Physics: transitioning from A-level to studying a degree

Posted in: Faculty of Science, Undergraduate

Making the transition from A-level to degree level physics can sound like a daunting prospect. For a start, choosing any subject on a full-time basis is a big decision. When I was applying for a physics course I had a great deal of concerns and unanswered questions. Would I cope with such a large workload? How can I be sure it’s the course for me? What does higher level physics do differently to A-level?

Here’s the good news: if you’re considering applying for a degree at Bath then you’ve almost certainly got it in you to comprehend and excel in the material taught. This teaching has been given in lectures, which are noticeably different in style to sixth form lessons. For a start, each lecture is given to the entire first year at once (160 people this year) in a variety of buildings across campus. Luckily they’re all very close to each other as Bath’s campus is nice and compact.

Our lecture theatre filling with students
Our lecture theatre filling with students...
…and our properties of matter lecturer, Dan Wolverson
…and our properties of matter lecturer, Dan Wolverson

To give you an idea of how the course is arranged I’ve listed below the first semester modules and a brief description of their contents. A semester is slightly different to a term; a semester describes a period of modules that end in an exam season.

  • Properties of Matter – This unit feels a little like the physical side of chemistry, looking at the phases of matter and the physical laws that govern them. Think ideal gases, ionic lattices etc. The second half of the unit is solely about thermodynamics.
  • Electrical Circuits – What you’d expect. Reviewing things like Kirchov’s laws, Ohm’s law and capacitors whilst introducing a wide range of new components like inductors and operational amplifiers. The unit also streamlines circuit analysis with an array of new tools.
  • Classical Mechanics – Takes the “suvat” style mechanics for constant acceleration and velocity systems and introduces tools to apply them in systems with varying parameters. Also contains rockets, which have been the highlight for me so far!
  • Vibrations, Waves and Optics – examines simple harmonic motion mathematically, including for damped and forced oscillations. This unit deals with travelling waves and how they can be combined and introduces the physics of light.

As well as these core units, the first semester includes assessed modules in experimental physics and computing and mathematics for physicists. I was worried about the difficulty of the maths involved, having not taken a Further Maths A-level. I was concerned that the course would assume knowledge outside of my scope; this isn’t the case and all further material has been taught from the ground up.

Lab sessions of undergraduate physics are familiar yet a lot more in depth and rewarding than at A-level. I have recently completed my semester one lab sessions- over the course of four three hour periods we were given a piece of unknown science to interpret. The title of the task was “measuring specific heat ratio for gases using a resonance method”. This was an initially confusing piece of work but after a little research and a few hours of discussion me and my partner were taking measurements to plot data from an area of science we’d never had any exposure to before.

I wasn’t sure if I would cope with the pace of the course before joining. Honestly, from what I’ve experienced so far the work is very fast paced, but the modules are very intertwined and support each other well. I can’t stress how important is it to keep organised! Organisation will be a big thing in keeping up with the pace of the course.

A tidy desk is a tidy mind, so they say. Uni has made me very aware of this.
A tidy desk is a tidy mind, so they say. Uni has made me very aware of this.

In addition to my physics course I’ve also been managing to maintain an optional Spanish module and a very full social life. Exceeding at university does require a lot of dedication, granted, and my life has become busy, but that’s half the fun! If you think of going half-heartedly into physics it will seem like an uphill struggle; remember that you’ll be doing it for the next three years. If you enjoy physics at A-level then you’ll enjoy it many times more as a degree!

Is there anything you should think about before starting a physics course? If you’re passionate and ready for a challenge, it’ll be the time of your life. University begins to introduce compelling branches of physics, such as quantum mechanics and relativity, granting changes of perspective on the subject that only a degree can give. Physics is a subject for the curious, and that’s even more true at undergraduate level.

I guess the moral of this story is that although physics is a specialised area that requires dedication and lots of hard work, it’s manageable, achievable and extremely rewarding. The learning curve is steep, but if you’re applying for a Bath physics course and you have the passion needed then I say go for it!

Posted in: Faculty of Science, Undergraduate


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