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Physics and Physics & Philosophy

Somerville College admits seven undergraduates a year to read Physics; this includes up to two places for Physics and Philosophy.

Somerville is one of very few colleges with a tutor specialising in the philosophy of physics, and as such is actively keen to increase its intake of Physics and Philosophy students. Students taking either course may choose to pursue a 3 year BA or 4 year Masters (MPhys or MPhysPhil) degree.

Oxford Physics

The Oxford Physics degree is considered excellent preparation for students interested in virtually any field of quantitative or technical study. Employers and graduate schools are well aware of the rigor of the Oxford Physics degrees and our graduates are highly sought after. In addition to the quantitative skills associated with a Physics degree, those graduating from the Physics and Philosophy course will also have high-level abilities to express themselves clearly in prose and to formulate and criticise arguments. Our students from both courses go on to a wide range of careers ranging from the financial industry to management consulting, to medical research to engineering, as well as the civil service, the charity sector, teaching and small business start-up – in addition to the many who continue to pursue Physics or Philosophy and closely related topics.

Course structure

In the first three years the Physics course is based on tutorials and classes in College along with lectures, practicals, and BA projects (for those in taking the BA degree) in the Physics Department. Tutorials are normally given in pairs – one tutor and two students at a time (although in some cases students may have tutorials individually or in larger groups as per their needs). Following Departmental guidelines, students can expect about one tutorial or class per 4 lectures. For those taking the M.Phys degree, the fourth year options are taught in a Departmental class format. The fourth year M.Phys. Projects are carried out in one of the Physics Department research groups. Between the terms, most of the time is devoted to self-studies, revisions, and development of one’s own academic interests.

Physics & Philosophy

If you take Physics and Philosophy, you will study the more theoretical half of the Physics course alongside your straight physics colleagues; in addition, you will have Philosophy tutorials and classes in college, and lectures convened by the Philosophy Faculty. There is a particularly strong emphasis on tutorial teaching in Philosophy, as we believe that this small-group format is ideally suited to developing the ability to formulate your own arguments, listening to and responding to objections, etc – the core skills of a good philosopher. In the first year all Philosophy subjects are compulsory; in the second and later years you can take elective courses, and there is increasing scope for choosing courses from a wide range in accordance with your own developing interests. (See the for the full list of post-first year courses in philosophy.) In the fourth year you can elect to write a thesis in philosophy, in which you pursue an in-depth study of an issue that particularly interests you under the one-on-one guidance of a Faculty supervisor.

Why study Physics or “Phys-Phil” at Somerville?

  • Somerville has five highly dedicated physics and physics/philosophy tutors, and students are given a great deal of personal attention. For those interested in Physics and Philosophy, Somerville is one of the very few colleges with a fellow with research specialties in the exciting interdisciplinary area of philosophy of physics, and who will appreciate and understand the physics-based ideas and analogies that you are likely to want to bring into your Philosophy studies more generally.
  • Our students tend to make large or even enormous progress compared to their peers in other colleges. This can be measured by tracking student’s University ranking from the Admissions exam to Finals. We have had quite a few students who, upon Admission were ranked well below average; but four years later, ended up graduating at the very top of the Oxford class.
  • New students often find that there is a significant jump in difficulty between A-level maths and the mathematical content of the Oxford Physics course. In order to help students bridge this gap, Somerville has in recent years offered a brief preparatory maths course that takes place before full term begins. New physics students are invited to arrive several days early, but are not charged extra accommodation costs. They attend a series of classes introducing the maths needed in the first term of their degree course. Attendance is not compulsory, but recent freshers have found the classes a valuable preparation for the first year maths lecture courses.
  • Somerville also offers some unique summer research projects to assist students in their studies beyond the syllabus, to make them aware of what physics research is, and to help them determine their future career directions.
  • Last, but certainly not least, Somerville is extremely close to the Physics Department, and will be even closer to the Philosophy department when the latter moves to the former Radcliffe Infirmary site in summer 2012. Students find it very convenient to be able to easily walk back and forth between lectures and classes in the department buildings, lunch in college, practicals in physics, tutorials in college, and so forth. Furthermore, being close to your Department translates to about 15 minutes more time in bed every morning – do not underestimate the value of these extra 15 minutes!

Admissions

Candidates sit a test in mathematics and physics in November. Those who are successful are invited to Oxford for interviews. There are three interviews, two in Somerville (or in a College assigned to you as your first choice) and one in another College, selected at random. The results from the November test and three interviews form the basis for offering places. We recommend application for the four-year (M.Phys.) course, since transfer to the three-year (BA) course can be easily made later if desired.

In addition to their Physics interviews, applicants for Physics and Philosophy will also have a philosophy interview at their first choice college; some but not all will have further philosophy interviews at other colleges. To be accepted for Physics and Philosophy, an applicant needs to perform well enough in Physics admissions (in competition with the straight Physics cohort) to be offered a place for Physics, and in addition must show promise in Philosophy. In this sense it is more difficult to gain admission to Physics and Philosophy than it is to gain admission to the Physics course. However, you will not reduce your chances of being offered a place at Oxford by applying for “phys-phil” rather than Physics; if your application is strong enough in Physics but does not pass the additional Philosophy hurdle, we will offer you a place for straight Physics, unless your application specified that you would not be interested in such an offer.

Interview advice

Interviews help to asses candidate’s potential to study physics (and philosophy if applicable) and to progress successfully to whatever comes after the University. The most important question to answer is: how does a candidate think? We are not interested to know whether a candidate remembers x – we can give x to a candidate if needed. We are interested to see what a candidate can do with x.

Every candidate is nervous and this is to be expected, so don’t worry about being nervous, we recalibrate accordingly. We are interested in getting the best students so we try very hard not to let a bit of stage fright interfere with our selection process.

For Philosophy interviews, we do not necessarily expect that applicants will have had any previous formal contact with philosophy; whether they have or not, as in physics, we are emphatically not interested in what a candidate already does or does not know. To assess potential, we are interested in whether or not a candidate can see the force and relevance of a philosophical problem, get excited about it, and reason coherently about possible solutions to it; to test this, we will present interviewees with problems that it is highly unlikely they will have come across even if they have studied philosophy before. You should, however, have an idea of what it is that draws you to philosophy; if in this connection you have mentioned any particular philosophy books/articles and/or any formal study of philosophy on your UCAS form, you may be invited to discuss these.

Preparation for the Physics and Physics & Philosophy Degrees

Candidates need sound mathematical background and should be taking at least one A-level (or equivalent) in Mathematics as well as Physics. We recommend a second Mathematics A-level but Chemistry or other scientific subjects are acceptable (General Studies or similar is not acceptable).

In several countries, including much of the UK, mathematics (and particularly calculus) has been removed from the A-level (or equivalent) physics syllabus. If you have had such a maths-free Physics education, you need to be aware that this is not representative of what Physics is. Physics is fundamentally tied to calculus (if you hate calculus, then Physics is not for you). Further if you have had such a maths-free Physics education, you need to be aware that there is a serious deficit in your education. Talk to your teachers to find a way to overcome this adversity. Try to learn as much Physics as you can in the language of calculus.

Are you a Physicist? A simple test

A simple test can tell you whether you are using mathematics to play physics:

  • Consider Newton’s second law; the one called at school fequalsma.
  • If you only see that name or a number equal to a product of two other numbers you are not doing physics at all.
  • You need to see time dependent functions and that, in general, those functions are changing (in fact, you should see time dependent vectors but we can leave that for later).

Philosophy

There are no specific A-levels (or equivalent) that are particularly recommended as background for studying Philosophy at university level. Studying Philosophy itself (or the Religious Studies A-level, which includes some philosophy) may help you to decide whether you are interested in philosophy, but is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage either from the point of view of application to Oxford or from the point of view of succeeding on the course once you are here. You study of philosophy at Oxford will start from scratch, assuming no prior knowledge. Some students find it helpful to have taken an essay subject at A-level (or equivalent) to develop their writing skills, but this is by no means essential and will not affect your chances of admission to Physics and Philosophy at Somerville.

 

Interview tips

Think. Don't regurgitate information from your memory.

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