Study Physics in the UK

So, what part does physics actually play in our everyday lives and why should you consider studying it? These are just a few of the questions that SET asked when it caught up with Daniel Stamford Smith, Head of Education at the Institute of Physics.

Study Physics in the UK

What role does Physics play in our every day lives?

Physicists believe that “Physics is at the heart of everything”. We use the basic ideas – matter, force, energy, and so on – to explain almost every aspect of our world from the smallest parts of our bodies to the great clusters of galaxies. Physics is relevant to almost every human activity: jobs and careers; hobbies, interests, and leisure pursuits; and the systems that modern technology offers that can improve our health and well-being. Such is the importance of physics now and for the future that we need more young people to study physics.

Physics is concerned with observing natural phenomena in the world about us, trying to understand them and to predict what might happen in new and unknown situations. Physics is also about the processes of observing, understanding and predicting in relation to man-made systems. Physics deals with profound questions about the nature of the universe and with some of the most important, practical, environmental and technological issues of our time, such as energy shortages and climate change. It is a very broad subject involving experiment and observations, theory and mathematics, computing technology, materials and information theory. It is lso a creative subject. Ideas and techniques from physics drive developments in related subject areas including chemistry, computing, engineering, materials science, mathematics, medicine and the life sciences, meteorology and statistics.

Why should I study Physics specifically in the UK?

The UK has a long and distinguished history in physics. Many of the famous names in physics such as Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Rutherford worked in the UK. As well as this heritage in physics, the UK has a thriving research community that has a very high international profile and attracts researchers from all around the world. Studying physics in the UK will allow you to experience the past, present and future of physics.

There are several different ways you can study physics in higher education in the UK.

The main route is a degree course at a university. One particular feature of the UK system is the ability to opt for a longer integrated Masters degree such as an MPhys (Master of Physics) or MSci (Master in science) as an alternative to the standard BSc (Bachelor of Science). An integrated Masters is a degree programme with an additional year that focuses more on research skills through extended project work. Usually the entry grades are a little higher than for a BSc. A BSc covers all the essentials of physics – and it doesn’t stop you going on to research if you want to.

Degrees from UK universities are highly regarded and so would allow you to continue your career in physics anywhere in the world.
  
As well as the research aspects UK universities are renowned for the social side of things – with music and sports playing an important role in university life.

What qualities should I look for in a good physics degree?

The Institute of Physics provides an accreditation of physics degrees in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. So a good starting point would be to look at the register of accredited courses

You might want to consider:

  • Is there a particular aspect of physics that interests you?
  • Special features, such as spending a year abroad?
  • The possibility of an industrial placement
  • How good is the quality of the teaching?
  • What is the size of tutor groups?
  • Entrance requirements
  • Would you like to live in a hall of residence?

Could I combine a physics degree?

Choosing a physics degree combined with another subject gives you the chance to broaden your studies to include something you are really interested in or something new. Many universities offer specialist options. There are options in science-based areas such as astronomy, maths, meteorology, medical physics, space science, satellite technology and computer science. There are also less science based options such as music, philosophy or a foreign language.

Where would a career in physics take me?

The career opportunities available are as vast as the subject itself due, in part, to the transferable skills gained whilst studying physics. Employers see a physics qualification as an indication of someone who will immediately be an asset to the organisation.

This is because:

  • Physics develops a logical and numerate mind

  • The ability to solve problems, gained through studying physics, is of paramount importance

  • Communication skills are developed through report-writing and oral presentations

  • Computing and practical skills are second nature to those trained in physics

  • Teamwork and flexibility are essential in lab work and projects

The employment prospects for those with qualifications in physics are excellent and opportunities exist both in Britain and throughout Europe, and North America. While some physics graduates go on to work in academic research and teaching, the majority of physics graduates move into jobs where they are not working as ‘physicists’ as such, but in which they are using the skills developed through studying physics. They are challenged by moving into new fields but succeed because of their skills and training in physics. Some physics graduates are employed in industry, on the research and development side – industries such as those concerned with opto-electronics, computing, telecommunications, materials, motor vehicle technology, semiconductors, and power generation.

The fact that physicists have such a broad skill set makes them highly desirable to a wide variety of employers. In fact, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, physics graduates earn around £187,000 more during their career than someone with A-levels but no degree, whereas history and English graduates increase their earnings by only about half as much. In the UK, graduates in physics earn more than those in most other disciplines.

What qualities or interests as a student should I have to consider choosing physics degree?

Probably the most important qualities for a physicist are curiosity, imagination and a fascination with how the world works. At university level mathematical ability is very important.

The majority of people in the UK applying for admission to a physics degree course will be taking GCE A-levels, a mixture of AS and A-levels, or Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers.

At present most universities expect you to have A-levels in physics and mathematics, with either a third A-level or one or more AS awards in any other subject(s) when you start your degree course. However, there is increasing flexibility to accommodate those with non-standard entry qualifications.

Mature candidates often have non-standard backgrounds; in such cases a flexible approach will be taken – the main criterion is whether you have the right abilities and the qualities to succeed. Many colleges now run “Access to Higher Education” courses designed mainly for mature people or for those wishing to change direction towards physics or engineering.

Are there further study options available and what are the benefits?

Following an undergraduate degree in physics, graduates can choose to remain in the subject by going on to study for a Masters degree (MSc/MRes) or a doctorate (PhD). About one in four students go on to study for a postgraduate qualification in physics. One reason for doing so is that students often view it as a natural extension of their undergraduate degree i.e. they want to further their knowledge by studying for an MSc or relish the challenges of undertaking a PhD because they feel that they can make an original contribution to physics.
 
A first degree in Physics is an excellent foundation and opens many opportunities, but if you are looking to move into employments in a particular sector then an MSc may give you a step up as they are highly valued by employers and in some cases specific qualification are essential, for example an MSc in Medical Physics is needed if you want to pursue a career as a hospital radiologist. Masters degrees are often sponsored by employers.  Companies such as British Telecom will sponsor students to take an MSc in telecommunications as it will prepare potential employees for the fast changing world of mobile voice and data communications.

A PhD is essential to continue working in academic research, whether for a few years as a postdoctoral researcher or for longer with the aim of becoming a lecturer or professor. Outside academia, holding a PhD is highly desirable for careers in scientific research in industry. Some positions in banking and finance demand a PhD in a mathematical subject such as physics, particularly in fields such as quantitative finance and computational modelling.

For more information about any aspect of studying physics in the UK contact the Institute of Physics at www.iop.org

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