FAQ: Physics courses

The FAQs are related to both the 3 year BA and 4 year MPhys Physics courses.

Oxford Physics or Cambridge Natural Sciences?

If you are accepted for an Oxford Physics course, you will study physics right from the word go. We offer two undergraduate physics degree courses: a three-year BA Honours and a four-year MPhys. The basic principles of modern physics, their mathematical formulation and their applications are investigated in both courses. You can find more information about what you will study in the Overview of the Courses.

If you want the flexibility to choose non-physics subjects and perhaps to delay the decision about which is your main subject then Oxford Physics is not for you. The Natural Sciences course at Cambridge is perhaps more suitable.

If Oxford's terms are only 8 weeks long, do students only work a 24 week year?

The short answer is no! It is very important to understand the role of “vacations” in the University year. At Oxford the teaching terms are shorter than at many other universities, adding up to only about 25 weeks in one year. Vacations have to include holiday time, and everyone recognises that for many students they also have to include money-earning time. Nevertheless, it is absolutely essential that students set aside significant amounts of time during each vacation for academic work. The course assumes that this will be done. Students must go over their lecture notes, revising the material and supplementing it by information gained from tutorials and their own reading. In addition to consolidating the previous term’s work, students should try to prepare for the next term’s courses.

Tutors will set work to be done in the vacation, and to ensure it is done, they often set a test called a Collection at the start of the next term. Collection results are for the benefit of student and tutor only, and are not fed into any University degree classification. Good Collection results may be rewarded with a prize, typically £20-£50 to spend on books. Some students undertake vacation projects during their second year and this can contribute to their practical work requirement for Finals.

What is the typical weekly workload?

Prelims (1st year): 10 hours of lectures; 6 hours in the lab, plus writing up time (average 3 hours a week), 1 physics tutorial; 1 maths tutorial. (Each tutorial will require about 10 hours work.)

Part A (2nd year): 8 hours of lectures; 6 hours in the lab; 2 hours of transferable skills training; 2 tutorials - usually physics but maths when required.

Part B and part C workloads vary depending on the options chosen, although the first part of the third year is very similar to the second year. Hilary term of the fourth year (MPhys) is spent doing a project, and also work on two major options.
Most of the workload above is unsupervised so it is up to the student to organize her or his time effectively. Those who have developed this discipline at school will have a considerable advantage. There are many attractions competing for students’ time at Oxford. Whilst a broad range of interests outside physics is welcomed and encouraged, some leisure activities may prove incompatible with the physics courses.

How much practical work is there?

Students spend about one day per week in the laboratory plus more time writing up what they have done. In the second and third year, students may choose to do extra practical work, or exchange some practical work for special options papers in Part A and B of Finals. Experimental work is assessed continually and by an oral examination in the second and third year.

There is a huge range of practicals available - about 150 prescribed investigations in addition to project work. Students who put the most in get the most out. See the Practical Course pages for more information.

How much computing is there?

Training in computing is taught as part of the practical course. In the first year you learn the basics of a programming language such as C, and use this knowledge to solve physics based problems. There are also extended programming practicals in both of the first two terms of the first year. Later in the course, enthusiasts can do practicals or projects where computers are used to model and investigate physical phenomena such as chaos or ferromagnetism.

There are two Physics teaching computer networks, one of iMac computers, and one PC network. Both systems are available 24/7 via the University Network. Students typically use computers to control experiments and gather data, to analyse and plot data, in addition to the usual email, word processing and web applications. Training in the scientific spreadsheet Origin is provided, as well as more specialised data analysis and instrument control software when needed. Under our site license, students can download a range of scientific software to run on their own computers.

Computers are also used for administration. Experiments are booked and records of completed practical work are kept on computer. Notices are distributed electronically and regular checking of e-mail is essential.

What maths should I know on arrival?

Our "standard" maths courses in the first term do not assume knowledge of Further Maths material, but they cover the relevant bits very quickly before getting on to the new stuff. Even those who have done Further Maths will find that they are learning new maths after only a few weeks at Oxford. It’s important to stress that maths isn't being studied for its own sake, but because it will be needed in the physics course. This combination of maths and physics is a challenge for most students: it’s different from A-level, where knowledge of A-level maths is not required to do A-level physics. In the Oxford course, you’ll meet this mixture of maths and physics right at the beginning, in the first term’s mechanics course.

Almost half your time in the first year will be spent on maths. After that, there is a bit more maths in the core material for the Part A examination, and you can choose less, or more, mathematical options e.g. a theoretical physics option instead of some practicals.

Can I do astronomy?

You can choose to take a short option in Astrophysics in Prelims or in Part A in the second year. Astrophysics is an integral part of the Part B course, and forms half of one of the Part B exam papers. Astrophysics is also available as a major option in Part C of the four-year MPhys course.

How easy is it to change courses or even subjects?

The two physics courses (BA and MPhys) are identical for the first 2 years (6 terms). It is easy to change between them immediately after the Part A exam although funding agencies may view the change to a four year degree much less favourably than a change from a four to a three-year degree.

Changing between subjects is possible but not easy. You need to be qualified to take your new course so the change between closely related subjects, e.g. physics and engineering science, is much less difficult than between unrelated subjects, but no changes are easy. It would be something you would discuss with tutors from both courses and it would have to be acceptable to all concerned. There may be added complications with funding agencies if you have to repeat a year.

LEAs permit a change of course (even from a three year course to a four year course) up until the end of the 4th term after entry i.e. Michaelmas Term of the second year. Thereafter four to three is easy but three to four is probably not.

Do Prelims Exams results count in Finals?

Physicists at Oxford take two sets of exams. The first, called Prelims, is taken at the end of the first year (after three terms). The second called Finals is taken in two or three parts. Part A is taken at the end of the summer term of the second year (after another three terms). Part B is taken by three-year BA students and four-year MPhys students at the end of their third year. Students pursuing a four-year MPhys course also take Part C after three more terms at the end of their fourth year.

Prelims results do not contribute in any way towards Finals. Prelims results are not classified although tutors are given marks, and colleges may award scholarships or prizes for good performance in Prelims. Students are required to pass Prelims in order to continue their courses. There is an opportunity to retake any failed papers at the end of the summer vacation but a repeat failure is usually final in the sense that you will have to transfer to another university!

The published Finals Part A and B results are not separately classified although again tutors are given marks. The results of Part A are used to determine eligibility for the four year course. Students taking the three-year BA will receive a classified degree after Part B. For MPhys students, when the Finals Part C examination has been taken, the combined results of Part A, Part B and Part C are published with classifications.
How do College, Department and University fit together?

Briefly, you are offered a place by a college and the college is where you will eat, sleep, play and work under the guidance of your college tutors. Lectures and practicals are provided by the Department. The University arranges the exams and gives you a degree.
What are the fees for a physics degree?

Information on fees and other expenses can be found on the University of Oxford Student Finance web pages. This page contains information for Home, EU and International Students.

Are there any scholarships available?

For Home students, the University of Oxford provides a very generous bursary scheme. For more information, please see the Oxford Opportunity Bursary information. Physics students are currently eligible to apply for all three current Enhanced Bursary schemes. The Oxford Physics course would be considered a suitable course for students to apply to the Ogden Trust Undergraduate Scholarships. Students from sixth form and FE colleges may be eligible to apply to a Helena Kennedy Award. These are just two examples of external scholarships of which we are aware. Interested students are encouraged to undertake their own research into potential funding streams.

Potential EU and overseas student should consult the Student Funding Search tool on the University website. Other scholarships, not administered by the University, may be available. You are also encouraged to undertake your own research into potential funding streams.