I had better begin with some information about me - this will help you to judge what I write in my review! I have broken my review into the following sub-headings - so do skip to the part you're most interested in.
- My Degree
- Course Structure
- First and Second Year Units
- Third and Fourth Year
- The Department (facilities, staff and support)
- Highlights of the Degree
- Lowlights of the Degree
- Schrodinger's Dolphin
I studied "straight" Physics at Southampton for 4 years (one of which was my Masters year). When I was a student, we were given the option of specialising in one of two areas - either Photonics (i.e. lasers) or Astronomy. I chose the middle road - which allowed me to chose whichever units I wished to, so long as I had completed the course pre-requisites. As it transpired, I ended up doing a lot of Astronomy units, without ever having to commit to this particular degree course. The advantage of doing this being that my options were as open as possible at all stages. The disadvantages? Well, my degree is in "Physics" rather than "Physics with Astronomy". The break down of my results clearly shows the astronomy content I have covered, so I'm happy with this.
As with all courses at the University, each year is divided into two semesters. In each semester Physics students complete 4 units, each worth 15 points as a general rule. Some units were prescribed but many units were to be chosen by the student the semester before. In 3rd year, a 10,000 word dissertation counts as 1 unit - something of a shock perhaps to some students. I shall focus on some of the individual units later. In 4th year, the Master project is spread across both semesters and counts for 60 points. Fourth year students complete 3 units per semester in addition to the fourth year project.
First and Second Year
The first semester, to me, was a "getting up to speed" time for all of us. Most of my classmates had come straight from sixth form but, even then, we were all a bit rusty. The first 4 weeks was dedicated to maths workshops and problem solving classes - as well as 3 sets of 3 hours of lectures per week. Each lecture was 45 minutes long. I would strongly recommend brushing up on your mathematics before embarking on any Physics course - not necessarily JUST for Southampton. Physics is built on the foundation of maths - there is no escaping it. If you are scared by the prospect of calculus, or aren't comfortable with algebra then you will need to brush up. The workshops (led by 2 lectuers and a host of teaching assistants) will help you to do this. The other compulsory first year units include Mechanics and Wave Physics - both covering essential A Level material in a more rigorous and mathematical manner. The electricity and magnetism course in the second semester acts as a foundation for latter year courses. This is, sadly, where my first complaint comes in. When I was a first year, the lecturer was less than impressive. Send me a personal message if you are concerned about this - as I don't wish to name and shame them in public. It may be the case that the timetable has changed and a new lecturer has been found.
Every unit had a set of problem sheets to complete. Students were given a week to complete these and they typically took 2 or 3 hours each. We also had weekly tutorial groups (with 2 or 3 of our classmates) to discuss the problems with a lecturer, as well as the afromentioned problem classes. A good, solid workload that was not unreasonable, in my opinion.
Second year was remarkably similar to first year - with more complex Mechanics and Wave physics and, of course, the introduction to Quantum Mechanics - a nightmare of a subject, but a fine lecturer and good levels of support. I also took the somewhat quirky "Life in the Cosmos" unit that was led very respectably by a senior lecturer. I'd strongly recommend this particular course - everything, from aliens to SETI, is dealt with in such a "serious" manner - it's good to have intelligent discussions about these things, whereas most people either think you're a nut or get overly excited and pin you in a corner to explain their theory of parallel worlds...
Third and Fourth Year
I think this is the time when things really start to matter. This is also the year when things get interesting. Compulsory units include Quantum Physics, Atomic Physics and Nuclear Physics. The niave student may think that all these things are roughly the same. It is true there is some overlap in the disciplines but the truth is that these subjects are worlds apart. They're all also notoriously difficult and this is when I really started to struggle. Gone are the problem classes and also the compulsory problem sheets. In the earlier years, problem sheets are marked and the grades are counted towards the end of unit exam. In third and fourth year, the units are graded almost exclusively on your end of semester exam - so the pressure really is on. To relieve the pressure, the 3rd year offers labs and presentation classes. Most of my classmates disliked the presentation side of things - but it was an essential part of the course that had to be completed. It's also a useful skill. Communicating Physics is hard and, for better public understanding, the next generatin of Physicists have to feel comfortale talking infornt of an audience.
4th year also offered seminar classes. There wasn't nearly enough debating in these classes in my opinion. A speaker would present, a few questions would be asked... and that was it. We did cover some fascinating topics though - really up-to-date stuff. Perhaps, in years time, readers will read this and say "what? That's not up to date". To quote some exaples, we were doing things like: the Large Hadron Collider, The Higgs Boson, Gravitational Wave Detection and Relativisitc Astronomy.
In my experience, the department were very supportive. Even in third year when I handed my dissertation in late (for no good reason other than me being stupid) they were generous and gave me an extension, free of penalty. My tutor (PM me for info) was exceptionally supportive and (when he was in his office) ready to help. My friends seemed generally happy with the staff too and any issues were dealt with professionally.
The facilites in the Physics building are very adequate. Computer labs, library area, seating area etc. all included. Lecturers always told us when they would be in, responded to emails promptly and gave us advice... well, to varying degrees! Our second year Mechanics lecturer was great, our third year Photons in Astrophysics lectuer... not so much! The head of department, Malcom Coe (available from the website, so I'm not infringing privacy!) was one of the most approachable and fun lecturers I ever had. He taught us for two courses and, both times, he liked to inject a lot of audience participation. This is very rare in a University context. All other lecturers I had used to talk for 45 minutes then take questions at the end... fair enough... but a bit dull at times!
Highlights of the Degree
For me, the Seminars unit was really worthwhile and engaging. It opened our eyes to the current Physics arena. Let's face it, most of the degree was Newtonian physics or early 20th century stuff. I suppose the 4th year Quantum Computing course was fairly up to date, but it was a little too repetitive for my liking.
Lowlights of the Degree
The aforementioned Electricy and Magnetism lecturer was not great. I suppose the lecturer stood out - as all of the other staff we encountered were just fine.
The problem sheets were a necessary evil. I remember many late nights sitting and not having a clue how to proceed. But that's what University is for in my mind. Pushing learners to the limit and forcing them to find out for themselves. In theory, we should all have been "let go" in sixth form and given the chance to learn independently. Physics at Southampton certainly encourages one to do that, but will hold your hand for those first few all important weeks.
Finally, I should explain why I chose that title. Well, to show my age, when I was a student the University logo was a Dolphin in a box. They've since changed that - a multi-million pound project if I understand it correctly. Schrodinger, of course, was the physicist who developed a mathematical description for the wave nature of particles - a concept which you'll revisit over and over again if you take up the challenge of degree level physics!
The university of Liverpool Physics department is an excellent place to study Physics. The department is well equipped with all the equpment you will need, and the lecturers are mostly helpful, with the odd exception. There are two seperate computer rooms in the Physics building itself, as well as a large number of other computer rooms very close by. Considernig the amount of work you have to do with computers on the course (analysing data, writing reports, programming and so on) this is very useful. The course itself is as interesting as Physics can ever be. There are a reasonable number of possible options you can choose from during your time on the course, from basic astronomy to advanced Quantum Mechanics (which I strongly reccomend people avoid - the course is a nightmare). Although the course needs a lot of hard work for you to get a degree, it is well worth the effort. If you get a Physics degree then you are in demand in a large number of different industries - what you learn can be aplied to industry, management, research and so on. You end up being able to use laboratory equipment, make professional oral and written reports, use computers efficiently - skills which can come in very useful in the real-world job market.