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Physics degrees in the UK and specialising at undergrad level

  1. Aug 8, 2010 #1
    Hi, I'm going into my second year of 6th form and I've done:
    A level maths (did the "fast track" option)
    AS Physics
    AS Chemistry
    and I will be doing fast track A level Further Maths
    AS French (But I'm dropping that)

    So I'll leave with A level Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry and an AS level in French.

    As far as I can tell, these options are perfect for a degree in Physics and I am genuinely passionate about learning things in physics - in AS physics classes I end up getting frustrated with the dumbed down versions of things we get taught and usually chat with my teacher for half the lesson about the deeper details.

    I'm good at all the subjects I do - I should have 90%+ in all the exams I've done and therefore should have an A* in maths. The physics courses I've seen all seem to stress that maths is important and I enjoy maths in its own right, but I find it fascinating when we model the world with maths, strangely beautiful. So for me, physics seems like the perfect choice.

    Right now, I feel like I want to discover things - I want to do a masters, then a Ph.D and then research - it all appeals to me.

    Given that I should get straight As/A*s in A levels and my GCSEs are ok - 5 A*s, 4As, 1 C (I really didn't try as much as I should've) - what do you guys recommend doing?

    I want to apply to Cambridge or Oxford and Imperial, then 3 of Warwick, Bristol, UCL, Birmingham, Manchester, Durham. I've been told that the traditional Unis like those are the best if you want to do further research and that apart from Oxbridge, the courses will be almost identical. I'm presuming those choices fine but would still like a little reassurance.

    Then there's the actual courses. At Cambridge there's Natural Sciences (which would maybe involve maybe a chemistry module in the first year or 2) or Mathematics with Physics, but Oxford offers straight physics. Imperial offers physics or theoretical physics. Other unis listed offer both physics and mathemtical physics or physics with a year abroad. Basically, am I better off doing just a physics degree, or given that I enjoy maths in its own right would it be good to choose a theoretical physics course instead? If I wish to one day do research, which would be better?

    Thanks in advance :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 8, 2010 #2
    Those are ideal subjects.

    Whatever you are passionate about. Picking a career based on your grades isn't a good idea. I remember when I was applying for university, everyone was trying to persuade me to study medicine because 'i had the grades'. No thanks. If you mean that you're not entirely sure about physics, have a look at the MIT Opencourseware website and you'll get a good idea of what sort of things will be covered in a typical physics curriculum. Some students find that the 'exotic' topics don't feature nearly as often as they were expecting - it can be disappointing.

    All fine choices - remember they are all very tough to get in to - but I'm sure if your grades come out like you expect, you'll get in to at least one of them. You could also look at Glasgow, if you don't mind the move of country. Their undergrad program is rated very highly and the department has had a big refurbishment recently. And Glasgow is a lovely city.

    At Cambridge you would have to do chemistry or materials science alongside physics and math. One thing that may interest you about the oxbridge courses is that they have higher level classes for exceptional students in math and physics. These courses are extremely difficult though, so you would likely need the A* and be willing to put a lot of work in.

    Other than that, don't worry about the difference with 'theoretical physics'. There isn't really any such thing as a specialization at undergraduate level - in a 'theoretical' course you'll complete almost all of the same physics as the alternative - perhaps with an extra few math courses in place of lab sessions. It won't make any difference when it comes round to applying for post-graduate positions if that's what you want to do (as in, you could certainly still apply for 'experimentalist' positions and you wouldn't be disadvantaged). The same goes for 'mathematical physics' - it will just involve switching some physics courses for some extra math.

    Things like a year abroad are entirely up to what you want to do and the experiences you want to have. You won't find that it will make much of a difference to anything - other than the fact that you will have had that extra life experience.

    Finally, you've got a great list of universities to apply to. Any of those universities will give you a chance to get a great education. Now, instead of thinking about rankings etc. within that list, focus on where you want to be. Do a bit of research into the cities each of the universities are located in. What is important to you? If you want to go mountain climbing, for instance, then London isn't a good choice. The difficult part (and for some reason, often overlooked) about choosing a university is finding the place where you can see yourself spending the next few years. Visit the universities you're seriously considering after a bit of research online. Travel around the local town and city - investigate amenities and whatever is important to you. What is the atmosphere like? Do you feel inspired around the university grounds? Is that important for you?

    Try to picture yourself walking around, remembering that you'll be doing it for 3 or 4 years. If you can find somewhere you'll be happy, hopefully the work and success will follow. A good portion of your likelihood of success at undergraduate level is to do with your own approach - being happy makes it much more straightforward.
  4. Aug 21, 2010 #3
    Don't get me wrong, I am passionate about studying physics if that didn't come across in the first post - I enjoy physics classes and I also enjoy maths as a subject in itself. Short of doing a joint honours, a physics degree seems to combine the two subjects at college I thoroughly enjoy.

    I did get the grades I expected :) A* in A level maths, A in AS physics and chemistry. So a physics degree is definitely still on.

    Sounds interesting. :)

    Ok - so as I enjoy maths as a subject in its own right taking extra maths classes appeals to me. I will probably apply for mathematical physics and theoretical where I can.

    OK thanks for the advice :) I'd be happy almost anywhere as long as it's away from home! :P
  5. Aug 21, 2010 #4

    You're taking the exact same A-Levels as me, including the AS French, general studies too? =P.

    I'm a year ahead of you, having just completed the second year and am now waiting to go to university in October so any specific questions you have about the process/anything in particular feel free to ask.

    I myself applied to Oxford/Warwick/Birmingham/Leeds/UCL, accepted by all but Oxford and choose to go to Birmingham for money reasons, London being too expensive for me. I managed to get the 3 A*s in Maths/FMaths/Physics though so if you have any questions about that either feel free to ask.

    Faster than jao has given some fantastic advice and i'd heed it all, something else i'll add is maybe (seeing as you've done AS French) is looking into some overseas programs, I'm doing Physics with a year of international study, which means i'll study in Paris for a year as part of the masters, which i'm extremely glad I found out about and chose to apply for...

    Anyway, well done on your results, they're fantastic, and good luck.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2010
  6. Aug 21, 2010 #5
    Good luck in Birmingham, it has a lot going for it. Being a *big* city it has just about everything you might want city-wise - a great theatre, truly world class orchestra and symphony hall, great restaurants (especially Indian!), NEC, premier league football, top class cricket, superb language centre, great arts centre, and on... It beats Oxbridge in these respects - they are small towns in comparison. Listen to Chewy and Faster ... great advice there.

    Also - how can you know you will happy "anywhere"? Even if you can, isn't it worth putting some thought into where you might be happiest? All these places are (supposedly!) great at teaching physics, but are they great at other things you care about (or might care about...) Physics with a year of international study in Paris ... great idea ... wish I'd thought of that!
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