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Wannabe theorist is totally confused

  1. May 3, 2010 #1

    I am currently on a gap year after having finished my A-levels here in the UK. I hold offers from Imperial College and Manchester for their "Physics with Theoretical Physics" courses. I have the option, if I go to Manchester, to switch to the "Mathematics and Physics" course, which is basically a few physics modules swapped out for maths modules.

    However, at the moment, I couldn't be more confused. I'm hoping to become a theoretical physicist in the future, and am unsure of what exactly I should be studying to give me the best chances. There are so many different options for modules and pathways in every course - what should a theorist know? What would potential employers expect me to know?

    From what I can see, there also seems to be big differences between what each university offers:


    http://www.physics.manchester.ac.uk/undergraduate/courses/course-handbook/7_programme_structure/structure.html [Broken]

    Again, I am worried if I would be at a disadvantage if I chose one uni over the other in terms of course content?

    Lastly, if I were to go to Manchester instead of Imperial College (Manchester being lower down in the UK "league tables") for my undergrad degree, would this have any sort of significant impact on my career/employability - and is there going to be any significant difference in the standards of the courses to begin with?

    I am sorry to waffle, but I really am totally lost at the moment. :)

    I'd greatly appreciate any help/advice!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 4, 2010 #2
    "Physics with Theoretical Physics" sounds spot on for what you want to do. But look carefully at all the options and see if there's anything stopping you doing what you *really* want to do. I read recently that not everyone who wanted to study "sexy subjects" at Cambridge UG (the stuff Hawking and gang popularise!) were allowed to do so - only the top twenty in the year were allowed to pursue the holy grail. Others were filtered into less popular courses. I was caught out myself at UG level at Leicester, and MSc level at Sussex - and it didn't even matter what my grades were. I was forced to study solid state & medical physics, and couldn't study QFT or GR. I'd just assumed I'd get to study the "sexy" subjects. More fool me. Sift the options with a fine tooth comb, and ask questions in writing ("Does everybody get to do GR?" "Do I get to choose whatever options I want, no restrictions...?" "If I get a B in quantum mechanics can I still study the quantum field theory course?" "If not can I resit QM?")
  4. May 5, 2010 #3

    Thanks for your advice! I'll take that into account.

    However, I'm still concerned I'll lose out if I were to choose Manchester over Imperial. Looking through the course details, there are modules that I can see included in the Imperial course which are not present in the Manchester course, such as QFT, GR, and Unification.

    I read somewhere that all UK physics courses were similar, but this doesn't seem to be the case with these two? Or am I just misunderstanding?
  5. May 17, 2010 #4
    *Bump* :smile:
  6. May 17, 2010 #5
    It is quite uncommon for these courses to be present in an undergraduate, even in an undergraduate Msci or MPhys. I did an Msci myself and completed a 15 credit course in GR.

    I would say that the only way you'll 'miss out' is if you feel it is imperative that you study these subjects at undergraduate: it isn't expected since they're graduate level topics so you won't miss out PhD-wise.

    Otherwise, either subject will be fine for studying theoretical physics after your degree. I feel that 'theoretical physics' at undergraduate is partially a misnomer, and certainly misleading for the student - in any solid physics undergraduate 'experimental' or 'theoretical' you will study roughly the same material. Courses will vary in bits and pieces as you progress, but the core material is what's important. Having the extra math skill you'd gain from the mathematics wouldn't hurt - but then if you're doing well enough and it fits in the timetable you should be able to pick up some extra math modules anyway.

    This is one thing I found awkward about my undergraduate GR course - the mathematics are very different from anything you'll have used in any other physics course, so it means almost all of it (and the way of thinking) is new - to try and cram this into a semester and add some physics on is almost asking for trouble.

    In short: Unless you're desperate to study these subjects at undergraduate, I would stick with the plan of accepting the university you can most see yourself at - if that's Imperial, then great but do it for the reasons that are most beneficial to your education. In any case, it may well turn out that these subjects aren't quite what you think they are anyway.
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