Physics: 'For problem solvers who want to understand the fundamental laws of nature'

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What are the entry requirements for this course?

Physics is quite tough to get in to: it's a theoretically based degree and this is reflected in the grades required. Bachelor of science degrees require three higher-grade passes at BBB or four at BBCC, usually including mathematics and physics both at grade B or above; bear in mind that quite a few departments will accept students without physics but not without maths. Good quantitative skills are also very important, as is having a good scientific approach.

Who applies?

People who enjoy problem solving and want to understand the fundamental laws of nature. They are also inquisitive and logical, as well as appreciating the beauty of science and being creative when tackling original problems, particularly in later years when doing actual research.

"We get a huge range of interests and backgrounds," says Dr Ian Bertram of the University of Lancaster. "A-level leavers who know that they want to have a career in research; those who are unsure of their future but know that physics gives them a large number of career options; and mature age students looking for a change of direction in their lives."

What does the course involve?

Generally about 15 to 20 hours of class time per week, depending on the number of laboratories. Students have a mix of lectures, tutorials, seminars, problem-solving classes and laboratory work.

At some institutions you get to spend a year studying abroad, potentially in Europe or North America. This is not the case with all universities and colleges, though most will offer the opportunity to study within another university in the UK.

There is less lab work in the first couple of years, while later in the course more time is dedicated to doing your own research, as well as study time outside of the laboratory.

How would I be assessed?

Usually 60 per cent of the course will be exams and 40 per cent coursework, though depending on what you choose to specialise in this can differ. There is very little self-assessment involved.

How long does it last?

Three years. However, a career in physics usually requires more than just a bachelor degree. Undergraduates usually go on to do an Mphys: this is an undergraduate Masters which means you don't graduate until you've done the full four years.

Are there opportunities available for further study?

There are lots of opportunities to continue studying. Universities and colleges offer Masters and PhD courses that can be completed at the same institution as your undergraduate degree, or you can head off elsewhere.

What are the career options once the course is completed?

As mentioned, there's the opportunity to go into postgraduate research, while many graduates use their skills to go directly into scientific or IT jobs.

Others go into the financial and business sectors. For example, Emanuel Derman - the South African academic and businessman - used physics to understand finance (very successfully) and Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP, is also a physics graduate.

Anne Giacomantonio

James King, 20, is in his third year of his MPhys degree at Lancaster University

"I studied maths, physics and computing at A-level. My teacher made physics really fun and I've wanted to study it ever since.

In the first year we covered some core subjects: mechanics, electricity and magnetism as well as some mathematics. There was also a laboratory module and a computer-programming course, while in the summer term we did a communications project.

In the second year you have a little more choice. There are still core modules such as relativity and electromagnetism, but I chose to do another couple of modules in the laboratory and a Java programming course too.

My ideal career would be in aviation, either as a pilot or as an engineer; I want a rewarding career that involves physics."

Matthew Down, 23, is studying a postgraduate PhD in neuroinformatics at the University of Edinburgh

"I graduated from Durham University in 2006 having studied theoretical physics. I really enjoy problem solving and maths and wanted to apply my skills to study and understand the physical world.

I chose neuroscience because, like physics, it is a fascinating area, and there are a huge number of unsolved problems that can easily be investigated. The implications of the research I'm doing now will be a better understanding of the structure and function of the brain at the most fundamental level. I find it really challenging and rewarding when you find some new scientific insight that no-one has seen before."


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