A quick overview over what your physics course could look like

As I pretty much left out any details on the University of Strathclyde or my degree course in my last post, it is probably now time to catch up with that and mention a bit about the physics department and the different study options (for which there is also lots of information on the physics department website which you probably came across on your way to this blog).

In general, there are two types of degrees one can receive: a 4-year bachelor honours and a 5-year integrated master’s degree. While the former has different possibilities of specializing either on physics with teaching, physics and maths or just physics, the latter follows the same structure as the physics bachelor honours, but involves two years, instead of one, for specializing and gaining research experience through projects. I am currently in the master degree programme, as I am planning to continue with a PhD and go into research, but the degree system is pretty flexible and one can switch between degrees up to the beginning of 4th year.

At least during the first three years, teaching is structured relatively similar to school with most subjects being compulsory and only a few classes to choose in the form of electives in first year and as extra credits in second and third year. I chose introductory astronomy and a course on flight and space flight engineering as electives in my first year, but there is a wide range of possible classes from languages, history and psychology to science courses with tempting names like “Everything you ever wanted to know about physics, but were too afraid to ask”. Compulsory courses, on the other hand, comprise the most important areas of physics, e.g. mechanics, optics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, solid state physics and computational physics, as well as the necessary maths whereas many classes are part of the curriculum every year but deal with increasingly difficult and complex aspects of the subject.

In 4th and possibly 5th year (depending if you go for bachelor honours or master), from what I have heard and seen, most of the curriculum is free to choose from a set of subject areas, whereas one of the only compulsory parts in both years is a research project which you work on in both semesters. Obviously the choice of topic is not totally free, as there are about 80 other people also wanting to choose, but the physics department has a broad range of research focuses, especially in photonics, plasma physics and quantum information, so there are many possibilities in both theoretical and experimental physics (let’s hope my words will still turn out to be true when it comes to me choosing a project…).

Most courses involve exams at the end of each semester (January and May), but also class tests or assignments during the semester which count towards the final mark. During the first two years, there is also the option that one can be exempted from exams if the class test or assignment marks are good enough, with which you can help yourself to incredibly long summer holidays (amazing 5 months!).

Especially first year is rather easy for anyone who has done advanced highers or any equivalent advanced courses in physics, and there is the possibility to enter straight into second year. I personally decided to start in first year which gave me time to get used to the whole new university environment and also to learn and talk about the course material in English.

One of the most important aspects of the physics course, which I haven’t mentioned yet, is labs. From first year on all physics bachelor and master students have to do a few hours of laboratory work per week whereas the format varies from year to year. While in first year we were doing pretty easy experiments, such as determining the viscosity of a fluid and finding the speed of waves on a guitar string, in small groups for 3 hours per week, in third year we have 8 hours per week to perform about four to six experiments in a year, alone or with a partner, from a whole selection of experiments, e.g. analysing gamma rays from different radioactive samples or generating and examining the second harmonic of laser light of a certain frequency from nonlinear optical effects (which basically means fun with lasers). Although I’m not the greatest of experimentalists and unfortunately all experiments also involve writing reports in which you summarize your results, I have quite enjoyed lab classes, especially in third year, as many of the experiments are actually tasks that one could be doing as part of “real” research work.

For exchange students who only stay for one semester or one year the whole system of course choices, etc. as mentioned before is usually less restricted (or maybe more, but from their home university) since they do not have to follow any curriculum requirements, but can choose from all courses from 1st to 5th year (again following the restrictions from their home university). From the physics Erasmus students I have met so far, most were in third year, but found that they could take fourth and fifth year courses without having difficulties with the course material.

In any case, there are really nice and helpful people in the physics department that can assist with any sorts of problems (visa problems, course problems, other preferably uni-related problems), so there is nothing to really worry about.