Ground yourself for life

Physics A-levels and degrees give an unparalleled insight into the workings of the world
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The Independent Online

"Physics is more a way of thinking than a list of subjects," says Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics. "There are a small number of physical laws and you can apply them to almost anything in the universe."

Small wonder that physicists pop up in unlikely quarters - on our screens as weather announcers, within journalism, yacht design, hospitals, computer game design, quantitative finance or recording studios.

Over the years, school students have cited two areas as most exciting: astrophysics - the big bang theory, origins of the universe, black holes, dead stars; and at the other end of the scale, particle physics - "the fundamental bits of what the whole universe is made of," says Main.

Any physics degree will cover these, as well as core areas touched upon at A-level: quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, nuclear physics, condensed matter physics as well as more modern areas such as chaotic dynamics or robotics and the physics of biological systems.

"Physics is about finding things out," says the Institute of Physics, "what lies behind everyday phenomena like rainbows, red sunsets and blue skies as well as the more revolutionary concepts of quantum theory, relativity and cosmology."

While numbers of physics students are falling, employers' demand for physics graduates remains strong. "You leave with skills second to none," says Main. "Numeracy, problem solving, conceptually clear thinking, IT literacy, the ability to write - a physicist is flexible; attractive to a wide range of employers."

Reasons for diminishing numbers of applicants, says Dr Fred Loebinger, admissions tutor at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, may be down to students opting for more vocational degrees, such as engineering. "A fallacy," he adds. "There are a wealth of opportunities. Physics graduates have no problem finding jobs." In fact Manchester has bucked the national trend this year and accepted a record 260 physics undergraduates.

Another turn-off for 17-year-olds choosing subjects may be the nature of the teaching at A-level, says Dr Loebinger. "If you teach the basics of maths and physics to prepare for a degree, this can turn students off the subject. Or you can look at the 'gee-whiz' side of science - robotics, lasers, astrophysics etc. - which is exciting at a superficial level but does it prepare you for a degree? It's a hard balance to strike."

But A-level courses get around the problem, says Dr Steven Chapman at Oxted School in Surrey, by concentrating on the practical applications of physics. "All physics we look at is context based," he says. "If we are looking at material science, for instance, we will do the same tests on sweets that are actually carried out in industry. It engages students. They see the relevance of physics in all areas of life." Field trips also form part of the A-level coursework - looking at how a 200-tonne artefact is hung in a museum, for instance. Some students find it difficult to apply maths to "real" situations, says Dr Chapman, but university courses teach the basic skills in more detail anyway. "We look for independent workers: people who are prepared to study on their own do better than those who are lazy and bright."

Most universities look for good A-level or Highers grades in maths and physics - plus another subject. "Your third A-level should be something you enjoy and will do well in," says Dr Loebinger. "It doesn't matter which."

Physics mixes well with other subjects, and most universities offer a range of degree choices - physics with business, languages, finance or philosophy, for example. "Philosophy complements physics nicely," says Main. "You are dealing with difficult concepts in both, and learning to solve problems and argue well." But combining another subject limits your choice of physics modules: after the first two years, straight physics degree students can opt for more cutting-edge areas of study.

Certain universities are strong in particular fields. Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham are strong in medical physics, Bristol in particle physics, Lancaster in ultra-low temperature physics, Leicester in space science and Southampton in opto-electronics, to name but a few. Whether you opt for a three-year BSc or a four-year undergraduate Masters depends upon your career designs and achievement after the first two years of your degree. Most universities allow you to decide upon a fourth year if you have passed certain academic hurdles - and this adds depth and breadth to the degree. There are no core modules to follow, but instead projects, teamwork and presentations. "If you are aiming for something like accountancy," says Dr Loebinger, "I'd look at the BSc. Otherwise, employers say they would take a Masters student any time in preference to a three-year degree."

From 2006, a means-tested bursary of around £1,000 a year will be offered by the Institute of Physics to undergraduates on accredited physics courses in the UK and Ireland

'I like knowing how things work'

Hannah Florish, 16, is studying physics, maths and mechanics, history, government and politics and philosophy A-levels at Oxted School, Surrey

I definitely want to do physics at university. I've always found it really interesting. I'm considering studying astrophysics, although I haven't looked at all options yet. I chose these A-levels as they went well together.

At the moment in physics we are looking at light rays and lenses - splitting light into lines of colour with a spectrum. In another class we are looking at Newton's laws in depth, and vectors and forces.

Physics isn't a stereotypical girls' subject but I've never been interested in those. I like the practical side - knowing how things work - and the challenge of working your way around a problem and finally getting an answer. I've never found maths particularly easy but the maths and mechanics A-level complements physics really well.

I did work experience last year with the National Physical Laboratory in Middlesex - weighing and cleaning samples of metal and testing their strength. I'm not sure about my career yet - but I would love to work at NASA.

'I look at how instruments produce sound'

Tim Britton, 20, is in his second year of a BSc in physics with music at the University of Edinburgh, after A-levels in physics, maths and chemistry

I'm really interested in music. I took this course because it didn't require any prior qualifications or formal training in music, and because I am good at physics. There has been a lot of crossover on the course so far - it's about 30 per cent music and 70 per cent physics.

As part of the music course I looked at acoustics: how instruments produce sound, and how rooms can affect sound; why a choir can sound good but a single voice can be lost. That used a lot of A-level physics: frequency and waves.

Career-wise, I would like to do something related to music technology - working in a recording studio, for instance. In my final year I hope to do a project related to reverberations.

University physics has been more interesting - the A-level was quite basic. This year has proved challenging: looking at crazy things like relativity and concepts that force you to think. But I wouldn't want to end up in a job just doing physics.