Take a step into the unknown

Whatever your research field, postgraduate physics puts you on the cutting edge of technological progress
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The Independent Online

Behind most notable advances in science lies a good physicist, or so say interested academics. "The structure of DNA; ultrasound; x-rays; nuclear technologies - almost all were discovered by physicists," says Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics.

From the much maligned and misunderstood nanotechnology to space exploration, climate studies and energy sources, the range of research fields within physics is "absolutely vast", says Professor Main. "Wherever you go, you will find physicists in the vanguard."

Undergraduates often discover their areas of research through the project-driven nature of the four-year degrees - the MPhys/MSci courses offered at most universities. "A minority of students may have had a burning desire from schooldays to pursue an area of research," says Dr Julia Sedgbeer, director of postgraduate studies at Imperial College London. "But most find an area that fires their imagination during the course of their degree."

And if research is your goal, then that extra fourth year of a Masters degree is almost essential, say research departments - complete with a good second or first class grade. "We talk to people about research at the beginning of their third year," says Dr Sedgbeer. "It may seem early but if you are thinking of international study - in the United States for instance - you will need to pass some sort of entrance exam." Most physicists who want to remain in the UK should start thinking about research and talking to tutors at the beginning of the fourth year. "There are a limited number of funded places," says Dr Sedgbeer. "It's a competitive entry." Received wisdom advises students to change institutions to start a PhD. "It's healthier to move universities, but most students tend to stay where they took their undergraduate degree," says Professor Main.

Research has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since the Nineties when high salaries in information technology (IT) and banking lured physicists away from academia. "But you have to want to do it - it's three or four years of your life; it's hard, it's unstructured and you have to impose order," says Dr Sedgbeer. "If you can learn to organise your time and work steadily and think for yourself, it's easier. But you must be dedicated." Expect to spend much of your first year getting up to speed with current research on your area and possibly postgraduate lecture courses. By the third year you should be well in the swing, working independently. "By that time you might even have published two or three papers which will form the basis for your thesis," says Dr Sedgbeer.

Certain areas of research are a natural draw for aspiring postgraduates - astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology, for example, and at the other end of the scale, particle physics. But funding tends to be more available in areas that will have a direct commercial and practical application. "The creation of a non-stick frying pan, for instance, rather than the kind of 'blue skies' investment which won't give any return to the man on the streets for some 20 years," says Dr Sedgbeer.

But "real" applications of research are equally stimulating, says Professor Main. Most options for future energy sources - be they nuclear or renewable - are based on physics. Other burgeoning areas include optoelectronics - already in use in fibre optic communications, barcode displays, mobile phones; quantum computing which promises applications such as perfectly secure communication; or certain imaging techniques that permit examination of skin properties - "imagine their use at airports," says Professor Main.

In all areas of physics research, you will work as part of a group comprising other research students, postdoctorate assistants and supervisors. "A research degree is an apprenticeship in research - it's excellent training and if you stay in the field, your ultimate aim should be to lead your own team with your own ideas a few years down the line," says Dr Sedgbeer.

While stipends won't match potential earnings in industry, they have improved greatly in the last three years and by October 2005, the EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) will set a minimum of £12,000 a year tax free for physics postgraduates - with an additional London weighting. "Universities themselves do support research as well, and now it's very common to have financial support from industry - usually on very specific projects," says Professor Main.

Within its guide to research fields, the Institute of Physics recommends investigating the prestige, track record and facilities offered by university departments. "Many PhD students have come unstuck simply because they have lost interest or belief in the area that they are investigating," it warns.

'Polar ice studies puts physics to good use'

Sinead Farrell, 23, gained a first class MSci in Earth and Space Science at UCL (University College London). She is in her final year of a PhD at UCL focusing on remote observation of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean in conjunction with the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling

I'm analysing data from ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA missions that can be used to measure the topography and thickness of polar ice. We accurately measure the time a pulse takes to travel from the satellite to the earth's surface and back again, and from there we can calculate the distance to topographic features. We use this information to determine how thick the ice is from one season to the next. You hear about climate change every day - I thought this was a practical way of putting physics to good use to learn more about our planet.

One fun aspect of my project was fieldwork I carried out in the Arctic. We flew over part of the Arctic Ocean, taking field measurements and photographs to validate the satellite data. Another good side of a PhD is presenting your studies at conferences - both international and in your own country. One of the most enjoyable parts of research, particularly if you are working on a space or satellite mission, is that you feel part of a global team - I'm working alongside international scientists, mainly from America, and every three to four months we meet to discuss our work.

My first year was quite a challenge - suddenly there's no ready-made structure. You need to learn to manage your time efficiently. I got support and motivation from my supervisor. At first you read all the current research on your subject so you know where your project fits - that includes long hours at the library. Then you begin your own research. I plan to finish this time next year, so I imagine I will spend the last six months writing up my thesis. So far I've enjoyed most aspects of my PhD.

UCL works hard to highlight and develop students' transferable skills - you pick up things like project management and presentation skills so you don't have to remain in academia if you don't want to. I'm thinking of some post-doctoral work - I'm interested in the project and would like to see some long-term results.

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