So you want to study physics at university

Over the past month or so, I’ve done a number of talks to large groups of A-level students as part of The Training Partnership’s Physics in Action days. I’ve been sticking around to answer questions afterwards and inevitably would be asked questions about applying/going to university to study physics. As these questions came up a lot, I thought I would jot down some of my thoughts about the most common questions.

Bear in mind that these are my personal opinions, and aren’t in any way guaranteed to help you get into university or onto the course that you want! I will keep using the University of Portsmouth as an example, but only because it’s the institution that I’m most familiar with these days and I am not speaking for them in any kind of official capacity. Nevertheless I hope this post is useful in some way. The UCAS deadline is looming in the UK, so I imagine many 17 and 18 year olds will be spending their Christmas break with these questions on their minds.

Should I study physics at university?

This is a question that only you can answer! My personal opinion is that you should pick a subject that you’re passionate about, and that you want to know more about. You’re going to be immersed in this subject for three or four years, so when I was thinking about what to do at university, I didn’t think that being good at a subject was enough.

Having said that, there are a couple of misconceptions that I want to address.

First, you don’t have to be top of your class to study physics at university. There seems to be this idea that you have to be an A* student to do physics at university. This absolutely isn’t the case. For example, to get onto the 3 year BSc physics course at the University of Portsmouth (where I work), you need “104 points to include a minimum of 2 A levels, or equivalent, with 32 points from A level Mathematics, Physics, or Electronics.”  32 points corresponds to a C at A level; you can get 104 points from one B and two Cs.

Second, you don’t have to end up as a physicist if you study physics at university. Many people seem to think that physics closes doors and that the only jobs you can do with a physics degree are in physics and engineering. In fact, people with physics degrees go on to do a wide range of jobs, and studying physics equips you with a huge number of skills that are needed in different sectors. You can find out more about this on the Institute of Physics website.

What university should I go to?

There is no easy answer to this question because again it really depends on you. Growing up in a village outside of a small city, I decided I wanted to experience life in a large city and ended up in Manchester. The music scene there also played no small part in my decision and a good thing too – outside of physics I spent most of my spare time at university going to gigs. I wasn’t fussed about moving 200 miles away from home but you might want to not go so far.

When I was applying to university I remember only considering what I thought to be the “good” universities, but even then this is more complex than just looking at Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities. I don’t remember actually looking at subject-specific information, just what my teenage self had decided was good (I’ll admit, I was a bit of a snob!). To use my place of work again as an example, 17 year old me would have probably immediately dismissed it because it’s a post-92 university and has lower than usual entry grades for physics. However, the research carried out at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (where I work) is world-leading and many of the academics engaged in this research would be the ones to teach you. In the REF2014 assessment (which looks at the quality of research carried out at universities), the University of Portsmouth was ranked 8th in the country for physics research output, above four of the universities that I applied to go to.

Another thing to consider is the details of the course. At Manchester I was quite happy to be one of 250 physics students, anonymous to the majority of my lecturers and not plugged in to the wider goings-on of the department. I went to lectures, attended tutorials, and did labs, but never really participated in any extracurricular physics activities. The physics students at Portsmouth seem to have a very different experience – there’s a smaller cohort so most of them are friends and they socialise a lot as a big group. Portsmouth also seems to place a lot more focus on real-world applications of physics with links to industry and opportunities for students to experience physics outside of the university. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time at Manchester and thrived on my course, but be aware that just because the courses all have the same name, it doesn’t mean the experience at different universities will be the same.

What can I do to help my application?

This is the question I probably got the most and the question I’m probably least qualified to answer! I’ve never been involved with the selection process at a university so all I can offer are some tips based on my experiences.

First, try to get some physics work experience if you can. Many university physics departments offer summer placements for students between years 12 and 13. I assume the same applies for industry. The Nuffield Research placements scheme is a good place to start.

Second, show your enthusiasm for physics in your personal statement but don’t lie! Everyone writes about reading A Brief History of Time and New Scientist – I’m not saying don’t do this, but make sure you have actually read them. I remember one university interview when I was asked to talk about any recent physics article I’d seen in New Scientist – frustratingly there hadn’t been a huge amount of physics in the past few issues so I got into a horrendous discussion about whether anything could travel faster than the speed of light! Try to go beyond the usual things that everyone will write about – attend public talks, join your local astronomical society, or subscribe to physics-related podcasts.

Finally, don’t hide your other passions. Physicists aren’t just physicists – we are an increasingly diverse group of people with different interests and hobbies. I think my personal statement talked about my love of music as much as physics. Having said that, make it relevant to your application – I seem to remember talking about how I loved that wave physics could explain the design of my flute, how playing in bands while studying for my A levels improved my time management skills, and how teaching music to young children gave me experience of being in a position of responsibility.

 

That’s it from me for now. I hope this has been a useful post if you’re thinking about applying to university to study physics. Feel free to let me know if there are any questions I’ve missed. If you’ve been through this process like I have, pop a comment below with your top piece of advice!

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When physicists get married

I don’t normally post things about my personal life on the internet but this one event was so wonderfully geeky that I feel the need to share it.

Four months ago I got married. Not necessarily an occasion worth writing about on a blog that’s mostly about astronomy. However, as my now-husband is also a physicist (of the nuclear kind), we decided to see how much physics we could subtly (and not-so-subtly) fit into the wedding.

We started off with the stationary, where we decided to go down the handmade route. Luckily Hobbycraft is full of starry decorations and so we ended up sticking countless little plastic stars to pieces of ribbon on invitations, placecards and favour boxes:

The purple chest in the above picture contained sweets for the wedding favour. A pretty standard thing to do but instead of the traditional heart-shaped chocolates or sugared almonds, we chose to use Milky Way Magic Stars and Atomic Fireblasts to represent our two branches of physics.

Next up was the table names. Each table was named after a different physicist. We decided on Rutherford for the top table as we met in our first year of a physics degree at Manchester (and spent most of our time in the Rutherford lecture theatre).

Other tables were named after Bohr, Chandrasekhar, Herschel, Thomson, Curie, Lovell and Jansky. For each table we made a sign with a picture of the physicist on the front and a mini-biography on the back (even at my wedding I couldn’t help but educate!). On the table plan we thought we would have an extra treat for the astronomers in attendance and decorated it with a constellation in each corner:

Now there are a lot of geeky wedding cakes out there, from xkcd to programming. We played around with a lot of ideas for our cake and eventually decided to go all out with a solar system wedding cake. I’d seen a two-tier wedding cake decorated with the planets but we thought we could go one better with eight small cakes for the planets and a larger one for the Sun. When Sheila at Inspirations Cakes started talking about spherical cakes I was sold! Some miscommunication mean that Uranus had to be turned into the Earth at the last minute but I think it turned out pretty well! It’s obviously not to scale but I think that would have been a step too far (even for us).

And finally…

A few days before the wedding I checked Heavens Above and realised there would be a bright ISS pass over the reception venue just before our first dance. Despite the weather forecast not looking promising I fired a quick email off to our photographer extraordinaire Dave Burlison who was more than up for the challenge of a wedding photo with the ISS in the background! We gathered outside with some astro friends and amazingly the clouds broke just in time to get some awesome shots:

That little streak in the sky above our heads is the International Space Station! There are astronauts in our wedding photo! I still can’t quite believe we managed to pull this off. I just hope they remembered to smile…

All photos were taken by Dave Burlison from Burlison Photography.