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You might think an Oxford Physics degree sounds exciting, studying black holes and quantum particles in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. But you might be wondering – what’s it really like to be an Oxford Physics student? Luckily for you, we’ve got a complete guide.

Workload

Due to the large amount of content, as well as the practical lab hours, a physics degree is intense. In your first year you will likely have: 

  • Approximately eight to ten lectures per week – some covering just mathematical methods, and some focusing on the physics content. 
  • Two classes or tutorials per week. There is approximately one tutorial or class per four or five lectures. A class is typically between three to eight students and one tutor, whereas a tutorial is between one and three students. You will usually have one problem sheet to complete in advance of the class or tutorial. 
  • Approximately eight hours of independent study are expected for each hour of tutorial or class teaching. This usually includes completing a problem sheet, but you are also expected to look over the lecture notes and do extra reading before starting the sheet. 
  • You will also have 17 days of practical work to complete over the year. These will be held in university laboratories, and you have to pass 12 days’ worth of the assignments to make it through your first year. 

Problem Sheets

The point of problem sheets is to consolidate the material covered in lectures, and to see how well you can apply it to problems yourself. There should be some basic questions that you can answer, and some more developed sections that require time and many attempts. You will not be expected to get full marks on all problem sheets, as they are challenging, but your tutors will want to see that you’ve made a good attempt at them, and spent about eight hours trying to solve as many problems as you can. 

Tutorials vs Classes

A tutorial is more intense, and you will be expected to show how much you have learnt. You may be asked to explain things on the board, or solve a problem on the spot, with the help of the tutor. The onus of the discussion of the problem sheet will be more centred on you and your tutorial partners, than on the tutor, who will just act as guidance throughout the tutorial. Classes are generally more relaxed, as there are more of you, and you are more likely to go through the problem sheet with your tutor.

Labs

Labs form a very important of the Physics course, and provide an opportunity for you to visualise all the theoretical content covered in lectures. In the first year you will spend six to eight hours in labs, and you will also cover computing techniques in computer labs. You will generally be given instructions to follow, and you will be assessed on how successfully you complete the instructions, and then also on your post-lab write up. 

Independent work

Much like all Oxbridge degrees, Physics includes a lot of independent study. The lectures will introduce you to the content, but you will be expected to develop a comprehensive understanding of this content on your own terms: through textbooks, reading lecture notes, solving exercises and problem sheets. 

I didn’t quite appreciate the amount of self-study that goes into an Oxford Physics degree. Most of really delving into a topic takes place outside of lectures and tutorials.

Jack, Oxford

Conclusion

One of the major new elements to adjust to with university-level physics work is the quantity of independent work required. You can’t just rely on your teacher to guide you through the syllabus any more – you have to control your own learning.

An Oxford Physics degree, like any Oxbridge STEM degree, is tough, with a lot of contact hours and a heavy workload. However, it’s undeniably worth it – you get to study a cutting-edge subject at a world-famous institution. It requires a lot of dedication, and an awful lot of independent work, which can be a bit of a change from A-level, where your teachers may have guided you through the work a lot more. But don’t be scared off! You’ll be surprised at how quickly you adjust to the level, pace and nature of university physics work.

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