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Recently my Dooyoo-ing has been rather reduced, the reason for this was that I just started a 4 year physics degree at Durham Uni. Despite having a few reservations before I left, both the course and life at Uni have turned out to be pretty good! As I said, I chose to do the four year MSci course in Physics, although I have the option to change to a number of other physics courses at the end of the second year. Although I've only had one term of doing the course, I do remember it was at this stage last year that I had to make my final decisions as to which course I would apply to, so hopefully it may be of use to someone. Once you've applied to the University the normal system consists of you going down for an open day, staying in your College of choice for one night and having a day being shown around the Physics department. For me this consisted of an introductory lecture, being shown around a few labs, and a mock tutorial with one of the lecturers. Everyone really friendly, and there was a few postgrads to show us round. Everyone was friendly, and I liked the department (although if I hadn't I would have obviously chosen somewhere else). The fact that they were building a new centre for a complicated type of physics (I should know what the word is but I don't) was impressive, although now I wish they'd finish all the building work! When it comes to the dreaded interview I can't help - I didn't have one. Lots of other people did, while lots of other people didn't. Haven't got a clue why, other than to presume that people who are predicted borderline grades may be interviewed, but that's just speculation. Providing you get your place, and get the relevant exam grades, then you simply turn up in October and start your course! If you don't quite make the grades you need then don't worry too much - I know a few people who got in on less than the stated requirements. The de
partment is quite large, having its own 3-floored building with two or three telescopes on the roof. Not that I get to spend much time in there, that is, as most of our lectures take place in other departments (it's all to do with building works and refurbishment of lecture theatres!). The building consists mostly of offices and research labs, as well as all the undergraduate labs, a few lecture theatres and a nice spacious computer room which is only for use by physics students - which means there's never any need to queue at the library. While the decor of the building may not look great, the equipment is all pretty up to date, and the reference library is an invaluable source of information (as well as scaring us at the depth of the 4th year reports we're going to have to do). The course is quite enjoyable, although obviously this depends upon what you like. Surprisingly though, in the first year you are only required to do 3 modules of physics out of your total 6 modules. You then have to do two maths modules, and have one elective module to choose from those offered by other departments (or indeed more physics if you want!). It's a little annoying to have to do so much maths, especially when it isn't all relevant to physics, but I'll say more about that later. Physics Modules Foundations of Physics A double module, this forms the core of the physics course in the first year. It covers a wide range of topics as you might expect, including special relativity, quantum mechanics, classical mechanics and wave phenomena. I know I'm supposed to enjoy all of physics, but it's hard to be motivated by such imaginative topics as springs and pendulums, or indeed balls rolling down slopes. Still, this is compensated for by the interesting topics such as special relativity (despite the fact it's a little difficult!). Structure of Matter Does what it say's on the tin really! Deals w
ith the properties of the different phases of matter, as well as particle physics and a few other things. Particle physics is fun, the other bits aren't and often just seem an extension of A-level chemistry which was never much fun to be honest. Assessment in Physics is done continually throughout the term in the form of weekly problems, which over the year contribute to 10% of your mark. The rest of this is made up from labs, of which you have 3 hours per week, and exams in the summer (I'm looking forward to them already!). The weekly problems are quite a lot of work for the measly 10%, but at least they make you sit down and answer them and help you greatly in understanding the work that you've done in the previous week. If there is one gripe then it would be that marking isn't that consistent, but over the year this is likely to balance out so you get your fair share of harsh markers, and some lenient ones too. Labs are actually quite good fun, with the experiments being set much more fun that the old 'swing the pendulum' things we did at school. In my first term I've used computers to analyse galactic clusters, measured refractive index with a laser and measured the speed of light! Each week you have a one hour physics tutorial, where a group of around 6 students meet a tutor to discuss and go over the last weeks problems. The Physics side of things is quite good fun, but it couldn't be that simple, could it? On to the maths............. When I went to do Physics I had no idea that I would be doing so much maths, at least not maths like I am doing. I don't mind maths, in some cases I enjoy it, but I'm at Uni to do physics and it would be far better if they ran maths for physicists lecture's, then at least I would know what I was doing had some relevance. The two courses are imaginatively called Singles Maths A and B. Maths A is the worst of the two, as it's pure
maths and often seems like it's maths for the sake of maths. Some of it has relevance to physics, but I'm sure not all of it can. Topics covered so far include trigonometric function and hyperbolics, complex numbers and limits. When I think about it they are actually all relevant to physics in some way, but it's the way in which they are taught that makes them seem pointless. In maths B, which is applied maths, everything is related to physics or engineering in some way. So far we have covered vectors, differential equations and fourier analysis. Both maths modules are assessed both by weekly problems (10%) to be handed in on certain lectures, and summer exams. Maths have 2 hours of tutorials every week, one hour for each module. Of course, the fact that I don't like the maths so much probably stems from the fact that it's so god damned hard! I really would recommend doing Further Maths A-level if at all possible, as it seems to help people greatly! Exams in both Physics and Maths take place in the summer term, although there are collections in January (practice exam), and in maths a diagnostic test in the first few lectures! That takes care of 5 modules, which leaves you with one elective module. Quite a popular course is Introduction To Astronomy which is run by the Physics department, although you can do any course from any department providing that the time table fits and you meet the prerequisite requirements for entry! I end up with 23 hours of lectures a week, which is just about the most of any degree course, apart from chemistry which have more labs. Still, not to worry, I'm sure if I did English and got 8 hours a week I'd be bored!
Durham University is one of the finest academic institutions in the country and boasts an excellent record of achievement. It offers a large number of courses, although perhaps not such a varied choice as is found in larger Universities. the University has also shown a worrying tendancy to overlook the merits of smaller departments in favour of closing them or merging them with larger groups, for example in the recent dissolvement of the Russian department. Courses are predominantly excellently taught, attracting some of the leading experts in the fields studied, not to mention numerous lectures by visiting specialists. One failing though is the often shabby condition of some of the facilities, an issue which the university is attempting to deal with through an modernisation planned to occur over the next couple of years.
Four years' ago, our younger daughter applied to Durham University to read Biological Sciences, along with two of her school friends, all from our local Comprehensive school in Edinburgh Why Durham ? Well, the three of them had attended a 'taster session' there and were very impressed with what they saw. It was also within reasonable travelling distance of Edinburgh, and the Lecturer who spoke to them was very friendly and enthusiastic and, well, they all liked the place. These three girls had all passed 5 Highers with good Grade A's, and a full set of 9 Grade 1 Standard Grades. Each was also taking A level Biology (a quirk of the Biology Department) and two Certificate of Sixth year Studies subjects (the Scottish equivalent of A level). My daughter also took Higher Physics (a subject that she had rejected in favour of History in her 5th year). They each had other attributes (musical ability or sporting) and were each very active in the school. Being of high academic standard (partly, we suspect because of their friendship and rivalry spurring each of them on), they therefore also applied to the University of Oxford. Their UCAS forms were therefore returned early, all for Biological Sciences, all including Durham University and an Oxford College. Each received invitations to interview at their Oxford colleges and rapid 'unconditional' acceptances from all their other Universities - except Durham. Each eventually received 'rejections' from Durham. By that time, each had BEEN ACCEPTED BY THEIR RESPECTIVE OXFORD COLLEGES. They all achieved Grade A in all the subjects they sat at A level, CSSYS and Higher and, this year, each graduated with Class 1 BA degrees in Biological sciences. The Durham rejection did not bother our daughter, but did bother one of her friends, who said at the time that she would have preferred Durham to the Oxford college that she had applied to. We (the parents) thus q
ueried these rejections with the University. The initial written response was that the applications were received after offers had been made, and suggseted that we tackled the school about late submission of UCAS forms. This was obvioulsy nonesense, and we persued our complaints through the Pro-Vice Chancellor's Office. UCAS confirmed that the applications had been sent to Durham very early, and ultimately, it was suggseted by Durham University that a 'whole batch' of applications has been "mislaid" and only came to light after offers had been made for all places. We had our own suggestions : Was it because the applications were from a state school (which we admitted among ourselves was highly unlikely)? Was it beacuse they applicants were female and from Scotland (good possibility, since Durham University is very popular with Edinburgh schools, and Biological Sciences is very popular with girls)? In other words, does Durham operate a quota system ? Or was it because they had applied to Oxford (with a reasonably good chance of getting in) and if Oxford should turn them down, then so would Durham ? We thought that the last suggestion was the most likely, but no, Durham University insisted that it was the 'mislaying' of the documents that was to blame. In other words, they were willing to plead "Guilty" to the lesser plea of imcompetance, rather than the serious charge of discrimination. The net effect was that Durham lost the chance of at least one good student, and the behaviour of the University has coloured the attitude of the school towards future applications. Also, there are several parents and 3 new graduates of the University of Oxford who will always have a bad tale to tell about the University of Durham.