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Choosing where to study physics

If you are a final year school pupil thinking of going to University you are faced with two big questions, “what to study?” and, “where to study?”. I’ll make the assumption, that seeing that this is a physics blog (sort of), that you have made one of those decisions. In this post I’ll try and examine some of the issues you face when choosing where to go and in a future post I’ll try and discuss the benefits of coming to a small department like the one I work in at the University of Dundee.

If I were making an unbiased decision about where to go, then there are a number of important things to consider:

  • Teaching quality
  • Staff student ratios
  • Class sizes
  • Course content
  • Job prospects
  • Department research interests
  • Location
  • Reputation
  • Value for money?
  • Institute of Physics Accreditation

How does one go about making such a judgement on these issues? You can look at league tables, you can go to open days. In a sense these are just marketing tools for Universities though and they can be very distorting. Teaching quality is difficult to gauge – talking to students on the course is useful, but typically students you encounter on open days will be the keen positive ones who have either volunteered or have been specially picked for the task. When we talk about teaching ‘quality’ this can be hard to quantify – because as an applicant this is a very personal issue. There is a growing move in Universities to try and offer a range of teaching and assessment styles – there is more emphasis on evidence based approaches. These, of course, are not one size fits all. I was always fairly happy with the lecture style of presentation, where I could glean a few facts, get a bit better understanding of tricky points, but then go off and read the textbook and try a few problems. If I got stuck I knew that nearly all my lecturers had time and willingness to answer questions. I was less comfortable in group working, and not so happy to have to try and demonstrate my understanding in a live environment like a lecture (tutorials were fine, as I could prepare for those). There is a shift at the moment to the latter type of teaching, and as a teacher I think this is a good thing, as it benefits the majority. In many ways the lecture is a poor way to teach, but it is fairly efficient in a busy lecturer’s working day.

So ‘quality’ can be difficult to work out – but I would suggest that a department that doesn’t have a good mix of teaching styles is probably a bit too backward thinking or under resourced than I would feel comfortable with.

Things like staff-student ratios are difficult to judge accurately, as there is a question in some cases of who actually will be teaching you – staff members tend to deliver lectures, but non-permanent staff may give tutorials, labs or workshops. In a league table, Dundee is listed as having a physics staff student ratio of something like 15:1 (which is very high), but that bears no resemblance to reality, and it is more like 5:1 or 6:1. This is a simple example of externally generated statistics that departments seem to have no input into, but which have a very distorting effect on league table positions and hence outside perception.

Class sizes are also very important, and depending on the type of student you are you need to consider this very carefully. At the very big Universities you will often find that teaching in the first year is common among different degrees. For physics this most often manifests itself in maths, where you may find yourself in a class of 500. You should think very carefully if you will flourish in a class of 500, 50, or 5. This makes a difference because, in my opinion, the quality of teaching provision across Universities tends to be fairly uniform. And teaching quality is not directly correlated with the perceived prestige of a University.

Job prospects are also hard to gauge, although increasingly Universities will use such metrics as part of their marketing tools. You may see published data from departments giving employment rates at a certain time after graduation, but while these are useful guides, the nature of the work is rarely given, and working in a fast food restaurant is an equally valid ‘employment statistic’ as if you have just been taken on as a risk engineer for a nuclear power plant. It may be in future (I haven’t seen this yet though) that Universities will publish average starting salaries for their graduates, which might confer some idea of job quality. My perception is that there are certain Universities, such as Robert Gordon, which offer strong vocational and engineering courses which have very high employment rates, much higher than more ‘traditional’ Universities. For many employers where you study is not that important, but for some of the bluer chip companies your alma mater does have an influence (just think of our current Government Cabinet, for example). An 1st MSci(Hons) in Physics from Imperial is probably more likely to get you traction with a Hedge Fund that a similar degree from Dundee (I will try and not malign any other department, to try and give an unbiased opinion) – but I’d argue this is unfair. A 1st from Dundee is a fair reflection of your abilities, and would stack up against other places. I happened to graduate top of my degree class in St. Andrews, and many of the students I have seen graduate from Dundee are much better than I ever was, for example.

Course content is something that is much easier to examine as nearly all departments will have info about what you will expect in your course in either their prospectus or their webpages. The thing about physics degrees is that there is a common core, which in part is dictated by the developmental arc of physics over the past few centuries, but also by the accreditation process that all physics degrees undergo by the Institute of Physics (more on this below). The differentiation is then usually dictated by the research that is undertaken at a department, or by the educational philosophy of the faculty. At Dundee our research strengths are in areas such as photonics and materials, and these are reflected in the honours modules available. We also like to emphasise skills for employment, so our students do a decent amount of programming, computational physics and electronics. Universities all have their own research flavours, with each having specialisms in areas such as photonics, soft and hard condensed matter, astrophysics, particle and nuclear physics, quantum physics, computational physics etc. It is worth giving some thought to these as they will ultimately define the types of final year projects you will be able to do as well as the types of courses available. When I was choosing courses I had strong thoughts about doing choices such as astrophysics, but when I got to University, the idea of doing computing in first year instead seemed much more sensible from a skills development point of view. Ultimately I would end up with a Laser Physics and Optoelectronics degree, which played into one of the research strengths of St. Andrews – and in fact was not something I had really considered when I started.

Another big issue is location, location, location. You will, after all, have to spend between three and five years in the place you end up choosing. I remember walking down Princes Street in Edinburgh after my open day visit there. The department was (and still is) excellent, but I got fed up waiting for lights to change so I could cross the road and decided that I really wouldn’t enjoy living there at that point in my life. I wanted somewhere a bit more intimate. At St. Andrews I could walk everywhere, and didn’t need any public transport – also I was perhaps a little socially immature/insecure at that point in my life and the possibility of having accommodation in halls of residence for the full four years in St. Andrews also appealed. You need to weigh up all these options. You may go and visit somewhere like St. Andrews, or Durham – small intimate places where most people know everyone else and love it on open day, but these places can be insular and quite cliquey – I knew many people who went to St. Andrews and hated it. Also as a boy from a local comprehensive it was a bit odd going to somewhere that was at the time considered a place for Oxbridge rejects and that half the students (or some fair fraction) were all from private schools and privileged backgrounds. I didn’t find this an issue for me, but it was clear those ‘types’ (they were – possibly still are – called the ‘yahs’) were there and that there were different circles of people there that I just never interacted with. Alternatively you might be looking for a good nightlife (which St. Andrews doesn’t really have) and what the bright lights of a big city such as London or Glasgow. Or you could opt for the best of both worlds and plump for a small city campus University like Dundee. It may be that location is your deal clincher, so you have to think about how you will fit in in the social and physical environment and whether that will be conducive to you learning to the best of your ability – it might not be the best policy for you to live in a great city, if that will tempt you away from your studies.

Then comes the thorny issue of prestige – why is it that one University is considered better than another? Think about this for a minute. Close you eyes and reel off the first ten Universities that come into your head. Likely this is a list of the ones you consider in some way to be the best, but why? A prestige University (let us called them Russell Group, or some other arbitrary term) will offer you a good education – but a better one than a Uni from without that grouping? I’d argue very strongly that it doesn’t matter that much. And why is that you have these Universities in your top ten? I’m not really sure how we’ve come to this distinction – is there some reality in it, that implicitly because a department is at one of the Universities considered to be leading that it is therefore a world beater? Or could you imagine that a physics department such as Dundee could, in fact, offer you everything you’ll get from your top ten and possibly even more. Try and keep an open mind. The issue for you as an applicant is that some employers think the same way as everyone else and have a sort of internal ranking in their head. It may also be that the prestige places may have more money, and in general will have higher entry grades (as they are more popular), so if you do get in the set of people you are studying with are more like you academically. Which might be what you want.

Value for money is also something you have to consider. If you are a Scottish student, staying in Scotland seems the best bet financially but for English students and other RUK students it looks like you will have to suffer £9k per year fees almost irrespective of where you study. So value for money will tend to relate to the amount of teaching and the general infrastructure of teaching labs etc, at least in terms of your course. Beyond that, some places are clearly more expensive to live than others, and if you think you might not want to work in term time, going somewhere with a lower cost of living may not be such a bad plan.

Question (as I’m interested): If somewhere you deemed to be less desirable (less prestigious etc) but say, halved admission fees, would that make a difference in your course choice?

Institute of Physics Accreditation is also worth looking out for. I’m fairly sure all physics courses in the UK are accredited (I was told by a visiting prospective student once that another University was saying that the Dundee course is not accredited, which it most certainly is – so do';t always beleive what you are told by ‘rivals’!), and this is useful as it indicates a certain core of physics will definitiely be in your course. Beyond that it will allow you to follow a path to become a Chartered Physicist at some point, if that floats your boat. I’m one, and it does me little good, but in indusrty it might help with a pay rise or promotion at some point, but I’m skeptical that it does anything significant other than help fund the IoP. I say this as someone who reviews CPhys applications, so I respect the idea, but am not sure how seriously anyone really takes it. You can check accredited courses on the IoP website.

What is University for?
You love physics and are set on studying it at University. But will a knowledge of quantum mechanics stand you in good stead when you are building James bond’s latest gadget, working for MI6? Probably not. So while you have to consider the course and University very carefully, you also need to ask yourself why University at all? I think there are various answers here. There’s obviously the social side of things: societies, sports, balls, new friendships, moving away from home, coping without mum and dad. University is a good supportive environment to do that last bit of growing up before you start a ‘career’. Then there is the idea of, “will this course push me to my limit?” Will the course you are enrolled on really show you (and hopefully teach you) what you can do, what you limitations are, and really let you grow intellectually? This is really important. There’s little point coasting or wasting your time through Uni – it is a near unique opportunity in your life to get stuck in and learn new skills. Make sure you take all the opportunities offered to you. I learned the other day that the head of maths at Dundee would go and read philosophy in the library as a student when he was fed up with maths, for no other reason than he had the interest, time and opportunity. University libraries are big and diverse. I read everything from literary criticism of E.M. Forster to books on the JFK assassination. These days I do well to read a book every other week. University is about opportunity. You’ve chosen physics, now go make the most of it.

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