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Sally Shaw | University College London | UK

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About to start a Physics degree? Hold on tight…

It’s the beginning of September, which means two things. 1- I haven’t managed to write a blog in 6 months (turns out second year is busy!), and 2- it’s nearly the start of the academic year. These two facts have inspired me to write a post aimed for all those fresh-faced 18 year olds about to embark on the adventure of university. Or college for the Americans– a weird concept to us Brits, as college is in fact where 16 year olds go to do mainly non-academic courses like “Travel and Tourism” and “Hair and Beauty”. Right now in the UK, thousands and thousands of teenagers are probably getting increasingly nervous as their start dates in September and October loom nearer and nearer. I thought I would write something for anyone who is about to attempt a physics degree at university, with none of that prospectus fluff.

I think the most succinct way to sum up my undergraduate degree is “play hard, work harder”! It wasn’t easy, some of the time it felt downright impossible but at the end of the day I had fun, I made friends, I got a masters degree and finally a PhD place. What more can you ask for from university?

Other Physicists
So, first things first, before you do any physics, you are going to see and meet some of your coursemates. I’m going to be brutally honest here: physicists are weird. They just are. To dedicate yourself to a subject like physics you just need to have a little bit of weirdness in you, that seems to be a fundamental law. This is not always a bad thing. A disclaimer here, some of my best friends are physicists. My colleagues at UCL are a brilliant, funny and sociable bunch. My boyfriend, although now having sold his soul to the actual law, I met studying the laws of physics at uni. There is nothing wrong with physicists as a whole, but a lot of them are a little strange. You may encounter people who are painfully socially awkward, wear fedoras or suits to lectures, LARPers, guys with LOTS of hair (both on their head and faces), posh kids buying Grey Goose, poor kids living on supernoodles and beans, international kids, gamers, heavy drinkers, those that are politically driven, or lazy with questionable hygiene, and on rare occasions, women.
I joke, I think my course was ~10% girls by the masters year, so not too rare. It’s getting better, and I think we are better off than computer sciences, but we are still in the minority. If you are so lucky to be female amongst the physicists, be warned, they may stare, and they will probably know who you are when you can’t possibly be expected to remember all those generic male faces! I can’t count the times I was approached by strangers, usually in clubs but once on a train, with the line ‘you’re that girl who does physics!’.
I had the good luck of having another physicist in my halls of residence – a rather normal one, who played guitar and drunk a lot. We were flatmates for many years, and we stuck together in lectures and labs as much as we could. In my first year, I remember having a very strong aversion to making any other friends on my course. They’re all awkward and weird and nerdy, I said. I don’t want to hang out with them, they wont be fun, I said. The important thing here is I WAS WRONG. After I realised my flatmate was leaving after third year with a bachelors, I made a bit of effort to meet people, and made some extremely good friends in physics, who I still see often. And guess what? They aren’t weird and no fun. They are really great guys, and I wish I had made friends with them earlier.
So don’t write anyone off immediately. Be sociable, chat to people. People will be shy (I was, and still am) and awkward, but give everyone a chance. You wont get on with everyone, but you may be surprised at who you do end up friends with. Physicists are usually a little bit odd – but they are also often a lot of fun.

The Actual Physics
A very important thing to understand when you start a course like physics (or maths, or any science really) is that unless you are some supreme genius, there will be people cleverer than you. Lots of them. If you are going to a top uni with very high entry grades (Warwick at the time was AAB, A*s weren’t available yet) then chances are you are going to feel a little bit inferior. I went from being the top of my physics A-level class to somewhere in the upper quartile, and at first it was a little disconcerting. But don’t worry – there are more qualities to a person than their grades!

Doing stuff like this in the library will make you feel clever.

Doing stuff like this in the library will make you feel clever.

For my first few weeks at Warwick, I was in a bit of a panic. We had a course called “Physics Foundations” which you may think sounds like some nice gentle introductory course. Wrong. We were thrown in the deep end. It bared almost no resemblance to A-level physics (there was, thank God, a mechanics course that did, but it came after Special Relativity, which also had me panicking a fair bit) and involved all sorts of notation and nomenclature I’d never even heard of (like ’tilde’?!). I also had not done further maths, and whilst they brought us up to speed in maths quite quickly I did feel a little disadvantaged by my lack of knowledge on imaginary numbers. I genuinely spent the first few weeks thinking I chose the wrong course. What had felt so right at A-level, so naturally the thing I was best at, was now giving me an identity crisis. I began wondering how I would explain to my friends that I had failed.

And then, a miracle happened. I talked to other people. I talked to the students in my tutor group and my seminar groups. And guess what – they were all just as confused as me. This was a wonderful realisation. I also noticed my problem sheet marks were actually not so bad. I didn’t always understand what I was doing but I seemed to be doing it the right way. This is another important thing to note – do not expect to understand your lectures. I didn’t understand much at all until I did problems, past papers and proper revision – often in the third term! Do not panic early on if things aren’t going in. Do not think problem sheets aren’t important. They help, seriously.

You’re going to need to do some work. You’re going to notice your hallmates doing humanities having only 8 hours a week of contact time, whereas you’re closer to 25. You will be swamped every week with problems and lab reports and will have problems classes on top of your lectures. You WILL hate labs – I am yet to speak to anyone who really enjoyed them. But it is all essential to your development as a competent physicist (honestly..) and you will be glad of it in the long run.

Start of degree vs end of degree. Proof that blondes don’t have more fun? 

Living Conditions
Now this is an interesting one. You are probably going to be in student halls. Brace yourself. Here are some things that WILL happen:
– If you drink, you will vomit (probably multiple times).
– Again, if you drink, you will be forced to down a dirty pint (the worst I ever saw contained whisky, milk, garlic and and beer). And then you will probably vomit.
– You will really hate 9am lectures. Especially if you’re hungover/still drunk
– Everything will be a mess. All the time. No one will wash up
– You will encounter the panicked rush far too early to sort out a house for your second year, and you may end up not even liking the people you are gong to live with by the end of term
– The toilet will be covered in all manners of disgusting bodily fluids on multiple occasions.
– You will get freshers flu and feel ill for weeks and your lecture halls will be filled with the sound of coughing.
– Someone will not understand how to use a washing machine (and there may even be someone who takes their laundry home to their mum)
– You will inevitably fall out with someone who was initially your best friend
– There will be some romance and some drama. Some couples will last, others will not. Inevitably, people will start breaking up with home boyfriends/girlfriends.
– You wont change your sheets for an unholy amount of time.
– There will be people in your halls you didn’t even know existed until you awkwardly encounter them in the corridor at the end of term or cooking in the middle of the night.
– You will feel sad and miss your parents, your pets and your home friends, no matter how much fun you’re having.
Sound fun? Unfortunately, this seems to be what it takes to get yourself a physics degree. Things might improve when you move off campus into a house, but this is heavily dependent on your choice of housemates. Really, you have to work out what works best for you in order to survive student living. Maybe you wont mind the mess and the mould. What I will say though is please, please wash your sheets at least once a term. It’s gross.

There’s going to be blood, sweat and tears. Literally. There’s going to be fights and drama and emotional and intellectual struggles. There’s going to be regret and awful hangovers. There will be late nights writing lab reports or finishing problems. You will want to tear your hair out over the electromagnetic field of an infinite charged plane, or a pulley with mass, or second order differential equations, or whether or not γμ is a four vector (spoiler: it isn’t). You will hate some lecturers – worst are the ones that pick people out to answer questions, some will send you to sleep and others you will love and respect. You are going to hate physics, you’re going to love physics, and you’re going to question yourself why the hell you chose it. But in the end, if you make it out with your degree, you’ve done something incredible, and a lot of doors will be open to you. I always knew I wanted to stay with physics and my four years at Warwick left me still enjoying physics and well prepared for a PhD.

If you’re about to start your degree – it’s going to be a wild ride, but it may just be some of the best years of your life. Good luck!

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  • Physics Today 68(9) 29 (2015), September 2015
    “Where are astronomy bachelors one year after receiving their degree?”
    49% flipping burgers
    23% astronomy
    16% physics
    12% other fields

    Michigan State University September 1969 (40,000 matriculants). More than 1200 students signed up for first term majors Organic Chemistry. About 200 remained second term. June 1973, 14 BS/Chem graduated. I was up to my chin in boiling blood. Pity those upon whose bellies I stood. Redirect careers soon after entry, not after graduation. (In 2014, MSU 50,085 matriculants, about 20 BS/Chem graduated while most North American chemical employment has fled offshore. Who will hire them?)

  • Larissa Agostinho

    Hi Sally,
    I’m from Brazil and I’ll start my degree in physics next semester. Your text really encouraged me and answered many questions that were tormenting me. Thank you!