Physics is a rich and multi-layered subject, ranging in scale from the vastness of the universe to objects so tiny we can barely conceive of them. It constantly shapes the way we view the world. It’s at the frontier of academic research, and it’s an exciting and relevant discourse to be a part of.
But are you suited to studying Physics at Oxbridge? The courses are intense, but extremely rewarding. If you have the skills listed in the following checklist, then a degree involving Physics at Oxford or Cambridge may be for you:
You enjoy problem solving.
You enjoy the sort of questions on the UKMT papers (if you have never seen these before, look at the standard of the Senior Kangaroo rounds on their website, and see if you like them) and general mathematical problems. Lots of physics is centred on solving mathematical problems in an applied context, and therefore a love of problem solving is crucial.
You are not afraid of maths!
Especially in the earlier stages of the degree, physics is very maths-dominated. In your first year, you will study maths beyond the Further Maths A-Level content, and you will be asked abstract mathematical questions with no immediate application to physics. Although you will later learn to apply all of these techniques, you will also be expected to analyse and appreciate the mathematics in its pure form.
“I was surprised at the amount of mathsy-maths I was expected to do in the first year of my degree. It’s not like school, where the maths is never particularly complicated when studying physics; maths dominates lots of the physics you will do at university.”Jake J, Physics, Oxford
Note that Maths and Physics at A-Level standard are both requirements for Physics at Oxford.
You are hard-working and committed.
Physics is a tough degree, and it takes a lot of time, especially in the early stages, to understand and grasp all the concepts involved. Not only are the contact hours long, with lots of lectures and lab hours, but it requires a large amount of independent study – so you must really love it, and be prepared for the long slog! To get an idea, why not take a look at our guide to the daily life of an Oxford Physics student?
You enjoy practical lab work
You will also have compulsory practical assignments to complete. These will be in small groups (often pairs) in a lab, and you will be given instructions as to how to complete the task. These labs can often fill a whole day, and you will then have to do a post-lab report. They are not optional, and form part of your overall degree mark.
You don’t hate statistics!
In your post-lab report, you will be expected to analyse your results in depth. This includes a variety of statistical analyses and a detailed evaluation of the content. You will be taught all the necessary techniques required, and the statistical methods you need to use will be made clear in the lab instructions. However, crunching through all the data can be a time-consuming experience, so you don’t want to absolutely hate it!
You love physics, and you want to understand it in great depth!
It is obviously important when applying to any degree that you love studying it, and if you love A-Level Physics, and crucially also A-Level Maths, then Physics may be the course for you! Physics at university-level opens your eyes to a realm of natural phenomena, such as special relativity and quantum mechanics, so if you want to understand the universe, you’re looking in the right place!
Oxford or Cambridge?
When deciding between Oxford and Cambridge it is important to note the difference in course structures.
At Cambridge, you apply to Natural Sciences. In your first year you have the opportunity to study up to three experimental sciences and maths, and then you can focus on one or two in more depth as you progress through your degree. This gives you scope, for example, to study chemistry alongside physics modules.
In contrast, at Oxford, Physics is a stand-alone course, separated from the other science subjects. That said, some modules may be relevant to other sciences, there is a considerable overlap with maths, and there is a Physics and Philosophy joint degree, if you are looking for a bit more breadth.
Physics can be tricky, but is ultimately hugely rewarding. Our Physics posts will centre mainly on Oxford Physics, where it is offered as a stand-alone course. For more specialised information on Cambridge Physics, check out our posts on Natural Sciences. If you’d like to explore Physics further, why not check out our recommended reading list for Physics?