About Maria Weikum

I’m a 4th year undergraduate student at the University of Strathclyde studying for an integrated master’s degree in physics. I originally come from Germany, but decided to get out into the exciting, big world and so ended up in Glasgow. At the moment I'm doing an exchange year at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

Studies during first semester

While there were a range of events happening in the last months, from a reception with the University President, a night market on campus with lots of food  and music, Homecoming weekend (which seems to involve a lot of drinking and a football game) to ice skating and several Christmas parties, including a fancy dinner with performances, I want to finally write a bit about my classes and actual studying at McMaster.

Interestingly, the university seems to automatically register exchange students as 3rd year students, even though I, for instance, am in my fourth year right now. However, this is not a problem, as one can choose courses from basically all levels, as long as the course prerequisites are fulfilled.

Although I had chosen courses already before my arrival in Hamilton, once there I still had to work on my curriculum in order to receive waivers for the online registration of all my classes.

For a Chinese course I wanted to take (and probably other non-beginner language courses), for example, I needed to take a placement test which, although sounding serious, was simply to determine whether I would fit better in the beginners or the intermediate course. For another two courses from a different programme (Engineering Physics) I had to convince my study advisor that I had the prerequisites which, unfortunately, only worked out for one of the two classes.

So in the end I only took four instead of five courses for the first semester: Intermediate Mandarin, Lasers and Optoelectronics (my Engineering Physics course), Soft Condensed Matter (a Biophysics course) and a research project on theoretical aspects of quantum physics. In order to choose the latter, I had to contact McMaster physics staff and find a supervisor before my arrival.

With my four courses I have been well within the full time study load and busy enough. Nonetheless, the number of courses other students take varies a lot from 5-7 classes per semester for Engineering students to around 4-5 courses for exchange as well as, at least in physics, fourth-year students who do a final project.

Regarding the individual courses, my Chinese class was a straight-forward language class with regular quizzes, hand-in homeworks and marks for class participation. I had two tests and a final exam with a speaking component for each. As McMaster offers a wide range of languages (e.g. Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, native American languages), I would assume most of their courses are based on a similar concept, although I know that at least beginner French courses are aimed at less practical aspects focusing mostly on a writing-only university-specific computer program.

For my physics and engineering physics classes, it was a bit different and more work, since I had three assignments / three class tests plus an oral presentation and an exam at the end of the semester in each class. Nonetheless, these classes were very interesting and organized rather practically. In my Biophysics course for example, we did quite a few experiments in class as well as at home (as part of the assignments), while at the same time also going through all the mathematical aspects in detail. The Engineering Physics class, on the other hand, was more focused on the concepts than calculations.

With exams the university is relatively strict as, for example, only a specific calculator model is allowed and, especially in larger exams where not only the lecturer invigilates, any unnecessary items (water bottles, calculator lids, etc.) have to be placed under the table.

Nonetheless, my first semester went well and I am now – after a brief, but amazing winter break – already a few days into the second semester, this time with rather theoretical courses, such as 4th year quantum mechanics, general relativity and stellar evolution.

Finally, as a little extra, some pictures of Hamilton in the autumn and winter seasons (which includes the hockey season):

Algonquin Park

Studies have been very busy these days (which I will write more about another time), but since I’ve been on a canoe trip to Algonquin Park a bit more than a week ago, I wanted – before I forget – to post some pictures of the amazing Canadian forests.

The trip was organized by McMaster’s outdoor club which is basically a bunch of people that organize really great outdoor trips all over the Hamilton area and Ontario. We were in total about 60 people, but spent most of the time in smaller groups of 8-10. Algonquin Park is a huge national park in the north of Ontario – about 4 hours away from Hamilton – so we drove off with a coach bus on Friday evening to spend the first night at a campground just next to the place we’d be renting our gear from. The next morning we then set off bright and early to start our two-day canoeing journey. On the first day we paddled for about 5-6 hours, each in two person canoes with a large backpack containing our tents, sleeping bags, food and personal things. Since we were nine people in my group, one person had to take the role of the „princess“ meaning he / she would be the third person in one of the canoes sitting in the middle with the luggage and doing nothing. Surprisingly, this role was not very popular, as paddling at least kept you warm from the cold wind and the middle seat was not very comfortable.

As we canoed through three lakes in total, there were also several short distances of portaging that had to be covered meaning half the group would carry the backpacks, while the other half would each lift a canoe onto their shoulders and walk with that for 400-1000m. Although the canoes looked pretty heavy, they were actually lighter than most of the backpacks we had with us.

In the evening, we camped at one of the designated camp sites (consisting of space for tent, fire place and wooden box as bathroom substitute) around Tom Thomson Lake, our final destination, with a great campfire, marshmallows and hot chocolate all of which was definitely needed after a long, exhausting and slightly wet (one of my team mates fell into the water) day of canoeing.

The day after we paddled to our starting point again (another one fell into the water), but on a different, easier route and finally met up with all the other groups to make our way back to Hamilton with a quick stop for burgers at Wendy’s.

The weather for the trip was quite cold, but luckily relatively dry and, as it was one of the brightest full moon nights of the year, there was an amazing atmosphere in the forest at night. I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t meet any moose, yet at least I saw a beaver and a couple of sausage- and cheese-stealing birds. So not a bad outcome for a first outdoor trip…

Welcome Week!

As one would expect from Canadian people, Welcome Week, or Frosh Week, the week before the beginning of classes, was pretty wild and eventful. Most of the events are officially designed for first year students – and there were huge groups of people with special group T-shirts walking around campus and shouting out faculty “war cries” – but basically everyone was allowed to join in, especially if you are an excited-, but clueless-looking exchange student.

So for me the week started with an American football game between McMaster and Guelph University during which McMaster destroyed Guelph with a final score of 50-9 (possibly among other reasons due to the slightly biased audience of about 6,000 McMaster students and no visible Guelph fans at all). After first having to wait for about 45 minutes in order to get one of the last available tickets – as the game was officially sold out – I finally made my way into the stadium past the typical team mascots, cheerleaders and hotdog stands, just as one would imagine from the movies. The game itself was pretty boring: first because I did not have a clue about the rules of football and second because, as it turns out, they have a lot of breaks during the game which the team uses to regroup, discuss their strategy, etc., while the cheerleaders perform a bit and the commentators cram in as many advertisements as possible. Almost half of the people actually left after half-time and another quarter started chanting and dancing to McMaster cheers instead of watching the players, so it was a slightly weird experience. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was really great and I, at least, had a lot of fun with the noise makers they were handing out for free in front of the stadium.

Between all these general events there were also a few specifically organized for international and exchange students, such as a trip to Ikea, an induction session with campus tour and – definitely my highlight – an afternoon at the university’s Alpine Tower followed by a BBQ. The Alpine Tower is a wooden construction about 18m high designed to climb around on in lots of different ways. So we not only got to try out some climbing and belaying, but also had the chance to meet other international students of whom there are many, especially English and French, and join a few other fun outdoor activities, such as an eskimo blanket. This is a kind of elastic blanket used with one person lying down on it and being catapulted into the air by other people pulling at the sides of the blanket.

During the next days there was a number of events I only partly attended as I was busy preparing for my parents’ visit and the installation of the internet connection in my house. Among others, there were two concerts, a “clubfest” which gave all the sports clubs and societies at McMaster a chance to present themselves (and me the opportunity to sign up for tons of event emailing lists) and – for most students probably one of the highlights – a sidewalk sale, i.e. a lot of shops in Hamilton had stands on campus handing out freebies and advertising themselves. I personally did not have enough time to go there, but I heard stories of free pizza, bags full of groceries and, of course, pens and sweets everywhere…

So Frosh Week was definitely a good start into the semester, especially as the work load from my courses has increased quite a bit since, of which I will tell a bit more soon.

First, though, some more, hopefully very Canadian, pictures of the Niagara Falls which I visited with my parents. It is amazingly just an hour away from Hamilton and easily reachable, even by bus. Most people say the Canadian side of the falls is better, so here a comparison of both:

American side of the Niagara Falls

Canadian side of the Niagara Falls

More studying abroad

After a set of exams and a pretty busy internship this summer– I apologise for the long silence – I’m back again with some news, namely that I will spend the next eight months as an exchange student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and thus from now on will write about my time “abroad from abroad”.

While my exchange was finally confirmed around the middle of May, I spent a good part of my summer organizing everything that had to and could already be sorted from the UK. Although slowed down a bit by the late arrival of the confirmation of my acceptance at the host university, my visa application went through surprisingly fast – only 4 weeks – and I could book my flight to Toronto in the beginning of June for an amazing price of ₤290 (www.canadianaffair.com).

Having taken said flight one and a half weeks ago, I spent the first days after my arrival in a hostel in the city centre of Hamilton (the only hostel in town!: www.facebook.com/hamiltonguesthouse) while flat hunting in the area around the uni in the west of the city. Although it is possible to apply for a room in university accommodation and McMaster specifically offers this option to international students, these rooms are very expensive compared to private accommodation and so I decided against it. Instead I had found a number of advertisements for privately rented rooms on the internet (macoffcampus.mcmaster.ca/classifieds/index.php, craigslist.org, padmapper.com) and, as it turned out that in most cases you only had to call the landlords an hour or two in advance to arrange a viewing, I went around the first six places alone on my first day of search. Most of the accommodation available around McMaster uni is rooms in student houses (houses entirely rented to students); apartments are almost only found in the city centre, 15 to 20 minutes away by bus. The standard of the houses varies quite a bit and a large portion of the places still available for rent by the time I was looking were only basement rooms. Also, while most landlords don’t expect any safety deposit (only first and last month’s rent), they are usually pretty strict in renting out for either eight months (exactly until the end of the second semester on April, 30 2013) or 12 months only. Nonetheless, after a few fallbacks, I was finally successful and found a relatively cheap basement room only 10 minutes away from university.

Filling my room was another thing as it came unfurnished. A trip to Ikea just outside Hamilton solved that problem and for smaller items, such as kitchen equipment, etc., there are a lot of options to shop, such as any of the bigger supermarkets (which in accordance with North American standards are indeed very big), Dollarama (the Canadian equivalent of a pound shop) and a chain of second-hand stores, called Value Village, which have a range of random, but mostly useful items on sale.

As for my studies, I chose almost all of my classes already in July over the university’s online system and courses are not due to start until September, 6 2012. Next week, however, is welcome week for all new students with lots of events, including a BBQ and an open mic night for internationals, so I hope to get more into the local university life then.

What to do when you’re not studying

Since the spring holidays just ended last week, this is usually the time of the year when everyone (or at least me) realizes how many activities and fun things they still wanted to do before summer and how little time they have left thanks to upcoming exams in May.

While I have resigned myself to hoping for dry weather and lots of barbecues this year, there are actually many more things to do, not least many events offered by the university and the student union (most of which run throughout the whole year, so you don’t have to wait until Easter to get involved).  The student union (for everyone who is as lost as I was in the beginning) is an association of students who represent Strathclyde’s student body when dealing with university or more general education issues and organize events, clubs and societies (for more detail: http://www.strathstudents.com/). Furthermore, the building where the student union has their offices is called student union as well and at least for Strathclyde University it also includes several bars, cafés and multi-purpose rooms distributed over 8 floors.

So, anyway, the student union – besides offering cheap drinks – organizes and subsidises a lot of sports clubs and societies. The latter are almost free, as far as I know, and there are nearly a hundred different societies, ranging from charity and fundraising clubs to politically engaged groups and societies for students of certain subjects (such as the physics society). There are also societies for people from certain countries to meet fellow countrymen and –women which might be especially helpful in learning to find one’s way around after arriving in a new uni environment.

As for the sports clubs, they are a bit more expensive, as you have to become a member of the sports union (about £22 per year, I think) and usually pay for facilities or any extra equipment, depending on the sport. But again the range is pretty wide. While I’m not a big sports fan and have only tried one or two of the sports offered, you can basically find clubs for any common sport as well as martial arts and several outdoor activities, such as sailing, mountaineering and skydiving (see http://www.sportsunion.co.uk/).

The fun thing is that you can try as many clubs as you want in Freshers’ Week (first week before start of lectures in September) and even if it turns out you’re not a total sports enthusiast, most clubs include a lot of social events and nights out.

Finally, there are many events organized for international students, especially by the International Society (surprisingly) (also see http://www.strathstudents.com/international). They run trips to other places in Scotland, movie nights, pub crawls, etc. One weekly highlight is the international pub night where tens to hundreds (depending on the season) of international students meet at a different pub every week. The pubs are chosen by the organisers and usually include pretty nice places in the city centre, so there’s a good chance you’re going to find your new favourite pub on one of these nights. But, of course, it’s also a great opportunity to get to know new people and a few of my “non-international” friends liked it so much, they also started going there regularly.

Another great place to meet international students is the international café organised by the Christian Union (CU) which is actually where I met many friends from my first year.  Every Thursday evening you can get a warm meal for £2 at the chaplaincy centre (on campus) together with other internationals and members of the CU. As the name suggests, it is mainly an event for international students and everybody is welcome to join, no matter which religious views you might or might not have.

Finally, the chaplaincy centre itself, together with an organisation called Glasgow Internationals (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Glasgow-Internationals/55844921694), is quite active as well when it comes to events for international students. In my first two years here, I participated in several of their hiking daytrips and Scottish cooking lessons.

While all of these international events are great to get to know people at the beginning of the year as well as to get opportunities for travelling around in Scotland, unfortunately, most “non-international” students (those considered as home students by the university, e.g. Scottish, English, Northern Irish) don’t know about them and so you’ll really just meet other foreign students there.

As a small addition, I found the following quite interesting website, while roaming the internet for some useful links: http://www.friendsinternational.org.uk/. The tips and pieces of advice it gives on living and studying in the UK might be especially helpful for anyone from a non-European country.

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.

Why would anyone go to Scotland…?

One of the first questions I usually get asked when meeting new people is why I decided to come to Glasgow for studying. And for anyone who has been here for a while and seen the weather this might actually be a fair question.

For me it has been quite an easy decision as I came here with my boyfriend and, out of the five universities that we were allowed to apply for, Strathclyde was the only one that offered both of us a place. All this sounds rather boring, though, and is, of course, not the whole story, I usually skip that part and go straight to the unspeakably breath-taking Scottish landscape, the top-notch teaching and research facilities at Strathclyde, the indescribable beauty of Glasgow and, of course, the indeed surprisingly low costs for studying abroad all of which convinced me to spend five years of my life here.

To be fair, there is not much of a breath-taking landscape in Glasgow. But once you get out of the city, there are a lot of great things to see from the famous Loch Lomond – not more than an hour away – to the Scottish highlands, lowlands and isles most of which can be reached within 4 hours. The prospect of being able to visit at least some of these places – along with haggis, bagpipes and men in kilts – was what sparked my interest to choose Scotland as a place to study.

Two more important factors were that Scotland is mostly English-speaking (other languages spoken at times are Scots, Glaswegian, Gaelic or any other local dialect), so that I’d be able to actually understand what I was going to study, and that I would not have to pay any tuition fees. The latter point is, I think, quite unique to Scotland. Unlike in England, Wales or Ireland, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS), a government organisation, in most cases pays the tuition fees for Scottish as well as non-British EU students. While this is rather unfortunate for non-Scottish British students, I personally am very thankful for these regulations as it allows me to study abroad for about the same costs that I would have studying in Germany.

Finally, Glasgow is, despite its reputation as an industrial city, really beautiful with a huge park in the middle of the city and historic buildings distributed all over the centre. For students it is a paradise since there are several gigs and hundreds of pubs you can choose from every night (actually, according to www.myglasgow.org there are exactly 812 (!) pubs and bars in and around Glasgow). And many of them along with shops and restaurants even want to give you student discount!

So what’s still keeping you…?

A bit about myself

I’m a physics undergraduate student at the University of Strathclyde, currently in my third out of five years of study. I came to Glasgow in 2009 from my hometown in Germany and have been enjoying Scottish student life ever since.

In this blog, I want to write a bit about my experiences here as an international student, but also about life in Glasgow and studying at Strathclyde University in general. Especially for anyone who is considering coming here to study I hope I’ll be able to provide a bit of useful information.