of research, then its liable to be good at teaching it (vice versa doesn't always follow!)
  10. Sep 1, 2008 #9
    mal4mac, I dunno I am interested in condensed matter physics with regards to superconductors and semi-conductor technology. Plasma physics looks interesting with regards to nuclear fusion and possible new propulsion methods, and quantum computing also looks interesting. I know that Sussex has a quantum ion trap group.

    I am quite interested in biophysics too as I might go on to a Neuroscience PhD after my physics degree as quite a few neuroscience programmes accept phys students and neuroscience seems like a gold mine of discovery in the near future.

    But its hard to know which universities are good for these areas of physics as I don't read journals as they are too advanced and hence have no idea of the various research groups. Also, things like solid-state physics etc. seem to be less glamorous areas and so aren't really mentioned much in UG prospectuses whereas they mention the groups in more trendy areas such as particle physics.
  11. Sep 1, 2008 #10
    Do a google search like "condensed matter physics UK". Amusingly my alma mater popped up top -- Leicester University. I made the big mistake of taking a combined science degree so I don't always have the kindest things to say about Leicester :grumpy: But the course on solid state physics I was forced to take was a good one, so Leicester might be worth checking out *if* you do single honours physics.

    Note the SURE programme:


    So you can go somewhere else and still go to Leicester! Doing this kind of thing in the summer is a *must*.

    Nuclear fusion is definitely Oxford's main baby -- Culham labs. It can be a dispiriting area though, a vice chancellor I knew took great glee in taking down a star professor who had worked on fusion with a blunt, "but you still haven't got anywhere, have you?" That take down has been standard for the last sixty years, and may be for the next sixty. Also I've met many people (like that professor!) who have moved out of fusion -- some find it too depressing when nothing works after twenty years. Still, get it right and you'll be more famous than Hawking...

    My biggest career mistake was not deciding to specialise early, so if I were you I'd decide on neuroscience or physics *now* rather than thinking of doing physics and then 'converting' to neuroscience. Otherwise you will always be behind the neuroscience BSc students, and not have as much respect from neuroscience researchers. This is the harsh reality of the UK system -- early choice of specialisation at ages 16 and 18 is de rigeur. In the US things appear to be more flexible.

    Your leaning towards condensed matter seems eminently sane, I'd explore everything you can about the area to see if you can maintain an interest in it. Read web sites, read books
    by well respected UK physicists, maybe:

    Quantum Physics: A Beginner's Guide by Alastair I.M. Rae
    Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed by Jim al-Khalili
    The New Quantum Universe by Tony Hey, Patrick Walters
  12. Sep 2, 2008 #11
    Thank you, that SURE programme looks interesting I'll have to keep it in mind when I start.

    Hmm, I know what you mean about specialisation, it makes me wish we had a major/minor system like the USA and virtually every other country in the world :( I think I will do Physics though because that is where most of my interests lie despite the allure of such an undiscovered area as neuroscience.

    As for those books, I have read the one by Alastair I.M Rae and I found I preferred it to The Search For Schrodingers Cat by Gribbin because Rae just did some of the theory and then got down to the applications and wasn't afraid to put in equations in places where they could help clarify the concepts. Whereas Gribbin spent much longer on the history and philosophy of the theory, whilst I found the history interesting I often feel that the philosophy is best left to the philosophers.

    I will look at those other books, Al-Khalili is the professor from Surrey isn't he? He was on some BBC programmes a while ago and seemed pretty good at explaining things so perhaps I'll start with that one.

    Also, if I did a BSc in neuroscience, how easy is it to get funding for a MSc? Because obviously with the integrated MPhys 4 year degree I don't have to worry about that.

    Again, thank you a lot for your advice, it is much appreciated :)
  13. Sep 2, 2008 #12
    I study Maths at Bath. It wasn't my first choise but I love the city and the uni (its raining as I write this). It is all a matter of taste. To bo honest, there really is not much acedemic difference in Bath, Bristol, Durham, ect.. I am currently paying £333 a month for my flat, the university accomodation you get in the first year is around £72 (depends what you want), the house prices are beteween £65-£90, depending on how close to town you wish to live.

    I don't know much about the physics department but the maths department has top ratings for research and teaching (I think they are best at applied maths) so I doubt that the physics department will be that bad. I did hear that every physicist is an alchoholic, even lecturers walk in to the hall with a pint of beer! I hope you have a good liver...

    Get the loan regardless of how wealthy your family is. It has 0% real interest, so if you don't use it, put it in a bank and you earn money by earning interest on it.

    Living of it is hard without support from parents, I get around £3000 a year to spend (£3000 goes to uni) and that doesn't even cover 10 months of rent :|. However if your parents cannot support you, you will get a bigger loan or even a grant, so you can study wherever.

    By the way, you should enjoy the first year, you only need to pass so party like mad and get it out of your system.
  14. Sep 2, 2008 #13


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    If you are interested in solid state physics it might be a good idea to see if you can find the proceedings(or at least the program) for CMMP (an annual condensed matter physics conference in the UK, most groups will send at least on member), it should give you some idea of what kind of research goes on where.
    I might be able to help when it comes to superconductivity. Note, however, that "superconductivity" is not a topic in itself, it is a huge field nowadays and includes everything from materials science/analysis to device physics (various superconducting devices, including detectors for astronomy).
    So, I think you need to be a bit more specific.
  15. Sep 3, 2008 #14
    Hmm... this seems to have made my decision about University harder, as I'm not entirely sure which research areas I really like.. It's a shame I can only choose 5 , but then in the end I can only attend one I suppose.

    York, Durham and Warwick all look pretty good, but I'm not sure if I'd like living so far north. Lancaster looks worth applying to because of its high research rating and low entry grades just in case. On the other hand though, I liked Exeter and Bath is a beautiful small city and I also know that Sussex have an Ion Trap Computing group.

    Apparently there isn't much housing near Warwick uni that students can afford and commuting would be a pain. York is also a campus just outside the city so travel could be annoying there too, same goes for Lancaster and one of my friends said that their campus is pretty hideous while Sussex is a bit close to home.

    God this decision is sooo hard, I hate to think what it will be like when I have to decide whether to take a PhD or not, because this decision is important but won't have a massive effect longterm, whereas a PhD is deciding the rest of my life.

    Anyway I should focus on the decision at hand.. not that it appears to be getting any easier.
  16. Sep 3, 2008 #15
    I was at Sussex for a year. I lived in Brighton, an interesting city. The short commute was dead easy by train. But I'd recommend anyone to go to a big city. I spent several years in Birmingham and Glasgow and would highly recommend both. Both have large universities that would enable you to keep options open. But the main advantage is that you meet "all sorts" in large cities with large universities, and most things you might feel like doing are on the doorstep. And you can take day trips to the pretty towns. (One day is often enough :-) Brighton almost fits, but even it's a bit small. Then again, London is an easy hop...
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