Olá! Last time I described how I got involved with physics research, now I’d like to offer a few suggestions about how you can get into science.
I’ll be assuming that you’ve not yet attended university, but already have a certain amount of interest in science (reasonable given that this is a blog about particle physics!). Possibly some of this information might be of use to those coming to the end of their degree courses and are considering a PhD. If you are already involved in science, maybe you’d like to comment any tips or suggestions you have.
I’ll also be writing in the context of the English and UK system of exams and Universities; hopefully some of this will still be applicable to you if you’re living elsewhere.
The first question when it comes to GCSEs is “What should I take?”. In my experience, universities and employers aren’t interested in what GCSEs you take, just the number you take and what grades you get. Great! You can use this time to explore your interests without a great possibility of negative impact. Always wondered how your mobile phone works? Take electronics. Fancy learning a completely different language? Take Japanese. This will probably be your first time in having a meaningful say in what you learn, so make the most of it!
If you’re unsure about which science you’re *really* interested in, then take all three and decide later. I’d also recommend ICT if it’s still optional; programming is essential in research, and it’s always good to have a better understanding of how your computer works and how to best use its programs.
A-Levels or International Baccalaureate
The IB looks great for humanities, or if you’re unsure about what you want to do after school as it offers a wide range of subjects. A science degree, however, requires excellent knowledge of a few key subjects, which is better offered by A-levels.
Your choices should include your chosen science(s) and maths. If you can, take further maths as well. Don’t worry too much if this isn’t on offer, it’ll normally be covered during your first year anyway.
Choosing your degree
A science degree could either be taken in a subject area (i.e. physics, chemistry, or biology), or as a general ‘natural science’ degree. Both have their own advantages: subject-specific offers greater depth, allowing you to focus on your favourite topics; nat. sci. offers greater breadth, allowing you to pick modules from the other degree courses.
One thing to consider is whether to do a master’s degree. If you qualify for it, Student Finance will fund your first degree only, which would normally be a three-year bachelor’s degree (BSc), however UK universities offer a four-year integrated master’s (e.g. MSci or MPhys). Taking the integrated master’s is more economic and you’ll still have the option to move to a bachelor’s degree once you’re in. Moving from a bachelor’s to an integrated master’s, if allowed, is quite a hassle. Whether you need a master’s will depend on where you want to work, but for only one more year’s work, you’ll certainly have a lot more opportunities available to you.
As far as university choice goes, league tables can only help so much; better to visit the university and get a feel for life there. Some things to consider are: campus or city, lecture commute, what societies and sports are on offer, is the university heavily involved in research in your particular area of interest, is it a member of a group of universities (e.g Russell group), is the degree accredited and recognised by (inter)national institutions? Most important is whether or not you can see yourself living there for three to four years.
So, you’re almost there: third-year exams behind you, a thesis topic forming in your mind, along with the question of “What shall I do after this?”. The skills, knowledge, and mindset you’ll have acquired during your science degree will make you an ideal candidate for a wide range of jobs in areas such as research and development (both hardware and software), data analysis, teaching, finance and investment, and perhaps even law. If your calling is towards something heavily based in research, then a PhD is probably the way forward.
I’ve had the joy of applying for both PhDs and jobs and can tell you that both processes can be tough and trying; console yourself that you’re in for a terrible time whichever you pick. The best advice I can give is to keep at it, remind yourself why you started, and recognise last time’s ‘failure’ as the learning experience it always was.
Some tips and recommendations
Programming: Being able to program is essential for physics, and probably for other science degrees too. My advice: don’t wait to be taught it, start learning today! Python and C++ are the most useful and there’s loads of material online to help get you started.
Gap year: Leaving school will likely be your last time for quite a while to spend extended periods of time abroad. Weigh up the experiences and memories you stand to gain against the knowledge you will forget; maths, the language of science, slips away very quickly if not used. Universities know this and will take it into consideration when processing applications.
LaTeX: This is what we use to write publications. Unlike MS Word, in LaTeX you can simply write your content and let it deal with how to best present it. There’s an initially steep learning curve, but once you grasp the basic idea it simplifies scientific writing a great deal. I only began using it in fourth year and wish I’d got round to learning it earlier.
Never give up: A university degree is a tough undertaking, you’ll have times of confusion and self-doubt. This is normal, which means you’re not alone; if you find a particular topic difficult, chances are your classmates do too, talk to them, form revision groups. If you’re wondering if you should continue with your degree, remind yourself why you started, talk to your friends, lecturers, and tutor.
I do hope this has been, or will be, of some use to you. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, or to leave any tips and suggestions you have.