Physics
Movement of microparticles by beams of a laser.
(Image credit: Shutterstock).

Physics

Physics is concerned with the study of the universe from the smallest to the largest scale, why it is the way it is and how it works. Such knowledge is basic to scientific progress. The language of physics is mathematics, indeed formulating physical theories has sometimes required the development of new mathematical structures. Although physics is a fundamental science it is also a very practical subject. Physicists have to be able to design and build new instruments, from satellites to measure the properties of planetary atmospheres to record-breaking intense magnetic fields for the study of condensed matter. Many of the conveniences of modern life are based very directly on the understanding provided by physics. Many techniques used in medical imaging are derived directly from physics instrumentation. Even the internet was a spin-off from the information processing and communications requirement of high-energy particle physics. Looking to the future, growth areas that may have a big impact are nanotechnology, quantum computing and molecular biophysics.

 

Physics at Oxford

Oxford has one of the largest university physics departments in the UK and indeed worldwide, with an outstanding and very diverse research programme. Research is organised in six sub-departments: Astrophysics; Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics; Atomic and Laser Physics; Condensed Matter Physics (including Biophysics); Particle Physics; and Theoretical Physics. Researchers are also college Physics tutors; thus Physics students will come into personal contact with physicists working at the forefront of their subject. The concentration of expertise also ensures that the fourth year MPhys option courses bring you to the threshold of current research. The Physics course at Oxford is both challenging and mathematical with a strong emphasis on fundamental concepts such as optics and relativity, and can lead to subject specialism in the fourth year. Optional courses are also available including those provided by other departments.

The department is well equipped with state-of-the-art lecture facilities as well as teaching laboratories, which allow a wide choice of practicals and specialism. Tutorials give students direct and regular access to physicists actively involved in research and provide an opportunity to explore scientific ideas face-to-face with experts in the field. There is also excellent library provision available in the Radcliffe Science Library and in all colleges.

Careers

More than 40% of Physics graduates go on to study for a higher degree, leading to eventual careers in research in universities or in industry. Typical destinations include research and development, technical consultancy, manufacturing and science education. Many others enter professions unrelated to their subject, such as finance and business, in which the analytical and problem-solving skills they have developed are highly sought after.

Recent Physics graduates include a trainee clinical scientist and a postdoctoral research associate.

Nigel graduated in 1987 and went on to do a PhD in microelectronics. He says: ‘I have been working as an electronic engineer ever since, designing integrated circuits for a number of employers until 2006, when I became self-employed. My physics degree was a good preparation for a career in electronics, providing all the mathematical and scientific background required, but also giving the opportunity to study interesting theoretical subjects such as quantum mechanics and relativity.’

Related Courses

Students interested in this course might also like to consider Chemistry, Earth Sciences (Geology), Engineering Science, Materials Science or Physics and Philosophy.

Work placements/international opportunities

A wide choice of fourth-year MPhys projects is available across all six physics sub-departments and sometimes from related departments. Occasionally students arrange to do their projects at outside laboratories. Third-year MPhys students also carry out a short project in the teaching laboratories. Those taking the three-year BA course do a group project over two terms, investigating a real industrial physics problem. An aspect of this group project is also written up individually.

A typical weekly timetable

In the first year your time is equally divided between mathematics and physics, with about ten lectures and two paired tutorials a week. In addition you spend one day a week, over two terms, in the practical laboratories. In the second and third years the core and mainstream physics topics are covered, with about ten lectures a week and a mix of tutorials and small group classes. Practical work occupies two days a fortnight over four terms. In the fourth year you take two major options, about six lectures plus one class a week, plus the MPhys project.

1st year
Courses

Foundation courses:

  • Classical mechanics & special relativity
  • Electromagnetism & circuit theory
  • Mathematical methods I
  • Differential equations, waves & optics

Short options

  • Astronomy
  • Complex analysis
  • Quantum ideas

Assessment

First University examinations:
Four written papers; short option paper; satisfactory laboratory work

2nd year
Courses

Core courses:

  • Thermal physics
  • Electromagnetism & optics
  • Quantum physics
  • Mathematical methods II

Short options: e.g.

  • Classical mechanics
  • Energy studies
  • Introduction to biological physics

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part A (BA and MPhys): Three written papers; short option paper; laboratory work

3rd year

Courses

Mainstream courses:

  • Flows, fluctuations and complexity
  • Symmetry and relativity
  • Quantum, atomic and molecular physics
  • Sub-atomic Physics
  • General relativity and cosmology
  • Condensed-matter physics

Short options: e.g.

  • Physics of Climate Change
  • Classical mechanics
  • Plasma physics

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part B (MPhys):
Six written papers; short option paper; laboratory work
Final University examinations, Part B (BA):
Four written papers; short option paper; laboratory work; project report

4th year
Courses

Project and two option courses:

  • MPhys project

Major options

  • Astrophysics
  • Laser science & quantum information processing
  • Condensed matter
  • Particle physics
  • Atmospheres & oceans
  • Theoretical physics
  • Biological physics

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part C (MPhys):
Project report
Two major option papers

Exams are taken in June at the end of each year of the courses. Most written papers are of 2.5 or 3 hours duration. Short options are shared across years 1–3 and are examined by a 1.5 hour paper; the titles shown are illustrative and may change from year to year of the course.

  • A-levels: A*AA – this should either be A*A in Physics and Mathematics (with the A* in either Physics or Mathematics) plus any other A, or A* in Further Mathematics with AA in Mathematics and Physics
  • Advanced Highers: AA/AAB
  • IB: 39 (including core points) with 766 at HL (the 7 should be in either Physics or Mathematics)s
  • Or any other equivalent (see details of international qualifications

Candidates are expected to have Physics and Mathematics to A-level, Advanced Higher, or Higher Level in the IB or another equivalent. The inclusion of a Maths Mechanics module would also be highly recommended. Further Mathematics can be helpful to candidates in completing this course, although not required for admission.

All candidates must also take the Physics Aptitude Test as as part of their application. Please see how to apply for further details.

All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown in how to apply. The information below gives specific details for students applying for this course.

Written work

All candidates must take the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT), normally at their own school or college, on 5 November 2014. Separate registration for this test is required and the final deadline for entries is 15 October 2014. It is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure that they are registered for this test. See www.patoxford.org.uk for further details.

Written test

You do not need to submit any written work when you apply for this course.

What are tutors looking for ?

During the interview, tutors are looking for enthusiastic and highly motivated students with a physicist’s ability to apply basic principles to unfamiliar situations. Although the course requires a good level of mathematical competence, the key requirement here is the ability to formulate a problem in mathematical terms and then extract the physical consequences from the solution.

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for Physics.

Suggested reading

There are many suitable sources for reading. Popular science books are normally readily available at your local library, as are copies of the New Scientist or other scientific periodicals. Anything that takes your interest will be valuable; we have no set reading list.

However, for general preparation prospective candidates can see the suggestions under ‘Preparation’ on the Physics department website. We also recommend maths preparation.

There is also lots of information on the internet, on sites such as www.physics.org. or through some of the excellent science blogs. The University of Oxford publishes a science blog and our department also runs a project called Galaxy Zoo which is part of the Zooniverse community of projects , which allows members of the public to contribute to astrophysics research. Large scientific organisations such as CERN and NASA publish a lot of good material online, for example the Astronomy Picture of the Day website.

iTunesU can also be a very useful resource, as it has a range of physics content, from public talks to undergraduate lectures, from a variety of reputable sources.

Karla-Luise, 3rd year

'I’ve always wanted to study physics. I saw Apollo 13 when I was about 13 years old and there’s this bit where the scientists are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – this made me want to work for NASA! But the more physics I study, the more I realise that there’s so much awesome stuff apart from astrophysics; I’ve ended up focusing on condensed matter which gets me thinking about the applications of physics in the real world. Learning the theoretical stuff is all very well, but I like being able to get useful things out of it.

In the second year, part of my marks came from presenting a paper to my examiners; learning to explain science to people who don’t have your level of knowledge is incredibly valuable. It’s great preparation for giving presentations at conferences as a graduate physicist (which is what I hope to go on to do).

I am president of the Oxford University Physics Society. One of the main things we do is get famous physicists in to speak to us. This can help students to remember the exciting, real-world cool stuff that got them into physics in the first place, even when they’re struggling through reams of maths problem sheets.

I also do some access work, which includes going into schools and trying to inspire students with science workshops. You can make explosions, make huge machines, take mountains to pieces, and play with liquid nitrogen (which is always fun!). Through talking to my friends at other universities, I can see that it’s definitely true that we have much more work to do at Oxford. This has been great for my time management skills, though!'

Helena, who graduated in 2010

She is now a Trainee Clinical Scientist at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. She says:    

‘Since graduating, I have been following the IPEM Medical Physics training scheme specialising in radiotherapy physics, nuclear medicine and physiological measurements. Throughout my degree I developed the practical skills necessary for work in a clinical science setting, both for routine and experimental work. The practice in scientific writing and research skills has been invaluable for hospital-based medical physics project work. The tutorial teaching style has enabled me to interact with colleagues within a small department, sharing thoughts and ideas with confidence.’ 

Contextual information

The Key Information Sets provide a lot of numbers about the Oxford experience – but there is so much about what you get here that numbers can’t convey. It’s not just the quantity of the Oxford education that you need to consider, there is also the quality – let us tell you more.

Oxford’s tutorial system

Regular tutorials, which are the responsibility of the colleges, are the focal point of teaching and learning at Oxford. The tutorial system is one of the most distinctive features of an Oxford education: it ensures that students work closely with tutors throughout their undergraduate careers, and offers a learning experience which is second to none.

A typical tutorial is a one-hour meeting between a tutor and one, two, or three students to discuss reading and written work that the students have prepared in advance. It gives students the chance to interact directly with tutors, to engage with them in debate, to exchange ideas and argue, to ask questions, and of course to learn through the discussion of the prepared work. Many tutors are world-leaders in their fields of research, and Oxford undergraduates frequently learn of new discoveries before they are published.

Each student also receives teaching in a variety of other ways, depending on the course. This will include lectures and classes, and may include laboratory work and fieldwork. But the tutorial is the place where all the elements of the course come together and make sense. Meeting regularly with the same tutor – often weekly throughout the term – ensures a high level of individual attention and enables the process of learning and teaching to take place in the context of a student’s individual needs.

The tutorial system also offers the sustained commitment of one or more senior academics – as college tutors – to each student’s progress. It helps students to grow in confidence, to develop their skills in analysis and persuasive argument, and to flourish as independent learners and thinkers.

More information about tutorials

The benefits of the college system

  • Every Oxford student is a member of a college. The college system is at the heart of the Oxford experience, giving students the benefits of belonging to both a large and internationally renowned university and a much smaller, interdisciplinary, college community.
  • Each college brings together academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and college staff. The college gives its members the chance to be part of a close and friendly community made up of both leading academics and students from different subjects, year groups, cultures and countries. The relatively small size of each college means that it is easy to make friends and contribute to college life. There is a sense of belonging, which can be harder to achieve in a larger setting, and a supportive environment for study and all sorts of other activities.
  • Colleges organise tutorial teaching for their undergraduates, and one or more college tutors will oversee and guide each student’s progress throughout his or her career at Oxford. The college system fosters a sense of community between tutors and students, and among students themselves, allowing for close and supportive personal attention to each student’s academic development.

It is the norm that undergraduates live in college accommodation in their first year, and in many cases they will continue to be accommodated by their college for the majority or the entire duration of their course. Colleges invest heavily in providing an extensive range of services for their students, and as well as accommodation colleges provide food, library and IT resources, sports facilities and clubs, drama and music, social spaces and societies, access to travel or project grants, and extensive welfare support. For students the college often becomes the hub of their social, sporting and cultural life.

More about Oxford’s unique college system and how to choose a college