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Physics

Somerville College admits seven undergraduates a year to read Physics.

Students taking physics may choose to pursue a 3 year BA or 4 year Masters (MPhys) degree or Mathematical and Theoretical Physics (MMathPhys).

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 rigour of the Oxford Physics degrees and our graduates are highly sought after. Our students go on to a wide range of careers ranging from the financial industry to management consulting, to medical research and engineering, as well as the civil service, the charity sector, teaching and business start-ups – in addition to the many who continue to pursue Physics 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 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 or MMathPhys 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 independent study, revision, and development of one’s own academic interests.

Why study Physics at Somerville?

  • Somerville has highly dedicated physics tutors, and students are given a great deal of personal attention. Typically, in any given year, each student is taught by three tutors.
  • Our students tend to make significant 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.
  • Last, but certainly not least, Somerville is extremely close to the Physics Department. 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 but all aspects of your application will be considered in our final decision. We recommend application for the four-year (M.Phys.) course, since transfer to the three-year (BA) course can easily be made later if desired.

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.

Preparation for the Physics Degree

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).

 

Interview tips

Think. Don't regurgitate information from your memory.

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