4-year MPhys

The 4-year MPhys (Master of Physics) course

Physics courses investigate the basic principles of modern physics with a strong emphasis on its mathematical foundation. They also include a significant amount of experimental work and the possibility of studying a non-physics subject. There is also a common emphasis on individual development, discussion and the ability to work with others in the laboratory.

This is an extended course allowing time in addition to the 3-year BA course to pursue two or more fields up to the research frontier. It should be of interest to those who seek a possible career in physics and/or who want a degree comparable in level with advanced European degrees.

Students on the two Physics courses follow exactly the same programme of study for the first two years. After the Part A exams at the end of the second year, students must choose which degree they wish to take. Those who have achieved less than a 2:1 standard in their Part A exams are not normally allowed to take the four-year course.

Course Structure:

The first year (foundation) and second year (core physics) courses are the same for both the BA and the MPhys. In the third year, BA students choose some of the third year subjects, and do a project, while MPhys students take all of the third year subjects. In each of years one, two and three, all students choose additional 'Short Options' from a range of courses.

First Year

In their first year, students on both courses (BA and MPhys) cover five subjects, four of which are compulsory. Two subjects cover fundamental areas of 'classical' physics: the mechanics of particles, special relativity, and the physics of electric and magnetic fields. A third subject covers differential equations, waves and elementary optics. The fourth subject is mathematical methods, including vectors and calculus. These four subjects provide a firm foundation for the rest of both courses. The fifth subject is chosen from a range of possible Short Options, which may change from year to year but are likely to include topics such as quantum ideas, additional mathematics and subjects from other physical sciences.

Practical work

Practical work complements lectures and tutorials and introduces students to areas that may be less familiar. For two terms of the first year, students spend one day each week working in pairs in the practical laboratories, on practicals such as: computing, electronics, optics and general physics. A course on computer programming and numerical methods combines lectures with hands on work in the computing laboratory.

1st year Exams (Prelims)

Towards the end of the first year students take an examination, consisting of five papers, one in each of their chosen subjects. Students must pass the written exam and have a satisfactory record of practical work before they can proceed to the second year.

Second Year

The second year course provides a common core for both the BA and MPhys degrees. It develops the techniques and knowledge acquired in the first year. Electromagnetism, optics and mathematical methods are extended and further core topics such as quantum physics and thermal physics are covered in some depth. A short optional subject is studied towards the end of the year. Current subjects include energy studies, more advanced theoretical topics, or a language or teaching option.

Practical work

Practicals occupy two days a fortnight in the second and third years. Students normally do a total of 12 days, but there are a number of alternatives for some of it. For example, the Teaching Physics in Schools short option involves working with a physics teacher in a local school for one half-day each week, and research into the learning of school-level physics. Half the practical work may be substituted by a second short option. It is also possible to do extra practical work, as additional experiments, or as a mini-project, in place of a short option.

2nd year exams (Part A)

Three written papers on the core topics plus a short option paper and practical work form the Part A exam at the end of the second year. Those who wish to take the four-year MPhys degree must meet a minimum standard comparable to 2:1 honours in this exam.

Third Year

Six modules are offered: Flows, fluctuations and complexity; Symmetry & relativity; Quantum, atomic and molecular physics; Sub-atomic Physics; General relativity and cosmology and Condensed-matter physics. MPhys students will be expected to take all six modules.

3rd year exams (Part B)

Three written papers (six modules) on applications plus a short option paper plus practical work.

Fourth Year

Students will study two major options, and they also undertake a substantial project. The project is the equivalent of about one full term’s work.


Each student works individually on a research problem (either theoretical or experimental), under the supervision of a senior physicist. Topics range over all areas of research in the Department, and the work is completed by writing a detailed report. The project may produce a result of sufficient importance to justify its publication in a scientific journal. Projects give students valuable experience of open-ended work, solving real problems.

Major options

Astrophysics is concerned with the application of the laws of physics to phenomena throughout the observable Universe. Some of these phenomena present conditions so extreme as to challenge current physical knowledge. The course combines a study of important basic astrophysics with an introduction to topics in the forefront of current research.

Biological physics: biological physics is the study of the physical process of life. This rapidly growing interdisciplinary field, with links to biochemistry, bioinformatics, medicine and nanotechnology. The course will cover the biological structures and physical mechanisms responsible for fundamental biological processes such as motion, energy generation, information storage, signal transmission and molecular transport. Since much of the knowledge in these areas is due to recent experimental advances, the course will also describe modern techniques for the study of biological molecules and machines at the single-molecule level.

Condensed matter physics is concerned with the study of the fundamental properties of solids at a microscopic level. The interactions between atoms at very high densities give rise to a wealth of new phenomena from high-temperature superconductivity to low-dimensional electron behaviour in semiconductor nanostructures. Many have led to the development of novel technological applications.

Laser science and quantum information processing: the fundamental physics of atoms and molecules underlies research into the quantum nature of matter and radiation as well as much of modern technology. The course covers atomic and molecular structure, physics and applications of lasers and modern optics.

Particle physics considers the nature of matter and forces at the most fundamental level is studied. The subject deals with electrons and neutrinos, and the quarks that make up the proton and neutron, as well as the heavier versions of these four basic particles. The course discusses our theoretical understanding of the way these particles interact through the strong and electroweak interactions and includes recent exciting discoveries, such as the very massive top quark and neutrino masses. It ends with a perspective on future possibilities, particularly the ongoing search for the elusive Higgs boson.

Physics of atmospheres and oceans: the course shows how physics helps us understand and interpret a wide range of atmospheric and oceanic phenomena. It starts with simple applications of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics to atmospheric behaviour. The greenhouse effect, atmospheric ozone depletion and details of modern space instruments are presented. The current understanding of climate and climate variability is explored.

Theoretical physics: modern physics has revealed how fundamental laws are often encoded in beautiful mathematical structures. This course provides an introduction to three areas where this can be explored: classical field theory, including Einstein’s theory of gravitation; advanced quantum mechanics, including Dirac’s relativistic wave equation for the electron; and statistical physics, including the theory of phase transitions.

4th year exams (Part C)

Two written papers on major options and a project report. The MPhys honours degree classification is made on the combined results from the Parts A, B & C exams.