Frequently asked questions for School of Physics

We asked the School of Physics some questions about what it's like to study with them. Here's what they said.

We are adapting our teaching methods and spaces in accordance with the latest COVID guidelines and therefore the information below may be subject to change.

What makes this department at the University of Bristol unique?

We are a research-intensive Physics department, which means that you will be taught by academics who are world leaders with active research programmes across a wide range of physics areas.

These feed into the specialist options you can choose in later years of your degree, and you will have the chance to get directly involved in our cutting-edge research in a final-year research project. 

In addition to our research and teaching, the thing that really makes the School of Physics at Bristol special is our sense of community. You will feel part of a friendly, inclusive and diverse Physics department. In the class of 2019, 30% of the students were female, 8% were mature, and 19% were non-UK nationals (comprising 30 nationalities).

The great atmosphere in the department is due in a large part to CHAOS, the Physics student society. CHAOS is one of the largest societies in the University and organise a wide range of social, sporting, and academic events that bring the students together.

They run the student coffee bar in the Physics building, which provides some of the best (and cheapest!) coffee in Bristol. They also provide an informal mentoring scheme for new students. CHAOS’ achievements have led them to be recognised at the National Student Awards for Best Academic and Careers Society (2018) and Best Overall Society (2019).

How does the research at the school benefit the experience of the students at the school?

Our world-class research feeds into our degree programmes through our specialist lecture courses and student research projects.

This means that in addition to teaching you the core physics material that would be common to all physics departments, you will also have access to units that align with our research strengths. In particular, in the third and fourth years you will be able to choose optional units taught by world leaders in the relevant fields.

For example, students in our fourth year can currently choose a unit on Current Topics in Physics (in which several of our academics lecture on their ground-breaking research) or options on advanced topics like quantum computing, superconductors and general relativity.

The exact options available depend on your choice of degree – view the list of currently available units for the MSci Physics course.

The closest links you will find with our research groups are through the final-year research project. In your project you will work with a supervisor on an open-ended research problem that would make up a quarter (BSc) or a half (MSci) of your final year. You will be working on a cutting-edge research topic in the area of your choosing, with projects ranging from experimental to computational. The most successful projects may lead to publications in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Finally, we have a weekly colloquium in term-time, where guest speakers talk about their research to a general physics audience, and each research group will have seminars in which visiting researchers present their work to a more specialised audience. The latter are very interesting to students when they are specialising in a particular research area, for example with their research project.

What does the school do to welcome students when they first start at Bristol?

New students are assigned a tutor group, which usually consists of five students, with a physics academic as the tutor. This gives students a chance to quickly get to know other students on the course, along with one of the lecturers. They also provide an informal small-group environment in which students can ask questions on the course material.

The best way to meet fellow students is to join CHAOS, the physics student society. CHAOS organise a wide range of social, sporting, and academic events and run the student coffee bar in the Physics building. They also provide an informal mentoring scheme for new students. CHAOS have been recognised at the National Student Awards for Best Academic and Careers Society (2018) / Best Overall Society (2019).

What is the first year timetable like for this course?

The exact timetable will depend on which physics degree you choose, In all of our physics degrees, a large fraction of the first year is dedicated to physics and maths, with space for optional units or course specialisms.

Where can I find out more about the detailed structure and content of the degree programmes?

The detailed structure for all of our physics courses can be found by selecting a course and then selecting 'Course Structure'.

What support does the school offer to new students?

New students are typically assigned a tutor group, which usually consists of five students, with a physics academic as the tutor. This gives students a chance to quickly get to know other students on the course, along with one of the lecturers.

They also provide an informal small-group environment in which students can ask questions on the course material. Your tutor, lecturers and the student society, CHAOS, will all support you in starting your degree.

CHAOS offer a ‘parenting’ scheme, matching second- and third-year students with first years, so you’ll join an in-built community from day one. Our Senior Tutor is always available to discuss any support you might need to help you settle in at University, and the Science Faculty also has five dedicated wellbeing advisers who have an office in Physics, and are ready to help if you need additional support.

How will the course set me up for my future career?

Our physics degrees are designed to provide a wide range of transferable skills that employers are looking for. The school works closely with our Industrial Advisory Board to understand the needs of industry, and shape our courses to boost our graduates’ employability by giving them the knowledge and skills required to flourish in the working world.

Our students develop:

  • Strong communication skills, with the ability to clearly communicate complex ideas to different audiences. For example, current third year students can choose the International Mentoring unit in which they give physics tutorials by video link to high school students overseas.
  • Computational skills, writing programmes to model and solve complicated systems and using computers to acquire and analyse data in labs. We have advanced computational physics options available for students who wish to specialise further.
  • Problem-solving and analytical skills, with the ability to extract key information from complex real-world problems, and make the necessary approximations to find working solutions.

Students on the BSc programmes undertake a unit called Skills for Science, part of which is comprised of a practice job application and practice interview. In 2019, 95% of these interviews were undertaken with the aid of a representative from companies including Airbus, Accenture, the Civil Service, Deloitte, TTP and Ultraleap.

These students had the opportunity to practice for that all-important graduate interview in a safe environment with feedback from professionals in their field of interest. This unit is also available for students on the MSci courses to take as a not-for-credit extra option.

We also have strong links with industry through our Industry Group Project for BSc students, in which they work on a research and development project set by an employer (recent examples include Sellafield, Bristol Zoo, and Siemens), and our Physics with Industrial Experience degrees, in which students spend their third year on an industry placement.

Are there any employers or other initiatives that the school works with for industry placements?

We work with a wide range of employers for our Physics with Industrial Experience degrees, in which students spend their third year on an industry placement. Recent student placements have included Airbus, AWE, BAE, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Deloitte, De la Rue, NATS, Renishaw, Rolls-Royce, Sharp and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Our BSc students can engage with industry partners through Group Industry Projects in which students work on a research and development project set by an employer – recent examples include Sellafield, Bristol Zoo, Siemens and the Fat Duck restaurant.

Employers also talk to us directly about the skills they need in our graduates via our Industrial Advisory Board, which then feeds into the continuing development of the skills training we provide.

What do graduates go on to do after studying this course at Bristol?

Our graduates go on to a very diverse range of careers after their physics degree. Between a quarter and a half go on to further study on a master's or PhD to further specialise in their research interests. Others work as physicists in industrial settings (recent examples are graduates working at the National Physics Laboratory, Ultraleap, Toptica Photonics, and EDF).

Outside of physics, our graduates go on to pursue careers in areas as varied as teaching, finance, accountancy, banking, consultancy, law, software development, the armed forces, engineering and as patent attorneys.

A Bristol physics degree will provide you the technical skills and knowledge you need for specialist careers, but also the broad range of transferrable skills to keep your options open.

What opportunities are there to study abroad as part of this course?

We offer two physics degrees with the opportunity to study abroad:

  • Physics with Study Abroad in a Modern Language is an MSci degree in which students spend their third year abroad studying at a university in continental Europe in the language of the host country (usually France, Germany, Italy or Spain).
  • Physics with International Experience students spend their third year on an English-language research placement at an international university. Recent placements have included Brazil, Canada and Hong Kong.

What are the facilities like on campus that students will use to study this course?

Physics is based at the heart of our campus in the beautiful environment of our Grade II-listed Physics building and Green-Flag Award-winning gardens.

The Physics building has its own dedicated library, along with many student study areas equipped for group work or quiet spaces for individual work.

For their advanced labs and project work, students have the opportunity to use our world-class research facilities, many of which are housed in the Physics building. These include our new state-of-the-art clean room and six meter radio telescope.

How many hours (on average) are required outside of lectures for additional work and study?

Depending on the specific degree and options chosen, physics students will have about 20 hours of timetabled work each week. Students should plan to spend a similar amount of time working through homework, reviewing their notes and preparing for lectures.

How do assessments work for the department?

Our physics units are assessed by a range of methods. Some units are assessed entirely by a final written exam, but many also contain a component of coursework.

Other units are assessed entirely on coursework, which might be written reports or articles, individual or group presentations, programming exercises, interviews, posters or combinations of those.

What would you say are the main differences between studying at school and study at university?

A physics degree is very different from physics at school. We take a much more mathematical approach to physics, which will reveal the connections between many different areas of physics.

You will also gain access to much more advanced equipment than you have used at school, starting in our high-spec teaching laboratories and building up to using our research equipment for your project work. These differences make physics a more challenging and more rewarding subject at University.

What are examples of final year projects/dissertations that students have worked on when they study this course?

The broad range of research expertise in the Physics department is reflected in the diversity of final-year projects undertaken by students. Recent examples include projects to:

  • use climate modelling code to model the atmospheres of extrasolar planets;
  • investigate the properties of electrochromic films used in ‘smart windows’, which control the transmittance of sunlight and solar heat into a building;
  • design thermal imaging instruments for satellites;
  • define and simulate new quantum optics schemes;
  • investigate the theoretical applications of quantum thermodynamics;
  • investigate ways to identify bacteria with anti-microbial resistance using nanoscale fluctuations;
  • produce working protoypes of ultrasonic levitators;
  • use machine learning to interpret data captured in the Large Hadon Collider at CERN in Geneva and to investigate potential applications for nuclear waste materials, specifically building a photo-voltaic cell from Uranium dioxide.

These are just a few of the many fascinating research projects that recent undergraduates have worked on. As an alternative to pure research projects, our students can choose to take an Industrial Group Project to work in a team on a real-world research and development problem that is set by industry partners, or to work with a local school in our Physics Education unit.

Is there anything I should check out to familiarise myself with the subject matter before I would start the course?

You might be interested to look at the Feynman Lectures on Physics. These go well beyond first-year physics in places, but will introduce you to some different ways of looking at physics you already know, and preview some of the topics you will be meeting for the first time at University.

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